But the doodle, which sees the Lem figure encounter a giant robot, is commemorating publication of his lesser-known first book Astronauci (The Astronauts), which was released in 1951, 60 years ago. The story of the Earth under attack from Venus, the author held it in low esteem in later life.
"Today I am of the opinion that my first science-fiction novels lack any value (despite the fact that I gained world acclaim through their numerous editions). I wrote them – this was the case with Astronauci published in 1951 – driven by motives that I still understand today, however the world presented in them radically differs from all experiences of my life," he said. "Everything is so smooth and balanced; among the heroes we have a positive Russian character and a sweet Chinese; naiveté is present on all pages of this book. The hope that in the year 2000 the world would be wonderful is indeed very childish … As a very young man to a certain extent I must have resembled a sponge that sucked in postulates proposed by socialism. I was concentrated on making the world more and more positive. In a certain sense I fooled myself, since my feelings and hopes were genuine. Today I am a bit disgusted by this book."
The doodle ends with the message that the art was inspired by the drawings of Daniel Mroz for Lem's short story collection The Cyberiad, published in 1965. The Google doodle is interactive, allowing users to participate in a series of games, from solving maths puzzles using the giant robot's body to aligning patterns (Lem shakes his head sadly if the answer is wrong).
The author, who died in 2006 aged 84, has sold more than 27m copies of his books, and is still celebrated today, with publisher Self Made Hero recently adapting two robot-themed tales from his Mortal Engines collection into a graphic novel, Robot..., and the publication earlier this year of the first ever direct translation into English of Solaris.
"Stanlislaw Lem's work looks at the relationship between technology and mankind, questioning the motives behind creating such technology. A theme that becomes increasingly relevant in our current age," said Emma Hayley, publishing director at SelfMadeHero.
Lem joins an eclectic selection of authors to have been honoured with a Google doodle, including HG Wells, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Agatha Christie and Jorge Luis Borges.
Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived the life of a courtier and bore three children. But at age 27, she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified as she began an affair with the philosopher Voltaire, who also had a love of science. Their scientific collaborations—they outfitted a laboratory at du Chatelet’s home, Chateau de Cirey, and, in a bit of a competition, each entered an essay into a contest on the nature of fire (neither won)—outlasted their romance. Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today. At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child.
Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
Herschel was little more than the household drudge for her parents in Hanover, Germany (she would later describe herself as the “Cinderella of the family”), when her older brother, William, brought her to England in 1772 to run his household in Bath. After she mastered the art of singing—to accompany William, who was the organist for the Octagon Chapel—her brother switched careers and went into astronomy. Caroline followed. In addition to assisting her brother in his observations and in the building of telescopes, Caroline became a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering new nebulae and star clusters. She was the first woman to discover a comet (she discovered eight in total) and the first to have her work published by the Royal Society. She was also the first British woman to get paid for her scientific work, when William, who had been named the king’s personal astronomer after his discovery of Uranus in 1781, persuaded his patron to reward his assistant with an annual salary. After William’s death in 1822, Caroline retired to Hanover. There she continued her astronomical work, compiling a catalogue of nebulae—the Herschels’ work had increased the number of known star clusters from 100 to 2,500. She died in 1848 at age 97 after receiving many honors in her field, including a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
In 1811, Mary Anning’s brother spotted what he thought was a crocodile skeleton in a seaside cliff near the family’s Lyme Regis, England, home. He charged his 11-year-old sister with its recovery, and she eventually dug out a skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for £23. This find was no croc, though, and was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, the “fish-lizard.” Thus began Anning’s long career as a fossil hunter. In addition to ichthyosaurs, she found long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, possibly thousands, of other fossils that helped scientists to draw a picture of the marine world 200 million to 140 million years ago during the Jurassic. She had little formal education and so taught herself anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration. Scientists of the time traveled from as far away as New York City to Lyme Regis to consult and hunt for fossils with Anning.
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
Intrigued by the x’s and y’s in the answer to a math question in a ladies’ fashion magazine, 14-year-old Mary Fairfax of Scotland delved into the study of algebra and mathematics, defying her father’s injunction against such pursuits. Her studies were sidetracked by a marriage, in 1804, to a Russian Navy captain, but after his death she returned to Edinburgh and became involved in intellectual circles, associating with people such as the writer Sir Walter Scott and the scientist John Playfair, and resumed her studies in math and science. Her next husband, William Somerville, whom she wed in 1812, supported these efforts, and after they moved to London, Mary became host to her own intellectual circle, which included the astronomer John Herschel and the inventor Charles Babbage. She began experimenting on magnetism and produced a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She translated astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and although she was unsatisfied with the result, it was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville was one of the first two women, along with Caroline Herschel, to be named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Young Maria Mitchell learned to observe the stars from her father, who used stellar observations to check the accuracy of chronometers for Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers and taught his children to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. When Mitchell was 12, she helped her father record the time of an eclipse. And at 17, she had already begun her own school for girls, teaching them science and math. But Mitchell rocketed to the forefront of American astronomy in 1847 when she spotted a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. She was honored around the world, earning a medal from the king of Denmark, and became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 Mitchell traveled to Europe, where she visited observatories and met with intellectuals, including Mary Somerville. Mitchell would write: “I could not help but admire [her] as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother.” Mitchell became the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865. There she continued her observations, particularly those of the Sun, traveling up to 2,000 miles to witness an eclipse.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
When Lise Meitner finished school at age 14, she was barred from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. But, inspired by the discoveries of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was determined to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. In 1912, the pair moved to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, they continued to collaborate. Meitner continued her work in Sweden and after Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, she calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, overlooked by the Nobel committee, refused to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.
Irène Curie-Joliot (1897 – 1956)
The elder daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Irène followed her parents’ footsteps into the lab. The thesis for her 1925 doctor of science was on the alpha rays of polonium, one of the two elements her mother discovered. The next year, she married Frédéric Joliot, one of her mother’s assistants at the Radium Institute in Paris. Irène and Frédéric continued their collaboration inside the laboratory, pursuing research on the structure of the atom. In 1934, they discovered artificial radioactivity by bombarding aluminum, boron and magnesium with alpha particles to produce isotopes of nitrogen, phosphorus, silicon and aluminum. They received the Nobel Prize in chemistry the next year, making Marie and Irène the first parent-child couple to have independently won Nobels. All those years working with radioactivity took a toll, however, and Irène died of leukemia in 1956.
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
While studying botany at Cornell University in the 1920s, Barbara McClintock got her first taste of genetics and was hooked. As she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved into postdoctoral work, she pioneered the study of genetics of maize (corn) cells. She pursued her research at universities in California, Missouri and Germany before finding a permanent home at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. It was there that, after observing the patterns of coloration of maize kernels over generations of plants, she determined that genes could move within and between chromosomes. The finding didn’t fit in with conventional thinking on genetics, however, and was largely ignored; McClintock began studying the origins of maize in South America. But after improved molecular techniques that became available in the 1970s and early 1980s confirmed her theory and these “jumping genes” were found in microorganisms, insects and even humans, McClintock was awarded a Lasker Prize in 1981 and Nobel Prize in 1983.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Crowfoot (Hodgkin, after her 1937 marriage) was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a pair of British archaeologists. She was sent home to England for school, where she was one of only two girls who were allowed to study chemistry with the boys. At 18, she enrolled in one of Oxford’s women’s colleges and studied chemistry and then moved to Cambridge to study X-ray crystallography, a type of imaging that uses X-rays to determine a molecule’s three-dimensional structure. She returned to Oxford in 1934, where she would spend most of her working life, teaching chemistry and using X-ray crystallography to study interesting biological molecules. She spent years perfecting the technique, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1964, and determined the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. In 2010, 16 years after her death, the British Royal Mail celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society by issuing stamps with the likenesses of 10 of the society’s most illustrious members, including Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; Hodgkin was the only woman in the group.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
James Watson and Francis Crick get credit for determining the structure of DNA, but their discovery relied on the work of Rosalind Franklin. As a teenager in the 1930s, Franklin attended one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry, but when she told her father that she wanted to be a scientist, he rejected the idea. He eventually relented and she enrolled at Cambridge University, receiving a doctorate in physical chemistry. She learned techniques for X-ray crystallography while in Paris, returning to England in 1951 to work in the laboratory of John Randall at King’s College, London. There she made X-ray images of DNA. She had nearly figured out the molecule’s structure when Maurice Wilkins, another researcher in Randall’s lab who was also studying DNA, showed one of Franklin’s X-ray images to James Watson. Watson quickly figured out the structure was a double helix and, with Francis Crick, published the finding in the journalNature. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. Franklin, however, had died of ovarian cancer in 1958.
ven though I hadn’t read a word of it, I grew up hating Moby-Dick. My father was an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh with a specialty in American maritime literature, and that big, battle-scarred book came to represent everything I resented about his job: all the hours he spent in his attic study, relentlessly reading and writing, more often than not with Moby-Dick spread out before him.
Sometimes he even dared talk about the novel, inevitably in an excited, reverential tone that only exasperated me all the more. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, when my English teacher made it clear that I had no choice in the matter, that I finally read Moby-Dick . I soon found myself in the worst position an adolescent male can ever know: having to admit that maybe, just maybe, his father had been right all along.
The voice of Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, caught me completely by surprise. I had expected to be bored to death, but Ishmael sounded like the best friend I had not yet managed to find. Thirty-seven years later, after reading Moby-Dick cover to cover at least a dozen times, I still count Ishmael as a beloved soulmate and spiritual adviser. Not only is he funny, wise, and bighearted, he is the consummate survivor, for it is he and he alone who lives to tell about Ahab’s encounter with the White Whale. For me, Moby-Dick is more than the greatest American novel ever written; it is a metaphysical survival manual—the best guidebook there is for a literate man or woman facing an impenetrable unknown: the future of civilization in this storm-tossed 21st century.
Much of this has to do, I think, with the extraordinary historical moment at which Herman Melville wrote his masterpiece. In the fall of 1850, when he moved his family from New York City to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the United States was in the midst of pushing its way west. Railroads had begun to knit the interior of the nation into an iron tracery of ceaseless, smoke-belching movement. Steamboats ventured up once inaccessible rivers. With the winning of the Mexican War, in 1848, America’s future as a bi-coastal nation was sealed. When word reached the East Coast later that year that gold had been discovered in California, thousands upon thousands of prospectors quickly made that future an accomplished fact.
But there was a problem with this juggernaut: a lie festered at the ideological core of the then 30 states of America. Despite the fact that her founders had promised liberty and freedom for all, the southern half of the country was economically dependent on the slavery of Africans. And with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that any escaped slaves be handed over to the authorities, slavery was no longer just a southern problem. Antagonisms that had lain dormant for decades could no longer be contained, and an eruption of terrible violence appeared inevitable.
Melville’s intense imaginative engagement with these forces of turmoil and change meant that the novel he wrote and re-wrote over the course of a year beginning in September 1850 would be about much more than a whaling voyage to the Pacific. Indeed, contained in the pages ofMoby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years, up through the current “war on terror.” This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations of readers have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or, closer to our own day, as a profit-mad, deep-drilling oil company in 2010, or as one of several power-crazed Middle Eastern dictators in 2011.
he irony is that when Moby-Dick was first published, in the fall of 1851, virtually no one, except for the author to whom the novel was dedicated, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his wife, Sophia, seems to have taken much notice. By the time of Melville’s death, in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies—a third of the total that his first novel, Typee, had sold. It wasn’t until after World War I that what had begun as a few belated plaudits became a virtual tidal wave of praise. There were still some naysayers (Joseph Conrad ridiculed Moby-Dick for its romantic, overblown prose), but the vast majority of writers who first encountered the book were stunned and deeply influenced by how Melville conveyed the specifics of a past world even as he communicated an unmatched sense of what it is like, in any age, to be alive. What Moby-Dick had needed, it turned out, was space—the distance required for its themes and images to resonate, unfettered by the passions that had inspired them. Once free of its own time, the novel was on its way to becoming the seemingly timeless source of meaning that it is today.
Among the expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, Moby-Dick was what one writer described as “a sort of cunning test by which the genuineness of another man’s response to literature could be proved.” In 1927, William Faulkner, who would later hang a framed print of Rockwell Kent’s Captain Ahab in his living room in Oxford, Mississippi, claimed that Moby-Dick was the one novel by another author that he wished he had written. In 1949, Ernest Hemingway, upon entering his 50s, wrote his publisher that he considered Melville one of the handful of writers he was still trying to beat.
By 1951, when the centennial of the novel’s publication was celebrated, Melville’s masterpiece had succeeded in becoming more than a literary sensation; it had become an indispensable part of the popular culture. Even so, in our day, Moby-Dick is the most reluctantly read of the American classics. Not only is the book long; many of its 135 chapters appear to have nothing to do with the tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale. But the novel, like all great works of art, grows on you. Instead of being a page-turner, Moby-Dick is a repository of American history and culture and the essentials of Western literature. The book is so encyclopedic that space aliens could use it to re-create the whale fishery as it once existed on the planet Earth in the midst of the 19th century.
In fact, we have become those space aliens, the inhabitants of a planet so altered by our profligate presence that we are living on a different Earth from the one Melville knew. And yet the more our world changes, the more relevant the novel seems to be.
elville’s years on a whaleship in the 1840s gave him a firsthand appreciation for the backbreaking reality of physical labor. Politicians of his day might have spoken patriotically about the nation’s founding principles, but it was repetitious, soul-crushing work—a form of bodily punishment to which most white Americans refused to submit—that was responsible for the country’s prosperity. Once a whale was killed, it took an entire day to process it, only to be repeated when another whale was sighted. “Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing!,” Ishmael laments. “Yet this is life.”
The crew of a typical whaleship was made up of men from all over the world. This demographic diversity was not typical of the United States in that era, when to be an American citizen was to be white and, if not already rich (few, proportionally, were well-off), certainly on the way to wealth as the nation proudly took its place as a global power. A century and a half later, we have a very different perspective on the role of other peoples in America’s rise, and Melville was one of the few authors of his time to have personal experience with where the future lay for America in a demographic sense. What’s more, his portrayal of working people is never stereotypical or condescending.
Melville’s time aboard a whaler also left him with an appreciation for the liberating power of democracy, what Ishmael calls the “democratic dignity” that distinguished America at the time—with the notable exceptions of the settlers’ treatment of Native Americans and the institution of slavery. In the dangerous work environment of the whale fishery it didn’t matter what your race or background was; what mattered was whether you could do your job. At one point thePequod’ s third mate, Flask, climbs onto the back of his towering black harpooneer, Daggoo, to get a better view of a pod of whales. “The sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious,” Ishmael observes, “for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble negro to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider.” In this single image, Melville has managed to illustrate what he calls elsewhere “the divine equality” of humanity even as he provides a scathing critique of slavery. Flask may out-rank Daggoo, but it is the African harpooneer who literally carries the third mate. Indeed, one might go a step further and contend that what Ishmael repeatedly refers to as the whale’s appalling demonic whiteness signals the author’s stand against his nation’s racist practices. Democracy in principle, Ishmael maintains, “radiates without end from God; Himself!”
n every age, there will be a threat to the principle of “divine equality,” and his name is Ahab. In Melville’s view, it doesn’t take much to become a demagogue as long as you learn a few simple tricks. Dictators such as Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi are not geniuses; they are paranoid despots and expert manipulators of men. If you want to understand how these and other megalomaniacs pull it off, read the last third ofMoby-Dick and watch as Ahab tightens his stranglehold on the Pequod’ s crew in his increasingly horrifying quest for the White Whale.
But Melville also provides a description of the ideal leader. In the midst of a disorienting crisis, what is needed more than anything else, he suggests, is a calm, steadying dose of clarity, the kind of omniscient, all-seeing perspective symbolized by an eagle on the wing: “And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.” This is the anti-Ahab, who instead of anger and pain relies on equanimity and judgment, who does his best to remain above the fray and who even in the darkest of possible moments resists the “woe that is madness.”
In this portrait of a person who resists the fiery, disorienting passions of the moment, who has the soul of a high-flying Catskill eagle, Melville, in his preternatural way, has hit upon a description of the political figure America desperately needed in 1851 but who would not appear on the national stage until a decade later, when Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.
n one of his typical chapter-length asides (the book is truly proto-modernist, given its fractured structure, voluminous lists, idiosyncratic asides, and interior monologues), Melville tackles a prescient question, considering today’s extinction-prone Earth: “Whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must … like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” In the paragraphs that follow, Ishmael compares the whale to the buffalo in the American West and acknowledges that, taking into account what has happened to those “humped herds,” it might seem inevitable that “the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.”
But after examining the question from a variety of angles, he decides that this is not the case. Given the difficulty of pursuing whales across an ocean larger than all the earth’s landmasses combined, along with the whales’ ability to retreat to “their Polar citadels” in the icy North and South, where they can “bid defiance to all pursuit from man,” the whale is, Ishmael insists, “immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.”
For those who grew up in the aftermath of the industrialized slaughter of whales in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when it looked like several species of cetaceans would indeed go the way of the buffalo, Ishmael might seem woefully naïve, especially in light of what has happened in recent years to the world’s ice sheet. On the other hand, the sperm-whale population is now on the rebound, even as evidence continues to mount that our addiction to what supplanted whale oil—petroleum—has contributed to global warming and sea-level rise. In the years to come, the combination of climate change and population growth could have a devastating effect on the planet and, needless to say, on humanity. Maybe Ishmael’s reference to “the last man” is more than a figure of speech. Instead of whales, maybe the endangered mega-fauna is us.
Melville ends this chapter with an image that has taken on a frightening immediacy due to the ravages of climate change and the aftermath of the tsunami that recently decimated Japan. “In Noah’s flood he [the whale] despised Noah’s Ark,” Ishmael reminds us, “and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmast crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.” There it is, Ishmael’s vision of the future: a drowned world devoid of land dwellers, a hell for people but a paradise for whales.
So how do we face a world in which yet another cataclysm, whether it be environmental, financial, or terrorist-devised, always seems to be just around the corner? I think it’s Ishmael who puts it best. Nearly halfway into the novel, after almost getting killed in pursuit of a whale, he says, “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” Elsewhere Ishmael advises, “Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.” This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.