Saturday July 1, 2017

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Renaming the Planets

Backs on pier’s cool planks, fingers
intertwined, my girlfriend and I
gaze into forever as comets

tear open the sky, bright streaks
winking like distant fireflies.
Beyond them, a dwarf planet sulks

in its orbit. Einstein said nothing
could outrun physics’ laws;
even time must bend to fit its rules.

Yet scientists once declared Earth
center of our universe;
earlier still, that it was flat.

Evolution of what is certain
proves nothing is absolute,
not even a Rockwell scene

of young lovers beside
a lake, waiting for the future
to arrive from heaven.

“Renaming the Planets” by Bill Glose from Personal Geography. © David Robert Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1751, the first volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie was issued. His publishers wanted him to translate Chamber’s Encyclopedia, published in Britain in 1723, but Diderot decided to embark on a bigger project. He set about to catalog all of human knowledge, and included illustrated articles describing the manufacture of common household objects, information that was considered beneath the dignity of educated inquiry. The scholar Voltaire liked the early volumes so much that he started to contribute articles to the project, but his irreverent treatment of religious subjects got the Encyclopédie banned. One night at dinner in the palace of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour confessed that she had no idea how her silk stockings had been made, and the king’s hidden copy of the Encyclopédie was fetched to answer the question. A servant told Voltaire later that the dinner guests fell upon the volumes “as if they were jewels.”

Today is the birthday of American grammarian William Strunk Jr. (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He taught English at Cornell for 46 years, but before that, he taught math at the Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana.

But of course he is best known for a book that he self-published in 1918 for the benefit of his students at Cornell. He called it The Elements of Style, and its purpose, he wrote, was “to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention [...] on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.” Students called it “the little book,” and it was little: it numbered just 43 pages. In it, Strunk laid down several principles for effective written communication, including: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language” and “Use the active voice.” He also suggests: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

One of his students at Cornell was a young man named Elwyn Brooks White, more familiar to readers as E.B. White, the essayist and author of beloved children’s books like Charlotte’s Web (1952). While working as an editor at The New Yorker in 1957, White dusted off Strunk’s little book — which he described as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” — and wrote a feature story about it. He revised the style guide, expanded it, and updated it. MacMillan and Company published it to wider audiences in 1959; White’s contribution to The Elements of Style was so extensive that he is considered a co-author, and the book is commonly known simply as “Strunk and White.” In 2011, Time named it one of the best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

It’s the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford (books by this author), born in Covina, California (1915). When she was six years old, her father lost most of the family’s money on the stock market. They moved to Boulder, Colorado, where they lived in poverty. Despite their money troubles, her father spent all his time writing, though he only sold one book. They survived by taking in sorority girls as boarders.

After college, Stafford began dating a young poet named Robert Lowell. He was unknown at the time, but would go on to be one of the most important poets of his generation. He asked her to marry him, even though his aristocratic family disapproved of her. Stafford was still trying to make up her mind when she and Lowell got into a serious car accident. He had been driving drunk and was unhurt, but she was disfigured in the accident and had to have reconstructive facial surgery. She sued him for damages, but also accepted his proposal. They got married in 1940.

In 1944, she published her first novel, Boston Adventure, about a poor girl who escapes her working-class town to work for a wealthy lady from Boston. It was a best-seller, but soon after its publication, her marriage to Lowell fell apart. She wrote several more novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952), but they didn’t make her any money. She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to The New Yorker magazine. When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died 10 years later, and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.

It was on this day in 1858 that a paper by Charles Darwin (books by this author) about his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience. Darwin had actually come up with the theory 20 years before that, in 1837. Back then, he drafted a 35-page sketch of his ideas and arranged with his wife to publish the sketch after his death. Then, for the next 20 years, he told almost no one about the theory. He practically went into hiding, moving to a small town and living like a monk, with specific times each day for walking, napping, reading, and backgammon. He was so reclusive that he even had the road lowered outside his house, to prevent passersby from looking in the window.

Part of his reluctance to share his theory of evolution was that he was not known as a biologist, and he assumed that no one would take such a radical theory seriously from such an amateur. In fact, for most of his early career, he was known as a geologist. He only made his name as a biologist in the early 1850s when he wrote an influential study of the sexual behavior of barnacles.

He was still reluctant to publish his ideas, though, because he didn’t want to create a controversy by offending anyone’s religious beliefs. Atheism was a crime punishable by prison at the time, and Darwin feared that people would object to the idea that God hadn’t created each creature individually. When he finally told one of his friends about his theory of evolution, he said it was like confessing a murder.

But then, in 1851, his oldest and favorite daughter, Annie, died of typhoid, and suddenly Darwin began to worry about the future of all his children. He was terrified that they would all have health problems and that they might not be able to provide for themselves. So, to help assure his children’s well-being, Darwin began writing a book about evolution, which he hoped would become a scientific classic. He had kept notes on his theory for 20 years, but he began to run new experiments to test his ideas. He experimented with seeds in seawater, to prove that they could survive ocean crossings, and he raised pigeons to observe the traits they inherited from their parents.

Darwin often worked on his book seven days a week, and he began to suffer from health problems of his own. He had struggled to complete a quarter of a million words when, on June 18, 1858, he learned that a man named Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish a paper about a similar theory. In order to get credit, Darwin had to present an extract of his work to a scientific society in two weeks.

Almost the same day he received that news, his household was struck by an epidemic of scarlet fever. His children and several nursery maids came down with the disease. Most everyone recovered, but Darwin’s youngest son, Charles, died. And so it was that Charles Darwin wasn’t even in attendance when his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience on this day in 1858. He was at home, grieving the death of his son. But his theory would go on to become the basis of all modern biology.

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