Oct. 24, 2011


by Charles Simic

A woodpecker hammers
On the gutter of a nursing home
Where the war cripple sits
In a wheelchair by the gate.

The windows are wide open,
But no one ever speaks here,
Neither about the crazy bird,
Nor about that other war.

"Brethren" by Charles Simic, from My Noiseless Entourage: Poems. © Harcourt, Inc, 2005 Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Dutch naturalist and microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (books by this author) was born in Delft, The Netherlands on this day in 1632. Leeuwenhoek is sometimes credited as the inventor of the microscope; he is not, the microscope having been invented some 40 years before his birth. But most early microscopes were not capable of very great magnification, and it is Leeuwenhoek's advancements with the tools and subsequent discoveries for which we remember him.

Leeuwenhoek's father was a basket maker and his mother came from a family of brewers. Leeuwenhoek had no fortune, received no higher education, and could speak no language other than his native Low Dutch. He himself set up in business as a draper in his early 20s, and that's how he encountered his first simple microscope, a magnifying glass used by textile merchants to check thread counts. He read a newly published work on the science of magnification, Robert Hooke's Micrographia. Leeuwenhoek had at some time learned to grind his own lenses, and he seems to have been inspired to take up the microscope after reading Hooke's popular book.

Leeuwenhoek began producing lenses of remarkable quality that could magnify up to 200 times what could be seen with the naked eye. He would fit these tiny lenses between two copper, brass, or silver plates, the whole apparatus only one inch by three inches with a sharp point attached to one side to hold a sample. An entire microscope could be gripped between the eyebrow and cheek like a jeweler's loupe. And with some very good lighting and a great deal of patience, Leeuwenhoek began to see things that no other human had ever yet seen.

Leeuwenhoek was remarkable for the technology he created, but what further distinguished him was his boundless curiosity, and he would scrutinize anything he could place under his lens: fossils, smears from the edge of his razor, excrement, plaque and spittle, the flesh of whales, stuff from inside eyelids, tobacco ashes, chemical solutions, diamonds, insect eyes, pond water, phlegm, and blood. He was the first person to stain samples, using saffron to color muscle tissue to bring out its fine detail.

In 1673, Leeuwenhoek began writing letters about his discoveries to the newly formed Royal Society of London, a group dedicated to scientific research and discussion, describing the curious things he'd so far observed. He showed them how with careful calculation he'd been able to estimate sizes and volumes of incredibly small structures, estimating that the fine hairs that propel some single-celled creatures are thousands of times smaller than a human hair, and that literally millions of microbes could fit within a single grain of sand.

The Royal Society was skeptical. How could such tiny living organisms as these supposed animalcules exist? A delegation was sent to Delft to investigate Leeuwenhoek's seemingly outrageous claims, but when they sent back a rave report and news broke of what the Dutch draper was able to show them, even the future Queen Anne of England and Tsar Peter I of Russia sought him out for a demonstration of these new marvels.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek never wrote a proper scientific paper or book, but communicated all his discoveries in his rambling letters, which were full of random observations but are so clear in their descriptions that it is possible to easily identify many of the organisms from their verbal descriptions alone. Leeuwenhoek told of an incredible number of discoveries, including the wheel-shaped rotifers, spermatozoa, green algae, blood cells, and circulation in capillaries, microscopic worms and parasites, and bacteria. In 1680, he was elected a full member of the Royal Society, and although he never made the trip to London to sign the official register, many others traveled to Delft to be enlightened and amazed.

Leeuwenhoek's enthusiasm for study never waned, and as he explained in a 1716 letter near the end of his life, "my work, which I've done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge."

It's the birthday of the novelist Norman Rush (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1933). He spent 15 years working as a book dealer and trying to write on the side, and then he switched careers and took a job with the Peace Corps in Botswana.

Rush knew he wanted to write about his experiences, but he was too busy, so he just took notes whenever he got the chance. He came back to the United States with three cartons worth of notes and immediately began writing a series of short stories that became his first book, called Whites (1986), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Rush was 53 years old. A few years later, he came out with his first novel Mating (1991), about an American woman who goes to Botswana to finish her PhD in nutritional anthropology and falls into a relationship with a man trying to create a utopian community in the Kalahari Desert. It went on to win a National Book Award. His third and most recent book is Mortals, which came out in 2003. He is at work on a new novel, tentatively titled Subtle Bodies.

Norman Rush wrote, "The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading."

It's the birthday of the poet Denise Levertov (books by this author), born in Ilford, England (1923). She knew from the time she was a kid that she wanted to be a writer. And she said, "When I was 12 I had the temerity to send some poems to T.S. Eliot, even though I had not shown most of them even to my sister, and certainly to no one else. Months later, when I had forgotten all about this impulsive act, a two- or even three-page typewritten letter from him arrived, full of excellent advice. (Alas, the letter, treasured for many years, vanished in some move from one apartment to another in the 1950s; I've never ceased to hope it may one day resurface)."

When she was 17, she had her first poem published in Poetry Quarterly. She worked as a civilian nurse during World War II in London, and in 1946 published her first book, The Double Image. Then she moved to America, and became very involved in American political causes as well as American schools of poetry. By the 1960s she was helping to found the Writers' and Artists' Protest Against the War in Vietnam, and publishing regularly, books like With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), O Taste and See (1964) and The Sorrow Dance (1967), and she was considered a thoroughly American poet, and an important one at that. She published more than 30 books, mostly poetry, but also essays and translations. And she remained prolific until the end of her life—in 1997, the year she died, she published two books of poetry: The Life Around Us, a collection of nature poems written over the course of her career; and The Stream and The Sapphire, a selection of poems with religious themes.

She said, "If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the typewriter, you've already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that's eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn't take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It's a different kind of thing. They don't realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process."

On this day in 1929, the U.S. Stock Market crashed. The day became known as "Black Thursday." Around 13 million stocks were sold off in one day. By the next Tuesday, the market had lost almost 26 billion dollars of value. Banks failed, individual investors lost their savings, and the Great Depression began in America.

It was on this date in 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, which established the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. It was the first effort by the federal government to regulate wages and hours for workers. The first minimum wage was 25 cents per hour, and was set to be increased to 40 cents within seven years.

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