Stargaz­ing in the Atom­ic Age: Essays

  • Review
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.

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