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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – 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 – 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.
When this twentieth century of ours became obsessed with a passion for mere size, what was lost sight of was the ancient wisdom that the emotions have their own standards of judgment and their own sense of scale. In the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic; a fine phrase is as good as an epic, and a small brook in the quiet of a wood can have its say with a voice more profound than the thunder of any cataract. Who would live happily in the country must be wisely prepared to take great pleasure in little things.
Country living is a pageant of Nature and the year; it can no more stay fixed than a movement in music, and as the seasons pass, they enrich life far more with little things than with great, with remembered moments rather than the slower hours. A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.
When pioneering scientist Vera Rubin was a little girl in the 1930s, she longed to be an astronomer but had never met a sole person of that vocation in real life. Decades later, after she broke the glass ceiling in astronomy by becoming the first woman permitted to observe at the prestigious Palomar Observatory and went on to discover dark matter, Rubin reflected: “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer.” She traced the firmness of that conviction to a children’s book about Maria Mitchell — America’s first woman astronomer and a lifelong champion of women in science — which had expanded her horizon of possibility and seeded the idea that she, a little girl amid a culture impoverished of such role models, could one day become an astronomer. Rubin did become one — one of the greatest ones who ever lived — whilst raising three children of her own, all of whom grew up to earn doctorates in science, including a daughter who became an astronomer herself. That Rubin has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize is both a travesty and a testament to our culture’s long history of inequality in science.
Rubin is one of the fifty extraordinary women whom artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky celebrates in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated homage to some of the most influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.
True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.
But there are also lesser-known and no less extraordinary engineers, physicists, physicians, chemists, geneticists, geologists, inventors, biologists, and scientists of all stripes, united by the possession of insatiable curiosity, a singular genius for transmuting it into knowledge, and two X chromosomes.
Woven throughout the micro-biographies are visual factoids like a timeline of notable events in the history of women in science, statistics about the alarming gender gap in STEM fields, and a visual taxonomy of lab tools.
In the introduction, Ignotofsky captures just what women in science have been up against, as recently as mere decades ago, even though science itself is millennia old:
Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues. She did things her way to get the best results, even if it meant working late with her students, who were breaking curfew. If you think these seem like good qualities for scientist, then you are right. But back then, these weren’t necessarily considered good qualities in a woman. Her intelligence, her self-confidence, her willingness to break rules, and of course her pants were all considered shocking!
Barbara had already made her mark on the field of genetics with her groundbreaking work at Cornell University, mapping chromosomes using corn. This work is still important in scientific history. Yet while working at the University of Missouri Barbara was seen as bold and unladylike. The faculty excluded her from meetings and gave her little support with her research. When she found out they would fire her if she got married and there was no possibility of promotion, she decided she had had enough.
Risking her entire career, she packed her bags. With no plan, except an unwillingness to compromise her worth, Barbara went off to find her dream job. This decision would allow her to joyously research all day and eventually make the discovery of jumping genes. This discovery would win her a Nobel Prize and forever change how we view genetics.
Barbara McClintock’s story is not unique. As long as humanity has asked questions about our world, men and women have looked to the stars, under rocks, and through microscopes to find the answers. Although both men and women have the same thirst for knowledge, women have not always been given the same opportunities to explore the answers.
Here, I’m reminded of how Maria Mitchell — the first person to discover a telescopic comet, which earned her unanimous election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the first woman ever admitted — earned three honorary degrees, even though she was never allowed to set foot in a university as a student. Ignotofsky captures the heartbreaking inequalities that only amplify the impressiveness of these women’s feats:
When women finally began gaining wider access to higher education, there was usually a catch. Often they would be given no space to work, no funding, and no recognition. Not allowed to enter the university building because of her gender, Lise Meitner did her radiochemistry experiments in a dank basement. Without funding for a lab, physicist and chemist Marie Curie handled dangerous radioactive elements in a tiny, dusty shed. After making one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin still got little recognition, and for decades her gender limited her to work as a technical assistant. Creativity, persistence, and a love of discovery were the greatest tools these women had.
Albert Einstein, in contemplating the human “passion for comprehension,” asserted that every true theoretical physicist is “is a kind of tamed metaphysicist” — a rather controversial statement amid a culture increasingly bent on disentangling science and philosophy (which used to be called metaphysics), and particularly controversial for modernity’s most significant scientist to make. But a mark of genius is precisely this unwillingness to succumb to culture’s artificial and limiting polarities — a continual commitment to seeking nuance over forced contrast.
Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) — another thinker of rare genius, a staunch champion of reason and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived — made a magnificent case for that interplay between science and metaphysics a generation earlier in the title piece of his superb 1918 collection Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (free ebook | public library).
Russell was a founding father of modern atheism, but he was also animated by a resolute commitment to nuance and an unflinching defiance of dogma, be it religious or scientific. He writes:
Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science. Some men have achieved greatness through one of these impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume, for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.
Where science is a function of reason, mysticism for Russell is a function of intuition and therefore a form of “poetic imagination, not science” — it is “little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.” And yet it offers a powerful complement to the scientific lens on reality. With an eye to the ethics of Heraclitus, he writes:
The facts of science, as they appeared to [Heraclitus], fed the flame in his soul, and in its light he saw into the depths of the world by the reflection of his own dancing swiftly penetrating fire. In such a nature we see the true union of the mystic and the man of science — the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought.
Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feeling towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth is to be.
It is only in marriage with the world that our ideals can bear fruit: divorced from it, they remain barren. But marriage with the world is not to be achieved by an ideal which shrinks from fact, or demands in advance that the world shall conform to its desires.
Russell considers the nature of mystical experience:
Mystical philosophy, in all ages and in all parts of the world, is characterised by the belief in a way of wisdom, sudden, penetrating, coercive, which is contrasted with the slow and fallible study of outward appearance by a science relying wholly upon the senses.
All who are capable of absorption in an inward passion must have experienced at times the strange feeling of unreality in common objects, the loss of contact with daily things, in which the solidity of the outer world is lost, and the soul seems, in utter loneliness, to bring forth, out of its own depths, the mad dance of fantastic phantoms which have hitherto appeared as independently real and living.
The first and most direct outcome of the moment of illumination is belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion. Closely connected with this belief is the conception of a Reality behind the world of appearance and utterly different from it. This Reality is regarded with an admiration often amounting to worship; it is felt to be always and everywhere close at hand, thinly veiled by the shows of sense, ready, for the receptive mind, to shine in its glory even through the apparent folly and wickedness of Man. The poet, the artist, and the lover are seekers after that glory: the haunting beauty that they pursue is the faint reflection of its sun. But the mystic lives in the full light of the vision: what others dimly seek he knows, with a knowledge beside which all other knowledge is ignorance.
Indeed, art is in a sense a mystical experience — something Saul Bellow captured beautifully in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he observed: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” But what Russell is concerned with is how mystical experience relates, and whether it should at all, to science.
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