On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations, and anticipations. Thanks to him, we now know that to act on the future one needs to start by changing the past. Why does one thing not always lead to the next? The meeting had been planned as a cordial and scholarly event. It was anything but that. The physicist and the philosopher clashed, each defending opposing, even irreconcilable, ways of understanding time. At the Société française de philosophie—one of the most venerable institutions in France—they confronted each other under the eyes of a select group of intellectuals. The “dialogue between the greatest philosopher and the greatest physicist of the 20th century” was dutifully written down.1 It was a script fit for the theater. The meeting, and the words they uttered, would be discussed for the rest of the century.
Ever since Adam and Eve bit into that juicy apple, earning themselves serious body-image issues in the process, human beings have preferred to keep their privates private. First came fig leaves, then loincloths, followed by ancient Roman proto-bikinis, various knickers and briefs, petticoats and corsets, long johns and camisoles, boxers and bras.
But why do people wear underwear at all? I’ve dutifully done so every day since graduating from diapers, yet I never considered why until a recent amble through West London to the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear,” which tells of Western undergarments from the eighteenth century to today. The motives for covering up, it turns out, include avoiding chafing, keeping outerwear unsoiled (vital in the days when a person’s outfits were handmade and few), restricting the jiggles of less well-moored body parts, and advertising the sexual organs to better advantage.
Because of the plainness of my own style, I am a sucker for sentences with any sort of zingy rhetorical flourish. “Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor ” collects hundreds of short passages from English prose to demonstrate how figurative analogies bring excitement, richness and increased clarity to a writer’s thought.
Meanwhile, a small community of experimentalists were attempting the reverse in a rigorous scientific endeavor with poetic undertones. They were trying to build an apparatus that would detect the sonic message of the cosmos as it made contact with us via gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time, first envisioned by Einstein in his pioneering 1915 paper on general relativity.
In “Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space,” the astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin chronicles the decades-long development of this magnificent machine — a quest marked by the highest degree of human intelligence, zest and perseverance. Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover.