“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.

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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