This book is a long meditation on a single question:
Does the world embody beautiful ideas?
Our Question may seem like a strange thing to ask. Ideas are one thing, physical bodies are quite another. What does it mean to “embody” an “idea”?
Embodying ideas is what artists do. Starting from visionary conceptions, artists produce physical objects (or quasi-physical products, like musical scores that unfold into sound). Our Beautiful Question, then, is close to this one:
Is the world a work of art?
Posed this way, our Question leads us to others. If it makes sense to consider the world as a work of art, is it a successful work of art? Is the physical world, considered as a work of art, beautiful? For knowledge of the physical world we call on the work of scientists, but to do justice to our questions we must also bring in the insights and contributions of sympathetic artists.
Our Question is a most natural one, in the context of spiritual cosmology. If an energetic and powerful Creator made the world, it could be that what moved Him—or Her, or Them, or It—to create was precisely an impulse to make something beautiful. Natural though it may be, this is assuredly not an orthodox idea, according to most religious traditions. Many motivations have been ascribed to the Creator, but artistic ambition is rarely prominent among them.
In Abrahamic religions, conventional doctrine holds that the Creator set out to embody some combination of goodness and righteousness, and to create a monument to His glory. Animistic and polytheistic religions have envisaged beings and gods who create and govern different parts of the world with many kinds of motives, running the gamut from benevolence to lust to carefree exuberance.
On a higher theological plane, the Creator’s motivations are sometimes said to be so awesome that finite human intellects can’t hope to comprehend them. Instead we are given partial revelations, which are to be believed, not analyzed. Or, alternatively, God is Love. None of those contradictory orthodoxies offers compelling reasons to expect that the world embodies beautiful ideas; nor do they suggest that we should strive to find such ideas. Beauty can form part of their cosmic story, but it is generally regarded as a side issue, not the heart of the matter.
Yet many creative spirits have found inspiration in the idea that the Creator might be, among other things, an artist whose esthetic motivations we can appreciate and share—or even, in daring speculation, that the Creator is primarily a creative artist. Such spirits have engaged our Question, in varied and evolving forms, across many centuries. Thus inspired, they have produced deep philosophy, great science, compelling literature, and striking imagery. Some have produced works that combine several, or all, of those features. These works are a vein of gold running back through our civilization.
Galileo Galilei made the beauty of the physical world central to his own deep faith, and recommended it to all:
The greatness and the glory of God shine forth marvelously in all His works, and is to be read above all in the open book of the heavens.
. . . as did Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and James Clerk Maxwell. For all these searchers, finding beauty embodied in the physical world, reflecting God’s glory, was the goal of their search. It inspired their work, and sanctified their curiosity. And with their discoveries, their faith was rewarded.
While our Question finds support in spiritual cosmology, it can also stand on its own. And though its positive answer may inspire a spiritual interpretation, it does not require one.
We will return to these thoughts toward the end of our meditation, by which point we will be much better prepared to appraise them. Between now and then, the world can speak for itself.
Just as art has a history, with developing standards, so does the concept of the world as a work of art. In art history, we are accustomed to the idea that old styles are not simply obsolete, but can continue to be enjoyed on their own terms, and also offer important context for later developments. Though that idea is much less familiar in science, and in science it is subject to important limitations, the historical approach to our Question offers many advantages. It allows us—indeed, forces us—to proceed from simpler to more complex ideas. At the same time, by exploring how great thinkers struggled and often went astray, we gain perspective on the initial strangeness of ideas that have become, through familiarity, too “obvious” and comfortable. Last but by no means least, we humans are especially adapted to think in story and narrative, to associate ideas with names and faces, and to find tales of conflicts and their resolution compelling, even when they are conflicts of ideas, and no blood gets spilled. (Actually, a little does . . .)
For these reasons we will sing, to begin, songs of heroes: Pythagoras, Plato, Filippo Brunelleschi, Newton, Maxwell. (Later a major heroine, Emmy Noether, will enter too.) Real people went by those names—very interesting ones! But for us they are not merely people, but also legends and symbols. I’ve portrayed them, as I think of them, in that style, emphasizing clarity and simplicity over scholarly nuance. Here biography is a means, not an end. Each hero advances our meditation several steps:
• Pythagoras discovered, in his famous theorem about right-angled triangles, a most fundamental relationship between numbers, on the one hand, and sizes and shapes, on the other. Because Number is the purest product of Mind, while Size is a primary characteristic of Matter, that discovery revealed a hidden unity between Mind and Matter.
Pythagoras also discovered, in the laws of stringed instruments, simple and surprising relationships between numbers and musical harmony. That discovery completes a trinity, Mind-Matter-Beauty, with Number as the linking thread. Heady stuff! It led Pythagoras to surmise that All Things Are Number. With these discoveries and speculations, our Question comes to life.
• Plato thought big. He proposed a geometric theory of atoms and the Universe, based on five symmetrical shapes, which we now call the Platonic solids. In this audacious model of physical reality, Plato valued beauty over accuracy. The details of his theory are hopelessly wrong. Yet it provided such a dazzling vision of what a positive answer to our Question might look like that it inspired Euclid, Kepler, and many others to brilliant work centuries later. Indeed, our modern, astoundingly successful theories of elementary particles, codified in our Core Theory (see page 8), are rooted in heightened ideas of symmetry that would surely make Plato smile. And when trying to guess what will come next, I often follow Plato’s strategy, proposing objects of mathematical beauty as models for Nature.
Plato was also a great literary artist. His metaphor of the Cave captures important emotional and philosophical aspects of our relationship, as human inquirers, with reality. At its core is the belief that everyday life offers us a mere shadow of reality, but that through adventures of mind, and sensory expansion, we can get to its essence—and that the essence is clearer and more beautiful than its shadow. He imagined a mediating demiurge, which can be translated asArtisan, who rendered the realm of perfect, eternal Ideas into its imperfect copy, the world we experience. Here the concept of the world as a work of art is explicit.
• Brunelleschi brought new ideas to geometry from the needs of art and engineering. His projective geometry, in dealing with the actual appearance of things, brought in ideas—relativity, invariance, symmetry—not only beautiful in themselves, but pregnant with potential.
• Newton brought the mathematical understanding of Nature to entirely new levels of ambition and precision.
A common theme pervades Newton’s titanic work on light, the mathematics of calculus, motion, and mechanics. It is the method he called Analysis and Synthesis. The method of Analysis and Synthesis suggests a two-stage strategy to achieve understanding. In the analysis stage, we consider the smallest parts of what we are studying their “atoms,” using the word figuratively. In a successful analysis, we identify small parts that have simple properties that we can summarize in precise laws. For example:
• In the study of light, the atoms are beams of pure spectral colors.
• In the study of calculus, the atoms are infinitesimals and their ratios.
• In the study of motion, the atoms are velocity and acceleration.
• In the study of mechanics, the atoms are forces.
(We’ll discuss these in more depth later.) In the synthesis stage we build up, by logical and mathematical reasoning, from the behavior of individual atoms to the description of systems that contain many atoms.
When thus stated broadly, Analysis and Synthesis may not seem terribly impressive. It is, after all, closely related to common rules of thumb, e.g., “to solve a complex problem, divide and conquer”—hardly an electrifying revelation. But Newton demanded precision and completeness of understanding, saying,
’Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing.
And in these impressive examples, he achieved his ambitions. Newton showed, convincingly, that Nature herself proceeds by Analysis and Synthesis. There really is simplicity in the “atoms,” and Nature really does operate by letting them do their thing.
Newton also, in his work on motion and mechanics, enriched our concept of what physical laws are. His laws of motion and of gravity are dynamical laws. In other words, they are laws of change. Laws of this kind embody a different concept of beauty than the static perfection beloved of Pythagoras and (especially) Plato.
Dynamical beauty transcends specific objects and phenomena, and invites us to imagine the expanse of possibilities. For example, the sizes and shapes of actual planetary orbits are not simple. They are neither the (compounded) circles of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Nicolaus Copernicus, nor even the more nearly accurate ellipses of Kepler, but rather curves that must be calculated numerically, as functions of time, evolving in complicated ways that depend on the positions and masses of the Sun and the other planets. There is great beauty and simplicity here, but it is only fully evident when we understand the deep design. The appearance of particular objects does not exhaust the beauty of the laws.
• Maxwell was the first truly modern physicist. His work on electromagnetism ushered in both a new concept of reality and a new method in physics. The new concept, which Maxwell developed from the intuitions of Michael Faraday, is that the primary ingredients of physical reality are not point-like particles, but rather space-filling fields. The new method is inspired guesswork. In 1864 Maxwell codified the known laws of electricity and magnetism into a system of equations, but discovered the resulting system was inconsistent. Like Plato, who shoehorned five perfect solids into four elements plus the Universe, Maxwell did not give up. He saw that by adding a new term he could both make the equations appear more symmetric and make them mathematically consistent. The resulting system, known as the Maxwell equations, not only unified electricity and magnetism, but derived light as a consequence, and survives to this day as the secure foundation of those subjects.
By what is the physicist’s “inspired guesswork” inspired? Logical consistency is necessary, but hardly sufficient. Rather it was beauty and symmetry that guided Maxwell and his followers—that is, all modern physicists—closer to truth, as we shall see.
Maxwell also, in his work on color perception, discovered that Plato’s metaphorical Cave reflects something quite real and specific: the paltriness of our sensory experience, relative to available reality. And his work, by clarifying the limits of perception, allows us to transcend those limits. For the ultimate sense-enhancing device is a searching mind.
Above the Line by Urban Meyer: Lessons on leadership and team-building from Ohio State’s head football coach, drawing heavily on the 2014 season and his team’s remarkable run to the championship in the face of adversity
In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park: A harrowing escape from tyranny and into a new life of advocacy, from North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park
SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal: A remarkable life plan based on the game the author herself and hundreds of thousands of others have used to leap from ruts and setbacks to recovery and personal growth
Kissinger by Niall Ferguson: The definitive biography of Henry Kissinger, based on unprecedented access to his private papers, by an acclaimed historian at the height of his powers
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar: How far do you really go to “do unto others”? Renowned New Yorker journalist Larissa MacFarquhar reveals the individuals who devote themselves fully to bettering the lives of strangers, even when it comes at great personal cost
Beloved Dog by Maira Kalman: In her trademark style, wit, and with great sensitivity, Maira Kalman reveals why dogs bring out the best in us.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: A new poetry collection from New York Times bestselling poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Mary Olive
Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: Renowned media scholar Sherry Turkle investigates how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity—- and why reclaiming face-to-face conversation can help us regain lost ground.
America’s Bank by Roger Lowenstein: The tumultuous era and remarkable personalities that unexpectedly birthed the Federal Reserve, from renowned financial writer Roger Lowenstein
Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree: A revolutionary look at Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the birth of publishing, on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary
The Ottoman Endgame by Sean McMeekin: An astonishing retelling of twentieth-century history from the Ottoman perspective, delivering profound new insights into World War I and the contemporary Middle East
Black Dragon River by Domic Ziegler: A remarkable journey down the Amur River, revealing the history and culture of a region which is once again becoming one of the world’s most contested regions
The Blue Line by Ingrid Betancourt: From the extraordinary Colombian French politician and activist Ingrid Betancourt, a stunning debut novel about freedom and fate
Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf: The never-before-reported story of this generation of Arab women, who are questioning authority, changing societies, and leading revolutions.
Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma: A family history of surpassing beauty and power: Ian Buruma’s account of his grandparents’ enduring love through the terror and separation of two world wars
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie: An exuberant, one-of-a-kind novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributor
Download the full catalog here
Swipe between the two maps to see how “Indians” viewed their territory versus the “White Man” in 1812.
by Matthew Pearl
Did bookaneers really exist? A few years ago, I stumbled on a stray detail indicating that nineteenth-century publishers would hire agents to obtain valuable manuscripts that were fair game under the laws. Because of their shadowy place in history, I could not find much else about this group, but I was intrigued.
Building on this fragment of legal and publishing history, I tried imagining more fully these freelance literary bounty hunters — the history of their profession, what they might be called on to do, who they were, their backgrounds, how their lives would bring them to this unusual profession and how the profession would shape their personal lives. As far as historical fiction goes, it fit one of my ideals: a bit of gray-area history that cannot be explored very far without the help of fiction.
In this case, it seemed to me to call for informed speculation — what I’d refer to as research-based fiction — plus plenty of imagination. I applied the term bookaneer, one I had noticed had been used in a generic sense in the nineteenth century about literary piracy (the earliest use I find is in 1837 by poet Thomas Hood).
I cast a few bookaneers in supporting roles in an earlier novel, The Last Dickens, in which we encounter Pen’s mentor-lover, Kitten, and hear about Whiskey Bill.
I realized I wanted to see more of these and other bookaneers, and reader feedback on this front encouraged me. This led me to create Pen Davenport and his assistant Edgar C. Fergins, whom I decided to follow on a journey that would test them professionally and personally. I envisioned my fictional characters crossing paths with a number of prominent authors in history, but my compass pointed them to Stevenson. I had been fascinated by Stevenson’s time in Samoa.
It was intriguing and mysterious to his contemporaries to think of a European author at the far reaches of the known world, and I had to imagine it would have been an irresistible quest for my bookaneers — a kind of moment of destiny for both sides in the (still raging) battle over creative property.
We all know that much of our health is predetermined by our genes. We also know that we can generally improve our health if we eat right, exercise, and manage our stress. But how to do those things is a matter of great debate. Many well-meaning health programs are focused solely on weight loss or heart health, but what if there was a second genome, one that held the key to much of our overall health, but one that we could influence by very specific (and often surprising) lifestyle choices? Well, this second genome exists. It belongs to the bacteria that inhabit our gut and is vital to our overall well-being, in countless ways. The details of how these intestinal bacteria, known as the microbiota, are hard-wired into health and disease are starting to come to light and they are reshaping what it means to be human.
As scientists try to unravel the causes behind the prevalence of predominantly Western afflictions such as cancer, diabetes, allergies, asthma, autism, and inflammatory bowel diseases, it is becoming increasingly clear that the microbiota plays an important role in the development of each of these conditions and potentially many others. Our bacterial inhabitants touch all aspects of our biology in some way, directly or indirectly. But the modern world has changed the way we eat and how we live, and as a result, our intestinal microbiota is facing challenges that it has not experienced in the entirety of human evolution.
Our digestive system is much more than a collection of human cells that surround our last few meals—it also contains a dense colony of bacteria and other microorganisms. In fact, for every one human cell in our body, we house an additional ten bacterial cells that amount to a filibuster proof majority that legislates much of our biology. But before you start thinking of yourself as a human being with bacterial cells inside, it may be more accurate to consider yourself as a bacterial being with a human cell coating.
More than we ever expected, the gut microbiota sets the dial on our immune system. If the gut bacteria are healthy, it’s likely that the immune system is running well. Much is being learned about how the microbiota impacts our brains. The brain-gut axis impacts our well-being profoundly, far more than just letting us know when it’s time to eat. Gut bacteria can affect moods and behavior and may influence the progression of some neurological conditions.
In June 1970 Roth, Stein, and Fliegelman were living with several others in an apartment they rented on Amity Street in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. Fliegelman had purchased dynamite in Vermont under an assumed name; he kept it in a garage they rented nearby. Forty years later, he shudders at the memory of that first bombing, at NYPD headquarters. “That first one was the scariest,” he recalls. “We knew if we did this, they would come after us.”
The “casers” identified a second-floor men’s room as an ideal spot to hide a bomb; it was just 125 feet from the police commissioner’s office. In the years to come, public bathrooms would become Weatherman’s favorite target. Stall doors allowed a measure of privacy, and many bathrooms could be locked from within. At the Amity Street apartment, Fliegelman built the bomb using his new design, about fifteen sticks of dynamite and a Westclox alarm clock purchased at a Radio Shack. The challenge was smuggling it into the building; they couldn’t risk having a backpack or briefcase searched. In the end, Fliegelman says, they hollowed out a thick law book and placed the bomb inside. Exactly who walked it through security and placed it above a ceiling tile in the bathroom has never been disclosed, but by Tuesday afternoon, June 10, the bomb was in place. “It wasn’t like they had metal detectors back then,” Fliegelman says. “There was just a guy at a desk, and we walked right past him.”
That night at 6:30 they telephoned in the warning. At that moment about 150 people were inside the building. Police operators got this kind of call routinely in 1970; it was ignored. Seventeen minutes later, at 6:47, the bomb exploded, its deep boom ringing through the narrow streets and alleys of Little Italy. The blast demolished two walls of the bathroom, blowing a hole in the floor twenty feet wide and forty feet long, destroying an office on one side, shattering dozens of windows and catapulting a cloud of soot and smoke into Centre Street; chunks of granite the size of cinder blocks crushed two cars below. Eight people were treated for injuries, none of them serious.
Forty years later Weatherman bombings can blur together, a string of dates and buildings. The attack on NYPD headquarters, however, was unprecedented; it left the department and the entire city government deeply shaken. “Our problem,” as one police commander put it, “is not the damage to the building or to our own morale. Our problem is the feeling that if the police cannot protect themselves, how can they protect anyone else?”