Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn early February 1950, Dr. Robert Marcus of New York City was absolutely devastated by the loss of his eleven-year-old son who had succumbed to polio. Interestingly, Marcus, who was a Rabbi, did not reach out to his rabbinic mentors and friends, but rather to Albert Einstein, a legendary man of science, who was also a father of two sons. As you read Marcus’ eloquent and emotional letter, you cannot help but feel the profound depth of his anguish. And if you are a parent, you will find yourself fighting back tears — there is no greater grief than that of a parent who loses a young child. Marcus asks the famous physicist if perhaps immortality may be found in the scientific principle of energy conservation:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of Polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world…

What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have said to myself: “It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed; things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?

I have said to myself: “Shall we believe that they have gone out of life in childhood before the natural measure of their days was full have been forever hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who have died the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pangs of persecution have utterly perished? Without immortality the world is a moral chaos…

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension… such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child… has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours, Robert S. Marcus

A few days later, on February 12, Einstein responded to Dr. Marcus, a complete stranger, with a brief (consisting of only 78 words), but thought-provoking letter of comfort:

Dear Dr. Marcus:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes, sincerely yours, Albert Einstein

Einstein relates to this heart-broken father that only religion, not science, can provide the promise, the gift of immortality. What science can provide, which may provide some level of comfort to this father’s heartache, is the concept of “oneness of the universe” — the idea that everything in the universe is one — we and everything in the universe is made of stardust. In her fascinating book, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, Naomi Levy reflects on Einstein’s response: “Einstein offered Rabbi Marcus and all of us a vision of heaven on earth. Did Einstein’s words bring some measure of comfort to Rabbi Marcus’s broken heart? I’d like to believe that Rabbi Marcus did receive solace from Einstein’s words, but we’ll never know for sure… When you seek out a man like Einstein for inquiries about the soul, you are bound to get an answer that is out of the ordinary.”

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Read related posts: Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
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High Flight: Touching the Face of God
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For further reading: Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children by Alice Calaprice

The Ever-Expanding Mind

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”

From The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (Chapter XI) by American physician, polymath, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The book, published in 1858, is a collections of essays that Holmes had written for The Atlantic Monthly between 1857 and 1858. The book was very popular with the public — it sold more than 10,000 in just three days. Holmes hung out with some very educated, literary folks, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell. A variant of this quotation that often appears on the Internet is: “A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.”

The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
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For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)


The Most Important Thing in Life is the Journey

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“If you look back on your life when you were a child, and you had aspirations, and you had ambitions, but they never really worked out the way you thought they would. So there’s a lot that can make you extremely frustrated and extremely mad. But at the same time, it’s kind of exhilirating. In many ways, it doesn’t matter if things work out exactly the way you wanted them to or they didn’t. The most important thing is the journey. Because the experiences can be so rich and so valuable to you… Of course, I am [happy with the journey so far]. It’s been amazing so far. The best way I could think of, you know, leaving this world, and it would be either, you know, go to sleep and not wake up or be in the middle of… a telecine suite doing a new transfer, like a 4k or an 8k tranfer of [2001: A Space Odyssey]. Just as the music play out, I’d say, ‘I’m coming. — I’m with ya, Zarathustra.'”

Leon Vitali from the documentary about his life: Filmworker by Tony Zierra. Vitali was a successful British actor who in 1974 walked away from acting, and spent a lot of time away from his family, to become legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s apprentice and right-hand man for more than 25 years. Vitali, credited as “personal assistant to director,” worked alongside “the maestro” on cinematic masterpieces like The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has overseen the restoration of all of Kubrick’s films. Currently, Vitali has been working as a consultant to the Kubrick estate. Recently, he has been supervising a new digital 4k version of 2001: A Space Odysssey. He is also working on creating a comprehensive archive of all of Stanley Kubrick’s film elements.

Steve Southgate, the vice president in charge of European technical operations for Warner Brothers who had worked on most of Kubrick’s films watched the apprentice transform into a master: “Leon was a spirit. You could see, you know, the doors open before he got to a door. He has this aura of ‘Kubrickism’ around him. The apprentice that all of a sudden one day became the master with all the answers.” Southgate had enormous respect for Kubrick: “He was one person in the film industry who knew how the film industry worked — in every country in the world. He knew all of the dubbing people, the dubbing directors, the actors, he had relationships with foreign directors who would supervise his work because he couldn’t be there to supervise himself. We had to go around to every cinema to make sure the projection lights were right, the sound was correct, the ratios were right, the screens were clean… He seemed to work 24 hours a day. We used to get calls all hours of the night. He could be very difficult but not in a difficult way. If you ever got chewed out by Stanley on the phone you knew you’d been chewed out. He never screamed or yelled but he had this wonderful manner and a sort of lovely New York drawl to his voice that you knew you were being carpeted. If he had any criticism of his film, he took it terribly personally. It was body and soul to him.”

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For further reading: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19990704mag-kubrick-profile.html

There’s A Word for That: Meretricious

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn the modern, digital world we are bombarded by meretricious items day after day, week after week. That’s a good thing right? On the face of it, meretricious sounds nice — a blending of merit and delicious. Nope, not even close. Something that is meretricious is superficially attractive but lacks any real value or merit. Ouch!

Case in point: the Kardashians. Sure, they are all flash and style — but do the real question is: do they really matter? Or consider the Fyre Festival, the ultimate “luxury music festival,” that is the very definition of meretricious. According to the documentaries, Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, the founders of the festival promoted videos of beautiful young models (also known as “social media influencers”) chilling on the shores of an exotic island, creating a massive wave of FOMO that motivated thousands of fans to open up their wallets and shell out millions of dollars to attend an event that was destined for absolute disaster. In short, there was no “there” there; launching a volley of lawsuits and indictments.

So how is it that the word meretricious is so counterintuitive? That is to say, why does it sound like a positive adjective when it is not? The key is in the etymology. And to arrive at the correct etymology we need to focus on the spelling. Note that the target word is spelled “meret” with a second “e” as opposed to “merit” with an “i.” While “merit” is derived from the Latin meritum, meaning “kindness, benefit, favor; worth, value,” “meret” is derived from the Latin meretricious, meaning “of or pertaining to prostitutes,” which is formed from meretrix, meaning “prostitute.” Now we’re getting somewhere!

Around 1630s, the word took on a more general meaning. The prostitute was dropped from the meaning, but her trademark seduction was not — wink, wink: something that was meretricious was gaudily alluring or alluring by false attraction. Over the centuries, this meaning morphed to the modern sense of being superficially attractive but lacking in merit or value. Interestingly, although the word “meretricious” is rarely encountered in the modern world, its existence is both ubiquitous and unavoidable. Perhaps now we know why some of the prostitutes from the 17th century were smiling so knowingly.

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Forgotten Bookmarks

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you’ve purchased used books at antiquarian bookstores and “friends of the library” book sales, you will know that from time to time, that treasured book you just purchased also contains its own treasure — something that was deliberately inserted into the book, but has been missed or forgotten. The range of the ephemera is broad — from handwritten notes, letters, photographs, greeting cards, postcards, bills, newspaper articles, to objects like feathers or dried flowers. While many have functioned as haphazardly selected bookmarks, others were very deliberately chosen. Despite their form or intentions all of these share one thing in common — they reveal a glimpse into the life story of the person who previously owned the book. And that is worth pondering for a moment. As dedicated book collectors know — and deeply cherish — every book of value has a story of how it became part of a personal library. But imagine now, that a particular newly acquired book has two stories — the one that brought it to you and the one that brought it to its original owner many years ago. What was going on in their lives at the time? Who gave it to them or how did they come across this book? Did the book provide some insight into whatever they were struggling with? Did they mean to retrieve this item from the book or did they forget about it? In some cases, the forgotten bookmarks provide a few clues to be able to answer some of these questions; in general, they remain a wonderful little mystery that will linger on with the book. Without further ado, here are some of the forgotten bookmarks that I have found in books over the past year:

Handwritten notes about the novel

An offer from the Columbia Music Collection (1400 N. Fruitridge, Terre Haute, IN 47811) for the Legends of Jazz recordings. $29.95 for 3 CDs or $19.95 for 3 cassettes. “If you decide to return the entire set, simply do so withing 14 days and owe nothing.”

Note card in book about when they bought the book, where, and who was with them; as well as the context of when they purchased the book (in this case, Ward’s Book Barn)

Slip of paper containing dates of when they began reading the book, and when they finished it

Articles related to Hamlet and Shakespeare from newspapers and magazines


Receipt from an estate sale

$650 check (void) from a teacher’s credit union

Small faded color photographs of a young girl wearing leg braces, sitting on a lawn chair

In book of rhymes, a condensed summary of most common rhyming words

Computer punch card

Flier from Book of the Month Club. (Key Ideas in Human Thought by Kenneth McLeish, 1993) Special selection; member’s price $34.95; publisher’s price: $45.00

Paycheck stub

Valentine heart: “From me to you”

Cursive penmanship homework

Bookmark from Shirley Cobb Book Store, long out of business in the SF Bay Area

A book plate resembling a library check-out sleeve and card: From the Library of __________. A good book is the best of friends the same today and forever. The card reads: Title:  On Loan To:  Name: and Date. In this case it was loaned to Professor Stanlye on October 19

Moon Landing July 20, 1969 Commemorative Book Mark: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Toledo Edison Employees Federal Credit Union pay stub

Bookmark from Little Professor Book Company, Columbus Ohio

A pricing slip from a Friend of the Library book sale. At the top it notes: “Section manager please discard after pricing.” List different pricing levels: Less than $1, $1-3, $3-5, and $5-10. Then it lists “Checklist Reasons: Loose pages, binding; scuffed, torn, chipped; writing/marks on pages; liquid damage, stains. At the bottom is a line for Researcher and Date.

Invitation to a reception to honor a donor of a music education program

Church bulletin from May 1972

Newspaper clipping: obituary of Lewis Mumford, A Visionary social Critic dies at 94 (Jan 28 1990)

Mid-term exam for English 44-A dated March 19, 1958

Handwritten poem “All that I want to hear/is that you like me”

Memo to allow a person to be excused so that he can be present for the delivery of his first child in April 1978

Car repair bill

Amazon receipt from October 15, 2011

Boarding pass from Virgin America, Flight from San Francisco to Orange County, Feb 2009

Computer punch card (1970s) for student registration; class: Mind of Jesus (100) 2 units, Stanford University

Book Review note: Books for young readers review copy, Doubleday & Company New York

Newspaper article “Hamlet is brief respite in migrant migrant camp” (undated) about a performance of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre company for refugees in Calais, France.

Thank you card: “Thank you for your hard work and contributions over the last year.”

Neatly typed notes on chronology of events in Light in August; parallels between Joe Christmas and Christ.

Self portrait drawn in black ink

Class syllabus with complete class roster and contact information for teacher and each student (Sociolinguistics Fall 1991, Stanford University) and assignment schedule

A small Christmas card, “Christmas Cheer”

Happy Sweet Sixteenth Birthday card and a recipe for an orange julius drink

Elegant Christmas Greetings bookmark from books printed in Italy from early 1900s

Bookmark from Crown Books (still the cheapest bookstore in town) announcing 45% off feature bestsellers and 40% off NYT hardcover bestsellers

List of 25 word reversals (mimeograph)

A poem, thanking for someone for always being there.

A bookmark from A Common Reader, a book club for intelligent, discerning readers.

Note: “To E_______ and A________, whom I am please to count as friends as well as family. May this book, in some small way, enrich your lives as you have enriched mine.”

To my three children: Enjoy the wonders of our language. With great love, Dad. (Christmas 2006) Inscribed in pencil in a word reference book

“Examination Copy” note from Harcourt Brace & World , Inc. “We are pleased to send you this book, with our compliments, so that you may have an opportunity to review it for possible class use. We hope you will enjoy examining it.” (King Lear: Text, Sources, Criticism). Blank note card. At the top: “Here are my comments.”

A handwritten letter from a mother reaching out to an estranged daughter. The letter begins: “Dear C____, I hope this letter finds you in the best of health.” The letter then discusses recent news of family members (illnesses, births, etc.) Suddenly, the letter turns to a difficult matter: “Now let’s talk about you and me. I don’t know why you resent me so much. We are like strangers. If I did something to you now or before, I would like to know. I’d give my life for you. I don’t know, did I bring you up wrong? Did I ever mistreat you? Did I ever begrudge you anything? I don’t know. But if you know, let me in on it so I can correct it. Before I get off this earth. Take care and please no hard feelings. God Bless you. All my love, Mom.” The most fascinating part of this rather haunting letter is that is was found in a very intellectual, philosophical work, Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It’s a very complex work (Becker is a student of Kierkegaard, Freud, Rank, and Nietschzoe among many other notable thinkers) but if you could summarize it simply, it would be this: man is trapped by his symbolic, intellectual self and his primitive self and inescapable demise. Denial of, or fear of, death has become the main motivation for modern life, and paradoxically, the source of its many neuroses.

Letter from Reader’s Digest. Thanking you for purchasing one of their books and mentioning some highlights from the book. (The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed)

Pressed leaves in between sheets of paper in a large dictionary (Random House Dictionary, 2nd ed)

Bookmark that promotes a loyalty program for Kepler’s Bookstore established in 1955 in Menlo Park.

Postcard from Sierra Club featuring two a mother polar bear and her cub.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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How Blindness Shaped a Famous Author’s Career

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHe was born into a prominent highly-educated British family. His father was a writer and schoolmaster; his mother, a founder of a school, was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold; his grandfather was a well-known biologist and passionate advocate of evolution. But this young man wanted to be a medical doctor. His life changed dramatically when he turned 17. He contracted keratitis punctata, a painful condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed and leads to temporary or permanent blindness. In the case of this person, the condition left him completely blind for two to three years. His brother wrote: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism, he was able to take all knowledge for his province.” As the author later explained in an interview: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it.” He did learn braille in order to read. Fortunately, over time by using a magnifying glass and eye exercises, he was able to regain most of his eyesight in the left eye. (He wrote about this process in his book, The Art of Seeing, published in 1942). He went on to study English literature in college, edit the poetry magazine, and graduate with honors.

So who is this remarkable young man? His name is Aldous Huxley, one of the most successful writers and social satirists of the 20th century. He wrote several novels, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point, but it is his fifth novel that is the most recognized: Brave New World, published in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a successful screenwriter, writing screenplays for Madame Curie, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1952, Huxley spoke to a crowd at a Hollywood banquet. Editor Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, recounts the author’s ordeal: “[Huxley was] wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficult. Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: http://mentalfloss.com/article/83243/10-dystopian-facts-about-aldous-huxley

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