“The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare… since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them.” A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant contributions to number theory.
“Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being.” “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you?
“I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Half the beauty of life lies in its complexity — in those experiences whose depth and dimension cannot be sliced, flattened, and contained into neat categories.
A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.” “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time.
“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.” In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press.
“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.” “The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality.
“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’” In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries.
“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.” Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it.
“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.” “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist.
“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” “If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?
“What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.” In 1959, the Ford Foundation invited a small international group of up-and-coming creative writers to visit America on a six-month scholarship — a Herculean feat under an administration that made it as close to impossible as possible for foreigners suspected of communist views, which included most foreigners, to enter the United States.
A beautiful homage to the natural world’s “good, practical sort of immortality.” “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.
“One thousand questions, and each gives an answer, which then forms a question.” “You will not concede me philosophical poetry,” Ada Lovelace — the world’s first computer programmer, maverick daughter of the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her mother, a mathematician bent on eradicating the father’s “poetical” influences on the girl.
How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health. “All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life,” Anne Lamott wrote in her beautiful meditation on the life-giving power of great teachers.
“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business.
“Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” “Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” the great French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in 1933 as she contemplated how to make use of our suffering amid a world that seemed to be falling apart.
“Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul… we are forced to read the papers, and yet… our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.” “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying piece on the artist’s duty at times of crisis.
“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.” If the ancient Arab world had closed its gates to foreign travelers, we would have no medicine, no astronomy, and no mathematics — at least not as we know them today.
“A civilized society is one whose members expect that each will address at all times, as far as possible, the rational in man.” “The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to pump up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she reflected on the pariah’s plight for identity.