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How the roads taken and not taken both lead us to ourselves.
Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Albert Camus on the love of life and why we travel, Hannah Arendt on time, space, and where our thinking ego resides, Rilke on the rewards of reading, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting this labor of love with a modest donation – every little bit comes enormously appreciated and helps more than you can imagine.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White observed in a wonderful 1969 interview. “You have to write up, not down.” What’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books, which must do three things for the reader — explain, enchant, and elevate. They must tell you what something is and why it matters, captivate you to care about it and tickle you into taking pleasure in understanding it, and leave you in a higher state of awareness regarding whatever subtle or monumental aspect of the world the book had made its subject.
Here are the most stimulating science books of 2015, possessing this trifecta of merit.
1. ON THE MOVE
“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,”Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.
Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)
The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.
Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:
I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…
But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.
On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:
I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”
In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.
Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.
2. ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE INVENTION OF NATURE
No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.
Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.
In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:
Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.
But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.
Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.
Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.
When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.
Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.
Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.
The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.
In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:
Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.
But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity
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