Aug. 30, 2014


by W. S. Merwin

This hour along the valley this light at the end
       of summer lengthening as it begins to go
this whisper in the tawny grass this feather floating
       in the air this house of half a life or so
this blue door open to the lingering sun this stillness
       echoing from the rooms like an unfinished sound
this fraying of voices at the edge of the village
       beyond the dusty gardens this breath of knowing
without knowing anything this old branch from which
       years and faces go on falling this presence already
far away this restless alien in the cherished place
       this motion with no measure this moment peopled
with absences with everything that I remember here
       eyes the wheeze of the gate greetings birdsongs in winter
the heart dividing dividing and everything
       that has slipped my mind as I consider the shadow
all this has occurred to somebody else who has gone
       as I am told and indeed it has happened again
and again and I go on trying to understand
       how that could ever be and all I know of them
is what they felt in the light here in this late summer

"Season" by W.S. Merwin, from The Vixen. © Knopf, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of British physicist Ernest Rutherford (books by this author), born in Brightwater, New Zealand (1871). His parents moved to New Zealand, they said, "to raise a little flax and a lot of children," and he grew up on the family farm with his 11 brothers and sisters. They were poor, and Rutherford later said that his motto was: "We haven't the money, so we've got to think." When he was 10 years old he was given a science book, and he was so excited that he immediately began setting up scientific experiments. His first experiment was building a miniature cannon, which immediately exploded. Undeterred, he kept up his fascination with science throughout his schooling, and by the age of 23 he had three degrees from the University of New Zealand.

He headed to Cambridge University to work as a graduate research assistant — the first time someone without a degree from Cambridge had won that honor. He invented a detector for electromagnetic waves, and he described the terms "alpha" and "beta" for positively and negatively charged radiation. He discovered the concept of radioactive half-life, and that atoms of one radioactive element could spontaneously turn into another. He is probably best known for developing a model of the atom, after discovering that most of the mass of an atom is concentrated in its tiny nucleus.

Rutherford won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908. Although honored to win the Nobel, he was irritated that he had won it in chemistry, which he considered inferior to physics.

He said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting."

It's the birthday of Mary Shelley (books by this author), born Mary Godwin in London (1797). Her mother — feminist advocate Mary Wollstonecraft — died of complications after giving birth to young Mary. Her father, philosopher and author William Godwin, raised her. She grew up surrounded by literary luminaries of her day, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, and she loved to write stories. When she was 16, she fell in love with one of her father's students, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who happened to be married. The lovers ran off to Europe, where they conceived a daughter who died shortly after she was born. In the summer of 1816, they spent some time in Switzerland with Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Jane Clairmont. Byron and Percy Shelley spent long hours debating philosophical topics like the nature of life, and whether it might be possible to reanimate the dead. Mary Godwin became obsessed with the question, to the point that it disturbed her sleep. She later wrote, "I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together; I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out; and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion." That gave rise to her most famous novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Frankenstein's fifth chapter begins: "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. ... It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

It's the birthday of journalist John Gunther (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1901). He said, "[The United States] is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea."

It's the birthday of Warren Buffet, born in Omaha, Nebraska (1930). In February 2008, he was ranked by Forbes as the richest person in the world, worth about $62 billion. Despite his massive wealth, he lives relatively frugally, still resides in the home he bought in 1958 for $31,500, and drives his own car.

In 2006, he announced his plans to give 83 percent of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On this date in 1904, Henry James (books by this author) returned to the United States after 20 years abroad. His family had spent much time in Europe during the boy's formative years, so that he and his brother, William — who would later become a pioneer in the field of psychology — could study the culture. Later, after James finished his Harvard education and was established as a writer of reviews and essays, he returned to England. He settled in Sussex in his later years, but came back to America for an extended visit after he finished his novel The Golden Bowl (1904). James, now 60, was somewhat distressed to find that the land of his birth had changed in his absence, and had become an international political and industrial power. He was upset by what he viewed as social decay and rampant materialism. He wrote about his impressions in The American Scene (1907), which became his most controversial travel book. Eventually, James returned to England for good, where he became a British subject just a year before his death.

It's the birthday of political humorist Molly Ivins (books by this author), born in Monterey, California (1944). She said, "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion."

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