Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)


“The air that they breathe”

Susan Cain wrote a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking*, on introversion in contemporary society. We reserved types get little respect: students are forced to work in groups rather than independently; office spaces are more and more often based on an open plan (mine is, and I wish it weren’t); and if an introvert doesn’t act like an extravert, she and her ideas will probably be overlooked because others won’t shut up and listen. Cain would put it more politely, I’m sure, but that’s the situation, and she argues in the book that the world is missing out. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s one of the next on my list.

{Rant:} On the point of classroom arrangements forcing kids to always work in groups, there’s another problem that has less to do with introversion, although I wouldn’t be surprised at all if introverts are more often the victims. If you make kids work in groups, and grade them as a group, the “good” students will get stuck doing most or all of the work while the other half watch and get the same grade for doing nothing. This happened to me countless times in school, and since I didn’t want to be labelled a nark and treated worse by classmates who already thought I was (gasp) a nerd, I didn’t complain to teachers most of the time.

There was a project in middle school social studies, for example, where we had to write a report and design a pamphlet about a foreign country (Zambia, in my case). We were put into groups of three or four, and when the other two in my group heard that I was the third, they both exclaimed “Yesss!” loudly enough for the teacher to hear, though she paid no attention. They knew me well enough to know that they had a free ‘A’ on the project just by being in my group, because I cared enough about my own grades to do nearly everything myself, however much I wanted them to suffer the consequences of their laziness. There were no consequences for laziness in group work, if there was one straight-A student, unless she was willing to sacrifice her own grade and get an ‘F.’ I was not willing, and they knew it.

And this didn’t happen just in middle school, it happened at every level of the educational system that graded group work: in a college art class, I and two other freshmen had to let the upperclassman in our group get away with contributing nothing (or worse than nothing–she wasted our time by asking us for the information she had agreed to research herself, before emailing us a one- or two-paragraph write-up that wasn’t worthy of a second-grader, so we had to write that section of the paper from scratch when we should have been putting on the finishing touches). We explained the entire situation to the professor when we turned in our report, and she basically said we had to suck it up because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything based on our word (and our copies of the girl’s email and each draft of our paper).

This is why I’m utterly opposed to graded group work at, really, any level of the school system. Working in groups is fine and sometimes useful, especially for talking ideas through, but putting a grade on it encourages cheaters and freeloaders to sit by and get a free grade at the expense of those who, through peer pressure or hopelessness, won’t rat them out. {/rant}

(Sorry.) Anyway, now Cain has given a TED talk, and it’s quite good. Do introverts everywhere a favor and watch (and share!):

From the talk:

“So I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why we were supposed to be so rowdy or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.” 😀

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

“Solitude matters and…for some people, it’s the air that they breathe.”

“I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”

* With a pretty lovely cover design. I mean just look at that ‘Q’! Beautiful. 🙂 (/fontnut)

Colorful quote spiral

I got a new notebook and new pens. The pens are Stabilo 88 fineliners (which I got because, while I loved my Staedtlers a few years ago, the Stabilos were cheaper for more colors 😛 ). The notebook is a Whitelines hard-bound squared (graph-paper) notebook in the A5 size. On which note, I love the way the ‘A#’ sizes work–the number is the number of times the ‘full size’ sheet has been halved; and A5 is about 5-7/8″ by 8-1/4″ — perfect size for a journal. And, true to name, the lines making up the grid are white (on gray paper) instead of black. They kind of melt away where there’s a chunk of writing.

Anyway, this is the first thing I did with it. Each color change indicates a new quote. The quotes are from Carl Sagan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jalal ad-Dīn Rumi, Franz Kafka, Mary Oliver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Douglas Adams, Stuart Kauffman (via Melanie Mitchell), Daniel Levitin, Alan Lightman, & Simon Garfield.  Sagan, Rilke, and Rumi appear multiple times. At the risk of making a tiresomely long post (sorry?), here are the quotes strung together, so you needn’t spin your head around to see them. 😉 I’ll alternate between gray and olive text to help differentiate the quotes.

When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. It’s not too late to open your depths by plunging into them and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there. Let everything happen to you – beauty and terror. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things. The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together. We are all connected: to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically. The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. Life exists at the edge of chaos. Consider that at a very early age, babies are thought to be synesthetic, to be unable to differentiate the input from the different senses, and to experience life and the world as a sort of psychedelic union of everything sensory. Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheese in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles. The bird does not twitter or chirp but instead gives out a continuous drawn-out song. When hundreds sing in unison, the sound is an unbroken chorus, with the effect on the hearing like that of a waterfall on the sight, a multitude of tiny droplets combining to make one sweeping flow. This is the best thing about the ampersand–its energy, its refusal to sit still. It is almost impossible to look at one and not think about its shape, or to draw one and not think about liberation. Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving–it doesn’t matter, ours is not a caravan of despair. But that shadow has been serving you! What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, come, come again, come.

Science Book Challenge Review: Dance for Two (Lightman)

When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.

Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:

“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”

The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.

Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.

There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”

In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.


  • Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
  • Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
  • Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
  • Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
  • Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.

Picking up Melanie Mitchell’s “Complexity”

This is a good way for a book to start. I’m not familiar with John Holland, though–probably an advisor or something; I wonder whether he’s written anything.

Reductionism is the most natural thing in the world to grasp. It's simply the belief that "a whole can be understood completely if you understand its parts, and the nature of their 'sum.'" No one in her left brain could reject reductionism. --Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach

Hofstadter was Mitchell’s faculty advisor when she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying artificial intelligence. I think I’m going to like her.