Sunday Nov. 9, 2014

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How happy is the little Stone...

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—

"How happy is the little Stone..." by Emily Dickinson. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Ivan Turgenev (books by this author), born in Oryol, Russia (1818). His parents were minor nobility, and he grew up on a huge estate with 5,000 serfs, presided over by his tyrannical mother. She forbid her serfs to marry, threatened them, and whipped them or sent them away if they made a small mistake like serving tea improperly. His parents' marriage was unhappy, and his father consoled himself with other women and left the running of the estate to his wife. He died when his son was a teenager.

Turgenev went to the university and joined the civil service, but he was more interested in writing, so he dropped out. His mother was equally disgusted by his career path and his infatuation with a Spanish opera singer, Pauline Viardot, so she cut off his allowance, plunging him suddenly into poverty.

Turgenev loved hunting in the woods of his estate, and the book that made him famous was called A Sportsman's Sketches or The Hunting Sketches (1852). It was a collection of stories in which the narrator travels around his estate, hunting — but instead of hunting stories, the stories were about the serfs who lived there. The sketches exposed the abuse of serfs at the hands of landowners much like Turgenev's own domineering mother. A Sportsman's Sketches didn't make Turgenev rich, but it made his name as a writer and helped fuel the movement to abolish serfdom, which happened in 1861.

It's the birthday of Irish playwright Hugh Leonard (books by this author), born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin (1926). His mother gave him up for adoption; he was raised by the Keys family and went by John Keyes Byrne. Hugh Leonard was a pen name — he first made it up as the name for a character, Hughie Leonard, in one of his first plays. After the Abbey Theatre rejected the play, he started using it as his pen name.

His plays include Stephen D (1962), based on novels by James Joyce; The Poker Session (1964), The Au Pair Man (1974), and A Life (1981). He is most famous for his autobiographical play Da (1973), about a playwright who goes back to Ireland to make funeral arrangements for his adopted father, a gardener. When Da came to Broadway, it won numerous awards, including the Tony for Best Play. It was made into a film in 1988 starring Bernard Hughes and Martin Sheen.

It's the birthday of the poet Anne Sexton (books by this author), born Anne Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts (1928). She said of her childhood: "I was locked in my room until the age of five. After that [...] at home, or away from it, people seemed out of reach. Thus I hid in fairy tales and read them daily like a prayer book. Any book was closer than a person. I did not even like my dolls for they resembled people."

She never went to college, eloped when she was 19, and became a suburban 1950s housewife. She was 28 when she had her first nervous breakdown. After a suicide attempt, her psychiatrist advised her to try to write poetry as therapy. She did, and the following year, she took a poetry seminar with the poet Robert Lowell, who admired her work. Within a few years of having written her first poems, she had published her work in more than 40 magazines, including Harper's and The New Yorker.

For the rest of her life, she was in and out of mental institutions, on and off psychiatric drugs, and she said that poetry was the only thing that kept her alive. She said, "My fans think I got well, but I didn't: I just became a poet."

Most critics consider her best poems to be those in her first two books, To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962). Her collection Live or Die (1966) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She committed suicide in 1974.

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The attack was inspired by the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew in Paris. When Hitler heard the news, he got the idea to stage a mass uprising in response. He and Joseph Goebbels contacted storm troopers around the country and told them to attack Jewish buildings, but to make the attacks look like spontaneous demonstrations. The police were told not to interfere with the demonstrators, but instead to arrest the Jewish victims. Firefighters were told only to put out fires in any adjacent Aryan properties. Everyone cooperated.

In all, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Many of the attackers were neighbors of the victims. The Nazis confiscated any compensation claims that insurance companies paid to Jews. They also imposed a huge collective fine on the Jewish community for having supposedly incited the violence. The event was used to justify barring Jews from schools and most public places, and forcing them to adhere to new curfews. In the days following, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps.

The event was called Kristallnacht, which means, "Night of Broken Glass." It's generally considered the official beginning of the Holocaust. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.

It's the birthday of astronomer Carl Sagan, born in Brooklyn (1934). His father was a hard-working Ukrainian immigrant garment worker, and his mother was an intellectual housewife who doted on her son. He said: "My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method."

He grew up fascinated by both science and science fiction, and went on to study physics at the University of Chicago. He got a job teaching at Harvard, where he conducted breakthrough research on the atmosphere of Venus. He also gave a popular series of lectures called "Planets are Places," which was a new idea at the time, in the early days of planetary science. He was denied tenure at Harvard, so in 1968 he moved on to the astronomy department at Cornell, where he taught for the rest of his career.

He worked 18-hour days, throwing himself into research, teaching, editing a scientific journal, writing articles and books, and his ever-increasing media presence. He collaborated with his wife to create the hugely popular, 13-part television series Cosmos, which was broadcast in 1980. He and his wife wrote and produced it, and he narrated it, wearing a turtleneck and a corduroy blazer. Cosmos was a wild success — since its launch it has been seen by 750 million viewers. Shortly after its release, the show's companion book, Cosmos (1980), became the best-selling science book ever published.

After Cosmos, Sagan became a major celebrity. A lot of the calls and letters he received were from crazy people informing him of planets they had discovered or aliens they had locked in their basements. But he also received death threats. Some people were angry with him for his work as a senior author of a Science magazine article on the possible atmospheric consequences of nuclear war — Sagan believed that the resulting smoke would reach the stratosphere and cool the temperature of the planet, causing a "nuclear winter." Less politically minded death threats came from UFO enthusiasts who were furious that despite Sagan's investigations of extraterrestrial life, he had concluded that there was no good evidence to show that aliens had visited Earth.

Sagan continued to publish, teach, and appear regularly on television. He died in 1996 of complications from a rare bone marrow disease.

In 2008, the National Academy of Science worried that science was becoming too removed from everyday life in America, and reached out to the entertainment industry in an attempt to popularize the subject. They set up a group to bring together top scientists and entertainers, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was introduced to Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV show Family Guy. MacFarlane was a huge Sagan fan, and when Tyson told him that he had been talking with Sagan's widow about hosting a remake of Cosmos, MacFarlane took on the project — he pitched it to Fox and became an executive producer. The series had its premiere last spring.

Carl Sagan's books include The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), Contact (1985), and The Demon-Haunted World (1995).

He said: "I think I'm able to explain things because understanding wasn't entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding."

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