Wednesday Nov. 25, 2015

0:00/ 0:00

On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred

When I awoke on the morning
of my two hundredth birthday,
I expected to be consulted
by supplicants
like the Sibyl at Cumae.
I could tell them something.

Instead, it was the usual thing:
dried grapefruit for breakfast,
Mozart all morning, interrupted
by bees’ wings,
and making love with a woman
one hundred and eighty-one years old.

At my birthday party
I blew out two hundred candles
one at a time, taking
naps after each twenty-five.
Then I went to bed, at five-thirty,
on the day of my two hundredth birthday,

and slept and dreamed
of a house no bigger than a flea’s house
with two hundred rooms in it,
and in each of the rooms a bed,
and in each of the two hundred beds
me sleeping.

"On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred” by Donald Hall from The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this date, 100 years ago, that Einstein (books by this author) submitted his paper The Field Equations of Gravitation for publication (1915). The paper included 10 equations, which made up his Theory of General Relativity. The equations lay out Einstein’s theory of gravity: where it comes from and how it interacts with “spacetime.” Einstein’s theory viewed space and time not as two separate elements, but interwoven such that a change in one produces an effect on the other. He didn’t come up with the idea of a space-time continuum — that idea came from his former professor, Hermann Minkowski — but Einstein elaborated on it.

Before General Relativity, Einstein developed his Theory of Special Relativity. He came up with it in 1905, and that theory states that the speed of light is a constant — it’s the same for everybody, wherever you are in the universe — and it’s also a kind of universal speed limit, meaning nothing can go faster than the speed of light. But speed is also relative based on the observer’s frame of reference. When you’re flying in an airplane, you don’t feel a sensation of movement, but an observer standing on the ground will report that the plane is moving very quickly. Einstein realized that if space and time are on a single continuum, then as the rate of speed goes up, the rate of time must go down and vice versa. For an object moving slowly through space, time is passing quickly. Conversely, if an object is moving at a very high rate of speed, time actually slows down. We don’t notice it, because we move so slowly, but the closer an object gets to attaining the speed of light, the bigger the effect is. Since Einstein’s era, scientists have actually proved this theory by sending atomic clocks up in high-speed rockets. When they are brought back to Earth, the clocks on the rockets are just slightly behind their earthly counterparts.

Einstein worked on expanding and fine-tuning his Special Relativity theory for almost a decade. Once he felt confident that his equations could accurately describe gravity’s effect on spacetime, he published them as The Field Equations of Gravitation or — as they’re more familiarly known, the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein’s theory, matter actually bends the “fabric” of spacetime. If you envision spacetime as a rubber sheet that’s being held stretched out above the ground, and put a heavy object like a bowling ball in the middle of the sheet, the bowling ball will pull down the center of the sheet. And any other, lighter-weight balls that you place on the blanket will be pulled toward the bowling ball, because the bowling ball is keeping the blanket from being flat. That’s where gravity comes from, and how it works. To apply the model to our solar system, the Sun is the bowling ball, and the planets are other, smaller balls rolling around the Sun. The planets are moving so fast in their orbits that they just keep circling the Sun; their speed keeps them from falling into the Sun, and gravity keeps them from flying off into space.

Einstein theorized that light curves as a result of gravity’s effects on the fabric of spacetime, and that that curve should be visible during an eclipse. In 1919, astronomers traveled to an island off the coast of Africa to photograph a solar eclipse; when the photographs were analyzed, they proved that the deflection of the sunlight matched Einstein’s prediction.

It’s the birthday of Pope Saint John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881. He was the fourth of 14 children born to sharecroppers in Lombardi, Italy. He served as a sergeant in the Royal Italian Army during World War I, as a chaplain and stretcher-bearer. Before being elected pope, he served at posts in Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

His papacy was unexpected due to his advanced age (76), and he arrived in Rome for the voting with a return train ticket, not believing he would garner enough votes.

He was considered one of the most compassionate popes. He said, “We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.” He was the first pope since 1870 to make pastoral visits in the Diocese of Rome, when he visited children afflicted with polio at a hospital and then visited a prison. He told the inmates, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.”

Pope John is largely known for orchestrating the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which produced major change in the Church for the first time in hundreds of years. Most obvious were changes in the Mass, which had been said in Latin, with priest facing away from the congregation, often speaking quietly (even mumbling). It was impersonal at best, and for most, not understandable.

In 2000, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

It’s the birthday of American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835). He came to this country as a teenager and took a job in a factory in Pittsburgh. He wanted to educate himself, but although there were public libraries at the time, you had to pay an annual fee to become a member. Carnegie wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, arguing that poor people should be given free access to libraries so that they could improve themselves. The director of Carnegie’s local library read the letter, and it persuaded him to change the rule.

With the help of the library, Carnegie got himself a job as a telegrapher for the Pennsylvania Railroad and in just 11 years he had worked his way up to vice president. He went on to start his own steel company, and when he sold it 10 years later, it made him one of the richest men in the world. He spent the rest of his life giving that money away, and among other things, he built almost 3,000 libraries across the country, and he required that the libraries inscribe phrases like “Free Library” or “Free to the People” over their entrances, so that the libraries would always remain free.

It’s the birthday of John F. Kennedy Jr., born in Washington, D.C. (1960) two weeks after his father, John F. Kennedy Sr. was elected president of the United States. His mother was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. He had an older sister, Caroline.

Kennedy was nicknamed “John-John” after a foreign reporter, unfamiliar with the Kennedy family, witnessed JFK Sr. address his little boy as “John,” in quick succession — the reporter heard “John-John” and assumed that was the boy’s full name. “John-John” stuck, and was used in countless news articles.

His father was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. One of the most iconic images of the 1960s is of John F. Kennedy Jr., almost three years old, stepping forward at his father’s funeral procession to salute the flag-draped casket as it was carried out of St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

Kennedy grew up in New York City, was educated at Brown University and New York University School of Law. His life was never without paparazzi; it was difficult for him to even study for exams. He worked hard to pass the New York bar exam, but he failed twice. The tabloids labeled him “The Hunk Who Flunked” and he simply shrugged it off. “I’m clearly not a major legal genius,” he said. He passed the bar on the third try and began a career as an assistant district attorney, philanthropist, and social justice activist.

He gave it up, though, in 1995, to launch a political magazine called George, which he hoped would be a blend of cutting-edge political journalism and pop culture analysis. The first issue featured supermodel Cindy Crawford dressed as George Washington.

Kennedy worked tirelessly to help the homeless, people with disabilities, and those displaced by tragedy and disaster, even as his every move was recorded and trumpeted by the media. His deadpan sense of humor was very much in evidence when he was voted People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” He said, “There are worse things than to be told you look good in a bathing suit.”

John F. Kennedy Jr., died in 1999 when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed en route to a cousin’s wedding in Martha’s Vineyard. His wife and sister-in-law also died.

He said: “People often tell me I could be a great man. I’d rather be a good man.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®