Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Playing Favorites: Rediscovering A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Author: Madeleine L’Engle
First Published: 1963
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Literature
Awards: Newberry Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Sequoyah Book Award
**A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet Series**

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

For the bookish child, there is at least one book that will ignite his/her lifelong passion for literature. This favorite book will speak to the child at the most fundamental level. In moments of crisis, it will lend him/her the strength of its protagonists. Between its covers lies a safe space where the child will feel understood and less alone. In some cases, the book may even open up a world of possibilities beyond what the imagination readily offers. It will be a solace to the child, an escape from the rigors and prison-like confines of real life.

In my case, my favorite childhood book is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was a book that served all the aforementioned purposes and more. Its protagonist, Meg Murry, with her social awkwardness, her struggles with conformity, and inability to fit in, reflected the same issues I had growing up. See, like Meg, I was a socially awkward kid. I was eager to please and painfully shy, which as I learned in adulthood is a terrible combo as far as developing your self-worth is concerned. Books, for me, provided the companionship I craved and a much-needed haven where I could be myself—oddities, queer habits, quirks, and all that.  Hey, I even liked Math and was pretty good at it, pre-algebra too, at least.

I remember the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time. I was about 9. It must have been a borrowed copy too, because I was extra-careful not to bend the spine. In lieu of dog ears, I’d slip scraps of paper between its leaves. Now, did I borrow it from the library? Did I borrow it from a friend? The memory is a tricky thing. Some details in life stand out starkly, but I suppose the details that do, do so because of how they made you feel—at least for me. I’ve always been pants at memorization.

Anyhow, in case you haven’t read Wrinkle, I’ve included a lengthy summary of its plot below. Summaries and synopsis are weak spots of mine, so I hope I can do Wrinkle some justice.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry’s adventure starts with that ominous, if overused, first line. At the start of the book, the reader is introduced to the Murrys via Meg’s viewpoint. We learn that Meg is the eldest of the Murry children. Her mother is a beautiful and brilliant scientist with doctorate degrees in Biology and Bacteriology, while her father is a top-level government physicist. Mr. Murry mysteriously disappeared over a year ago while he was working on a top-secret government assignment involving fifth-dimensional space travel (a.k.a tesseract).

On top of missing her father and worrying about her mother, Meg is also riddled with insecurities. She considers herself the oddball and the disappointment in the family. Despite her high IQ, she is struggling in school and is unable to make friends. She is shown to be a loving and loyal daughter, albeit prone to moments of violence and volatility particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones. Her three younger brothers include the ‘perfectly normal’ twins, Sandy and Dennys (aged 10), and her baby brother, Charles Wallace (aged 5).

Like Meg, outside the family, Charles Wallace is also shown to be very misunderstood. He is often referred to as her ‘dumb baby brother,’ mainly because despite his large vocabulary, he refuses to speak when other people are around. The reader also learns early on that Charles Wallace has telepathic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to read Meg’s and their mother’s minds.

The plot really starts moving a few pages in when the Murrys admit a late night visitor into their house. Meg somewhat correctly assumes that it is the tramp she’s been hearing about—the one that stole their neighbor’s sheets. But Charles recognizes the visitor and introduces her to his mother and sister as Mrs. Whatsit. He claims to have met Mrs. Whatsit, along with her two companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, while he was out walking the family dog.

Now, Mrs. Whatsit may appear to be a tramp, but she’s actually a telepathic celestial being that knows far more about the universe than any of earth’s greatest minds. Testament to Mrs. Murry’s stellar character, she offers Mrs. Whatsit shelter from the raging storm, but Mrs. Whatsit insists on going her way.

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

As she makes her way out of the Murry’s house, she tells Mrs. Murry that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Although the words initially mean nothing to both the children and the reader, they catch Mrs. Murry off-guard, leaving her upset and deep in thought. She later tells Meg that the tesseract is a concept that she and Meg’s father had been studying before his disappearance.

                “But you’re good at basketball and things,” Meg protested. “You’re good in school. Everybody likes you.”

“For all the most unimportant means,” Calvin said. “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.”

The next afternoon, Charles Wallace invites Meg for a walk and leads her to Mrs. Whatsit’s house. There, they meet Calvin O’Keefe—a kid two years above Meg’s grade. Calvin is a golden boy—a member of the basketball team and extraordinarily smart, to boot. But what really sets Calvin apart from his peers is his almost psychic intuitiveness about things. Throughout the book, he takes on the role of Meg’s protector and, spoiler alert, love interest. He accompanies Meg and Charles when they meet Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—completing the book’s three Mrs. W’s.

The Mrs. W’s explain to the children that they know where Mr. Murry is and that the children are the only ones who can save him. They tell the children that Mr. Murry is being held captive by the Dark Thing, this malicious shadow that is the root of all evil in the universe. IT is a malevolent force that is threatening to engulf the entire universe in IT’s darkness. Despite the Dark Thing’s power, they assure the children that IT can be defeated—and is in fact being defeated time and again by good. On Earth, these heroes include the likes of Jesus, Einstein, and Da Vinci to name a few.

Using fifth-dimensional travel, or tesseract (illustrated in the diagram below), the Mrs. W’s whisk the children off into a grand adventure through space.

tesseract

(an illustration of how traveling through tesseract works.)

Their fight against IT culminates on the planet of Camazotz—a place, much like earth, with inhabitants that are much like humans. The inhabitants of the entire planet have been brainwashed by IT, an oversized, disembodied brain that forces everyone into conformity through IT’s hypnotic and rhythmic pulsing. Like a puppet master, IT possesses anyone who succumbs to IT’s power, including Camazotz puppet leader, the Man With Red Eyes. Through The Man With Red Eyes, IT tells the children:

“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet. I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”

To save Mr. Murry, the children must steel themselves against IT’s powers of mind control. During one of their standoffs, Meg utters my favorite lines from A Wrinkle in Time. She realizes that multiplication tables and nursery rhymes are too rote, so she launches into an impassioned narration of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

“No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”

-Meg deflecting IT’s attempts to slither into her mind

(Note: I’m sure you can guess how the novel ends, but I’ll leave some of the hows to your imagination.)

On Themes and the Value of Persistence

Now, before we proceed to the more personal part of my review, here are some interesting facts about this award-winning novel.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers before being snatched up by the American publishing company, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

Madeleine L’Engle may have finished writing Wrinkle at lightning speed in 1960, but finding a publisher for the novel turned out to be a slow and agonizing uphill battle that lasted three long years. According to L’Engle, she received no less than 26 rejection slips before the manuscript was picked up by John C. Farrar of FSG. L’Engle had submitted Wrinkle to Farrar at the insistence of one of her mother’s guests at a family tea party.

Wrinkle may actually be a political piece that mirrored America’s anti-Totalitarian sentiments.

In Anna Quindlen’s essay, “An Appreciation,” which appears as the introduction to the current issue of A Wrinkle in Time, the Pulitzer-winning journalist reflects on how the dark dictatorship of Camazotz echoed 1960s America’s fear of communism.

This sentiment is confirmed by what may be the ‘lost pages’ of A Wrinkle in Time. According to an article from Oregon Live, L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis discovered three pages that were cut from the original manuscript. In one of the pages, Mr. Murry warns Meg about the dangers of totalitarianism, mentioning the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, and Krushchev.

It is a book about the war between Good and Evil, the dangers of Conformity, and the importance of challenging the status quo for the good of all.

Throughout Wrinkle, we find countless allusions to God and his greatness. Whether it be from the heavenly songs of the celestial beings of Uriel or the quotes of the Mrs. Ws, the book is peppered with passages from the Bible. Now, I can’t comment about the rest of the time quintet—as I am actually yet to find and read them—but I can say that Wrinkle does show the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s faith. The fact that the main theme of the book has to do with the good/light defeating evil/darkness can already be seen as a nod to her Christian background.

But the beauty of the book, particularly for the non-religious, is how it includes vastly universal themes that we all can identify with. Take, for example, the issue of conformity. In a world that is mistrustful of what is different or unknown, acceptance and security are hinged on a person’s ability to abide by the dictates of society.

You are allowed to be ‘different,’ so long as you’re not too ‘different.’ And this is a lesson that’s ingrained in us from childhood. I believe the phrase is “beaten into submission.” A strange child is seen as no better than a miscreant or a future hoodlum.

Naturally, what a lot of these conformity coaches don’t see is that a different viewpoint is necessary for change. And to better the status quo, citizens must have the capacity for critical and independent thinking. To thwart individuality is akin to thwarting progress. And sameness or blind acquiescence may offer the advantage of easy rule and surface-level order, but ultimately, these two ‘pros’ will only benefit the lucky few. And I’ve gone didactic on you. Apologies for that, dear reader.

On to the Rest of the Review

Reading A Wrinkle in Time at the cusp of prepubescence taught me countless life lessons. The book reaffirmed what I knew about the importance of family, love, and faith. But perhaps the best lesson of all was the importance of being yourself—regardless of who, what, or how you are. At 9 years of age, I learned that even socially awkward children (or adults) had the capacity to become the heroes of their own lives. Sure, we won’t all get the chance to save the world or experience interstellar travel, but we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by choosing to do what is good and brave instead of settling for what is easy and convenient.

Now, it’s been about two decades since I last revisited A Wrinkle in Time. I decided to reread this old favorite so I could give it a proper, and dare I say it, unbiased review. The way I saw it, twenty years was more than enough time to shake off sentimentality in favor of impartiality. I wanted to see if Wrinkle could still impart the same sense of magic it had offered me some 22 years ago—and obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

Wrinkle is a book for people of all ages. It may be my favorite childhood book, but it also takes its place on my shelf of all-time literary greats.

 

Rating: 5/5

Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

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Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

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Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

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Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Ten Popular Names with Odd and Unexpected Definitions behind Them

Today, the world celebrates “Learn What Your Name Means Day.” Inspired by this really interesting not-quite-holiday, I set out to find the definition behind my first name—Kristel Marie.

Except, being naturally curious, I didn’t really stop with my name. Instead, I fell down this rabbit hole of entertaining but time-consuming and potentially useless name binge that led me to a large list of popular names with very bizarre meanings behind them. Here are ten of my favorites.

Kennedy – While according to some sources, Kennedy is the English cognate of the Gaelic name, Cinnéidigh, which translates to helmeted chief, other sources claim that the name means ugly or misshapen head.

MacLeod – According to multiple sources, Wikipedia included, the Scottish last name MacLeod means Son of Leod, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. Except Leod allegedly also means ugly man. Put two and two together and MacLeod would translate to “son of the ugly man.” Yikes. Beautiful name with a not-too-flattering definition behind it.

Cecilia – This lovely English first name is said to be derived from its masculine cousin, Cecil. Cecil, in turn, comes from the Latin word coccus, which means blind.

Mallory – The French name Mallory is said to mean bad luck or ill-fated.

Calvin – The male first name Calvin is said to be derived from the French last name Cauvin, which means the little bald one.

Claudia – I’ve always loved the French baby name Claudia. This beautiful name is based on the male name Claud—from the Latin word Claudium, which means lame.

Byron – Lord Byron may have been the ultimate seducer, but his last name comes from the Old English word byre, which means barn for cows.

Gideon – The Hebrew baby name Gideon is said to mean the destroyer with a stump for a hand.

Portia – Portia may have been the lead in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” but according to some sources, the name also comes from the Latin word Porcia, which means hog or swine.

Leah – The baby name Leah has two possible meanings. In the Semitic nation, Chaldea, the name Leah meant ruler or mistress. But the Hebrew name is also said to have come from the Hebrew word le’ah, which means weary.

P.S. In case you’re interested, these are the (possibly) legit definitions for Kristel and Marie:

Apparently, Kristel is either (a) a derivative of the Greek word Christianos, meaning “follower of Christ,” or (b) a 19th century name from the word Crystal, which is a type of transparent quartz. As for Marie, according to BabyNameWizard.com, the name is a French derivative of the biblical name, Mary—as in the Mother of God. But aside from this, Marie could also mean a myriad of other things, including “the sea of bitterness or sorrow,” “rebellion,” “the mistress of the sea,” and the “wished-for child.”

Sources:

http://www.ranker.com/list/funny-baby-name-meanings/anabel-conner

http://babynames.allparenting.com/babynames/Ideas/Baby_names_with_weird_meanings/

http://lifestyle.one/closer/family-money/family/worst-baby-name-bad-meaning-girl-boy/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/31/bad-baby-names_n_3366655.html

In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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