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Hello, Peter Blue! If you missed last week's edition – a 9th-century illustrated ode to the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness, James Baldwin on the artist's struggle, the women who powered space exploration, Erich Fromm on human nature, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you missed Thursday's very special edition, that's 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.
It is when life bends us to its will and we don’t break that we learn what we are made of — nowhere more so than in heartbreak, that outermost extremity of the discomfiting principle that frustration is essential to satisfaction in love.
In the summer of 1881, while visiting his parents, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) fell in love with a woman named Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker — a beautiful, recently widowed young mother. Cornelia was touched by Vincent’s kindness to her little boy — Van Gogh had a great affection for children — and a friendship developed between them. But it was quickly warped by romantic lopsidedness — Vincent fell passionately in love with Cornelia, who was too raw with grief to open up to the possibility of a new life. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she rebuffed him gently yet firmly. But like any hopeful lover confronting hopelessness, Van Gogh warded off dejection with denial and, mistaking her gentleness for ambivalence, led himself to believe that he still had a chance if only he tried harder. (Most human heartbreak stems from this half-arrogant, half-naïve tendency of ours to believe that we can change the course of events and the feelings of others by bending, twisting, and exerting ourselves a little bit more, as if the entirety of their free will was a function of our own actions.)
Although Van Gogh’s infatuation ultimately ended in heartbreak, in the process of working through it he found himself and his art came alive in a new way — a beautiful and poignant reminder that our sorrow and our creative vitality spring from the same source.
‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh
In a touching letter to his brother Theo from September of 1881, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the beloved artist on principles and how inspired mistakes move us forward — 28-year-old Van Gogh writes:
This summer a deep love has grown in my heart for [Cornelia], but when I told her this, she answered me that, to her, past and future remained one, so she never could return my feelings.
Then there was a terrible indecision within me what to do. Should I accept her “no, never never,” or considering the question as not finished or decided, should I keep some hope and not give up? I chose the latter.
And up to now I do not repent of that decision, though I am still confronted by that “no, never never”… For myself [I have] kept some courage… I hope to continue to do so, and to keep melancholy and depression far from me, meanwhile working hard, and since I have met her I get on much better with my work.
It is no unreasonable or unjust desire to wish that [she] and I might see each other, speak to each other, and write to each other, in order to become better acquainted, and in this way to get a better insight into whether we are suited for each other or not… I hope not to leave a single thing undone, that may bring me nearer to her, and it is my intention:
To love her so long
Till she’ll love me in the end.
Four days later, Van Gogh writes to his brother again, even more resolute in his decision to keep hope alive:
There is a love serious and passionate enough, not to be chilled by many “no, never nevers”… For love is something positive, so strong, so real that it is as impossible for one who loves to take back that feeling, as it is to take his own life… Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.
Torn between compassion for Cornelia’s grief and agony over her refusal to open her heart to him, he adds:
In that inexpressible anguish of soul, rose a thought in me like a clear light in the night, namely this: whosoever can resign himself, let him do so, but he who has faith let him believe! Then I arose, not resigning but believing, and had no other thought than “she, and no other”…
So I remain calm and confident through all this, and that influences my work, which attracts me more than ever, just because I feel I shall succeed. Not that I shall become anything extraordinary, but “ordinary,” and then I mean by ordinary, that my work will be sound and reasonable, and will have a right to exist, and will serve to some end. I think that nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love…
As the summer sets into fall, Van Gogh — who was always animated by the intimate dialogue between love and art — continues learning to find solace in the love he is feeling as an invaluable reward in its own right, independent of what he may or may not receive in return. He reflects:
Since the beginning of this love I felt, that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without afterthought, without any restriction, with all my heart, entirely and for ever, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean must I consider this when I love? No — no reckoning, one loves because one loves.
By mid-November, he becomes even more attuned to the love in his own heart as a gateway to self-discovery and a new mode of being. He writes to Theo:
If you were in love with the same sort of love as I, and, boy, why should you ever have another kind of love, then you would discover something quite new in yourself… We are used to do most of our work with our brains — with a certain diplomacy, with a certain sharp calculation. But now fall in love, and look here, you will perceive to your astonishment that there is still another force that urges us on to action, that is the heart.
In a sentiment that Henry Miller would come to echo in contemplating the vital balance of giving and receiving, and one which calls to mind poet and philosopher David Whyte’s assertion that “heartbreak is how we mature,” Van Gogh considers what the anguish of this unrequited love taught him about himself and about life’s most perennial truths:
What kind of love was it I felt when I was twenty? … I only wanted to give, but not to receive. Foolish, wrong, exaggerated, proud, rash, for in love one must not only give, but also take, and reversing it, one must not only take but also give. Whoever deviates either to the right or to the left, he falls, there is no help for it.
Complement this particular portion of the sorrowfully stunning Ever Yours with Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and Charlotte Brontë on unrequited love, then revisit Nicole Krauss’s sublime letter to Van Gogh across space and time and the story of how he found his purpose.
Few things are more disheartening to witness than the bile which small-spirited people of inferior talent often direct at those endowed with genius. And few things are more heartening to witness than the solidarity and support which kindred spirits of goodwill extend to those targeted by such loathsome attacks.
In 1903, Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. It was awarded jointly to her and her husband, Pierre, for their pioneering research on radioactivity. On April 19, 1906, she was widowed by an accident all the more tragic for its improbability. While crossing a busy Parisian street on a rainy night, Pierre slipped, fell under a horse-drawn cart, and was killed instantly. Curie grieved for years. In 1910, she found solace in Pierre’s protégé — a young physics professor named Paul Langevin, married to but separated from a woman who physically abused him. They became lovers. Enraged, Langevin’s wife hired someone to break into the apartment where the two met and steal their love letters, which she promptly leaked to the so-called press. The press eviscerated Curie and portrayed her as “a foreign Jewish homewrecker.”
Upon returning from a historic invitation-only science conference in Brussels, where she had met Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18 1955), Curie found an angry mob in front of her home in Paris. She and her daughters were forced to stay with a family friend.
At the 1911 Solvay Conference. Curie leaning on table. Einstein second from right. Also in attendance: Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, and Ernest Rutherford.
Einstein considered Curie “an unpretentious honest person” with a “sparkling intelligence.” When he got news of the scandal, he was outraged by the tastelessness and cruelty of the press — the tabloids had stripped a private situation of all humanity and nuance, and brought it into the public realm with the deliberate intention of destroying Curie’s scientific reputation.
A master of beautiful consolatory letters and a champion of kindness as a central animating motive of life, Einstein wrote to Curie with wholehearted solidarity and support, encouraging her not to give any credence to the hateful commentaries in the press. The letter, found in Walter Isaacson’s terrific biography Einstein: His Life and Universe (public library), is a testament to the generosity of spirit that accompanied Einstein’s unparalleled intellect — a masterwork of what he himself termed “spiritual genius.”
Einstein, who would later remark that “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted,” writes:
Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,
Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.
With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
Shortly after the scandal, Curie received her second Nobel Prize — this time in chemistry, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. To this day the only person awarded a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, she endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.
Complement with Kierkegaard on why haters hate and Anne Lamott’s definitive manifesto for how to handle them, then revisit Mark Twain’s witty and wise letter of support to Helen Keller when she was wrongly accused of plagiarism and Frida Kahlo’s compassionate letter to Georgia O’Keeffe after the American painter was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Einstein is credited with proclaiming, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Intelligence, of course, is a loose grab-bag term that encompasses multiple manifestations, but the insight attributed to Einstein applies most unequivocally to the ninth of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences: existential intelligence. Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.
1924 illustration by Kay Nielsen for ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ by Hans Christian Andersen
This notion was at the heart of J.R.R. Tolkien view of the psychology of fairy tales. Nearly a century later when, in retelling Hansel and Gretel, Neil Gaiman asserted that “if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”
The great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) makes a wonderfully spirited case for the developmental gift of frightfulness in Nonrequired Reading (public library) — that magnificent prose collection of her responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious reading binge in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.
In a piece titled “The Importance of Being Scared” — a reflection on the first edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which revolutionized storytelling — Szymborska writes:
Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. Andersen scared children, but I’m certain that none of them held it against him, not even after they grew up. His marvelous tales abound in indubitably supernatural beings, not to mention talking animals and loquacious buckets. Not everyone in this brotherhood is harmless and well-disposed. The character who turns up most often is death, an implacable individual who steals unexpectedly into the very heart of happiness and carries off the best, the most beloved. Andersen took children seriously. He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tons of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague. Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Neil Gaiman on the allure of scary stories, Flannery O’Connor on why the grotesque appeals to us, and the most beautiful illustrations from 200 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s enchanting readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”
In The New York Times this weekend, I review Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin – one of the most magnificent books I've ever encountered, as evidenced by my thoroughly read and loved galley pictured above. Here is what makes it so uncommonly wonderful.
When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was hired to teach at the newly established Vassar College in 1865, she was the only woman on the faculty and according to the original college handbook of rules, female students were not allowed to go outside after dark. Although Mitchell fought to upend this absurd obstruction to the study of astronomy and became a tireless champion of young women in the field, lamentably little changed in the century that followed.
Exactly one hundred years later, another remarkable observer of the cosmos ushered in a new era both for astronomy itself and for women’s role in it. In 1965, astronomer Vera Rubin (b. July 23, 1928) became the first woman permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the most powerful telescopes at the time. So began her pioneering work on galaxy rotation, which precipitated Rubin’s confirmation of the existence of dark matter — one of the most significant milestones in our understanding of the universe. (That Rubin hasn’t yet received a Nobel Prize is a testament to the systemic flaws in how these accolades are meted out.)
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Nowhere do Rubin’s extraordinary mind and spirit come more alive than in Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (public library) — a magnificent 1990 collection of interviews exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process” by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, featuring luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, and Martin Rees.
Like Jane Goodall, who turned her childhood dream into reality, Rubin’s cosmic career began at the very beginning:
My childhood bedroom … had a bed which was under windows that faced north. At about age 10, while lying in bed, I started watching the stars just move through the night. By about age 12, I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than go to sleep. I started learning, going to the library and reading… There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night. I found it a remarkable thing. You could tell time by the stars. I could see meteors.
When there were meteor showers and things like that, I would not put the light on. Throughout the night I would memorize where each one went so that in the morning I could make a map of their trails.
By high school, Rubin knew that she wanted to be an astronomer. But she had never met a single astronomer in real life — she only knew of Maria Mitchell from a children’s book. In a testament to the power of picture-books about cultural icons to offer vitalizing role models and expand children’s scope of possibility, Rubin recounts:
I knew that [Maria Mitchell] had taught at Vassar. So I knew there was a school where women could study astronomy… It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer.
She followed in Mitchell’s footsteps and went to Vassar, got married to a fellow scientist, and went on to a graduate program at Cornell along with her new husband. Rubin relays a jarring sign of the times:
Actually, I had been accepted by Harvard. I have a letter somewhere from [Harvard Observatory director] Donald Menzel saying, “Damn you women,” handwritten across the bottom. This was a response to a letter I wrote saying that I wished to withdraw because I was getting married and going to Cornell. He scribbled across this very formal letter, thanking me for letting him know, something like “Damn you women. Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married.”
But marriage didn’t obstruct Rubin’s scientific pursuits, nor did Cornell’s nearly nonexistent astronomy department, which consisted of one man (a former wartime navigator who actively discouraged Rubin from pursuing astronomy) and one woman (who Rubin surmises was the only female faculty member at Cornell at the time). Still, the university offered an unparalleled physics program of which Rubin took advantage. Richard Feynman was on her thesis committee. The actual presentation of her master’s thesis is a poignant parable of both Rubin’s remarkable character and the Sisyphean climb required of women in just about every professional field at the time.
In December of 1950, 22-year-old Rubin was to present her thesis at the American Astronomical Society. Having just given birth to her first child and nursing the newborn, she made her way through snowy upstate New York, walked into the meeting, gave her 10-minute presentation on galaxy rotation, and left.
Spiral Galaxy M101 (Image credit: NASA / Hubble Space Telescope)
The concept of large-scale motion of the universe was a revolutionary one, twenty years ahead of its time, and it garnered the skepticism with which all such visionary ideas are at first received. Rubin’s resulting paper was rejected by the two major astronomy journals of the era. Even the few scientists intrigued by her work were subject to the limiting conventions of the time — the great theoretical physicist and cosmologist George Gamow, who would later become her doctoral advisor, contacted Rubin to inquire about her galaxy rotation work but refused to let her attend his lecture at Georgetown’s Applied Physics Lab “because wives were not allowed” there.
But Rubin remained driven by the same irrepressible curiosity with which she had peered into the night sky from her childhood bedroom, so she went on with her work, animated by that most powerful of motives — the joy of discovery:
Although several times in my career I have found myself in relatively controversial positions, I really don’t enjoy it. For me, doing astronomy is incredibly great fun. It’s just a joy to get up every morning and come to work. In a sense, the heated controversy really spoiled the fun. I mean people were really very harsh. Maybe one learns to take this. I’m not sure you do.
I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on — hopefully, a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested in that anyone would bother me before I was done.
Vera Rubin in 1974
That problem was dark matter, the existence of which Rubin set out to prove through observation. At the time, it was still a theoretical construct, regarded as rather inconvenient in the context of existing theories:
Many people initially wished that you didn’t need dark matter. It was not a concept that people embraced enthusiastically. But I think that the observations were undeniable enough so that most people just unenthusiastically adopted it.
Today, dark matter has become not only accepted but central to our understanding of the universe and even of our own existence. Its story is a testament to the most perennial truth of science and human knowledge, as well as to the fact that a great scientist is always more interested in understanding than in being right, both of which Rubin captures beautifully:
We’re still groping for the truth. So I don’t really worry too much about details that don’t fit in, because I put them in the domain of things we still have to learn about. I really see no reason why we should have been lucky enough to live at the point where the universe was understood in its totality… As telescopes get bigger, and astronomers get cleverer, I think all kinds of things are going to be discovered that are going to require alterations in our theories… Science consists of continually making better and better what has been usable in the past.
I’m reminded of Marie Curie, hunched over in her lab long before the first of her two Nobel Prizes, asserting in a letter to her brother that “one never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” Amid our age of productivity, this might sound like a dispiriting sentiment — but to the scientist ablaze with curiosity, it is a source of invigoration. Indeed, one of the most wonderful aspects of science is how inherently unproductive it is — each new discovery illuminates a new frontier of curiosity, each new known unravels a myriad new unknowns, and the measure of good science is the willingness to reach for that unknown, even if it means recalibrating our present knowns.
Rubin captures this wonderfully:
I hope 500 years from now astronomers still aren’t talking about the same big bang model. I think they won’t have done their work if they are… I still believe there may be many really fundamental things about the universe that we don’t know. I think our ignorance is greater than our knowledge. I wouldn’t put us at the 50-50 point of knowledge about the universe.
Cat’s Eye Nebula (Image credit: NASA / Hubble Space Telescope)
Rubin considers the question of beauty and how it frames our direction of interest. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness and Frida Kahlo on how affection amplifies beauty, Rubin reflects:
I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly. I really do, and I’m not sure. I see ugly bugs. My garden is full of slugs. I sometimes think, well, maybe if I started studying them, they wouldn’t appear to be so ugly… I put that at the other extreme. I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.
She revisits the question of gender and considers what prevented many other women in her generation, and even in her daughter’s generation, from going into science — the same concern with which a little girl once turned to Albert Einstein. Rubin reflects:
It’s the way we raise little girls. It happens very early. I think also it’s what little girls see in the world around them. It’s an incredible cultural thing. I have two granddaughters. One of them — her mother and father are both professionals, her aunt and uncle are professionals — said her toy rabbit was sick. Her uncle said, “Well, you be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse, and we’ll fix it,” and she said, “Boys can’t be girls.” And her mother realized that she never had seen a doctor who was a woman. By the age of 2, she knew that men were doctors and women were nurses. So you may talk about role models and your thinking about colleges, but this happens at the age of 2. It’s a very complicated situation.
Illustration from I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!, a parodic 1970 children’s book by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. satirizing limiting gender norms
Rubin — who has three sons and one daughter, all with doctorates in science — argues that the only viable solution to this systemic problem lies in raising little girls with enough confidence to pursue their interests and withstand the limiting cultural messages about what they can and cannot be. She recounts her own conquest of the odds:
I went to a D.C. public high school. I was very, very interested in astronomy, and I just could keep myself going by telling myself that I was just different than other people, that they just had different interests than I did. I had a physics teacher who was a real macho guy. Everybody loved him — all the males. He did experiments; he set up labs. Everybody was very enthusiastic. I really don’t think he knew how to relate to a young girl in his class… He never knew that I was interested in astronomy, he never knew that I was interested in science. The day I learned I got my scholarship to Vassar, I was really excited because I couldn’t go to college without a scholarship. I met him in the hall, and probably said the first thing I had ever said to him outside of the class, and I told him I got the scholarship to Vassar, and he said to me, “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay.” It takes an enormous self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished. So rather than teaching little girls physics, you have to teach them that they can learn anything they want to.
Illustration from Bright Sky, Starry City, a children’s book celebrating women’s place in astronomy
How pause-giving to consider that science progresses much more rapidly than the cultural norms of science do. In the generation between Rubin and her daughter, who is also an astronomer, we have discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, decoded the molecular structure of DNA, and invented lasers, and yet the gender ration of science hasn’t improved nearly enough, nor has the subtle cultural messaging. What Rubin recounts a quarter century ago is still the basic reality in many rooms and in many parts of the world:
My daughter is an astronomer. She got her Ph.D. in cosmic ray physics and went off to a meeting in Japan, and she came back and told me she was the only woman there. I really couldn’t tell that story for a long time without weeping, because certainly in one generation, between her generation and mine, not an awful lot has changed. Some things are better, but not enough things.
What a poignant slogan for all human rights movements, from racial justice to marriage equality: “Some things are better, but not enough things.” And yet, like Curie, we can see this not as a lamentation but as a frontier of hope — because “what remains to be done” can be done, and it falls on us to do it.
Complement the altogether wonderful Origins, which Carl Sagan lauded as a skillful “exposition of the styles of scientific thinking,” with Vera Rubin on obsessiveness and uncertainty and her terrific 1996 Berkeley commencement address.