Friday Jan. 8, 2016

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The Cossacks

For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year’s Eve by counting
my annual dead.

My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.

But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you’d never have, I couldn’t explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial

laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English—
Brontë’s Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.

I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year’s famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.

“The Cossacks” by Linda Pastan from The Last Uncle. © Norton, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). He had a twin brother, Jessie, who was stillborn. His first stage performance came in 1945, when he was 10 years old. He sang “Old Shep” at a talent contest, and came in fifth, winning five dollars’ worth of ride tickets for the Mississippi-Alabama fair. The following year, he wanted a bicycle, but his parents were too poor to buy one. His mother, Gladys, talked him into accepting a substitute gift: a guitar, which cost $12.95 at the Tupelo Hardware Company.

The family moved to Memphis when Presley was 13, and he grew up living in low-rent housing and hanging out on Beale Street. He was surrounded by Memphis blues and black R & B, and went to all-night gospel sings. These, along with Tennessee country music that he heard on the radio, were his musical roots. When he was 18, working as a truck driver, he wanted to give his mom a gift, so he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, where you could record your own songs for a small fee. He had four dollars, and with that money he was able to record two songs: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” The Memphis Recording Service was also the home of Sun Records, and Elvis caught the attention of owner Sam Phillips, who called the young truck driver back in to see if he had any real talent.

Elvis went on to record 149 songs that made the top 100 in the Billboard pop charts, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Today is the birthday of British physicist Stephen Hawking (books by this author), born in Oxford on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death (1942). His parents had originally lived in London, but they moved to Oxford to escape the Blitz. Young Stephen had trouble learning to read, but he was advanced enough in science that he was permitted to attend a girls’ high school when he was eight years old. He earned the nickname “Einstein” for his scientific prowess.

He wanted to study mathematics at Oxford, but the prestigious university didn’t offer a mathematics degree at that time, so he studied physics and chemistry — on a scholarship — instead. He became fascinated with theoretical physics — so fascinated in fact that he ignored all the questions on his final exams that didn’t have to do with theoretical physics. He wanted to study the origins of the universe at Cambridge in graduate school, but his final written undergraduate exams weren’t quite strong enough, so he had to also complete an oral exam. He knew the Oxford professors viewed him as a difficult student, so he used that to his advantage, telling the exam committee, “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” They did indeed, and he entered Cambridge in 1962.

The following year, when he was 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a degenerative neurological condition that results in gradual full-body paralysis and death. He had been stumbling for a while but didn’t think much of it. He finally went to a doctor after he fell while ice-skating and couldn’t get up by himself. Doctors originally gave him two to three years to live. The family was naturally devastated by the news, and Hawking himself fell into a depression because he couldn’t see the point in investing any time into his work. As it turned out, the disease progressed much more slowly than the doctors had originally predicted, and he found a sense of purpose that he had lacked before. He earned a reputation for his groundbreaking work on black holes and on the origin of the universe. He suggested four laws of black hole mechanics, modeled after the four laws of thermodynamics, and published his first book in 1973. It was The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. The following year, he became one of the youngest scientists to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1982, he began work on the book that most non-scientists know him for: A Brief History of Time (1988). “My intention was partly to earn money to pay my daughter’s school fees,” he quipped. “But the main reason was that I wanted to explain how far we had come in our understanding of the universe: how we might be near finding a complete theory that would describe the universe and everything in it.” While writing the book, he was warned that, for every equation that appeared in the book, his sales would be cut in half. He included only one equation: E=mc2. He published a follow-up — A Briefer History of Time — in 2005.

More than five decades after his diagnosis — and now almost completely paralyzed — he is still producing new work. He was scheduled to record a talk on black holes for the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures this month. “We should never stop trying to tell these extraordinary stories from science,” he said, “and I hope my Reith Lecture will enthuse a new generation to develop ideas that will have an impact on our understanding of the world and never to be overwhelmed by the task of discovery.” The lecture was scheduled to air later this month, in conjunction with BBC Radio’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, though it has recently been postponed. He’s currently at work on what’s known as the “information paradox,” in which scientists are puzzling out what happens to information that is absorbed by black holes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®