Monday Jan. 4, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Why There Are No More Miracles

God would perform miracles in the old days,
Father said, but nowadays if he set a bush
on fire, like he did for Moses, the fire department
would rush to put it out. The newspapers
would send out photographers. There’d be
an investigation. A reward would be given
to help find the arsonist. Some innocent person
would get blamed. God has enough people
believing in him. Why does He need
all that commotion for the sake of a few more?

“Why There Are No More Miracles” by Hal Sirowitz from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1943). She is best known for her biographies of U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize (1995) for her book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994).

Her paternal grandparents were Irish immigrants. Her mother loved to read and her father loved sports. She grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and used to listen to the games on the radio so she could recount them for her father when he got home from work. Goodwin likes to say this was her first experience as a historian.

During high school and college, she went every summer to Washington, D.C., to intern in government. One summer she worked in the House of Representatives; the next, in the State Department. By 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson tapped her to be a White House Fellow, with an assignment in the Oval Office. Shortly before she was to arrive in Washington, an article she’d written for The New Republic, in which she criticized Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War and outlined a plan for his removal as president, was published. Goodwin said, “I thought for sure he’d kick me out of the program, but instead he said, ‘Oh, bring her down here for a year and if I can’t work with her, no one can.’” Johnson used to fly his staffers down to his ranch in Texas, where he’d installed a special pool so they could get work done. Goodwin said, “At every moment when you’re trying to swim in it, floating rafts came by with floating telephones on top of them, other floating rafts with floating desks and notepads.”

She grew close to Johnson, and he asked her to assist him in writing his memoirs. The result was her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1977). It was a best-seller. She went on to write several more biographies of U.S. presidents, including Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which director Steven Spielberg used as the basis for his film Lincoln (2012). Goodwin said, “I was thinking I wouldn’t take on Lincoln until I was 70 or so, because it seems like the Moby-Dick of historians, but the Civil War is so fabulously interesting, and so is he.” Though it was difficult writing about an historical figure she could not interview, Goodwin said, "But the great thing about the 19th century is that all these people kept diaries, they wrote letters.  Somehow, they're running the Civil War during the day and they go home and write five-page letters to their wives and their children, or write these voluminous diaries.  And that gives you a more intimate sense."

When asked why she continues to write presidential biographies, Goodwin answered: “It is not a question of coming at it from the start as if I’m out to get them, or out to praise them. I just want them to come alive again. That’s all you can really ask of history. Then the reader can feel, with all of the complexity of emotions, what it is that is happening to them.”

On this day in 1999, 11 European countries agreed to one common currency, known as the “euro.” It was the first time since Charlemagne’s reign in the ninth century that European countries shared a common currency. The “euro” was introduced first as a financial unit in corporate and investment markets and went into general circulation three years later (2002).

The euro replaced the Austrian schilling, the Belgian and French francs, the Finnish markka, the German mark, the Italian lira, the Irish punt, the guilder from the Netherlands, Spain’s peseta, and Portugal’s escudo. The Vatican City also adopted the euro. It was hoped that in addition to helping the economy, having a common currency would make it easier for people to travel among countries without having to exchange money or use a currency converter.

Great Britain, Sweden, and Denmark opted not to use the euro. Some countries were afraid its use would encourage counterfeiting and perhaps lead to inflation.

The banknotes were designed by an Austrian, the coins by a Belgian, and the euro symbol was created by a German. Euro cash was decorated with architectural images and symbols of European unity and member-states. When it went into general circulation on January 1, 2002, euro currency consisted of eight types of coins and seven types of paper bills.

Today is the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton (1643) (books by this author), born in Woolsthorpe, England. He was born very prematurely, and it was said that he could fit into a quart pot. His father had died three months before Newton was born, and the plan was for the boy to take over the running of the family farm when he grew up. Contrary to plan, he made a terrible farmer, but he was fascinated by science; his uncle suggested that he be sent to the university instead. Newton paid his own way through the first three years at Cambridge by cleaning the rooms of faculty and rich students; in his fourth year, he was given a four-year scholarship. Unfortunately, Cambridge was shut down the following year, in 1665, due to an outbreak of the plague. Newton went home and studied mathematics and physics on his own, and it was during this time that he first developed his theories of gravity and optics. He didn’t publish anything at the time, and returned to Cambridge in 1667, intending to study alchemy, which was a sort of blending of magic and chemistry. By the next year, he held the Lucasian Chair in mathematics, and eventually produced work advancing every field of that discipline.

Newton’s first published scientific achievement was the invention of a reflecting telescope. He even designed and made his own tools for building it. He was elected to membership in the Royal Society as a result of this breakthrough. He was also interested in religion, especially after 1670, and in his lifetime he actually wrote more about religion and occultism than he did about science. He spent a great deal of time studying ancient theology and Hebrew scholars, and eventually began to feel that the Christian church had strayed too far from its roots. He kept his dissent as private as possible, but the faculty of Trinity College at Cambridge were all required to take holy orders, and Newton felt compelled to refuse on principle. Rather than lose him, King Charles II excused him — and any future Lucasian Chair — from the holy order requirement (the position is currently held by Michael Cates).

In 1686, Newton published his Principia, which overturned nearly everything humankind had believed about the universe up to that point. In the book, Newton proved that the celestial bodies were governed by the same laws of physics as objects on Earth. He incorporated Kepler’s laws of planetary motion into his own theories about gravity, and established the three laws of motion. The First Law states that objects at rest tend to remain at rest, and objects in motion tend to remain in motion, unless they are acted upon by an external force; the Second Law states that an applied force on an object equals the rate of change of its momentum with time; and the Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It's the birthday of Jacob Grimm (books by this author), the elder of the Brothers Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1785). He and his brother volunteered to help some friends gather oral folktales for a research project. The Grimms did such a great job that one of their friends suggested that they publish the stories in book form. They did, and the stories filled several volumes, called Children’s and Household Tales (1812–22). The collection was later renamed Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and it included many stories whose names are familiar to us today: “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Rapunzel,” to name a few. The stories have been significantly toned down over the years, and most modern readers would be shocked at how violent and scary the original Grimm versions were.

Jacob Grimm went on to study language. He published a book of German grammar and also developed a theory — called “Grimm's Law” — of how different languages are related to each other. He became a librarian, and was working on a dictionary when he died in 1863.

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