Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Curious Intellects: Kennan, Dirac, Drabble

Rarely do I read three excellent newspaper articles in a row, but I did so this weekend in the International Herald Tribune -- though I cite from the New York Times.

'Classified' (not!) photograph of poker-faced "X" -- author of the "X Article":

(Image from New York Times)

The first article comes from the pen of Mark Atwood Lawrence, "Friends, Not Allies," about George Kennan and Paul H. Nitze in Nicholas Thompson's study, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. Lawrence channels Thompson to note:
Kennan rose to prominence in 1946, when the Truman administration urgently wanted to understand the reasons for Soviet hostility to the West. The senior United States diplomat at the embassy in Moscow, Kennan offered eloquent and forcefully argued answers. Soviet belligerence sprang from a mix of Marxist ideology and old-fashioned power-­mongering, he said. He then proposed that Washington adopt a policy not of directly confronting Moscow but of frustrating it by opposing Communists wherever they threatened to expand their influence beyond their borders. Over the long term, Kennan predicted, constant frustration would cause the Soviet system to mellow and then collapse.
Kennan had an enormous influence on America's foreign policy of "containment," a strategy that he proposed in his famous cable written from Moscow in 1946, to which he signed "X" rather than his name.

Next, a childhood photograph of an 'angelic' Paul Dirac (replete with wings!) in 1907:

(Image from New York Times)

This second article, Louisa Gilder's review -- "Quantum Leap" -- of Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, quotes Freeman Dyson:
The great papers of the other quantum pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac's . . . . [Dirac's discoveries] were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.
Dirac is perhaps most famous for the equation named for him, the Dirac equation, which brought together quantum mechanics and special relativity to describe the 'spin' of certain particles (e.g., the electron), and by implication demanded the existence of "antiparticles" . . . not that I understand much about this stuff.

Finally, in 'living color,' Margaret Drabble takes her stand:

(Image from New York Times)

This third article, Daphne Merkin's "Dame of the British Interior," based on an interview with Margaret Drabble, speaks about this literary 'prodigy' in the time soon after her marriage to Clive Swift:
The couple spent the first years of their marriage in Stratford-on-Avon as members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Drabble understudied actresses like Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench. When she became pregnant with their first child, however, (they had three children together), she gave up on her acting career and turned to writing. As Drabble tells it, the shift to writing sounds suspiciously easy -- she didn't know anyone in Stratford and she was alone most evenings while her husband was out socializing, so presto! she "sat down and wrote a book." It is, I suspect, a tribute to the dauntingly strong will that thrums beneath her overtly uncompetitive self-presentation. "I don't like to be beaten by things," Drabble admitted, almost uneasily. "It's another go, another day."
Drabble is famous for being the younger sister of A. S. Byatt and for coining the expression "acid-reflux anti-Americanism." Just kidding. She's famous for her many novels, as well as for her screenplays, plays, and short stories and her critical studies of other writers, along with various other nonfiction works. In short, prolific.

In each of these individuals, the actual process of analyzing, thinking, and creating was undoubtedly more arduous than described in the NYT articles . . . yet, I'm struck with how easily the three went about their work.

That sort of thing fascinates me, but make of it what you will . . . or willn't.

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At 4:31 PM, Blogger John B said...

Dirac's one of those people whose life and psychology is nearly as interesting as their work. Apparently he was severely autistic.

My physics professor claimed that his "bra-ket" notation was the only joke he ever made in his life.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The review article mentions the possibility of autism but doesn't say how severe.

I suppose that I'd rather suffer a disability in math than have Dirac's gifts and be incapable of emotional communication.

Not that I'm particularly good at that anyway...

Jeffery Hodges

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