Stargaz­ing in the Atom­ic Age: Essays

By – March 5, 2021

Anne Goldman’s Stargaz­ing in the Atom­ic Age is a pow­er­ful med­i­ta­tion on the vision­ar­ies who helped mold the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. This col­lec­tion of essays cov­ers sci­en­tists like Ein­stein and Feyn­man, artists like Rothko and Cha­gall, and musi­cians like Copeland and Gersh­win, among many oth­ers, all of whom left their indeli­ble marks on our cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al her­itage. And, in addi­tion to famous lumi­nar­ies, Gold­man weaves in the sto­ries of the peo­ple in her own fam­i­ly — par­tic­u­lar­ly her father, moth­er, and broth­er — who helped ignite her intel­lec­tu­al fire.

Gold­man writes that by defa­mil­iar­iz­ing these icons through jux­ta­po­si­tion and unset­tling our col­lec­tive assump­tions about them… [she] hope[s] to reveal their per­son­al­i­ties as more com­plex and their approach­es as more intrigu­ing.” This may be the book’s great­est accom­plish­ment, and the essays’ jux­ta­po­si­tions are wild­ly suc­cess­ful. Gold­man asks the read­er to envi­sion the athe­ist physi­cist Feyn­man try­ing to out­wit a group of rab­bini­cal stu­dents. She con­sid­ers the sci­en­tists at Los Alam­os work­ing on the atom­ic bomb, their fam­i­lies look­ing out through the wire fences of Auschwitz. She engages in rec­on­cil­ing the lim­bo of Cha­gall and Rothko, caught between the anti-Semi­tism of a Russ­ian birth­place and the west, nev­er quite feel­ing at home.

At times, the cul­tur­al and lit­er­ary ref­er­ences stray into the aca­d­e­m­ic (Gold­man is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Sono­ma State Uni­ver­si­ty), per­haps leav­ing a lay read­er at a loss. But, then, a sen­tence gleams forth that shim­mers with so much truth, it stops one in their tracks. Gold­man engages each of her sub­jects with an excep­tion­al deft­ness, alacrity, and energy.

The root of the word essay is to jour­ney,” but the kind of jour­ney par­tic­u­lar to read­ing Stargaz­ing in the Atom­ic Age might be bet­ter described as a sashay: a hop­ping, leap­ing dance. Gold­man chore­o­graphs a wider kind of under­stand­ing of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, where art and sci­ence — and the peo­ple who excel at them — are so much more than just the sum of their parts.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Anne Goldman

  1. Stargaz­ing in the Atom­ic Age inter­weaves sto­ries about the self with sto­ries about oth­ers. How do the writer’s reflec­tions on her fam­i­ly life inform the way you under­stand the more cel­e­brat­ed fig­ures the book fore­grounds? Is there some­one in your fam­i­ly who looms large for you, as Goldman’s father does for her, and who informs the way you see the world?
  2. We often think of the sto­ry Exo­dus tells as a grim one. How does this book shift such thinking?
  3. Gold­man describes her father as a man who faced every obsta­cle with unshake­able con­fi­dence in its even­tu­al oblit­er­a­tion.” Michael Gold­man was so eager to assim­i­late that he sim­ply insist­ed on his own cen­tral­i­ty.” Some of the oth­er char­ac­ters in this book are inclined to resist the pres­sures of assim­i­la­tion. What are the costs and the advan­tages of each decision?
  4. Mozart and his music appear with sur­pris­ing fre­quen­cy in Stargaz­ing (one essay draws par­al­lels between his brief, bril­liant life and that of Gersh­win, while anoth­er con­sid­ers Einstein’s sci­en­tif­ic work in light of the evenings this accom­plished ama­teur vio­lin­ist spent play­ing Mozart). What do you think it is about Mozart’s music that appealed to a num­ber of Jew­ish physi­cists, painters, writ­ers, and composers?
  5. Many of the artists and sci­en­tists in Stargaz­ing fled Rus­sia or were the chil­dren of par­ents who escaped dur­ing the pogroms. Choose sev­er­al fig­ures and dis­cuss the com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship they main­tained with the birth­place they were forced to leave.
  6. Pri­mo Levi’s Sur­vival in Auschwitz invokes the Catholic Hell Dante por­trays in the Infer­no. It is in many respects an aston­ish­ing con­nec­tion for Levi to make. What does Goldman’s essay on Levi and Dante sug­gest are the lim­its of read­ing? What bridges can read­ing build?
  7. When and where in this book does cat­a­stro­phe prompt cre­ativ­i­ty? Who are some of the artists and sci­en­tists of our own moment — prob­lem-solvers, that is — in whom you see this life-affirm­ing ener­gy and strength of mind? How might their exam­ples push us to think cre­ative­ly as well?