Not All Harvard Cocktail Parties Are A Waste of Time

We can’t just live on a diet of alternating snark and rage at the feral Republican children trying to burn down the House.  Rather, we could — but that’s like suffering the health effects of a day-after-day Super Size Me diet of political high fructose corn starch and a bucket of Krispy Kreme’s — and I, at least, need some happier stuff from time to time just to remind me that the world isn’t simply a playground for the worst of us.

Hence this delightful tale, via my science writing friend David Dobbs, who led to this gem from David Quigg, proprietor of the Two Many Daves blog. The link takes you to a post ostensibly about Quigg’s ongoing pursuit of Ernest Hemingway’s FBI file — in which he’s making progress, but still faces G-manned roadblocks between him and what he really wants to know.

Quigg (deliberately, I suspect) buried the lede.  Hemingway’s a side show.  The really sweet tale he’s managed to extract from the Great Redactor introduces a new character, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley.  Shapley had a mixed record as an astronomer — he picked the wrong side in the famous Curtis-Shapley debate on whether or not the spiral nebula that had been observed by 1920 lay inside or outside our Milky Way galaxy, and he rather unfortunately thought Edwin Hubble had committed junk science.  But he had the right enemies.  A political liberal and friend of Henry Wallace, he was targeted by Joe McCarthy,* which is what landed him in the FBI files that Quigg received.

Seeing a now rather obscure name in the history of astronomy turn up in the file led Quigg to the magical Google machine — and that’s where this story goes from curious to great:

According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost’s stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve–figuratively, if not literally–and said something like, “Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?” [1] Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. “So,” said Shapley to his audience in 1960, “I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth.” Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_016

“Imagine my surprise,” Shapley said, “when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem.” He then read “Fire and Ice” aloud. He saw “Some say” as a reference to himself–specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty.

I should add that the anecdote comes from Tom Hansen, who recalls hearing Shapley lecture about (inter alia) his conversation with Frost.  Hansen doesn’t dispute Shapley’s memory of the encounter, but he does point out that the poem itself is not a versification of cosmology, and hence, that Shapley’s puff of pride at his muse’s role is very likely (IMHO too) misplaced.

In any event one may — I do — kvell at the thought of those two mutual incomprehensibles sipping sherry whilst thinking such different thoughts fashioned out of the same words.

Beats trying to deal with the Repblican’s Boehner problem, that’s for sure.

*Shapley’s line on McCarthy’s accusations:  “the Senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity.”  Not bad for an ivy covered professor, I’d say.

Image:  Francisco Goya, The Snowstorm (Winter), 178-1787. (This is a bit of Goya juvenalia, as far as I’m concerned — but even before Goya became GOYA, he still could paint a bit, wouldn’t you say?)

Explore posts in the same categories: Fun, poetry, words mattter

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2 Comments on “Not All Harvard Cocktail Parties Are A Waste of Time”

  1. Harvey Boulay Says:

    Can’t find source for ” poet in residence” at Harvard. Perhaps Amherst?

  2. kaleberg Says:

    I remember Shapley as a science popularizer. My parents had some of his books around the house. They were a bit dated, even in the 1960s, but he was an interesting writer. I always associate him with JBS Haldane, Loren Eiseley and other science writers of his era. Every so often I reread a book from that era. The science is often wrong, but always fascinating.


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