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Forced to Choose

et al., Roald Hoffmann


Writer to the stars, whose books include Coming of Age in the Milky Way, The Mind's Sky and (on our list) The Whole Shebang

It happened to be a history book—A Child's History of the World, by the schoolmaster V. M. Hillyer—that kindled my lifelong fascination with astronomy, and for some reason I've since been influenced at least as much by literature in general as by scientific books.

Hillyer's account began, reasonably enough, by describing the formation of the earth, and I was astonished to learn from it that the earth hadn't always been here but had come into existence at a specific time, as the result of astronomical processes. Hence there is no real division between here and out there. Pondering this point, I started reading all the astronomy books I could get my hands on, particularly the works of Patrick Moore, the eminent British amateur astronomer, and, later, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr and Wheeler. These authors taught me more than astronomy; in a sense they helped connect me with the wider culture, showed me how to think like a worthy human being.

Yet most of the lessons came from the wider world of books. From Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu I learned the value of the unknown and the overlooked (as in Reginald Blyth's remark, "The back of the picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and vulgar are all of infinite value") and was made skeptical of those philosophers who claim to have explained everything. From Virgil and Dostoyevsky and other Russians I learned how far writing can go—that its limits are like the horizon, made not of space but of perspective.

Looking over the battered old books, I can feel lessons rising from them like the breath of slumbering beasts. From Epictetus, courage; from Homer, strength; from Petrarch, constancy; exuberance from Whitman, Blake and Su Tung-P'o; wit from Shakespeare and Voltaire; grace from Proust; imagination from the early Kant, rigor from the later Kant. Humanity from all. I wish I'd learned all these lessons better, but at least I learned to keep reading. To me the books on the library shelves are alive; they rustle like the living trees from which they—and us, in a sense—originated, calling to us like the old forests, forever full of promise.

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