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The art of concentration and the effortless effort of creative work, embracing contradiction and how our perception shapes our reality, and more.

The art of concentration and the effortless effort of creative work, embracing contradiction and how the sacredness of human attention shapes our reality, how astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell revolutionized our understanding of the universe and was robbed of the Nobel Prize, and more Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the most important ingredient in good parenting, George Saunders on writing, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

The Power of Perception and Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of Thoreau, André Gide, Anne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times.

Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” — Kazin writes:

A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…

“Under the Third Avenue El” by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)

The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:

The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!

Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:

Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?

But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.

Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:

It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is this man, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…

Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:

The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.

[…]

This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside would as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.

That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must “pay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:

The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.

But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priority as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.

“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)

Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:

How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!

Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.

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How Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell Shaped Our Understanding of the Universe by Discovering Pulsars, Only to Be Excluded from the Nobel Prize

In July of 1967, the month of her twenty-fourth birthday, Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. July 15, 1943) discovered the first pulsar. This was landmark evidence that neutron stars — the collapsed core left behind by the final explosion of a dying star, first proposed a year after the discovery of the neutron in 1933 — were real. But the most significant implication of the discovery was that if neutron stars could result from stellar death, so could black holes, which even Einstein considered a neat but limited, purely mathematical, and possibly unprovable theoretical construct.

Pulsars — enormous, rapidly spinning, extremely dense spheres of nuclear matter magnetized with a strength exceeding Earth’s magnetic fields by an order of millions, even thousands of trillions — thus shaped our present understanding of the universe. Bell Burnell discovered the first four.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 1960s

The groundbreaking paper announcing the discovery was published four months later, listing Bell Burnell’s name second and Antony Hewish, her thesis supervisor, first.

On October 15, 1974, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish and his English colleague Martin Ryle for their work in radioastronomy. The Swedish Academy cited Hewish’s “decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” in the official announcement.

Bell Burnell was excluded from the prize.

In a 1977 speech, Bell Burnell insisted on not feeling slighted by the Nobel committee, citing the difficulty of resolving “demarcation disputes between supervisor and student” and the belief that “it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students.” But it is hard to read such sentiments without wondering whether there might be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the disenfranchised at work — after all, those systematically marginalized and discriminated against by any power structure have no choice but to rationalize injustice as a coping mechanism if they are to continue operating within that ecosystem without being broken by its biases.

Cosmologist Janna Levin explores Bell Burnell’s pioneering contribution to science, its far-reaching implications, and the complexities surrounding the Nobel controversy in a portion of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), which remains among one of the very finest books I’ve ever read — an altogether spectacular chronicle of how the century-long quest to detect gravitational waves ushered in a new era of astronomy.

Levin writes:

There is nothing like plain observation to finally resolve a theoretical standoff. Jocelyn Bell Burnell found evidence of a neutron star. Added to the sheer intrinsic fascination of that discovery was the promise of even more, the promise of black holes. (An illustrious colleague is reported to have intercepted her at a meeting to declare, “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century.”)

With her characteristic subtlety and sensitivity to nuance, Levin shares in the skepticism about such wholesale acquittal of prejudice:

Hewish need not defend his credibility as a Nobel laureate. As the advisor he set his student to the task — even if the task was to look for quasars. Harder to comprehend is the omission of Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the list of recipients. I ask her if she thought her former advisor should have done something more, and she says with no resentment, “If you get a prize, it’s not your job to explain why you got the prize.” She also adds that the slight has worked out for her quite well. She continues to get seemingly every other prize, medal, honor, and accolade ever invented. Fair compensation she seems to imply. Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell: dame commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, many distinguished medals, dozens of honorary doctorates etc., etc., etc.

The specter of bias had haunted Bell Burnell since the dawn of her career. According to Ron Drever — the cantankerous Scottish genius comprising one third of the famed LIGO Troika, who served as young Jocelyn’s undergraduate advisor in Glasgow — she was denied employment at England’s foremost radio astronomy center in the mid-1960s on account of her gender. Levin follows the thread:

[Drever] relays, “They wouldn’t take her on, and the story was that it was because she was a woman. But that’s not official, you see. So she was very disappointed.” He adds, hoping the absurdity was obvious, “Her second best was to go to Cambridge. You see?” He considered this a very fortuitous and happy turn. He laughs. “So she went to Cambridge and discovered pulsars. You see?”

Later in her career, Jocelyn Bell Burnell moved into X-ray astronomy to work on the team that built the British-American Ariel 5 X-ray astronomy satellite. On October 10, 1974, early in the morning, Ariel launched successfully, and at noon she heard the announcement of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars. There were two aspects of the announcement that were of particular significance to her. For one, the Nobel committee had finally acknowledged astrophysics as a subfield worthy of the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the 1920s Edwin Hubble had campaigned for such a shift unsuccessfully. For another, she was not among the recipients.

To grasp the scope of this systemic predicament: Crowning the hierarchy of British academia are the so-called “full professors,” distinguished from the vast court of mere doctors. Even at the height of her career, Bell Burnell was one of only two women among the 150 such full professors in Britain.

PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell) from Your Body is a Space That Sees, artist Lia Halloran’s cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy

And yet in the midst of this maelstrom of politics and esteemed extrinsic validation is the perennial heart of science itself, that utmost intrinsic reward of curiosity — the sublime exhilaration of discovery. Levin telescopes to that luminous moment, which changed Bell Burnell’s life and changed our basic understanding of the cosmos:

As a twenty-four-year-old graduate student at Cambridge, [Bell Burnell] and her advisor, Antony Hewish, were looking for quasars, bright radio sources that looked as small as stars. At the time that she was stringing radio antennae in the field, quasars were still called quasi-stellar radio objects and the sources were a mystery. The radio antennae worked well at finding quasars, poorly at resolving their sizes, and brilliantly at changing the course of astrophysics. Among the quasars detected were many glitches and peculiarities recorded on the reams of chart paper, quantified by the length of paper in feet. She examined hundreds (thousands?) of feet of paper meticulously. Most of the anomalies were attributable to human-made sources or some form of detector interference. But one funny signal persisted. She became convinced that the source was astronomical in origin. She said the realization that she had seen something truly important came gradually. As is often reported, the regularity of the signal earned the sources the internal nickname of LGM, for “little green men.” It turns out that there are even more precise clocks than those manufactured by the civilizations of little intelligent green men. And those would be pulsars.

[…]

When Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar in 1967, all she could deduce for certain was that there was a very regular series of pulses, a little over a second apart, and that they were coming from the sky.

When the second one appeared in the data, “that was the sweet moment,” she says. That’s when the oddity began to take on the features of a discovery. “Once I’d seen one scruffy signal, I was open to seeing more.” She found the first four pulsars ever discovered by human beings.

A year later a pulsar was discovered in the center of the Crab Nebula, a luminous remnant ejected during a supernova explosion. The Crab Nebula was seen from Earth and noted in historical records as an astronomical event in 1054 AD. The implication: Neutron stars are the collapsed core that remains after a dying star explodes. We now extrapolate that there are hundreds of millions of neutron stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of thousands of these are pulsars.

Composite X-ray and optical Hubble image of the Crab Nebula depicting synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (which my pal Ben Folds set to song) is a terrific read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with the story of how Maria Mitchell paved the way for women in astronomy, trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science and the endless human quest to know the cosmos, and the untold story of the remarkable women who powered the early days of NASA.

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The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention


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