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Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

“Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.

But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding reality on its own terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.

We went on making equations and theories and bombs in an attempt to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads in the course of their lifetime a handful of books they wish they had written. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a promontory of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.

Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Peculiar and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a tree house ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that had never been ceded by its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh.”

Art from The Tree House by Dutch father-daughter duo Ronald Tolman and Marije Tolman, 2009

In this tree house he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — winters when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the nextcrown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean all the way up from the tree. There, he learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts:

There are four epochs, so far, in the entangled destinies of nature, human beings, and machines. In the first, preindustrial epoch, technology was limited to the tools and structures that humans could create with their own hands. Nature remained in control.

In the second, industrial epoch, machines were introduced, starting with simple machine tools, that could reproduce other machines. Nature began falling under mechanical control.

In the third epoch, digital codes, starting with punched cards and paper tape, began making copies of themselves. Powers of self-replication and self-reproduction that had so far been the preserve of biology were taken up by machines. Nature seemed to be relinquishing control. Late in this third epoch, the proliferation of networked devices, populated by metazoan codes, took a different turn.

In the fourth epoch, so gradually that almost no one noticed, machines began taking the side of nature, and nature began taking the side of machines. Humans were still in the loop but no longer in control. Faced with a growing sense of this loss of agency, people began to blame “the algorithm,” or those who controlled “the algorithm,” failing to realize there no longer was any identifiable algorithm at the helm. The day of the algorithm was over. The future belonged to something else.

A belief that artificial intelligence can be programmed to do our bidding may turn out to be as unfounded as a belief that certain people could speak to God, or that certain other people were born as slaves. The fourth epoch is returning us to the spirit-laden landscape of the first: a world where humans coexist with technologies they no longer control or fully understand. This is where the human mind took form. We grew up, as a species, surrounded by mind and intelligence everywhere we looked. Since the dawn of technology, we were on speaking terms with our tools. Intelligence in the cloud is nothing new. To adjust to life in the fourth epoch, it helps to look back to the first.

Born in the third epoch but identifying with the ways of the first, Dyson finds himself challenged “to reconcile the distinction, enforced by the American educational system, between those who make a living with their minds and those who make a living with their hands.” The challenge feels personal — we have each touched it in some aspect of our lives — but it is a universal challenge rooted in a long-ago bifurcation in our civilizational sensemaking: the split between digital computers, which process one thing at a time in succession, and analog computers, which process the dizzying everythingness of everything all at once. Our brains are analog computers, constantly orienting to reality by weaving a topology of connections into a three-dimensional map of patterns. Our machines hum to one-dimensional algorithms of sequential logical steps. Theirs is the time of bits, ours the time of atoms, the time of Kierkegaard, who knew that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

To be sure, there is ample digital coding at work in nature, in the building blocks of life itself — the DNA code used for information storage and information editing across time and generations. Trees, too, are digital computers, integrating myriad continuously changing inputs — available sunlight, available water, soil composition, atmospheric chemistry, wind direction, proximity of other trees — into the single-channel output of growth rings spaced in precise one-year intervals. They embody what may be the fundamental difference between the analog universe, in which time is a continuum, and the digital universe, in which there is no time — only the illusion of time woven of discrete steps, sequential but timeless. In his tree house, the teenage Dyson lived amid growth-rings dating back to the year 1426, a time when none of his European ancestors had set foot or the mind’s eye on those shores.

Imagine coming of age in such palpable contact with the continuity of time against the selective fragmentation we call history. Imagine becoming, in that crucible of awareness, an uncommonly insightful historian of science and technology.

Dyson traces the birth of the digital universe to Leibniz, who developed binary arithmetic after pondering the hexagrams of the ancient Chinese I Ching, then built on his already revolutionary work on infinitesimals to enlist the functions of binary arithmetic — functions analogous to the logical operations “and,” “or,” and “not” — in building the first universal language of binary code: a system of black and white marbles rolling along mechanical tracks, not unlike the zeroes and ones churning the Internet, that would encode into an alphabet of primes the real alphabet and all the concepts with which language is tasked. Leibniz envisioned the result as “a new kind of instrument which will increase the power of the mind much more than optical lenses strengthen the eyes.” This rudimentary digital computer would “work out, by an infallible calculus, the doctrines most useful for life, that is, those of morality and metaphysics.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

So began the modern mythos of computation as a controlled instrument for meaning-making, which we call artificial intelligence — the cult at whose altar we daily lay our faith in the ever-swifter logical processing of information, only to find ourselves empty-palmed for meaning and increasingly out of control. Dyson writes:

Leibniz’s digital universe, despite its powers, remains incomplete, just as Isaac Newton, his rival over credit for the invention of the calculus, gave us a mathematical description of nature that predicts everything correctly, but only up to a certain point. The next revolution will be the coalescence of programmable machines into systems beyond programmable control.

Every technology is a technology of thought that carries with it the ideologies of its time. Dyson builds this cautionary model of the future upon the foundation of the past, stratified with the same human tendencies that are now shaping our machines. He paints neither a techno-utopia nor a techno-dystopia but something more nuanced and complex, a kind of ominous autonomous techno-colonialism rooted in the ruthless colonial past: The first high-speed wireless communication network in North America, which manifested the contours of Leibniz’s vision and furnished the rudiments of the Internet, transmitted Morse code over sunlight across 60,000 square miles in a campaign to track down and capture the last free-roaming Apache: nineteen men, thirteen women, and six children.

Not one person alive in the spring of 1886 when the network first began firing — not Thomas Edison, who had just shut down his Menlo Park laboratory and married his second wife, not Walt Whitman who was facing his mortality while contemplating “the similitudes of the past and those of the future” — could have envisioned what would become of these rudiments, just as none of the early digital programmers high on their technicolor dreams envisioned how the algorithms they were composing might one day come to colonize the species that made them. Dyson writes:

Some inventions result from theorizing how something should work and then building it. Others result from building something that works before understanding it.

Pulsing beneath the history of our technologies of thought is the intimation that our unexamined belief in the digital universe as more efficient, powerful, and altogether superior to the analogy might be the product a colossal and catastrophic civilizational blind spot. Dyson challenges some of our basic intuitions and assumptions about analog and digital computing by contrasting our communication systems with those of whales — our evolutionary elders, predating our minds and our machines by fifty million years, whose songs were the only nonhuman sound we encoded on The Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager spacecraft to carry the signal of who and what we are for a thousand million years, to some other civilization in the unfathomed reaches of spacetime.

Art from Year of the Whale by Victor B. Scheffer, 1969

Dyson writes:

Whales both perceive their surroundings and communicate using sound, which behaves differently in an incompressible medium like water than in a compressible medium like air. If humans could communicate directly, brain to brain, using light, would we have developed languages based on a limited vocabulary of sounds? Human language, either evolved from or coevolved with sequences of discrete gestures, is optimized to withstand poor transmission over a noisy, low-bandwidth channel and might emerge quite differently among minds not subject to these constraints. Whales are no doubt communicating, but not necessarily by mapping their intelligence to sequences of discrete symbols the way we use language to convey our thoughts. When we play music, the whales might be thinking, “Finally, they are showing signs of trying to communicate like us!”

The difference between analog and digital computing parallels the question of whether a linear, symbolically coded language is a necessary indicator of conscious intelligence or not. In a digital computer, higher-dimensional inputs are reduced to one-dimensional strings of code that are stored, processed, and then translated back into higher-dimensional outputs, with a hierarchy of languages mediating the intervening steps. Large numbers of logical operations are transformed into waste heat along the way. Among analog computers, information can be stored, processed, and communicated directly as higher-dimensional maps.

An epoch after Einstein and Tagore contemplated the notion of a universal mind in their historic conversation, after the physicist John Ambrose Fleming — inventor of the vacuum tube and popularizer of the term “electronic” — exhorted humanity to regard the universe “not as a collection of Things or Events existing apart from any awareness of them by observers, but as manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind,” after modern neuroscientists predicted the inevitability of a planetary übermind as the next step in the evolution of consciousness, Dyson points to what may be the most astonishing, supernatural-seeming analog sensemaking mesh-network of minds in nature:

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the largest of the dolphins, evolved from land mammals who returned to the sea more than fifty million years ago. They roam the entire planet as separate populations belonging to a single species, forming complex, persistent matrilineal social structures, with young males mentored by their post-reproductive grandmothers, whose life spans are known to reach a hundred years or more. Breathing, sleep, and other physiological functions are synchronized across the members of a pod. Their communication may be closer to telepathy than to language as we know it, and it could even be that orca mind and consciousness is a parallel, distributed property belonging to the pod collectively as much as to any individual whale.

These questions of consciousness and networked communication, central to our notions of artificial intelligence, grow even more rife with astonishment when we consider trees — organisms that, unlike us and unlike whales, lack minds as we understand them, minds as systems of operations conducted on nervous systems and brains, instead operating by what poet Jane Hirshfield admired as a “blind intelligence.”

Little Painting of Fir-Trees (1922) by Paul Klee, who believed that an artist is like a tree. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Looking back on his time in the Douglas fir tree house, where he lived decades before Suzanne Simard published her epoch-making research on how trees communicate with one another, Dyson writes:

Living without telephone, computer, internet, or even electric light, I had time beyond measure to think. I found myself thinking about what, if anything, a tree might think. Not thinking the way we think, but the way a single neuron thinks, integrating information over time. It might take years to register the premonition of an idea, centuries for an entire forest, networked through synapses established by chemical signaling pathways among its roots, to form a thought. After three years I was no closer to an understanding, except to have gained a lingering suspicion that trees were, in some real and tangible way, as John Ambrose Fleming put it, “manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind.”


Growth rings in trees are Nature’s way of digitizing time. Some of the split cedar boards paneling the walls of the tree house spanned seven hundred years. I counted the grain in one seven-inch board, and it went back to the year 1426. Halfway through that board, in 1679, Leibniz had imagined his digital computer, with marbles running along mechanical tracks. Two and a half inches ago, in 1778, James Cook had arrived on the Northwest Coast. Bering and Chirikov had arrived half an inch earlier, in 1741. My entire life, so far, spanned one-quarter of an inch.

Relief print from the cross-section of fallen tree by artist Bryan Nash Gill (1961–2013) from his project Woodcut.

With this telescopic view of time and with the hindsight of half a lifetime, having lived through the birth and euphoric adolescence of the modern digital age, Dyson suggests that the digital world will inevitably follow the trajectory of the living world as nature devised it, our algorithms commencing a kind self-referential evolutionary process that will soon altogether slip from our imperious creator-hands to take on a destiny of their own:

A digital universe is populated by two species of bits: differences that are varying in time but invariant in space, and differences that are varying in space but invariant in time. Bits can be stored over time as memory, or communicated across distance as code. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. These powers of translation are more general than the arithmetical functions for which they were first invoked. Nature, too, discovered a method for translating sequences (of nucleotides) into structures (of proteins) — and back. Once this loop is established, evolution will do the rest.


Strings of bits gained the power of self-replication, just like strings of DNA. Thus began a chain reaction, with the order codes persisting largely unchanged, like the primordial alphabet of amino acids, over the seventy years since they were first released.

Nature evolved its analog computers — the nervous systems and brains that encode, store, and use information absorbed from the world, including the brain with which you are parsing this thought — so that organisms can learn to govern their own behavior and control their environment. Digital computers, being the product of our evolution-honed analog minds, cannot but follow the same course. Dyson writes:

Bits are the new electrons. Governing everything from the flow of goods to the flow of traffic to the flow of ideas, information is treated statistically, the way pulse-frequency-coded information is processed in a neuron or a brain. Analog is back, and its nature is to assume control.


Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.

And yet something essential and essentially human is lost in our foundational assumption undergirding the digital world, in the strange certainty that binary arithmetic could ever fully represent the way we think. It is the thing all the poets and the rare poetic physicists have pondered all those epochs: the hunger for meaning beyond truth, for the beautiful beyond the binary. Dyson writes:

What if you wanted to capture what everything known to the human species means? Thanks to Moore’s law it takes little time and less and less money to capture all the information that exists. But how do you capture meaning? Even in the age of all things digital, this cannot be defined in logical terms, because meaning, among humans, isn’t logical. Leibniz’s logical utopia fails to close. The best you can do, once you have collected all possible answers, is to invite well-defined questions and compile a pulse-frequency-weighted map of how everything connects. This system, in conjunction with illogical humans, will not only be observing and mapping the meaning of things; it will start constructing meaning as well, the way a dictionary doesn’t just catalog a language, but defines the language, over time. The meaning of something is established, among humans, by the degree to which that something connects to other familiar things. A search engine, mapping those connections, isn’t just a collective model of how we think; increasingly, it is how we think. In time it will control meaning, in the same way as the traffic map controls the flow of traffic, even though no one is in control.

An exquisite mosaic of meaning, this book of subtle and unsythnesizable splendors chronicles and questions the choices we made as a civilization — not always consciously and not always conscientiously — that took us to where we are and shaped what we might become. But Analogia is also Dyson’s tender love letter to his parents, his love letter to the natural world, and his sensitive appeal, drawn both from a dispassionate scholarship of history and from the passions of his own life, for recognizing that the flow of information will neither drown out nor slake the longing for illumination in our primal search for meaning; an appeal for remembering that while the life of the mind filters our experience of the world, the mind is both function and functionary of the life of the body — not digital, not mechanical, but pulsating with analog aliveness, animated by the selfsame forces that rib the whales and ring the trees and constellate the atoms of long-dead stars into these cathedrals of consciousness that consecrate the subjective interpretation we call meaning.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Two generations ago, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner made his cautionary case for “the human use of human beings,” prophesying that the world of the future — which is now our present — would be “an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Humanity was then too high on those early digital hopes and hubrises to heed his caution.

We now have another chance to listen, another chance to course-correct toward a future that cherishes whale songs above even the most efficient logical sequences of bits, another chance to branch off from the evolutionary tree of digital determinism that we ourselves have seeded.

Another Way by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear… People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary in her seventy-seventh year as she looked back on a long and lush life to consider the central role of solitude in creativity.

A generation before her, recognizing that “works of art arise from an infinite aloneness,” Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explored the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity in his stunning correspondence with the nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus — an aspiring poet and cadet at the same military academy that had nearly broken Rilke’s own adolescent soul.

Posthumously published in German, these letters of uncommonly penetrating insight into the essence of art and love — that is, the essence of life — now come alive afresh as Letters to a Young Poet: A New Translation and Commentary (public library) by ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and poet and clinical psychologist Anita Barrows: two women who have lived into the far reaches of life — Macy was ninety-one at the time of the translation and Barrows seventy-three — and who have spent a quarter century thinking deeply about what makes life worth living in translating together the works of a long-ago man who barely survived to fifty and who was still in his twenties when he composed these letters of tender and timeless lucidity.

1902 portrait of Rilke by his brother-in-law, Helmuth Westhoff

Anticipating the illuminations of twentieth-century psychology about why a childhood capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creativity, self-esteem, and healthy relationships later in life, Rilke writes to his young correspondent in the short, dark, lonesome days just before the winter holidays:

What (you might ask yourself) would a solitude be that didn’t have some greatness to it? For there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear. It comes almost all the time when you’d gladly exchange it for any togetherness, however banal and cheap; exchange it for the appearance of however strong a conformity with the ordinary, with the least worthy. But perhaps that is precisely the time when solitude ripens; its ripening can be painful as the growth of a boy and sad like the beginning of spring… What is needed is only this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going within and meeting no one else for hours — that is what one must learn to attain. To be solitary as one was as a child. As the grown-ups were moving about, preoccupied with things that seemed big and important because the grown-ups appeared so busy and because you couldn’t understand what they were doing.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s ever-timely insistence that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems… to be busy” and Emerson’s observation that “our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous” the moment we pause the headlong rush of sociality through which we try to escape from ourselves, Rilke adds:

If one day one grasps that their busyness is pathetic, their occupations frozen and disconnected from life, why then not continue to see like a child, see it as strange, see it out of the depth of one’s own world, the vastness of one’s own solitude, which is, in itself, work and status and vocation?

“Solitude” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

And yet the crucial, exquisite creative tension that Rilke so singularly harmonizes is the essential interplay between solitude and love — each enriching the other, each magnifying the totality of the spirit from which all art springs. In another letter penned the following spring, he writes:

Don’t let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge. Precisely this presence will help your solitude expand. People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive. Everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way and against all opposition, straining from within and at any price to become distinctively itself. It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.

To love is good too, for love is difficult. For one person to care for another, that is perhaps the most difficult thing required of us, the utmost and final test, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. With our whole being, with all the strength we have gathered, we must learn to love. This learning is ever a committed and enduring process.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.

Two decades before Kahlil Gibran offered his abiding poetic wisdom on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in true love, Rilke calls for shedding the ideological shackles of our culture’s conception of love as a melding of entities. “No human experience is so rife with conventions as this,” he observes with an eye to those who have not yet befriended their sovereign solitude and instead “act from mutual helplessness” to “simply surrender to love as an escape from loneliness.” He offers the liberating alternative that still requires as much countercultural courage in our day as it did in his:

To love is not about merging. It is a noble calling for the individual to ripen, to differentiate, to become a world in oneself in response to another. It is a great, immodest call that singles out a person and summons them beyond all boundaries. Only in this sense may we use the love that has been given us. This is humanity’s task, for which we are still barely ready.


This more human love (endlessly considerate and light and good and clear, consummated by holding close and letting go) will resemble that love that we so arduously prepare — the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In another letter, Rilke adds the complexity of physical intimacy to this realm of transcendent difficulty, formulating his advice on how to best harness eros as a creative force:

Yes, sex is hard. But anything expected of us is hard. Almost everything that matters is hard, and everything matters… Come to your own relationship to sex, free of custom and convention. Then you need not fear to lose yourself and become unworthy of your better nature.

Sexual pleasure is a sensory experience, no different from pure seeing or pure touch, like the taste of a fruit. It is a great, endless experience given to us, a natural part of knowing our world, of the fullness and brilliance of every knowing. And nothing we receive is wrong. What’s wrong is to misuse and spoil this experience and to use it to excite the exhausted aspects of our lives, to dissipate rather than connect.

Long before scientists shed light on how the sexuality of early flora and fauna gave our planet its beauty, Rilke adds:

Seeing the beauty in animals and plants is a form of love and longing; and we can see the animal, as we see the plant, patient and willing to come together and increase — not out of physical lust, not out of suffering, but bowing to necessities that are greater than lust and suffering and more powerful than will and resistance.

Oh that humans might humbly receive and earnestly bear this mystery that fills the earth down to the smallest thing, and feel it as part of life’s travail, instead of taking it lightly. If they could only be respectful of this fertility, which is undivided, whether in spiritual or physical form. For this spiritual creativity stems from the physical, derives from that erotic essence, and is but an airier, more delightful, more eternal iteration of its lush sensuality.

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

So too with the role of the erotic in creative work:

The art of creating is nothing without the vast ongoing participation and collaboration of the real world, nothing without the thousandfold harmonizing of things and beings; and the creator’s pleasure is thereby inexpressibly rich because it contains memories of the begetting and bearing of millions. In a single creative thought dwell a thousand forgotten nights of love, which infuse it with immensity. And those who come together in the night, locked in thrusting desire, are gathering nectar, generating power and sweetness for some future poetic utterance that will sing the rapture.

For more of and about this ravishing new translation of Letters to a Young Poet — one which embodies the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original,” and the finest such miracle performed on a classic since Ursula K. Le Guin’s feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching — savor this On Being conversation with Macy and Barrows about the wider resonances of Rilke’s work in our world, then revisit Rilke’s contemporary Hermann Hesse on solitude and the courage to find yourself, physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on how to live with our human vulnerabilities, and Rilke himself on what it takes to be an artist.


Matter, Music, and the Mind

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach.”

Matter, Music, and the Mind

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” Mark Strand wrote in his splendid poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” touching on the materiality of that enchantment: Music is matter dancing in the mind.

Music has a profound spiritual power over us — an echo of what Aldous Huxley called “the blessedness that is at the heart of things.” But at the heart of the blessedness is a biological symphony — a sensorial interface between the human body and the fundamental forces of physics, a wilderness of shimmering synapses converting current into the song of feeling. Kierkegaard intuited this an epoch before the birth of neuroscience as he located the unparalleled power of music in the interplay between the spiritual and sensual, and Whitman understood it in celebrating music as the profoundest expression of nature.

Ronald Johnson

That singular interplay between nature and the human spirit is what the poet Ronald Johnson (November 25, 1935–March 4, 1998) explores throughout his magnificent forgotten masterpiece ARK (public library) — an epic poem of reality radiating the spirit of The Universe in Verse, partway between Blake and Feynman, harmonizing modernist verse with prose poetry. To describe his unexampled work, Buckminster Fuller coined the word “philoverse.” In 1980, decade after he began composing them, Johnson published the first thirty-three “beams” — as he termed each of the numbered poetic particles comprising the epic totality — as ARK: The Foundations. He continued adding beams along the remaining vector of his life.

Among the animating questions of the epic poem is the relationship between science and music — that reverberation across matter and mind, which Johnson hints at from the very beginning with his choice of epigraph, quoting one of Gertrude Stein’s exquisite encryptions of elemental truth: “anything shut in with you can sing.”

A century and a half after Margaret Fuller scandalized her fellow Transcendentalists with the radical assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” and a generation before a colossal four-kilometer tuning fork a century in the making detected the sound of spacetime with the epoch-making discovery of gravitational waves, Johnson considers the scientific poetics of sound in the seventh of his “beams”:

Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern. If we erase the air and slow the sound of a struck tuning fork in it, it would make two sets of waves interlocking the invisibility in opposite directions.

Behavior of Waves (1962) by Berenice Abbott, from her lyrical photographic series Documenting Science.

With his poetic ear pressed to the pulses of compression and rarefaction unspooled by the tuning-fork as it pinches matter into waveform, Johnson writes:

These alternate equidistant forces travel at the rate of 1,180 feet per second through the elasticity of air, four times that through water (whale to singing whale), and fifteen times as fast through pure steel.

With an eye to the pioneering composer Charles Ives — creator of what may be the first radical piece of music in the twentieth century: the haunting 1906 orchestral masterpiece Central Park in the Dark, which traveled backward in time by drawing on the sounds of nature before Industrial humanity and forward in time by laying the groundwork for the polytonal and polyrhythmic experimental music that would score the following century — Johnson writes:

Pattern laps pattern, and as they joined, Charles Ives heard the 19th Century in one ear, and the 20th out the other, then commenced to make a single music of them. The final chord of the 2nd Symphony is a reveille of all notes at once, his Fourth of July [Variations on “America,” composed when Ives was 17] ends with a fireworks of thirteen rhythmic patterns zigzagging through the winds and brasses, seven percussion lines criss-crossing these, the strings divided in twenty-fours going up and down every-which way — and all in FFFF.

Both tuning fork and Fourth are heard by perturbations of molecules, through ever more subtle stumbling blocks, in spiral ricochet, to charged branches treeing in the brain.

This vibrating tree is trunked with neurobiology, rooted in the physics of cartilage and “Come Together”:

The outer shell leads to a membrane drum — and what pressure needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of light and heat received from a 50-watt electric bulb at the distance of 3,000 miles in empty space. (Though sound cannot travel, as light, through the void.) At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be misplaced as little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen.

Structure of the inner ear from The American Journal of Anatomy, 1906–1907. (Available as a print.)

Conducting the bone orchestra of hammer, anvil, and stirrup at the membrane drum of the oval window that stretches between the middle ear and the cochlea, Johnson writes:

Shut to air, this window vibrates another windowed membrane, tuning a compressed fluid between. Here, also, is couched our sense of the vertical.

A resonance is set up in a spiral shell-shape receptor turned with yet another, also spiral, membrane. This is the pith of labyrinth, and as sound waves themselves it trembles two directions at once, crosswise and lengthwise.

After a bright sidewise detour to Orpheus and Thoreau, to the synesthetic seeing-ear of the bat and the vernal sensuality of birdsong, Johnson loops back to the crucible of matter and mind:

The physicists tell us that sounding bodies are in a state of stationary vibration, and that when the word syzygy last shook atoms, its boundary was an ever slighter pulse of heat, and hesitation of heat. Matter delights in music, and became Bach. Its dreams are the abyss and empyrean, and to that end, may move, in time, the stones themselves to sing.

Johnson’s ARK is a symphonic read in its entirety. Complement this fragment with a constellation of beloved writers on the power of music, Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of technology and the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks — who saw biology and Bach as a unified field of experience — on why music moves us so, then revisit the great physician and poet Lewis Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and poet A. Van Jordan’s Feynman-inspired inquiry into truth and tenderness at the nexus of science and meaning.


How Pythagoras and Sappho Radicalized Music and Revolutionized the World

The story of the invention of the love song, the world’s first algorithm, and the mathematics of transcendence.

How Pythagoras and Sappho Radicalized Music and Revolutionized the World

“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus told a gathering of young people at the peak of the Cold War, shortly after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize. “The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies… the strange liberty of creation is possible.” A generation before him, while policed by the forces about to unworld humanity in its first global war, the revolutionary artist Egon Schiele observed that true visionaries tend to come from the minority.

Millennia and civilizations earlier, two such visionaries who lived a generation apart, one born the day the other threw herself into the sea — Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) and Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BC) — revolutionized the deepest undertone of modern thought with their repugnant ideas about the most delicate, most beloved, and most elemental of the arts: music.

Pythagoras (Art by J. Augustus Knapp, circa 1926)

In an era when the most widespread musical instrument was the tetrachord — the Hellenic four-string lyre — and musicians had no standardized system of tuning their instruments, no understanding of the underlying tonal patterns, and nothing more than a vague intuitive sense about how to strum melodies rather than discord, Pythagoras discovered the relationship between musical harmony and the mathematical harmony of numbers. According to his foremost biographer, the fourth-century Syrian scholar Iamblichus, Pythagoras took it upon himself to devise a mechanical aid for musical tuning.

One day, Iamblichus’s account goes, Pythagoras was strolling past a blacksmith’s forge and was captivated by the sound of the many hammers pounding in a pattern that suddenly sounded harmonious. He rushed into the forge and immediately began investigating the cause of the harmony, testing the various hammers in various stroke combinations — some producing harmony, others discord. After analyzing the patterns and weighing the hammers, he discovered a simple mathematical relationship between those that produced harmony — their masses were exact ratios of one another’s.

Although the anecdote may belong to that murky shoreline between the apocryphal and the factual that marks many biographies of genius, Pythagoras did eventually test these ratios on the lyre. They proved to be perfectly predictive of harmony — the first discovery of a mathematical rule undergirding a physical phenomenon, and the basis of what became known as the Music of the Spheres.

Celestial harmonics of the planets, from The Harmony of the World (1619) by Johannes Kepler, based on the Pythagorean concept of the Music of the Spheres.

In our time, Pythagoras, known to every schoolchild for his famous triangle theorem, is celebrated as the pioneer who set the golden age of mathematics into motion with the development of numeric logic. Having coined the word philosophy and defined the very meaning of wisdom, he seeded scientific ideas that fomented the later revolutions ushered in by visionaries as far-ranging and far-reaching as Plato, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.

But in his time, Pythagoras was very much a radical, a dissident, an intellectual deviant. His progressive views on social reform led him to flee the tyrannical rule of his native Samos. After arriving in the Greek colony of Croton as a refugee, he founded a philosophical school whose disciples, known as the Pythagoreans, devised an unexampled model of the universe, placing at its center a ball of fire more than a thousand years before Copernicus upended the geocentric Ptolemaic system with his heliocentricity.

In another stroke of radicalism, the Pythagoreans admitted into their school a class of sub-citizens denied education and excluded from the newborn civic system of democracy: women. One of them became the world’s first known female astronomer — Hypatia, who lived her trailblazing life and died her savage death in the city where nearly every trace of Sappho vanished.

Death of Sappho by Miguel Carbonell Selva, 1881. (Available as a print.)

When the Library of Alexandria was burned, the flames consumed the nine-volume set of Sappho’s collected works, leaving only fragments copied by fans and scholars throughout the ancient world. From this handful of surviving ashes, Sappho rose with her lyre and her verse to be remembered as the Tenth Muse, the inventor of the love song and the personal lyric, the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression, and the first great champion of the right to love whom we love. Unlike Emily Dickinson, who deliberately changed the gender pronouns in her poems to conceal the same-sex passion that fomented her poetry, Sappho kept the female pronouns in the beautiful and heartbreaking odes she wrote to the women she loved. In doing so, she pioneered a radical shift in musical culture — the permission to sing not about the gods, the seasons, and the wars, but about oneself: about the stunning interior universe of subjective human experience. Without Sappho, there would be no Nina Simone to pose in song the central question of consciousness: “I wish you could know what it means to be me.”

The epoch-making contributions of Pythagoras and Sappho come alive in Ted Gioia’s altogether wonderful book Music: A Subversive History (public library) — the story of our species told through its most consummate and intimate art-form, traced through the lives of the visionaries and radicals who shaped it, from Pythagoras and Sappho to Bob Dylan and N.W.A.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Iris Murdoch’s astute observation that “tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Gioia frames his approach:

At every stage in human history, music has been a catalyst for change, challenging conventions and conveying coded messages — or, not infrequently, delivering blunt, unambiguous ones. It has given voice to individuals and groups denied access to other platforms for expression, so much so that, in many times and places, freedom of song has been as important as freedom of speech, and far more controversial.

Art from an 1878 book about the history of science and literature, depicting some of Pythagoras’s influences and inspirations. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Holding up Pythagoras as the most significant figure in the history of music, whose controversial contribution was both a liberation and a limitation, Gioia writes:

Greek culture before his arrival revered what we call nowadays Orphic thought (named after Orpheus, the mythical musician, but almost certainly considered a historical personage in those distant days), and believed songs possessed powerful magic. The rise of Pythagorean music theory, circa 500 BC, changed all that by conceptualizing music as a rational science of sounds that could be described in mathematical terms.

Looking back to antiquity from our own era, in which algorithms are mediating the relationship between music, feeling, and transcendence, Gioia adds:

The very first algorithm entered Western music with this philosophical rupture that happened more than 2,500 years ago.

And yet while the Pythagorean model of mathematically distinguishing melody from noise liberated music by giving it a new language of codified expression, it also limited music by excluding from the musical canon styles that didn’t conform to these proportionate structures of scales and rhythms — styles like those that emerged from the African diaspora or from my own native Balkans. Gioia writes:

The ratios and proportions that initially helped us grasp songs turned into the rules and constraints that defined them. The strategies and schemas were often seen as the ‘authentic’ music, and the actual sounds only got validation through their allegiance to what was written on the printed page… The eventual result was a conceptualization of music that excluded far more than it allowed.


The very practice of legitimization is an act of distortion.

Still, the Pythagorean conceptualization of music had profound and beneficent consequences, stretching far beyond the realm of music and into the entire landscape of culture: By bringing mathematics to an art-form previously regarded as mystical, it catalyzed the slow shift from a world of superstition and magic to a world of science and reason — a cultural evolution that would unfold on the scale of epochs. Two millennia after Pythagoras, Kepler would spend years defending his mother in a witchcraft trial while revolutionizing our understanding of the universe with his epoch-making laws of planetary motion, drawing on the Music of the Spheres to discover the proportional relationships of planetary orbits.

Solids from Kepler’s Harmony of the World, exploring the relationship between harmony and geometry. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

From this foundation laid in the Pythagorean past, Gioia leaps across the millennia to the present:

Today, these three spheres — science, music, and magic — appear as self-contained and unrelated disciplines, but in the context of 500 BC, the connections between them were obvious to the leading minds. Anyone who hoped to dislodge magical thinking in a traditional society and replace it with a scientific worldview was forced to address music theory, because it, too, could be conceptualized as either magic or science. Any choice between these two models would have profound implications. And not just for theory: society would be altered by how this matter was decided. Before Pythagoras, songs possessed magical potency. If Pythagoras and his followers hoped to eradicate superstition and elevate a more rational and logical worldview, they were almost forced to redefine all the parameters of musical practice.

But while this reconfiguration of musical practice as a mathematical language advanced the world toward science, it also repressed a central animating force of music — its elemental humanity, ablaze with feeling, sensuality, and a sense of the sacred. Even Schopenhauer, so very German and so unfaltering in his central tenet of the will as the supreme instrument of the human spirit, considered music capable of reaching beyond the reach of will, into “the inner being, the in-itself, of the world”; even Kierkegaard, for all his ceaseless cerebration, his Nordic reserve, and his lifelong virginity, exulted in the unparalleled sensuality of music.

It was Sappho who feathered the other great wing by which music took flight toward modernity, carrying the whole of human culture on its back. Gioia writes:

Sappho has two obvious concerns, and they dominate her worldview even as they expose a hidden rift in Western thought: the emotional bonds of love, and communal obligations to the gods. In the later evolution of Western music, these two approaches will veer off into their separate traditions and have little to do with each other. You could hardly imagine two music genres with less in common than love songs and religious hymns, but for Sappho these are intimately connected.

While Pythagoras took the mysticism of music and turned it into a mathematical language, Sappho took the ancient tradition of sacred singing and turned it into a new literary genre of personal poetics. By pioneering the love song and the self-permission for telling our own stories, drawn from our most intimate experiences, she gave the world an immense and abiding gift — the ability to preserve our stories in song as a fundament of identity and survival, from the African spirituals that sustained the souls of the enslaved to the folk ballads by which refugees hold on to culture and community. In fact, Sappho’s home island has always been a nexus of cultures and remains a major portal into Europe for refugees from the Middle East. Gioia writes:

At the height of the Syrian crisis in 2016, new arrivals would show up on Lesbos almost every day, making their treacherous journey on small boats, rafts, and inflatable crafts… Songs are the possessions most likely to survive long journeys, remaining the property of the newcomer even when everything else has been taken away.

Complement this fragment of the altogether fascinating Music: A Subversive History with a haunting choral invocation of Sappho’s timeless elegy for heartbreak, then revisit Maurice Sendak on the shape of music as the key to storytelling and some of humanity’s most beloved storytellers on the singular power of music.


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