The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Page 5

A General Theory of Possibility: The Abstract Art of Otherwise and the Physics of Resilience

“As always happens with contradictions, something in the assumptions has to give… Declaring something impossible leads to more things being possible.”

A General Theory of Possibility: The Abstract Art of Otherwise and the Physics of Resilience

“Everything that is possible is real,” Bach scribbled in the margins of his music three centuries ago, when the existence of other galaxies was unimaginable and hummingbirds were considered magic, when the fact of the atom was yet to trouble the young Emily Dickinson and the fact that it is mutable was yet to splinter the foundation of reality as we understood it.

“What will they think of my music on the star of Urania?” the young Beethoven wondered in his marginalia upon hearing of the discovery of Uranus, daring to imagine the unimaginable. In two centuries, his Fifth Symphony would sail past the seventh planet on a golden disc aboard a spacecraft launched into the unknown on the wings of laws discovered by a college student watching an apple fall on his illiterate mother’s orchard during a plague quarantine and a sickly brokenhearted mathematician defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.

The great gift of science is that it continually reveals to us what is real, unpeeling the wallpaper of our knowledge to reveal newer and newer layers of nature, deeper and deeper substrata of reality. The great peril of science — this eternal impulse of human nature — is that the human mind continually limits what is possible, erecting walls of assumption between itself and the reality of nature. And yet the entire fact of life — your individual life, and mine, and life itself as a feature of the universe — is a matter of probable impossibilities.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

This interplay, and how to liberate our search for truth from our craving for certainty, is what Italian physicist Chiara Marletto explores in The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey through the Land of Counterfactuals (public library) — part field guide to her particular realm of study, part manifesto for the countercultural courage to keep unmasoning the walls of the imaginable and bending the mind beyond the accepted horizons of the possible. What emerges is an impassioned, scrumptiously reasoned insistence that all breakthroughs in science require “as much imagination and perceptiveness as you need to write a good story or a profound poem.”

Counterfactuals — explanations about what could or could not be caused to happen in the physical universe, as distinct from the standard scientific theories about what is bound to happen based on what has happened in the past — are one such thrilling mode of rotating in the palm of the mind the unsolved mysteries of nature in order to examine them from revelatory new perspectives, perspectives blind-spotted by our present assumptions. Counterfactuals are the science of otherwise — the physics counterpart to Jane Kenyon’s excellent poem — shimmering with new ways of understanding everything from information to time to free will.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

In the foreword, Marletto’s collaborator David Deutsch observes that the rate of scientific discovery over the past few centuries has been increasing exponentially, but the discovery of new fundamental truths about nature has stalled and an indolence about attempting new modes of explanation has set in. He writes:

There has never been a time when there have been more blatant contradictions, gaps, and unresolved vagueness in our deepest understanding of nature, or more exciting prospects to explore them. Sometimes this will require us to adopt radically different modes of explanation.

Illustrating the validity of counterfactuals as a mode of understanding, he gives the example of a computer, which could record and process nothing new if every change to the contents of its memory were pre-set in the factory — a computer “can hold information only if its state could have been otherwise.”

Marletto places at the heart of her case for counterfactuals the notion of resilience — not resilience in the creaturely sense, to which we aspire and which trees so perfectly embody, but a deeper kind of resilience, existing on the fundamental level of information yet giving rise to all the physical reality that makes the creaturely kind possible — resilience as the dazzling, rare feature of our universe, even within the no-design fundamental laws of which a system can continue existing in an ever-changing environment. With an eye to genes — those recipes for keeping a species in existence, peppered with mutation — she writes:

What distinguishes helpful changes in the recipe from unhelpful ones? It is a particular kind of information: information that is capable of keeping itself instantiated in physical systems. It is resilient information.


“Knowledge” merely denotes a particular kind of information, which has the capacity to perpetuate itself and stay embodied in physical systems — in this case by encoding some facts about the environment… Knowledge is the key to resilience… In fact, knowledge is the most resilient stuff that can exist in our universe.

Art by Deborah Marcero from The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble by Isabelle Marinov.

Leaning on Karl Popper’s famous pillar of sensemaking — “Knowledge consists in the search for truth… It is not the search for certainty.” — she adds:

There are no absolute sources of certain truth: any good solution to a problem may also contain some errors. This principle is based on fallibilism, a pillar of Popper’s explanation of rational thinking. Fallibilism makes progress feasible because it allows for further criticism to occur in the future, even when at present we seem to be content with whatever solution we have found. It leaves space for creating ever-improving theories, stories, works of art, and music; it also tells us that errors are extremely interesting things to look for. Whenever we try to make progress, we should hope to find more of them, as fast as possible.

She turns to the two ways in which nature and human nature generate new knowledge, the generative process we call creativity — “by conjecture and criticism, in the mind; by variation and natural selection, in the wild” — and considers the crucial difference between the two:

Natural selection, unlike conjecture and criticism, cannot perform jumps: each of the recipes that leads to a new resilient recipe must itself be resilient — i.e., it must code for a successful variant of a trait of the particular animal in question that permits the animal’s survival for long enough to allow replication of that recipe, via reproduction. But there may be viable, resilient recipes coding for useful traits that can never be realised because they would require a sequence of nonresilient recipes to be realised first, which is impossible, as those recipes produce animals that cannot survive and cannot pass on their genes.

The thinking process, in contrast, can perform jumps… The sequence of ideas leading to a good idea need not consist entirely of good, viable ideas. Nonetheless, knowledge creation in the mind, too, can enter stagnation and stop progressing. We must be wary of not entering such states both as individuals and as societies. Particularly detrimental to knowledge creation are the immutable limitations imposed by dogmas, as they restrain the ability to conjecture and criticise.

Woven into Marletto’s case for counterfactuals is her love letter to science and the art of explanation:

Physics is a dazzling firework display; it is profound, beautiful, and illuminating; a source of never-ending delight. Physics is about solving problems in our understanding of reality by formulating explanations that fill gaps in our previous understanding. The point of physics is not the particular calculation about the fall of an apple. It is the explanation behind it, which unifies all motions—that of the apple with that of a planet in the solar system, and beyond. The dazzling stuff consists of explanations: for they surprise us by revealing things that were previously unknown and very distant from our intuition, with the aim of solving a particular problem.


The appearance of the dark sky at night… can be explained in terms of unexpected underlying phenomena involving things like photons, the remarkable fact that the universe is expanding, and so on. None of those elements is apparent in the sky itself, but they are all part of the explanation for why it looks as it does, in terms of what is really out there. Explanations are accounts of what is seen in terms of mostly unseen elements.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

“What we see, we see / and seeing is changing,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her ode to astrophysics. It is changing, however, only when we change the way we look, change our tools for looking, be they physical instruments — the microscope and the telescope, revealing unseen layers of reality — or the instrument of the mind, which devises the microscope and the telescope and the theory. I hear Thoreau bellowing his admonition down the hallway of time as he puzzled over what it takes to see reality unblinded by our preconceptions: “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Marletto writes:

The traditional conception of physics cannot possibly capture counterfactual properties, because it insists on expressing everything in terms of predictions about what happens in the universe given the initial conditions and the laws of motion only — in terms of trajectories of apples or electrons, forgetting the other levels of explanation. But these other levels of explanation are essential sometimes to grasp the whole of physical reality.

Drawing on the example of Neptune and the neutrino — both discovered not by direct observation of the previously unseen planet or particle but by observing curious contradictions in the surrounding system and deducing from them that something in the set of assumptions about what the system is and how it works must be revised. She writes:

As always happens with contradictions, something in the assumptions has to give.


Declaring something impossible leads to more things being possible.

In one of the book’s many charming touches defying the segregation of science from its sensemaking twin — art — she gives an exquisite example of counterfactuals at work in one of humanity’s most abiding masterworks of storytelling and sensemaking: the Ancient Greek myth of Theseus (which also inspired the greatest thought experiment about the nature of the self and what makes you you).

Theseus and the Minotaur by Alice and Martin Provensen from their lovely 1956 illustrations for the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Marletto writes:

Theseus, son of Aegeus, king of Athens, went to Crete to kill the Minotaur. Theseus made an agreement with his aged father that if he defeated the Minotaur, on their return his crew would raise white sails on the ship; if he perished, they would raise black sails. So off went Theseus, and he defeated the Minotaur. But on his way back, distracted by all sorts of things (including, possibly, the presence of his fiancée, Ariadne, on the ship!), he forgot to tell the crew about the sails. The crew left the black sails on, and Aegeus, who from the highest tower of Athens could see the ship approaching, thought his son was dead. So he threw himself into the sea and drowned. This tragic story is why the sea is now called the Aegean.

Now suppose we asked our master storyteller to tell that story with the constraint that he can formulate statements only about what happens — that is, he must report the full story without ever referring to counterfactual properties. In particular, he cannot refer to properties that have to do with what could or could not be done to physical systems.

This task turns out to be impossible: for the story to make sense, and to convey fully its meaning, two attributes of the ship are essential: one, that it can be used to send a signal, by assuming one of two states — white sail showing or black sail showing; the other, that the state of having black or white sails can be copied onto other physical systems — such as Aegeus’s eyes and brain. The copiability property tells us that the flag contains information.

Without these two counterfactual properties, the myth would be robbed of sense and could not possibly produce in the mind of the reader the tragic feeling, the shift in understanding, that gives rise to its millennia-wide moral. The myth of Theseus — a sensical story of tangible things like continents and oceans, a story of profoundly human things like ships and sons — helps grasp the analogous counterfactuals at work in more abstract things. A bit — that unit of information powering our digital universe — may seem like an abstract thing, but it is essentially a Thesian ship’s sail: there are the two binary states that can switch from one to the other, there is the ability to be copied. Any system endowed with these two counterfactual properties is an information medium — a conduit of knowledge.
Marletto reflects:

Adopting counterfactuals brings entities that look superficially like immaterial abstractions into the domain of physics. Information and knowledge, for example, have been traditionally considered as mere abstractions — as things that do not belong to the physical world. However, by considering the counterfactual properties of physical systems that enable information and knowledge, one refutes this idea: because whether or not a physical system has those properties is set precisely by the laws of physics.

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

The ultimate promise of counterfactuals as portals to possibility comes most vibrantly abloom in one of the several short genre-bending vignettes Marletto composes to illustrate the scientific concepts — a story-upon-story set in the crucible of materialism, Ancient Greece. She imagines the childhood of the legendary conqueror Alexander the Great — who by his death at thirty-two would have created one of the vastest empires in the history of our species — and his time as an uncommonly broad-minded pupil of Aristotle: a boy asking the vastest unasked questions, hungry to fathom his own mind. In one of their conversations, Alexander wonders what it is in him that endows him with the capacity for wonder — with the ability to savor poetry and philosophy and the abstract art of mathematics — if he is made of the same material as concrete things like rocks and grass. Marletto’s Aristotle answers:

What’s clear is that the mind has characteristic properties that make it capable of relating to things that are abstract. I suspect that it obeys the same laws as rocks and grass, though we have yet to find these laws and understand how to apply them to the mind.

Complement The Science of Can and Can’t with physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on what makes our improbable lives worth living between the bookends of possibility, then revisit the story of Alan Turing, the world’s first digital music, and the poetry of the possible.


Becoming the Marginalian: After 15 Years, Brain Pickings Reborn

Notes from the odyssey of ongoingness, notes for the symphony of aliveness.

We are born without choosing to, to parents we haven’t chosen, into bodies and borders we haven’t chosen, to exist in a region of spacetime we haven’t chosen for a duration we don’t choose. As physicists know, we don’t choose the particular atoms that constellate our particular selves or the neural configurations that fire our consciousness. In consequence, as James Baldwin knew, we don’t even choose whom we love.

But amid our slender repertoire of agency are the labels we choose for our labors of love — the works of thought and tenderness we make with the whole of who we are.

A challenge arises when we make something over a long period of time. As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough. Eventually, the name we once chose for it begins to feel not like a choice but like a constraint, an ill-fitting corset ribbed with the ossified sensibility of a former self. Joan Didion may be right that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” but we are also well advised to welcome with a largehearted embrace the blooming possibilities within us — the people we are in the ongoing course of becoming, the people we will have been when our atoms give way to our afterglow.

Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006 as an improbable idea in a young mind only just becoming literate in the language of life. Fifteen years hence, it is reborn as The Marginalian — reborn as what it has always been beneath the ill-fitting name chosen by a twenty-two-year-old immigrant in whose ear the tired puns and idioms of a non-native language rang fresh and full of wonder: an evolving record and ongoing celebration of my readings and my loves, of all that makes me feel most alive.

A young marginalian, thirty-some years ago in communist Bulgaria, already furrowing her figuring-brow — perhaps at some great existential puzzlement, perhaps at some passing craving for chocolate or love.

Over the years, I grew up and grew on these pages — more than six million of them, if one were to paginate and print everything I have published on the site over the years, dwarfing the 600 pages of Figuring and microscopizing the The Snail with the Right Heart. I filled this infinite scroll with my reflections on what I was reckoning with — my marginalia on life and the most important things I was learning about it along the way, often through reading, often from people and ideas marginalized by culture, erased by the collective selective memory we call history, because they were in some way too other, too ahead of their time or apart from its mores, saw too clearly through the willful blindnesses of their era or bent their vision too far past its horizons of possibility.

In the margins of books, in the margins of life as commonly conceived by our culture’s inherited parameters of permission and possibility, I have worked out and continue working out who I am and who I wish to be — a private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of thought, feeling, and wonder that binds us all: What is all this?

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

More and more, the curatorial aspect — the “picking” part of Brain Pickings — subsided, as did the purely cerebral aspect — the “brain” part — giving way to the editorial, the contemplative, the full integration of thought and feeling that pulsates beneath all things creative and alive. And so there is no change in course beneath the change in name — nothing about the site or its weekly email summary will alter, other than my daily despair at living with a name that neither fits nor foments the private well of wonder from which it all springs. It remains freely offered and supported by donations, as it always has been. (It is not always easy to make a life and a labor of love in the margins of possibility — if you have lent a helping hand over the years, I appreciate you.) It remains an exercise in marginalia on readings and reckonings, a discourse with these works of wonderment.

This is always, at bottom, a discourse with oneself: me with myself, in writing it; you with yourself, in reading it. We bring to anything — a book, a love — the whole of what we are, projecting onto it every experience we have ever had and every unanswered question reverberating through the deepest chambers of our being. If it is worthy — the book, as the love — and if we are lucky, it reflects us back to ourselves magnified yet transformed, luminous with a larger self-image of possibility, more alive, more awake. Better able to see how our temporal, marginal lives shimmer with meaning. Better able to see ourselves as the makers of it, whether we call it love or art.


Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

A lyrical reminder that “the word for world is forest” and the feeling of forest is love.

Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is. This is where the “blind optimism” of a tree is helpful — there is consolation in trusting the quiet workings of chemistry and the primal instinct for orienting to the light.

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

I have been thinking about growth and decay while walking long bundled hours in an old-growth forest.

The forest, with its colossal trees that have been part-dead since their saplinghood centuries ago and are at the same time potentially immortal.

The forest, with its ceaseless syncopation of generation and decomposition that composes the pulse-beat of total aliveness.

The forest, this place of constant change that feels somehow atemporal, an everlasting Yes! to life echoed by an ungrudging and vibrant Yes! to death — a place where one feels most intimately the elemental yet counterintuitive fact that death is not the assailant of life but the ultimate consecration of its lucky possibility.

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

This might be why we see ourselves so readily in trees, why we find in them our greatest lessons and the deepest truths about love.

Walt Whitman saw in them models for the highest measure of authenticity and why he, in consequence, celebrated the friend he most loved as “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free… [she] is a tree.”

Whitman, who two centuries ago declared himself to “know the amplitude of time” and “laugh at what you call dissolution.”

Whitman, whose atoms now belong to some mycelial wonder pushing up the leaves of cemetery grass and nourishing the roots of the two towering trees that stand sentinel on either side of his tomb, trees that were saplings when he laughed out of life.

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.)

While thinking about life and death and poetry in an old-growth forest, I thought of this immortal line: “The word for world is forest” — the title of a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018). I thought of the short, stunning tree-poem she wrote at the end of her life, originally published on the pages of Orion Magazine and recently included, fittingly, in Old Growth — their splendid anthology of sylvan literature from the magazine’s decades-deep archive. Here it is, brought tenderly to life by my tree-loving, poetry-loving, life-and-death-loving friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, to which I have added the perfect sonic companionship of an old recording of Bach’s Organ Concerto in D Minor.

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.

Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.

Complement with Amanda reading “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver and poet Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe” — her kindred take on the life and death of a single tree — then revisit Le Guin on anger, the magic of real human conversation, the meaning of loyalty, getting to the other side of suffering, and her timeless “Hymn to Time.”


How (Not) to Love: Unbreaking Our Hearts by Breaking Our Patterns, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

“We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable…”

How (Not) to Love: Unbreaking Our Hearts by Breaking Our Patterns, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

While it is true, as generations of psychologists have found, that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love” — a process known as limbic revision — it is also true, as generations of self-aware humans have found, that whom we love depends in large part on who we already are. Our original wounds, our formative attachments, our patterned longings all shape how we engage with those we have chosen to love, to the extent that we are choosing them at all. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” James Baldwin astutely observed in contemplating the paradox of freedom. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

The great difficulty, too, is how easily those life-expanding Yeses that can open larger vistas of possibility come fear-concealed as Nos, or how those life-preserving Nos that keep us from entering into experiences too damaging or too small for us bear the momentum of pre-conditioned Yeses. And so we project who we are and what we need onto those we love, and find in them reflections of who we long to be or fear we might be, swarming them and swarming ourselves in all the blooming buzzing confusion of our unmet needs.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

This is not to demean and diminish love as a mere process of projection — Stendhal’s seven-stage delusion of crystallization and decrystallization — or a mere process of reflection — Ortega’s insightful but limited and limiting theory of what our lovers reveal about us — but to honor the elemental fact that each relationship is not between two people, but between three: the two partners, each with their pre-existing patterns of love and loss, and the third presence of the relationship itself — an intersubjective co-creation that becomes the third partner, endowed with the power to deepen those patters, or to change them.

The great peril and great possibility of every love is that this third partner can be a rewounder masquerading as a healer, and equally a healer in disguise, masked beyond recognition by our own patterned way of seeing. So much of our suffering springs from this confusion and so much of our sanity is redeemed when at last we shed our own blinding masks and come to kneel at the fount of clarity.

That is what George Saunders explores in his immensely insightful and sensitive annotated reading of Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” — one of the seven classic Russian short stories he examines as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library), using each as a portable laboratory for the key to great storytelling.

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

After a beautiful translation of “The Darling” — a story about a woman who loves four very different people the same patterned way, the only way she knows how, which has entirely to do with her learned understanding of love and nothing to do with its objects, and so she suffers greatly when each of these loves leaves her in the same lonely place; a story the essence of which Saunders captures perfectly as being “about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as ‘complete absorption in,’ rather than ‘in full communication with'” — he pauses to marvel at Chekhov’s subtlety in challenging our reflex toward lazy binaries, his mastery in training our muscle of ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance — which is, of course, the only we grasp and savor the full Yes of life. Saunders writes:

We see Olenka’s mode of loving, from one angle, as a beautiful thing: in that mode, the self disappears and all that remains is affectionate, altruistic regard for the beloved. From another angle, we see it as a terrible thing, the undiscriminating application of her one-note form of love robbing love of its particularity: Olenka, love dullard, vampirically feeding upon whomever she designates as her beloved.

We see this mode of loving as powerful, single-pointed, pure, answering all questions with its unwavering generosity. We see it as weak: her true, autonomous self is nowhere to be found as she molds herself into the image of whatever male happens to be near her (unless he’s a cat).

This puts us in an interesting state of mind. We don’t exactly know what to think of Olenka. Or, feeling so multiply about her, we don’t know how to judge her.

The story seems to be asking, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?”

Chekhov answers: “Yes.”

Elemental by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The story, like every great work of fiction, becomes a mirror for reflection on the most intimate realities of life. Saunders writes:

We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny,” as she absentmindedly puts her traitorous finger into his belt loop, you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you?

Maybe you won’t.

Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.


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