Jan. 22, 2014
It Is Enough
To know that the atoms
of my body
to think of them rising
through the roots of a great oak
to live in
leaves, branches, twigs
perhaps to feed the
the blue iris
or rest on water
freeze and thaw
with the seasons
some atoms might become a
bit of fluff on the wing
of a chickadee
to feel the breeze
know the support of air
and some might drift
up and up into space
star dust returning from
whence it came
it is enough to know that
as long as there is a universe
I am a part of it.
It was on this day in 1938 that Thornton Wilder's play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Our Town is about the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. In the first act, Emily Webb and George Gibbs are children together; in the second act, they marry; in the third, Emily has died in childbirth and is looking back from beyond the grave with other dead citizens of Grover's Corners, and she decides to revisit the happiest day of her life, her 12th birthday.
Wilder had trouble writing the third act, but when he finally found inspiration, it came fast. He was in Zurich, entertaining a friend (and probably lover) named Samuel Steward. Steward wrote later: "He insisted we stay up until dawn to hear the bells of Zurich as Max Beerbohm has described them. That was in my drinking days and I kept going into every café we passed. My feet were getting wet and so was I, and I kept hollering for an umbrella. When daylight came I went home to dry out and fell into bed and slept all day, but Thornton went to his hotel and wrote the last act of Our Town, which begins with the graveyard scene with the umbrellas. He confessed later that he had 'struck a match on me,' and that the graveyard umbrella scene came from my complaining about my walk in the wet."
Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies. So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover's Corners, who commented much like a Greek chorus.
From Princeton, the play moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members — including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts — walked out. But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Woollcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York. It did much better there, although some people found it inspiring and others depressing. But Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that, on average, Our Town is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.
Today is the birthday of Sir Francis Bacon (1561) (books by this author). He was born in London, and he was, among other things, a philosopher, a statesman, an essayist, and a champion of modern science. He was born into a family with connections at court, but he criticized Queen Elizabeth's tax levy and fell out of favor. When Elizabeth was succeeded by James I, Bacon's career got back on track, and in 1618, he was named the Lord Chancellor. His glory was short-lived; he was convicted of accepting bribes in 1621, and banned from political office for the rest of his life.
He spent much of his intellectual life challenging Aristotle's view that knowledge should begin with universal truths. He said, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." In Novum Organum (1620), Bacon wrote that scholars should build their knowledge of the world from specific, observable details. His theory is now known as the scientific method, and is the basis of all experimental science.
It's the birthday of the man who founded the science of electrodynamics: André-Marie Ampère, born in Lyon, France (1775). Ampère didn't have much in the way of formal schooling, but he was given free rein of his father's large collection of books. Some say that Ampère was a math genius from the time he was young, working out complex mathematical formulas with crumbs of bread. When he was 13, he wrote and submitted his first mathematical paper, but it was turned down because he didn't understand the principles of calculus. He immediately arranged to study calculus with a local monk. He loved it, and wrote that he was "animated with a new ardor."
These were the years of the French Revolution, and when Ampère was 17, his father was arrested and guillotined. Ampère was so upset that for a couple of years he gave up studying mathematics. He came out of his depression when he fell in love with a woman named Julie. He wrote about a walk with Julie and two companions: "I sat on the grass beside her and ate some cherries that had been at her lips. All four of us were in the large garden when she accepted a lily from my hand. We then went to see the stream; I gave her my hand to jump over the little wall and both hands to climb up again. [...] I sat again beside her as we four observed the sunset which gilded her clothes with a charming light."
Ampère was not the most dazzling suitor; he wore unfashionable clothes, he was socially awkward, and his teeth were crooked. But he continued to woo Julie with constant attention and love poems. They were married in 1799 and soon had a son. Ampère was offered a job teaching mathematics at a school in a town 40 miles away, but just before he moved, Julie became sick, and he had to leave his wife and son behind in Lyon. He was able to move back after a year, but Julie died soon after, and he was once again miserable. He moved to Paris, but he didn't fit in there and he missed his friends in Lyon. Feeling desperate, he quickly remarried, to a woman who married him for his money and stopped speaking to him after a few months; this marriage ended, leaving Ampère with custody of a newborn daughter.
Despite his rocky personal life, Ampère continued to make major contributions to mathematics, chemistry, and physics. He produced work on partial differential equations, discovered the chemical element fluorine, and wrote about the wave theory of light. In September of 1820, he attended a lecture about the findings of a Danish physicist, who had accidentally discovered that a magnetic needle was deflected when it was placed next to an electric current. Ampère was fascinated, and less than two years later, Ampère gave a speech on his theory of electromagnetism. He devoted the rest of his career to the subject. One of his great strengths was that he had the mathematical knowledge for the theoretical side as well as the scientific knowledge for the experimental side. His most important discovery, named Ampère's Law, was a mathematical formula that could determine the relationship between the magnetism operating around a closed loop and the electrical current passing through that same loop.
In his final years, Ampère continued to teach, and he published his Memoir on the Mathematical Theory of Electrodynamic Phenomena, Uniquely Deduced from Experience (1827). It was in this work that he coined the word electrodynamics. His personal problems continued — he lived with his son, but the men were too similar, both with the tendency to suffer in silence and then explode into anger. This arrangement worsened when his daughter moved in with her abusive, alcoholic husband, a lieutenant in Napoleon's army who frequently got drunk and terrorized the family with his extensive collection of weapons.
Ampère died at the age of 61. His is one of 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower, under the first balcony. The ampere — the unit of measurement for electrical current — is named after him.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®