Maria Popova, curator extraordinaire for Brain Pickings, has identified her all time favorite Moth* story: Life on a Möbius Strip, by Janna Levin. Levin is a brilliant scientist who also happens to be a lyrical writer. Her book, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space, has been one of my favorites in the “literarily-inclined scientists who blend the personal with the scientific” genre (Is that really a genre? I’m not sure what the publishing world calls this category) along with H is for Hawk author Helen Macdonald, Hope Jahren of Lab Girl, and The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World‘s Peter Wohlleben.
As described by Popova, “Levin uses her scientific research into whether the universe is infinite or finite as a springboard for leaping into the infinitely complex, infinitely messy mysteries of the human heart—those largely arbitrary events we spend our lives arranging into a mosaic of meaning.”
And as emotional as this love lost then love found story is, Levin includes this passage in her account:
A graduate student of mine recently said to me, “The emotional dimension is the least interesting part of the human experience.” And I know scientists are odd, but I agree. I was like, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean”…Even in my worst moments I knew that my despair was just sort of not interesting. I needed to get back to mathematics and the universe and this connection because in its sheer magnitude it would diminish the importance of my personal trials.
Yeah, I know what you mean. Me too. Emotional drama is not my thing either.
And yet, once again the personal and the scientific intertwine. Look at Rose-Lynn Fisher‘s new book, The Topography of Tears. Fisher, a photographer who describes her work as exploring “the continuum between the vast and the tiny, in aerial and microscopic views,” has published a collection of optical microscopic images of tears.
Turns out the tears that appear when we cut onions are very different than those released during periods of grief, joy, sorrow or ecstasy. The topography of tears, when viewed microscopically, is much more than a dampened eye.
From Fisher’s introduction:
The random compositions I find in magnified tears often evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain. Though the empirical nature of tears is a composition of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. The accumulation of these images is like an ephemeral atlas.
Roaming microscopic vistas, I am struck by the visual similarities between the vast and tiny worlds within worlds of life all around us, and inside of us. The patterning of nature seems so consistent, regardless of scale. Patterns of erosion etched into earth over millions of years can resemble the branched or crystalline forms in an evaporated tear that took less than a minute to occur.
It is an exquisite book. Fisher has included short essays by William Frey, a neuroscientist, and poet Ann Lauterbach. I was also enchanted by the poetic license Fisher has taken in choosing titles for her images: “The breath between laughing and lace;” “the boundaries of useless limitation;” Your blessing lands inside me.”
Levin’s Moth story is full of random encounters that cannot, in the end, be seen as random. “Our universe is holographic**,” my wise friend Linda Crawford keeps reminding me, linking all of us to larger patterns that we can barely begin to understand or comprehend. Artist/therapist/friend Pam Farrell frequently references the “unthought known,” (a term that comes to us by way of Freud, Christopher Bollas and yes, Pearl Jam) as a reminder of that liminal zone between knowing and thinking. Like many artists who push at that boundary, Pam and I both see the unknown and the unseen as gifts, a terrain we seek to explore.
And how grateful I am to be reminded of how much we do not know. Keeping the awe alive, that’s a worthy goal.
(All images: Rose-Lynn Fisher)
*The Moth is a non-profit group based in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.
**More about the holographic nature of the universe here.