Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.
The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.
Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts? And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.
It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.
Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.” He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil
Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world.
Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.
Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.
Here in northern California we have been preoccupied by the wildfires that are threatening homes and property in many parts of the state. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the vague smell of smoke hovers over us and on some days the sky in the morning has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue. City dwellers are sometimes thought to be immune to changes in the natural world, but nature has intruded on us this year and we have become preoccupied by it.
The wildfires in so many western states—made much worse by the hot, dry weather that has prevailed—are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and the disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. And the hurricane season has only started. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.
Last year when I visited London, I bought a book called Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies. The author, Alexandra Harris, traces the history of the way writers and artists have been influenced by English weather over the centuries. The ever-changing British weather has encouraged a deep interested in tracking the vagaries of
changes in the weather. Even architecture has been impacted. The warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s, as reported by Harris, have been suggested as an incentive to introduce the neoclassical style buildings in cities like Bath. Although as she explains the “high ceilings and open colonnades were considerably less appealing” when the average chilly English climate reappeared in later years.
The 19th century was one that brought dampness and rain to much of England. Byron wrote “Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,/And men forgot their passions in the dread…” As the century went on and cities grew in size and density, rain and fog became a part of the plot as in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in which rain falls throughout the first twelve chapters and weather seems to become an integral character in the story.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the influence of people on the weather was recognized as being as important as the influence of weather on people. The use of fossil fuels and the growth
of manufacturing led to increasing episodes of smog both in England and America. The culmination, for London, was the great smog of December 1952 which killed several thousand people. At last the general public began to pay attention and the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.
Now we are again to be in an era when mankind is impacting weather so strongly that once again people throughout the world are in danger. Climate change is causing rising temperatures for oceans and land. Unprecedented storms are increasing in numbers and violence. Deserts are expanding in Africa and coastlines are receding as the oceans rise. Although our national government has become reluctant to act on the clear danger, if enough people push hard enough, we will be able to stop the reckless policies of our so-called leaders and insist on regulations to limit the worst effects of these changes.
Reading Wonderland won’t give you a background in climate science, but it is a great reminder of how important weather has always been in the life of human beings.
If you have ever seen the old (1999) movie Blast from the Past, you probably remember the ingenious premise. A suburban American couple in 1962 decides that an atomic war is about to begin. The husband has prepared a secret bomb shelter underneath the house for just such an occasion and he leads his pregnant wife there. For 35 years the family remains hidden and when their son finally emerges, he discovers the world has completely changed. No atomic war came, but their neighborhood has turned into a slum and the people he meets are unfriendly and greedy. In the movie this encounter leads to romance and comedy, but what would going back to an old neighborhood after 35 years really be like?
Reading David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) has reminded me of how dramatically and quickly American cities can change. Talbot’s book is a well-documented history of San Francisco from the 1960s until the 1990s. During that time the population of the city did not change much—hovering in the 700,000 range—but the people and the mood of the city altered sharply. New groups arrived in the city and many descendants of earlier residents drifted away.
Talbot begins his book with 1967, the Summer of Love, when San Francisco attracted crowds of young people demanding peace, love and an end to war in Vietnam. The staid citizens of the city, many of whom looked back on World War II as the proudest moment in American history could not understand why young men were unwilling to become warriors. Conflict was inevitable, but the hippies learned to provide their own services to take care of the young people flooding into the city. Eventually the war ended, the runaways went back home or settled down in the city, but San Francisco was never the same. Many memories of the city of love are still alive in the minds of city residents.
No city can remain a city of love forever and the days of love and trust faded away as drugs came into the city and with them some brutal crime sprees that shocked residents and titillated the rest of the country. The zodiac murders were especially brutal. And later came the trauma of Jonestown when hundreds of people—men, women, and children—died under the guidance of a charismatic but deluded minister. Drugs, death and destruction all became part of the indelible history of the city.
Reading Season of the Witch makes you aware of how swiftly and irrevocably a city changed over a short period of time. The gay community gradually overcame the fear and resistance of many of the city’s more traditional residents. Today the city is a center of LGBTQ life. The Gay Pride parade became an emblem of the city and the movement it started spread across the country and around the world. The tragic crisis of the AIDS epidemic might have torn the city apart, but instead it seemed to bring the city together in working to heal the sick and find a cure.
All of this happened within the lifespan of one generation. Each decade brought the city another influx of people with new ideas and ambitions. And now a new wave of people have come, bringing another source of tension. Well after the period covered by Talbot’s book, came the invasion of the “techies”, welcomed by some and hated by others, but undoubtedly a group that must be reckoned with.
The prices of houses, condos and rentals have soared, streets have become crowded with cars, bicycles, and scooters and giant buses have appeared to carry the newcomers back and forth to their jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And now developers are hoping to push height limitations on new buildings to accommodate the newcomers. Will San Francisco eventually become a city of high rises like so many other cities around the world? That remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain—it will not remain the same.
Centuries ago Heraclitus told us “There is nothing permanent but change” and it is still true.
Visiting the exhibit of colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.
Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people thought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?
Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.
The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of
the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.
Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent
pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.
Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?
Here in San Francisco the pianos are back in the gardens again—the Botanical Gardens. The idea of placing pianos in public areas and inviting passers-by to play them is now more than a decade old and it is still charming people around the world. Even though piano lessons are not as common as they were a generation or two ago, many amateur musicians still enjoy playing when they have a chance.
Today I want to talk about a woman who helped to make the piano the major instrument that it continues to be—Clara Wieck Schumann. When she gave her first concerts in Vienna in 1838, one critic described her “not a wonderchild—and yet still a child and already a wonder.” Clara was 18 at the time, so not exactly a child, but an accomplished young musician who had studied under her father’s guidance all of her life. From those early concerts, she moved on to a career in music that lasted for sixty years.
On the day before her 21st birthday Clara married Robert Schumann, the composer whose work she helped to make famous. She continued to perform and to compose music after she was married. She had little choice because she was the family
breadwinner. She also raised seven children (an eighth died in infancy). We often hear about the discrimination that women suffered during the 19th century, discrimination that kept many of them from fulfilling their early promise. But sometimes we need to think about the remarkable women who overcame the prejudices and oppression of the times and managed to have successful careers despite all the barriers.
If you ever feel discouraged about the difficulty of combining a career with marriage and motherhood, you can find inspiration by reading more about Clara Schumann. An excellent biography is Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich. The author gives a great deal of scholarly musical background, but even if you are not knowledgeable about music, the story of Clara Schumann’s life will hold your attention and strengthen your resolve to persist in your own ambitions.
And if you have a chance—try to find one of those pianos in a public place and give it a try!
May is Asian Pacific Legacy month, so it was an especially good time to visit the Asian Art
Museum in San Francisco. I saw their Tomb Treasures exhibit and was stunned by the remarkable beauty of objects created two thousand years ago. The graceful lines of a
dancer’s movements are immortalized in stone for us to marvel at. The beauty of a solid jade tomb and a set of jade armor is a legacy for all of us. Centuries come and go, but there is something heartening in knowing that across the centuries humans have created art that will enrich their descendants.
San Franciscans are lucky to have the magnificent Asian Art Museum in our city as well as so many other reminders of the Asian legacy like the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. All of these are an integral part of this country’s treasures that have been brought from so many parts of the world.
Americans haven’t always appreciated the value that Asians have brought us. One of the tragic heritages that lingers on in the memory of many people still alive is the
internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.
Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine gives an unforgettable picture of what happened during the early 1940s. Otsuka tells a touching story about a Japanese-American family living in Berkeley, California, in 1942 who are sent to an internment camp in Utah. Although the family had been living peacefully in their community for years, the father was suddenly arrested in the middle of the night and taken away. Then the mother and her two children are ordered, along with other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, to leave their home for a detention camp.
The book is beautifully written and painfully sad to read. When the family is allowed to return home, they find their lives drastically changed. The reader is left wondering how or whether they will ever be able to return to normality.
Otsuka’s book is a reminder of how many mistakes Americans have made in treating people as part of a group rather than as the individuals they are. Our Asian legacy is filled with light and darkness. We must not let the dark parts of its history be repeated.
The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.
In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.
Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.
Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good
education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.
Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.
It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.
Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.
It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.