Suggested readings, #139

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Yes, the Great Books make us better people. Roosevelt Montás came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child, got his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia and ultimately came to run its Core Curriculum program. This is a slate of courses required of all Columbia undergraduates that includes a major component on what is commonly referred to as the Great Books. Now, he’s written a combination memoir and call to arms. … (New York Times)

Calculate but don’t shut up. Physics is important. We rely on it to provide us with valid conceptions of the nature of the physical world and how it works, conceptions that underpin almost every aspect of our technologically advanced society. At root, physics as a discipline relies on foundational theories of space and time, and of matter and light. For the most part, physicists are content to make use of foundational theories that have remained broadly unchanged for centuries. These are good enough for most practical purposes. But as they explore the physics of the very fast, or of the very small, or as they ponder the large-scale structure of the Universe, they reach for younger theories that were established only a century ago. These are quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. … (Aeon)

How physics can help COVID-proof everyday life. The emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus has put a constellation of researchers – virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists chief among them – in the hot seat as political leaders and public health experts seek answers to questions about how transmissible it is and whether it erodes pre-existing immunity. But while attention for the moment is on the life sciences, physicists also have a role to play in stopping the virus that causes COVID-19. Indeed, in the longer term, insights from physics could drastically reduce transmission of other respiratory pathogens, too. … (Physics World) [Maybe, but I’m not at all convinced by the first experiment mentioned. See if you can spot the potential issue.]

What it’s like to learn you’re going to die. Nessa Coyle calls it the “existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.” I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.” … (the Atlantic)

Stay mad: on Myisha Cherry’s “The Case for Rage.” “KEEP CALM AND carry on,” the cliché insists. But in the face of racism, it’s the wrong approach. In her new book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, Myisha Cherry urges instead, “Get angry!” The Stoic philosopher Seneca famously saw anger as a madness, “hideous and wild […] raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood, and tortures.” He assumed angry people behave badly — but Seneca’s assumption says more about him than it does about anger. … (LA Review of Books) [With all due respect to my friend Skye, I think Seneca was right and Cherry off the mark.]

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

4 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #139”

  1. Adding a personal comment on the “existentialism of dying” link that you of course already had on Book of Face.

    It’s not just a cancer diagnosis that can cause it.

    Not quite 20 years ago, I got lost hiking in the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. Ran out of water. End of July. Definitely over 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside the canyons that give the park its name.

    I hadn’t been prepared for a full day of hiking on one shot.

    I ran out of water.

    Fortunately, I eventually remembered a couple of tinajas, or tanks in English, that had monsoon season water still in them. Even with a junior tadpole or two in them, it was water.

    And, after an overnight in chilly mid-altitude desert, I obviously found my way out the next day.

    But, beyond the personal, I think of Robert Scott, Sir John Franklin and others in the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, etc. … at some point, they knew they weren’t going to make it. Unlike war and battles, where you say “it’s a probability,” at some point, these people knew they weren’t going to make it.

    For me, before remembering the monsoon water in the tanks, I “de-secularized” for a bit and went through a quick round of pleading with about 30 Semitic and Indo-European deities by name. Then, I got more Stoic, so to speak, and more in the philosophical than the psychological sense. Then I remembered the water pools. Now, what would have happened had I not remembered, I don’t know …

    On the Stoic, of course … one of Scott’s mates hiked outside of the tent; the third-to-last to die, if I recall. And, the remaining pair surely knew that, besides his statement, he was really sacrificing himself away from them so they would move on. British stiff upper lip and all.

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  2. Myisha Cherry is often, in my opinion, misusing the word rage, uncontrolled anger, as a synonym for anger.

    I’m guessing Seneca surely knew, the difference between the two and that understanding ourselves doesn’t mean losing any of our resolve to right wrongs or work towards change.

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  3. On the physics and COVID,

    Interesting results with the underwater queue experiment, but not surprising. I can ‘see’ that kind of thing happening in everyday life. I help run a food bank and we have queues with over 2 meters distancing. Outdoors it’s not much of an issue because of air circulation, but indoors with markings on the floor the effect shown in the experiment was more of a concern I had. To help counter it I’ve always encouraged everyone to do the most we can to help air exchange, and maximize cross ventilation, opening doors and windows as much as possible.

    On the issues with masks, like waste and breathability, those definitely need attention. I’ve been considering getting one of these for myself:

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