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How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Power


“Music opens a path into the realm of silence.” Some of humanity’s greatest and most fertile minds — including Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche — have contemplated the power of music, and yet the question of why music moves us so remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable.

Advice to the Young from Pioneering Astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Who Discovered the Composition of the Universe


Work with love, embrace the unexpected, let no one else make intellectual decisions for you, and always remain in direct touch with the fountain-head.

Albert Camus on the Three Antidotes to the Absurdity of Life


“In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity.” What an astrophysicist might have the perspective to eulogize as “the incredibly improbable trip that we’re on” the rest of us might, and often do, experience as simply and maddeningly absurd — so uncontrollable and incomprehensible as to barely make sense.

The Drift Called the Infinite: Emily Dickinson on Making Sense of Loss


Reflections on silence and eternity from the poet laureate of death. “The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” poet Meghan O’Rourke wrote in her stirring memoir of losing her mother.

A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience


“Are we not … parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times


“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground.

The World’s First Celestial Spectator Sport: Astronomer Maria Mitchell’s Stunning Account of the 1869 Total Solar Eclipse


“All nature rejoiced, and … we rejoiced with Nature.” Trumpeted by the press as “the great eclipse of the nineteenth century,” the total solar eclipse of August 7, 1869 was the world’s first astronomical event marketed as popular entertainment — not merely a pinnacle of excitement for the scientific community, but a celestial spectator sport for laypeople.

Thoreau on Writing and the Splendors of Mystery in an Age of Knowledge


“Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.” A century before Einstein bequeathed his famous dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and Richard Feynman delivered his iconic flower-monologue about knowledge and mystery, not a scientist but a Transcendentalist philosopher-poet, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), examined the relationship between scientific knowledge and the imagination in a diary entry found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

A Bioluminescent Wonder: Rachel Carson on the Art of Illuminating Nature Beyond Scientific Fact


A transcendent account of “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Years before Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed that “there is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) arrived at the immensely fertile intersection of science and wonder, through which she would later catalyze the modern environmental movement with her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring.

How to Live with Death


Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud reframed our mortality as an organizing principle of human life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Love and Truthfulness


“You must prepare yourself to forbear and to forgive — will you?” For two people to be honest with each other about what is most difficult, even when truthfulness comes with a razing edge of sorrow, is a hard-earned privilege measured by the magnitude of their love for one another.

Frida Kahlo on the Meanings of the Colors


From the color of madness and mystery to that of distance and tenderness. More than a century after Goethe’s theoretical inquiry into the emotional hues of color, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) contemplated the question from a far more intuitive place in a fragment from The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the treasure trove that gave us the visionary Mexican painter’s DIY paint recipe, her ferocious political convictions, and her stunning handwritten love letters to Diego Rivera.

Good Sense vs. Free Hope: Margaret Fuller on Reaping Wonder from Everyday Reality


“The mind is not … a highway, but a temple, and its doors should not be carelessly left open.” Two years before Transcendentalist grand dame Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) inspired the women’s suffrage movement and laid the foundation for modern feminism with her 1845 masterwork Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she published something very different in subject, though not in sensibility and spirit: Summer on the Lakes (public library | free ebook) — the record of her experiences and observations traveling westward from her native New England, among which are the most stunning literary portrait of Niagara Falls I’ve encountered and a sorrowful account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes, with whom Fuller sympathized and spent time.

Kafka on the Power of Music and the Point of Making Art


“The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason.” “Without music life would be a mistake,” proclaimed Nietzsche, one of the legion of celebrated thinkers who have contemplated the unparalleled power of music.

School Prayer: Diane Ackerman’s Poetic Invitation to Attentive Presence as a Means of Transcendence and Secular Spirituality


A hymn to the numinous splendor of nature. “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil in contemplating gravity and grace.

You Are Not the Target: Laura Huxley on Course-Correcting the Paths of Love and Not-Love


“In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.” “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” And yet, again and again, we slide down the easier path of destruction, among and within ourselves, in our political and our personal lives.

The Muskrat and the Meaning of Life: Loren Eiseley on Reclaiming Our Sense of the Miraculous in a Mechanical Age


“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.” In his beautiful 1948 manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning to be nourished by nature, Henry Beston lamented: “What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history.

Legendary Cosmologist Martin Rees on Science, Religion, and the Future of Post-Human Intelligence


“Fundamental physics shows how hard it is for us to grasp even the simplest things in the world. That makes you quite skeptical whenever someone declares he has the key to some deeper reality.” “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed in contemplating science, religion, and our conquest of truth at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Stars: A Mythopoetic Masterpiece Serenading the Night Sky Through Myths and Stories from Around the World


“Light gives light because it is its nature.” “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly… I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive,” Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, pondered in her most extensive interview.

Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News


“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.” “A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his timeless treatise on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” And yet, paradoxically, in the very act of exposing the abiding instability of existence, art moors us to a sense of the eternal and becalms our momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has always washed, and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit.


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