Monthly Archives: July 2013

Our islet in the ocean of inexplicability

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possessions.”

–Thomas Henry Huxley, On the Reception of The Origin of Species (1887)

The context here, as the book’s title indicates, is Huxley’s defense of Charles Darwin’s famous book, which Huxley called “the most potent instrument for the extension of the realm of natural knowledge which has come into men’s hands, since the publication of Newton’s ‘Principia’.”

Huxley’s image of an ocean of inexplicability is memorable in the vivid way it combines honest humility and plucky confidence. It expresses the spirit of science, and more broadly the spirit of curiosity.

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“Just keep the bear”: John McPhee’s advice on overcoming writer’s block

John McPhee is one of the best nonfiction writers out there, and in “The Writing Life: Draft No. 4” (The New Yorker, April 29, 2013, available in part here) he offers in the essay’s opening paragraph a clever piece of advice for overcoming writer’s block:

“Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel . . .” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel . . .” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. Continue reading

Singapore’s mechanical forest

This opened a year ago, but I only just learned of it via Science Dump. Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay park, which includes some 220,000 species of plants from around the world, added these massive “supertrees” and connecting walkways. In addition to how cool they look, the mechanical trees, which stand as tall as 50 meters (and which are home to many real plants), “provide ventilation ductwork, rainwater collection and generate solar power which provides lighting to the various conservatories below.”

Gardens by the Bay is part of Singapore’s larger plan to improve quality of life through more greenery in the city. Having never been there I can’t say how extensive or successful this plan is, but when I saw the pictures I wondered if this is a peek at what cities of the future might look like. Maybe the people will look back at our mostly barren concrete-and-steel cities with the same dismay that we feel about the grim, filthy, and soot-blackened cities of the Industrial Revolution. Our descendants may lump us in with the pioneering generations of urban dwellers, back when the human race was just beginning to learn the basics of urban living.

More photos and video here.

Guantanamo and Beethoven

Discouraged by current events, I found a surprising bit of inspiration in Beethoven, specifically in the story behind his celebrated Ninth Symphony.

Let me back up a bit. A few days ago on my Facebook page I posted a link to the disturbing video of Mos Def being force-fed by the same procedure used at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. I wrote: “As of a week ago, 106 of the 166 Gitmo detainees are now on hunger strike, with 45 being force-fed. Not only have most of these men not been convicted of (or even charged with) crimes after more than 10 years in prison, but 86 of them have been cleared for release, sometimes years ago. Think about that. Even the US military acknowledges the innocence of nearly half the prison’s population, and has not bothered to prove the guilt of the other half (a handful have been convicted in military tribunals), yet we imprison them indefinitely in this American gulag, withholding from them even the right to end their own lives in protest.” Continue reading

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Writers often create worlds for the reader to inhabit. Nonfiction can do this as well as fiction. The only requirement is that the writing be vivid.

In this poem, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) does this, but does something else as well. More about that below. First, here is the poem itself:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Continue reading

When Fate comes after you: Meg Rosoff’s Just in Case

Meg Rosoff, Just in CaseMeg Rosoff writes stories that deal with some dark, heavy stuff—life and death, love, loss, trauma. For example, her 2004 debut, How I Live Now, is about a fifteen-year-old girl with an eating disorder who is visiting relatives in (present-day) England when the country is invaded and thrown into chaos. A nightmare scenario, a recipe for a bleak tale—and yet it isn’t so.

Rosoff has a knack for creating quirky, mixed-up characters whose lives refuse to follow some formulaic storyline, and she’s brilliant at blending warmth, humor, darkness, and madness. I think she’s one of today’s best and most original fiction writers for young adults. (Not just for young adults, mind you: A good story is a good story.)

I recently read her 2006 novel, Just in Case. It’s not every day you read a book about Fate—capital-F Fate, a character in the story who takes over the narration here and there, and who apparently has it in for a fifteen-year-old English boy named David Case.

The story opens with one-year-old Charlie tottering at an open, upper-story window in David’s bedroom, where a single step would send him falling to his death. David pulls his brother back from the edge: Continue reading