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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

November 15th, 2018

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

November 9th was the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan , born in Brooklyn (1934). Sagan was a popular guest on TV shows, especially The Tonight Show, but he was also a serious scientist who worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions. Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”

Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos, which aired in 1980. Sagan originally planned to call the show Man and the Cosmos, but he considered himself a feminist, so he decided to leave off the “man.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, collaborated with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, to bring Cosmos back to television in 2014. MacFarlane also donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.

Sagan received a lot of fan mail over his career, many letters from people who shared their dreams and experiences, or their theories of extraterrestrial life, or simply thanked him for teaching them about astronomy. The more “out there” of the letters were filed in a box labeled “F/C,” which stood for “fissured ceramics” — Sagan’s code name for “crackpots.” People wrote to him about aliens that they had imprisoned in their basement, or the planets they had discovered. He was also approached by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor, and leader in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Leary wanted to build a kind of “space ark” and transport hundreds of people to a different star, and he consulted Sagan to find out which star he should aim for. Sagan had to tell him that the technology to pull off such a feat did not currently exist. Leary wrote back: “I am not impressed with your conclusions in these areas,” and suggested that all that was needed was “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”

Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

 

Kazuo Ishiguro/Superb Anglo-Japanese Writer

November 15th, 2018

November 8th was the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (1954), one of my most favorite modern writers, best known for haunting, elegiac novels like Remains of the Day (1989), about an English butler working in a big house in the years before World War II, which won the Booker Prize.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five (1960). He didn’t go back for 29 years. Ishiguro says: “I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie. In England, I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan.” As a child in England, he pored over comic books and was obsessed with movies about cowboys and the American West, which influenced his later writing.

Ishiguro spent a gap year after university hitchhiking through America and working for the Queen Mother as a grouse beater in Balmoral, all the while hauling around his portable typewriter and guitar. He says, “I tried to be a songwriter, but the door never opened.” He decided to write a 30-minute radio play called Potatoes and Lovers, about two young people working in a fish-and-chips joint. They are both cross-eyed, and they fall in love. It was an odd plot, but he used it to apply to graduate school in creative writing, and he got in. His first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), was published to international acclaim.

Ishiguro’s novels include my favorite, Never Let Me Go (2005),  and             An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Buried Giant (2015), and The Unconsoled (1995), a 500-page book narrated by a pianist — a book that one critic said “invented its own category of badness.” It’s now considered a classic.

On his writing, Kazuo Ishiguro says: “You can think of me like an early aviator before airplanes were properly invented. I’m building some sort of flying machine in my back garden. I just need it to fly. And you know how odd some of those early flying machines looked? Well, my novels are a bit like that. I put them together out of anything I can think of according to my thinking to make the thing fly.”

In 2007 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

 

Marie Curie/Ground Breaking Chemist and Physicist

November 14th, 2018

November 7th was the birthday of Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867). Curie discovered radium, without which we wouldn’t have X-rays or certain cancer therapies. Curie was born in Warsaw, which is now Poland, but used to be part of the Russian Empire. She went on to win two Nobel Prizes, but she always donated her prize money and remained humble about her achievements. She once summed up her potential biography as, “I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”

Curie came from a family of teachers who believed so strongly in education that her father brought home discarded test tubes from the laboratory at his school and encouraged Marie to perform experiments. Because she was a girl, she couldn’t go to University. So she began studying clandestinely at what was called a “Floating University,” a secret set of informal, underground classes held in Warsaw.

She met her husband, Pierre, after moving to France to further her studies. They set up a lab in a decrepit warehouse outside their atelier. The warehouse had an asphalt floor, a glass roof broken in several places, and was heated by a cast-iron stove in the winter. They worked on worn-out tables, often eating simple meals of bread washed down with water.

Curie often stirred the heavy and hot molten mass of radioactive products in a caldron herself, sometimes slipping samples in her pockets and forgetting about them. No one knew then about the harmful effects of radiation. When she died in 1934, it was attributed to four decades of exposure to radioactivity.

Curie and Pierre discovered radium and polonium in 1898. A watchcase containing a speck of the radium was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The label read, “Radium, discovered by Mme. Curie.”

During World War I, Curie and her daughter suggested that the armies equip automobiles with radiographic apparatus to treat the wounded, inadvertently inventing the X-ray and the ambulance at the same time. The X-ray could locate bullets and fragments in wounded soldiers, which meant quick, life-saving removal.

All of Marie Curie’s research materials and notes are too dangerous to examine because of their high level of radioactivity. They are kept in lead-lined boxes.

 

The Balfour Declaration

November 14th, 2018

November 2nd was the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed its support for a Jewish state in Palestine (1917). The declaration took the form of a brief letter from foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent British Zionist. Balfour wrote a “declaration of sympathy” with the Zionist cause, adding: “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The British government believed the cause was just; they also hoped to gain Jewish support for the Allies in World War I.

Arab leaders felt betrayed by the Balfour Declaration, since they had supported the Allies against Turkey in World War I and had been guaranteed complete autonomy in the region in return. The declaration’s vague wording also made it unclear what exactly Britain was offering to do. The government later clarified that the intent of the declaration was to support a “homeland” for Jews, where they would live side by side with the indigenous Palestinians. They did not intend to advocate for a formal Jewish state. After the declaration, Jews migrated to Palestine in large numbers, and the Jewish population grew from 50,000 in 1917 to 600,000 in 1947. The state of Israel was established in 1948.

Earlier this year, the British government acknowledged that the Balfour Declaration should have explicitly protected the political rights of indigenous Palestinians, as well as their civil and religious rights.

 

John Keats/Great Poet

November 14th, 2018

October 31 was the birthday of English poet John Keats , born in London in 1795. He’s best known for poetic odes like Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn, about the famous Elgin marbles on display in the British Museum, which ends with some of the most famous lines in poetic history: “beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

By the time he died at the age of 25, John Keats had only published three small volumes of poetry, 54 poems in all. He’s now considered one of the finest poets in the English language. He once told a friend, “I carry all matters to an extreme.”


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