Nov. 7, 2012

See High Above

by Malena Morling

      You step outside
into the early morning
            in autumn—

And at the exact same instant
      a scrap of paper
floats over—

             High in the blue
blustery library
      of the air—

You look up
             and you see it rushing
and lifting

      even higher
into the transparent layers
             of the sky—

And at once,
      you know
it is a message—

             A message
that there is no message.
      The scrap of paper

is just a scrap of paper!
             It is weightless
and free—

      The world is just
the world—
             And you are exactly

who you are—
      Also floating now
high inside

             the invisible
balloon of
      another moment.

"See High Above" by Malena Mörling, from Astoria. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the French-Polish scientist who changed our understanding of physics, Marie Curie, born Marja Sklodowska into a family of teachers in Warsaw (1867). Both her parents were nationalists at a time when Poland was under Russian rule, and her father was repeatedly fired and demoted from teaching positions over his loyalties. To help with the growing financial strain, the family took in boarders, and when Marie was just eight, her older sister caught typhus and died. Just three years later, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father continued raising the kids himself, reading the classics and teaching what science he could to them at night, and they each excelled in school.

Marie and her sister were hungry for higher learning, but women were banned from the university, so for a time, they attended a revolutionary illegal night school called "The Floating University," which constantly switched locations to avoid the Russian authorities. Determined to get a proper education, the two sisters made a pact to take turns funding each other's schooling. Marie took work for three years as a governess on a sugar beet plantation, while she funded Bronya to study medicine in Paris. She filled the lonely hours away from home trying to teach herself math and science whenever possible. When she finally got her own chance to study at the Sorbonne in France, Marie traveled fourth class with her own chair on the train, and found an apartment in the Latin Quarter. She kept warm by wearing every piece of clothing she owned and would get so engrossed in study that she often fainted for lack of food. Within a few years, she graduated top of her class in physics and math.

Looking for lab space, Marie was put in touch with a pioneering researcher named Pierre Curie. Their professional relationship soon turned romantic, and the two were married in July 1895 in a simple ceremony, bicycling across France for their honeymoon. Always economical, Marie said: "I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark, so that I can put it on afterwards and go to the laboratory." The couple settled in France, but Marie still held strong feelings for Poland. When she got her first significant paycheck for her research, she used it to repay a scholarship she had received so that another Polish girl might have the chance to study as she had.

Marie was intrigued by the recent discovery of X-rays by a German physicist. While X-rays were getting all the attention of the scientific community, a peripheral discovery of uranium rays wasn't. Marie made this the focus of her research. Her discoveries would soon shake up the very foundation of scientific understanding by revealing that atoms, which had been believed to be indivisible, could radiate even smaller particles, electrifying the air around them. Teaming up with her husband, Marie also successfully isolated the elements polonium (which she named for her native Poland) and radium. She coined the term "radioactivity" to describe the property of emitting rays and believed it held great promise in the treatment of cancer. During World War I, she established hundreds of X-ray stations throughout France, and created mobile units for ambulances to use on the front, sometimes driving them herself.

Though known for her humility, she became the most celebrated woman scientist of the 20th century. Albert Einstein said of her, "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted." She died of pernicious anemia in 1934, probably due to high levels of radioactive exposure she had received. More than a hundred years after her lab work, her journals are still too radioactive to handle, and are kept in a lead vault.

Marie Curie said: "I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is [...] also a child placed before natural phenomena that impress him like a fairy tale. [...] We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific discovery can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, [or] gearings ..."

Today is the birthday of the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (books by this author), born in Mondovi (1913). His father died early in World War I, and his mother, who was half deaf, took work as a cleaning woman to support the family. For most of his childhood, Camus and his older brother lived alongside his mother, grandmother, and a paralyzed uncle in a two-room apartment in the working-class section of Algiers.

Camus went on to university and steeped himself in the French classics, blossomed intellectually, and got involved in revolutionary politics. He worked for an Algerian newspaper as a journalist in the run-up to second World War, and was an influential editor for the left-wing French paper Combat during the German occupation. He rejected the political orthodoxy of Communism, frustrating his colleagues, and was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. During the war, he published his first novel, The Stranger (1942), which explored themes of alienation and paralleled Camus' place as an Algerian-born Frenchman, or pied-noir, often resented by both cultures. His second novel, The Plague (1947), was an attempt to transcend nihilism and the negativity of his contemporaries like Sartre, whom he admired.

Camus continued to write philosophical novels, such as 1951's The Rebel,and was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. He died just two years later in an auto accident along with his publisher — an unfinished manuscript of his scattered into a nearby ditch. It was recovered and published in 1995 as The First Man.

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada (1943). As a kid, she got a bad case of polio. In the hospital, the staff told her she couldn't go home for Christmas, and she was so upset that she started singing Christmas carols at the top of her lungs, and she decided that she was a good performer. She recovered from the polio and taught herself to play the guitar by using a Pete Seeger instruction book.

She was going to be an artist, but after a year of college, she changed her mind and headed to Toronto to try to make it as a singer. And it was on the train to Toronto that she wrote her first song. She had a slow start, performing in coffeehouses and writing songs for other people. But finally she made it as a singer, with songs like "Both Sides Now," "Carey," "Chelsea Morning," "Woodstock," and "Circle Game."

She said: "We Canadians are a bit more nosegay, more Old-Fashioned Bouquet than Americans. We're poets because we're such reminiscent kind of people. [...] My poetry is urbanized and Americanized, but my music is influenced by the prairies. When I was a kid, my mother used to take me out to the fields to teach me birdcalls. There was a lot of space behind individual sounds. People in the city are so accustomed to hearing a jumble of different sounds that when they come to making music, they fill it up with all sorts of different things."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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