“Do Scientists Pray?”: A Young Girl Asks Albert Einstein in 1936. Einstein Then Responds.

einstein on god

Albert Ein­stein endeav­ored to express his view of God as forth­right­ly as pos­si­ble to a pub­lic eager to know where he stood in the pop­u­lar con­flict between sci­ence and reli­gion. In 1936, a sixth-grade girl named Phyl­lis wrote him a let­ter on behalf of her Sun­day School class. “We have brought up the ques­tion,” she wrote, “Do sci­en­tists pray? It began by ask­ing whether we could believe in both sci­ence and reli­gion.” Einstein’s reply is some­what equiv­o­cal. He is clear enough in stat­ing that a sci­en­tif­ic fideli­ty to the “laws of nature” means that “a sci­en­tist can­not be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influ­enced by prayer, that is, by a super­nat­u­ral­ly man­i­fest­ed wish.” This would seem to set­tle the ques­tion. How­ev­er, he goes on to invoke the philoso­pher Spinoza’s god and dis­tin­guish between intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty and won­der, on the one hand, and a more pop­u­lar, super­nat­ur­al faith on the oth­er.

How­ev­er, we must con­cede that our actu­al knowl­edge of these forces is imper­fect, so that in the end the belief in the exis­tence of a final, ulti­mate spir­it rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains wide­spread even with the cur­rent achieve­ments in sci­ence.

But also, every­one who is seri­ous­ly involved in the pur­suit of sci­ence becomes con­vinced that some spir­it is man­i­fest in the laws of the uni­verse, one that is vast­ly supe­ri­or to that of man. In this way the pur­suit of sci­ence leads to a reli­gious feel­ing of a spe­cial sort, which is sure­ly quite dif­fer­ent from the reli­gios­i­ty of some­one more naive.

This is prob­a­bly not the response that Phyl­lis and her class had hoped for, and they (or their teacher) may have tak­en offense at the descrip­tion of their faith as “naïve.” But Einstein’s care­ful reply also express­es a kind of sci­en­tif­ic awe that acknowl­edges the lim­its of rea­son and leads to a kind of sub­lime feel­ing that can legit­i­mate­ly be called “reli­gious” (much as Carl Sagan would do decades lat­er). This, I believe, is not a casu­al or cal­lous dis­missal of Phyllis’s faith, some­thing that so-called “New Athe­ists” are often accused of (just­ly or not). Instead it’s a con­sid­ered response in which the great physi­cist shares his own ver­sion of “faith”–his faith in Nature, or the “laws of the uni­verse,” which he con­cedes are “vast­ly supe­ri­or to man.” I think it’s a mov­ing exchange between two peo­ple who couldn’t be fur­ther apart in their under­stand­ing of the world, but who just may have found some small com­mon ground in con­sid­er­ing each other’s posi­tions for a moment.

Ein­stein’s cor­re­spon­dence comes to us via the always illu­mi­nat­ing Let­ters of Note

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Dylan Thomas Recites ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ and Other Poems

When Dylan Thomas was a lit­tle boy his father would read Shake­speare to him at bed­time. The boy loved the sound of the words, even if he was too young to under­stand the mean­ing. His father, David John Thomas, taught Eng­lish at a gram­mar school in south­ern Wales but want­ed to be a poet. He was bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed with his sta­tion in life.

Many years lat­er when the father lay on his deathbed, Dylan Thomas wrote a poem that cap­tures the pro­found sense of empa­thy he felt for the dying old man. The poem, “Do Not Go Gen­tle into That Good Night,” was writ­ten in 1951, only two years before the poet­’s own untime­ly death at the age of 39. Despite the impos­si­bil­i­ty of escap­ing death, the anguished son implores his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The poem is a beau­ti­ful exam­ple of the vil­lanelle form, which fea­tures two rhymes and two alter­nat­ing refrains in verse arranged into five ter­cets, or three-lined stan­zas, and a con­clud­ing qua­train in which the two refrains are brought togeth­er as a cou­plet at the very end. You can hear Thomas’s famous 1952 recital of the poem above. To see the poem’s struc­ture and read along as you lis­ten, click here to open the text in a new win­dow.

And to hear more of Thomas recit­ing his own works you can vis­it Harper­Au­dio, where you will find a trea­sure trove of record­ings from a num­ber of writ­ers, includ­ing these from Thomas:

  • Part 1: “No Sun Shines,” “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” “Should Lanterns Shine,” “And Death Shall Have No Domin­ion,” and the first verse of “Alter­wise by Owl Light.”
  • Part 2: “Poem in Octo­ber,” “This Side of the Truth,” Love in the Asy­lum,” and “The Hunch­back in the Park.”
  • Part 3: “Do Not Go Gen­tle into That Good Night,” “On the Mar­riage of a Vir­gin,” “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” and “Cer­e­mo­ny After a Fire Raid.”

All poems have been added to our col­lec­tion of Free Audio Books.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Antho­ny Hop­kins Reads ‘Do Not Go Gen­tle into That Good Night’

Lis­ten­ing to Famous Poets Read­ing Their Own Work

Robert Frost Recites ‘Stop­ping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

The Legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson Brought to Life in (Somewhat Creepy) Animated Image

In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Chron­i­cles, Vol­ume 1, Bob Dylan remem­bered the day, back in the ear­ly 1960s, when he first encoun­tered the music of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta blues­man Robert John­son. His mem­o­ry went some­thing like this:

I had the thick acetate of the Robert John­son record in my hands and I asked Van Ronk if he ever heard of him. Dave said, nope, he hadn’t, and I put it on the record play­er so we could lis­ten to it. From the first note the vibra­tions from the loud­speak­er made my hair stand up. The stab­bing sounds from the gui­tar could almost break a win­dow. When John­son start­ed singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I imme­di­ate­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed between him and any­one else I had ever heard.

Dylan was­n’t alone in this thought. Ask Eric Clap­ton and he’ll tell you that John­son is “the most impor­tant blues singer that ever lived.” And one Kei­th Richards summed things up rather nice­ly, say­ing, “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.” With this kind of praise, you’d think that Robert John­son had lived a long life, record­ing a long list of albums. But the oppo­site is true. John­son died in 1938,  when he was only 27 years old (which puts him, of course, in the 27 Club). And he left for pos­ter­i­ty a mere 29 tracks, all record­ed between 1936 and 1937. The details of John­son’s life are sketchy at best. And the visu­al traces of his exis­tence have almost entire­ly dis­ap­peared. In the clos­ing pages of Chron­i­cles, Bob Dylan makes ref­er­ence to a video that briefly cap­tures the image of John­son:

More than thir­ty years lat­er, I would see John­son for myself in eight sec­onds’ worth of 8‑millimeter film shot in Ruleville, Mis­sis­sip­pi, on a bright­ly lit after­noon street by some Ger­mans in the late ’30s. Some peo­ple ques­tioned whether it was real­ly him, but slow­ing the eight sec­onds down so it was more like eighty sec­onds, you can see that it real­ly is Robert John­son, has to be—couldn’t be any­one else.

It’s a tan­ta­liz­ing prospect. But, when pro­fes­sion­als took a close look at the video, they fig­ured out it was a fake (see below). So we’re left with this — two pho­tographs of the musi­cian. Two sim­ple pho­tos, which now thanks to West­side Media, have been manip­u­lat­ed to bring John­son back to life, at least long enough to sing two songs: “Hell Hound on My Trail” and “Preach­ing Blues.” Watch above.

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The Dead Authors Podcast: H.G. Wells Comically Revives Literary Greats with His Time Machine

Record­ed live in front of an audi­ence at the Upright Cit­i­zens Brigade The­atre in Los Ange­les, The Dead Authors Pod­cast—“Unscript­ed, bare­ly researched, all fun!”—showcases rau­cous con­ver­sa­tions between “time-trav­el­er” H.G. Wells (Paul F. Tomp­kins) and var­i­ous “dead authors.” Some of Wells’ guests have includ­ed Aesop, Dorothy Park­er, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sagan, and Jorge Luis Borges, all played by come­di­ans like Andy Richter (as Emi­ly Dick­in­son) and Bri­an Stack (as P.G. Wode­house).

In the episode above, Wells wel­comes the noto­ri­ous­ly misog­y­nis­tic and alleged­ly anti-Semit­ic Friedrich Niet­zsche (James Ado­mi­an) and the noto­ri­ous­ly racist writer of “weird tales” H.P. Love­craft (Paul Scheer). As the pod­cast descrip­tion has it, “if you are eas­i­ly offend­ed, you may find this one a bit chal­leng­ing.” The offense is mit­i­gat­ed by the fact that the dis­cus­sion “very rarely makes any sense AT ALL,” and that it’s damned fun­ny.

Both “authors” spout exag­ger­at­ed par­o­dies of their philoso­phies, in ridicu­lous accents, and (as you can see from the pho­to above), look equal­ly ridicu­lous to an audi­ence that some­times laughs along, some­times doesn’t, as will hap­pen in live com­e­dy. The actors are game, ad-lib­bing with ease and con­fi­dence and clear­ly hav­ing a great time. The only moments that aren’t impro­vised are when the actors play­ing Niet­zsche and Love­craft read from the writ­ers’ actu­al texts. In this con­text (and in these voic­es), the two both indeed make lit­tle sense. They’ll sur­vive the takedown—these are two dead authors who tend to be tak­en far too seri­ous­ly by their devo­tees. So, go ahead, lis­ten to Niet­zsche huff and puff his way through his bom­bas­tic and orac­u­lar pro­nounce­ments; hear Love­craft hiss through his florid and para­noid prose. It’s all for a good cause. The Dead Authors pod­cast ben­e­fits 826LA, a non-prof­it writ­ing and tutor­ing cen­ter for kids age 6–18.

You can find real works by Niet­zsche and Love­craft in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Pink Floyd Provides the Soundtrack for the BBC’s Broadcast of the 1969 Moon Landing

Did the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca lose much of its will to explore out­er space when the Sovi­et Union’s col­lapse shut off the engine of com­pe­ti­tion? Crit­i­cal observers some­times make that point, but I have an alter­na­tive the­o­ry: maybe the decline of pro­gres­sive rock had just as much to do with it. Both that musi­cal sub­genre and Amer­i­can space explo­ration proud­ly pos­sessed their dis­tinc­tive aes­thet­ics, the poten­tial for great cul­tur­al impact, and ambi­tion bor­der­ing on the ridicu­lous. Though we did­n’t have mash-ups in the years when shut­tle launch­es and four-side con­cept albums alike cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, we can now use mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy to dou­ble back and direct­ly unite these two late-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry phe­nom­e­na. Behold, above, Pink Floy­d’s jam “Moon­head” lined up with footage of Apol­lo 17, NASA’s last moon land­ing.

But giv­en the recent pass­ing of astro­naut Neil Arm­strong, none of us have been think­ing as much about the last moon land­ing as we have about the first. Pink Floyd actu­al­ly laid down “Moon­head” at a BBC TV stu­dio dur­ing the descent of Apol­lo 11, the mis­sion on which Arm­strong would take that one giant leap for mankind. The band’s impro­vi­sa­tion made it to the ears of Eng­land’s moon-land­ing view­ers: “The pro­gram­ming was a lit­tle loos­er in those days,” remem­bers gui­tarist David Gilmour, “and if a pro­duc­er of a late-night pro­gramme felt like it, they would do some­thing a bit off the wall.” British rock­’s fas­ci­na­tion with space proved fruit­ful. David Bowie put out the immor­tal “Space Odd­i­ty” mere days before Apol­lo 11’s land­ing (to say noth­ing of “Life on Mars?” two years lat­er), and the BBC played it, too, in its live cov­er­age. Even as late as the ear­ly eight­ies, no less a rock inno­va­tor than Bri­an Eno, charmed by Amer­i­can astro­nauts’ enthu­si­asm for coun­try-west­ern music, would craft the album Apol­lo: Atmos­pheres and Sound­tracks. If we want more inter­est­ing pop­u­lar music, per­haps we just need to get into space more often.

via NYTimes and Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed con­tent:

Remem­ber­ing Neil Arm­strong, the First Man on the Moon, with His­toric Footage and a BBC Bio Film

Mankind’s First Steps on the Moon: The Ultra High Res Pho­tos

Dark Side of the Moon: A Mock­u­men­tary on Stan­ley Kubrick and the Moon Land­ing Hoax

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

The Crimson Permanent Assurance: Monty Python’s Comic Fantasy of Revolt Against the Corporations

In art, cer­tain themes are ever­green. They nev­er go out of date. Among them are love, death, and the intrin­si­cal­ly dehu­man­iz­ing nature of cor­po­ra­tions.

In 1983 Mon­ty Python tapped into one of the Great Themes with their short film The Crim­son Per­ma­nent Assur­ance. It tells the sto­ry of a group of elder­ly accoun­tants, “strained under the oppres­sive yoke of their new cor­po­rate man­age­ment,” who rise up against The Very Big Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca and set sail on the high seas of inter­na­tion­al finance as a maraud­ing band of pirates.

The film was orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived by direc­tor Ter­ry Gilliam as an ani­mat­ed sequence for inclu­sion in Mon­ty Python’s The Mean­ing of Life, but as the idea grew he talked the group into let­ting him devel­op it into a live-action film. The Crim­son Per­ma­nent Assur­ance was even­tu­al­ly shown both on its own and as a pro­logue to The Mean­ing of Life. The title was inspired by the 1952 Burt Lan­cast­er adven­ture film The Crim­son Pirate. The cast is made up most­ly of unknown actors, but if you watch close­ly you’ll catch a glimpse of most of the Python mem­bers. Gilliam and Michael Palin have cameo roles as win­dow wash­ers, and Eric Idle, Ter­ry Jones and Gra­ham Chap­man appear very briefly at the begin­ning of the board­room scene.

The Crim­son Per­ma­nent Assur­ance is a delight­ful lit­tle film–and just as rel­e­vant now as ever, a reminder of the utter absur­di­ty of the claim that “cor­po­ra­tions are peo­ple too.”

You will find The Crim­son Per­ma­nent Assur­ance added to our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ter­ry Gilliam: The Dif­fer­ence Between Kubrick (Great Film­mak­er) and Spiel­berg (Less So)

The Best Ani­mat­ed Films of All Time, Accord­ing to Ter­ry Gilliam

Ter­ry Gilliam (Mon­ty Python) Shows You How to Make Your Own Cutout Ani­ma­tion

Take a Virtual Tour of CBGB, the Early Home of Punk and New Wave

Yes­ter­day we post­ed about the Talk­ing Heads’ days play­ing at CBGB, the Low­er East Side night­club rock his­to­ri­ans now dis­cuss in hushed, rev­er­ent tones. (Full name: CBGB OMFUG, or “Coun­try, Blue­grass, Blues, and Oth­er Music for Uplift­ing Gor­man­diz­ers.”) Though the place final­ly closed its doors in a rent dis­pute six years ago, you can still vis­it it on the inter­net through this vir­tu­al tour. You’ll have to guide your­self, but much of the fun comes in the free­dom to explore. Begin­ning your jour­ney in the wom­en’s restroom, you can then pro­ceed how­ev­er you like, click­ing from room to room and exam­in­ing the leg­en­dar­i­ly grit­ty sur­round­ings in all 360 degrees. If you once played or fre­quent­ed CBGB, the expe­ri­ence may well take you back, albeit with much brighter light­ing than you remem­ber. Or if, like me, you once played a lot of graph­ic adven­ture games on the com­put­er, the tour’s inter­face will cer­tain­ly take you back to that as well.

Purists will have objec­tions to a vir­tu­al tour of a place of such raw phys­i­cal­i­ty as CBGB: you can’t feel the stick­i­ness of the floors, you can’t smell the mix­ture of aggres­sive odors, you can’t trip over that one irreg­u­lar step on the stairs, and you espe­cial­ly can’t hear the awe-inspir­ing ampli­fi­ca­tion sys­tem. But you can look close and long at the club’s cul­tur­al palimpsest of stick­ers, graf­fi­ti, fliers, and hard-knocked cement. Con­ver­sa­tions sprout­ed up on MetaFil­ter both when CBGB closed and when this vir­tu­al tour debuted: some com­menters loved the place, while oth­ers could­n’t bear it; some com­menters regret­ted its pass­ing, while oth­ers thought it had long since become a shad­ow of itself. Some seemed to feel all of this at once. As one MeFite said, “Those bath­rooms are just as dis­gust­ing as I remem­ber them being. I miss the hell out of that place.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Talk­ing Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club that Shaped Their Sound (1975)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Creative Writing “Master Class”


Image by Angela Rad­ules­cu, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If you’re any­thing like me, you yearn to become a good writer, a bet­ter writer, an inspir­ing writer, even, by learn­ing from the writ­ers you admire. But you nei­ther have the time nor the mon­ey for an MFA pro­gram or expen­sive retreats and work­shops with famous names. So you read W.H. Auden’s essays and Paris Review inter­views with your favorite authors (or at least PR’s Twit­ter feed); you obses­sive­ly trawl the archives of The New York Times’ “Writ­ers on Writ­ing” series, and you rel­ish every Youtube clip, no mat­ter how lo-fi or trun­cat­ed, of your lit­er­ary heroes, speak­ing from beyond the grave, or from behind a podi­um at the 92nd Street Y.

Well, friend, you are in luck (okay, I’m still talk­ing about me here, but maybe about you, too). The Wash­ing­ton, DC-based non-prof­it Acad­e­my of Achieve­ment—whose mis­sion is to “bring stu­dents face-to-face” with lead­ers in the arts, busi­ness, pol­i­tics, sci­ence, and sports—has archived a series of talks from an incred­i­bly diverse pool of poets and writ­ers. They call this col­lec­tion “Cre­ative Writ­ing: A Mas­ter Class,” and you can sub­scribe to it right now on iTunes and begin down­load­ing free video and audio pod­casts from Nora Ephron, John Updike, Toni Mor­ri­son, Car­los Fuentes, Nor­man Mail­er, Wal­lace Steg­n­er, and, well, you know how the list goes.

The Acad­e­my of Achievement’s web­site also fea­tures lengthy profiles–with text and down­load­able audio and video–of sev­er­al of the same writ­ers from their “Mas­ter Class” series. For exam­ple, an inter­view with for­mer U.S. poet-lau­re­ate Rita Dove is illu­mi­nat­ing, both for writ­ers and for teach­ers of writ­ing. Dove talks about the aver­sion that many peo­ple have for poet­ry as a kind of fear incul­cat­ed by clum­sy teach­ers. She explains:

At some point in their life, they’ve been giv­en a poem to inter­pret and told, “That was the wrong answer.” You know. I think we’ve all gone through that. I went through that. And it’s unfor­tu­nate that some­times in schools — this need to have things quan­ti­fied and grad­ed — we end up doing this kind of mul­ti­ple choice approach to some­thing that should be as ambigu­ous and ever-chang­ing as life itself. So I try to ask them, “Have you ever heard a good joke?” If you’ve ever heard some­one tell a joke just right, with the right pac­ing, then you’re already on the way to the poet­ry. Because it’s real­ly about using words in very pre­cise ways and also using ges­ture as it goes through lan­guage, not the ges­ture of your hands, but how lan­guage cre­ates a mood. And you know, who can resist a good joke? When they get that far, then they can real­ize that poet­ry can also be fun.

Dove’s thoughts on her own life, her work, and the craft of poet­ry and teach­ing are well worth reading/watching in full. Anoth­er par­tic­u­lar­ly notable inter­view from the Acad­e­my is with anoth­er for­mer lau­re­ate, poet W.S. Mer­win.

Mer­win, a two-time Pulitzer Prize win­ner, dis­cuss­es poet­ry as orig­i­nat­ing with lan­guage, and its loss as tan­ta­mount to extinc­tion:

When we talk about the extinc­tion of species, I think the endan­gered species of the arts and of lan­guage and all these things are relat­ed. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. I think poet­ry goes back to the inven­tion of lan­guage itself. I think one of the big dif­fer­ences between poet­ry and prose is that prose is about some­thing, it’s got a sub­ject… poet­ry is about what can’t be said. Why do peo­ple turn to poet­ry when all of a sud­den the Twin Tow­ers get hit, or when their mar­riage breaks up, or when the per­son they love most in the world drops dead in the same room? Because they can’t say it. They can’t say it at all, and they want some­thing that address­es what can’t be said.

If you’re any­thing like me, you find these two per­spec­tives on poetry—as akin to jokes, as say­ing the unsayable—fascinating. These kinds of obser­va­tions (not mechan­i­cal how-to’s, but orig­i­nal thoughts on the process and prac­tice of writ­ing itself) are the rea­son I pore over  inter­views and sem­i­nars with writ­ers I admire. I found more than enough in this archive to keep me sat­is­fied for months.

We’ve added “Cre­ative Writ­ing: A Mas­ter Class” to our ever-grow­ing col­lec­tion of Free Online Cours­es.

Image via Angela Rad­ules­cu

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor Explains the Lim­it­ed Val­ue of MFA Pro­grams: “Com­pe­tence By Itself Is Dead­ly”

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

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