Memento Mori 2: From Pen, to Page, to Grave

by Shane L. Larson

Adlai Stevenson & Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1964 Democratic Convention. [Image: Inge Morath, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery]

I live just down the road from Adlai Stevenson High School, named for noted diplomat and intellectual, Adlai E. Stevenson II, who was the 31st governor of Illinois. He was also a fast friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and on the occasion of her death delivered her eulogy, widely regarded as one of the most outstanding pieces of oration in the modern era. In his tribute he said:

“We are always saying farewell in this world — always standing at the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence — something which is precious and gone.”

This bit of narrative has been ringing quietly in my head of late. Over the past few years I have become painfully aware of many colleagues I have known for years passing quietly away. At the same time, there have been many high profile passings of cultural icons, musicians, and famous personalities. Many of them have departed this life at an age not much different than my own, an observation that generates a bit of uncomfortable foreboding on my part. But in these regretful musings the other day, I began to wonder what happens when scientists die? 

The thought was inspired by a casual glance around my office coupled with the question of what’s going to happen to all my stuff? Not my toys, not my books, not my pencils. But all my work — my calculations, my research problems, my writings. At zeroth order, my family (or perhaps my padawans) are going to have a time of it when I return to stardust — just look at my desk…

and my study…and my library…

It’s all significant to me in some way; I’m not sure it is significant to anyone else.

One of the sad events in my life was the passing of my graduate advisor, Bill Hiscock, who returned to the Cosmos at a young age (which I’ve written about). After he passed away, someone had to sort through all that he left behind in his office — a lifetime of science. I spent a couple of days sorting his books and going through all his papers. Some of it I returned to his family (like the hand-written copy of his Ph.D. thesis I found); some of his notes I delivered to colleagues who had worked with him on various projects; old faxes and such we trashed (kids: “faxes” are like text messages, but we didn’t have phones with screens so the phone printed the messages out on paper). But at the end, there was a set of papers that didn’t have a home. It didn’t seem right to get rid of them, so I kept them. I have all of those last remnants in 4 file boxes.

The four preserved boxes I have of Bill’s notes. Scientific musings, calculations, puzzles, and results that I didn’t think should be lost forever.

What’s in them? Bits of calculations, speculations on certain aspects of physics, ideas for projects and papers, and so on. Sometimes, thumbing through them I’m overwhelmed by the running lines of his handwriting, and I can once again hear his voice in my head, almost as if he were standing with me at his whiteboard, explaining what he was thinking about.

A few pages of notes from Bill’s files. In this case he is studying a particular kind of black hole called a “Reissner Nordstrom black hole” — a perfectly spherical black hole that has electric charge on it. It is embedded in a space that has radiation that travels at the speed of light, making this a “Reissner Nordstrom Vaidya” black hole (RNV). “Geodesics” are the paths that particles travel on, so these pages represent how particles move around an RNV black hole.

Science is often a solitary endeavour, and its products are precious and unique. The result of every musing, every calculation, every simulation, and every graph is a new and unique bit of knowledge, previously unknown. Until it is shared with the rest of the world, only one person has that knowledge — the person who thought of it. It is knowledge that is earned at great cost — not just a cost in time, the fraction of a person’s life that is spent coming up with the result, but cost as the accumulation of knowledge, skills, experience, and curiosity that led to the moment when that person was capable of recognizing that new idea or fact. A person’s view of a new discovery, their emotional response and their impressions of its importance, is a one-of-a-kind response that could only come from them.

I can’t help but look at the boxes of files that I’ve kept and think about all those moments that are still there; all those musings and speculations and wild ideas and awesome discoveries that were uniquely from Bill. In a very real sense, all of those moments are lost in time, departed back to the Cosmos when Bill left us, because no one else knew about them.

Except I have them, in his own handwriting — the next best thing we have to having Bill back by our side.

The question is what next? How do we capture this, and send it back to the world so all those musings aren’t lost somewhere forever?

Page 28 of Newton’s Principia, with Newton’s corrections scribbled out and noted. [Image: Cambridge University Library]

This is not a new question or problem. There are remarkable examples of scientific writings that have survived their authors, many carefully preserved like I am preserving Bill’s notes. Consider Issac Newton, whose papers, writings, and books are preserved at Cambridge University. There are remarkable treasures hidden there, windows into the complex maze of human intellect and genius. What nuances of Newton’s thoughts and speculations are preserved in Newton’s own copy of his magnum opus, the Principia? The Principia is arguably the most influential scientific book ever written, but an author is always their own strongest critic, and you can see Newton’s edits and additions throughout the thousand pages of his copy. Newton’s personal annotations and notes have been digitally scanned and placed online for everyone to see, a gift to the world. 

A page from Newton’s Waste Book; it reminds me of any scientist’s notebook where they are teaching themselves something new about Nature. [Image: Cambridge University Library]

My favorite document in Cambridge’s collection is Newton’s “Waste Book — an oversized folio previously used by his stepfather. Newton kept it for the paper, which was a precious commodity in his day. The Waste Book’s pages contain his musings and work from when he was developing Calculus. It’s not that I love calculus so much (I struggle with some calculus still, like many of you), but I am deeply enamored with how familiar the pages feel — scratch work spilling out of the tip of pen, diagrams and equations and notations, things crossed out or scribbled out in frustration, and long streams of personal conversation, all in an effort to understand something about the Cosmos.

Another favorite example of important scientific notes just waiting to be discovered involves astronomical images. In the mid-1800s, telescopes had been around for more than 200 years, but people were discovering that they could attach instruments to them. In 1840, John William Draper, an amateur astronomer in New York, attached a camera to his telescope and took the first astrophotograph, an image of the Moon, just one year after the daguerreotype photographic method had been invented. In 1872, his son, Henry Draper, took the first picture of a stellar spectrum, capturing the sinuous forest of absorption lines that encode the story of the star Vega.

One of the first and few surviving photographs of the Moon ever taken, by John William Draper in March 1840. The image has survived, preserved for almost 200 years, a record of a profound moment in the advance of astronomy. [Image: NYU Archives]

These innovations incited an era of prodigious astronomical data collection around the world, arguably the true beginning of the “Big Data Era” in astronomy. Today, all those records are stored in observatory and university basements around the world. At Harvard College Observatory they have 500,000 glass plates, a record of the sky that spans a century. For the past decade, a dedicated team of astronomers and data scientists and volunteers have been cleaning, then digitally scanning every plate in the collection, creating the DASCH archive — the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard. It is an unprecedented record of the sky and how it has been changing and evolving over timescales longer than a human lifetime.

The Harvard Plate Library is a Cosmic Time Machine — a treasure trove of data that when combined with our current understanding of astrophysics and modern observations will yield unprecedented ways of probing how the Cosmos is changing in time. That knowledge was earned at great cost by previous generations, a priceless scientific record of data that can never be recovered were it to be lost. By scanning and measuring all the plates, they make that long history of astronomical data accessible to modern tools and modern researchers.

An example plate scanned by DASCH from the Harvard Plate Library, showing an example of the types of annotations found on plates. See all the details and high rez scans of this plate here. [Image: DASCH Project at Harvard]

But there is an interesting bit of this project relevant to our musings here: on the glass photographic plates, there are notations, marks and writings from the people working at the observatory when they were recorded (there is a paper about preserving these notations; public accessible version of the paper here). Among these annotations are writings from giants in the field of astronomy. Of most interest to me are those from Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The Universe we know today and our ability to probe the distant Cosmos was enabled by Leavitt’s work at this time — she was the first person to discover the secret of measuring the distances to the stars, against which all other distance measures are calibrated. We call that rule Leavitt’s Law, and the history of her discovery is contained in her work at Harvard.

It makes me a bit heady to imagine finding other examples of lost writings of people long gone. What would we learn from lost notes of those who came before us? Ephemeral human moments when a person was struck by inspiration or long hours of uncertain labor culminated in a discovery. Those discoveries were later recognized as transformative moments in human history. Those discoveries shaped our technology, our science, our future, and our society.

So here I sit, thumbing through the last pieces of Bill’s notes, and wondering about Leavitt jotting notes down on a plate log, or Newton striking out some random error in his Waste Book. When I pass from this world, there will be a tremendous amount of material left behind, and someone will have to do something with it. One option would be to just recycle it all; that happens to most of us, I suppose. Just because I kept the Lego Calendar from a particular year doesn’t mean my descendants will give a hoot about it.

Some of my scientific notebooks. [Image: S. Larson]

But what about my scientific work? My musings about Nature are contained in a vast storm of paper that litters my desk, a few small drawers of files with unsorted papers that have “important” things written on them (I have many files that have a giant label on them that says “IMPORTANT,” where “important” means “things I don’t want to forget”), and in a large number of binders in my office. I don’t think there is much there that will be of interest to future generations, though there are long lists of projects and calculations that I think would be interesting or good for students to work on. Someone should keep those, or get them to one of my former students, who can use them to seed work with their own padawans.

My personal notebooks. The two stacks on the left are some of my “Idea Notebooks“, the stack of spirals in the back are some of my personal observing logs from nights at the telescope, and the stack of orange notebooks on the right are a few of my astronomy sketchbooks of what I saw through the eyepiece. [Image: S. Larson]

But just between me and you, what I think is most important in the paper storm of my life, it is my large collection of Moleskine style journals that I call my Idea Notebooks. Most of my personal intellectual musings gets poured into these — small calculations and ideas for projects, speculations on the nature of the Cosmos, personal reflections on the world, drafts of blogs that have sometimes appeared here. There are some scribbled calculations that capture something of my mental state in the day following the discovery of the first gravitational wave source by LIGO, GW150914. There’s a lengthy calculation of the fuel requirements to fly to Proxima Centauri. There’s a series of 10 pages trying to work out how to generate clean water after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. I spent a great deal of time making my own calculations about the physical requirements to build a Ringworld. Maybe those thousands of pages are of interest, maybe they aren’t. They are of interest to me.

A typical example of some pages from my Idea Notebooks. On the left is an attempt to calculate how many potatoes Mark Watney had to grow to survive on Mars, and on the right is a memorial notation for Burton Richter, who discovered the J/Psi meson. [Image: S. Larson]

There is a vast amount of personal information in my Idea Notebooks as well — funny things from the Internet, memorials to those who have passed away, Zentangles, plans for Lego creations, and sketches of woodworking projects.  

I also have a completely separate stack of logbooks and sketchbooks covering decades of time with my telescope — my personal observing records and sketches from literally thousands of hours with my telescope, alone in the dark; observations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the first time I saw the Horsehead Nebula, a search for the globular clusters in Andromeda, and so on. In this day and age there is likely little of scientific interest in them, but they contain all the magical moments I experienced in my personal communing with the Cosmos. Mundane stuff that is not of interest to anyone perhaps, but it is all of it me.

An example from one of my astronomy sketchbooks; the best night I ever saw Jupiter. Is this of scientific value? Probably not — there are certainly clear photographs from that very same night. But this is my record of an ephemeral human moment, just me and the Cosmos. [Image: S. Larson]

In her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook” (contained in the her excellent collection of prose Slouching Toward Bethlehem) Joan Didion wrote,

“Why do I keep a notebook at all? … The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

I feel that compulsion to write things down, for intangible and unexplained reasons. Is any of it good and useful to humanity? I dunno — maybe. I hope it is useful for something. I want it to be useful for something. A lot is probably drivel, but maybe some of it isn’t. Some of it I have always hoped would be useful, if I could somehow do something with it. How do I harness all that I’ve bled out onto those pages through the nib of a fountain pen and redirect it outward to the world?

I’ve poured a lot of what I am out onto a few scraps of paper, pages pressed from dead trees that I preserve in my study where no one knows about them except me. They will only be valuable if someone finds them, reads them, and can use them. 

Which reminds me, I have Bill’s notes.  What can we do with them now?


This post is the second post in a series that explores the ephemeral nature of human life in our quest to understand our place in the Cosmos. The posts in the series are:


One response to “Memento Mori 2: From Pen, to Page, to Grave

  1. Ah! Mortality.
    True, most of your musings will make worm fodder as we ourselves shall. However the dust storm created in life and study, invariably leaves traces. Traces by which other life may root itself and grow.
    Patterns upon patterns creating a norm or solidifying evolutionary changes. This is all we can do and isn’t it marvellous.
    Cheers Shane B

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