Adam tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.
The Humanities as the Basis for Scientific Inquiry
In the past few years, no question has been more loudly agitated than the question of why we should study the humanities, the liberal arts, at all. And one of the ways that the humanities have been dismissed is by people insisting that the sciences — engineering in a practical level, theoretical physics and evolutionary biology at a higher one — have dislodged them completely from our civilization as sources of wisdom. The humanities may be a lovely ornamental frosting — or a touching vestigial remnant — but that’s about it.
But if you actually look at the history of the way that humanities and sciences intertwine — and if you try to study the psychology of the way new ideas arrive, become potent and spread, the way creativity really happens — you see that the reality is different. From the beginning of the scientific revolution, the intertwining of the humanities and sciences has been fundamental. And if you study what it is we really know about the way new ideas arrive you find out that it’s through the entrance of very powerful new aesthetic visions of possible worlds — and psychological ideas about human possibility, too — that innovation takes place.
You could begin with two men born in the same year, exactly four hundred and fifty years ago —Shakespeare and Galileo: the greatest of all Western writers, the originator of Western science. You’d expect that their lives would flow at completely opposite angles, or in completely opposite direction– but in truth Galileo’s father, far from being an early scientist, was a lute player — and not just a lute player but a lute theorist, a master of the new art and craft of tuning. And there’s a very real sense in which the Florentine Galileo, who studied the liberal arts long before he mastered the budding natural sciences, drew on the great Italian Renaissance artistic accomplishment of progressive achievement as a model for learning. The way that the conquest of the visual world took place in Italian Renaissance painting — so that the art of Masaccio in 1420, wonderful as it is, looks stiff and archaic in comparison with that of Michelangelo only eighty years later — preceded the conquest of the natural world, and Galileo fed on the optimism, the sense of possible progress that those accomplishments in the liberal arts had offered.
In the same way, Shakespeare’s expansion of the poetic resources of literature drew on what some people have called a newly ‘empathetic ‘expansion of his curiosity. Along with great writers like Montaigne in France and Cervantes in Spain, Shakespeare understood that there was a complicated, conflicted, ambivalent and often contradictory self in all of us that could be dramatized rather than apologized for. We weren’t simply stuck with the neat labels of medieval pageants: Good, Bad, Mr. Morality, and Mr. Immorality — in order to understand ourselves. In that way, he was applying as a kind of intuitive psychologist the same ideas of seeing for yourself and imagining new possibilities that was pregnant in the era’s science. One might say that Galileo’s genius for empirical curiosity is matched by Shakespeare’s genius for empathetic curiosity. Both engage not in a dutiful catalogue of observations nor a pure act of poetic imagination: both men were free to imagine, and thought that imagination was strongest when it was held to the discipline of nature, of the way things really are. They imagined nature in new ways, and then held a mirror to it, to see if it matched.
They arrive in different places: one of the truths about empathetic curiosity is that while the motions of the planets are, relatively speaking, simple, the motions of our minds and hearts are too dense, too sticky with human ambiguity, to be neatly explained. The motions of the planets, on the other hand, can be explained and predicted. But the central activity of making up powerful poetic models of the world, and then testing them against our experience, are remarkably alike between the birth of science and the birth of the modern idea of man. And it’s in that double movement, the freedom to imagine, the readiness to test — that the originality of Shakespeare and Galileo rises and provides a model of how the humanities can reimagine our lives but our worlds. It’s the same likeness I exemplified in my book about Darwin and Lincoln — so that the great founder of evolutionary biology drew on the power of lucid writing as much as his power of exemplary seeing, on the force of the eloquence of explanation, just as his spiritual soul mate across the water showed that it was possible for liberalism to be a fighting but constantly self-defining creed. This intertwining and underlying likeness — and mutual dependence — between liberal civilization and scientific advance is a theme that can be traced from its first appearance into our own day. (Including Einstein’s new vision of time and its relation to that of the Cubists, and right up to Steve Jobs’ aesthetic imperative.)
The Table Comes First
Locating our table ancestry in France, Adam Gopnik traces our rapid evolution from commendable awareness to manic compulsion and how, on the way, we lost sight of a timeless truth: what goes on around the table—families, friends, lovers coming together, or breaking apart; conversation across the simplest or grandest board—is always more important than what we put on the table.
Angels and Ages
Lincoln and Darwin: their genius – their legacies – their humanity. Born on the same day 200 years ago, these two men and their words reshaped modern consciousness.
On a memorable day in human history, February 12, 1809, two babies were born an ocean apart: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Together they became midwives to the spirit of a new world, a new kind of hope and faith. Searching for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution, Adam Gopnik reveals them as both ordinary family men with ambitions, faults and loves and as great thinkers who helped shape the modern world—a world increasingly governed by reason, argument and observation, by the verdicts of time and history. As writers, they invented a new language to express that understanding, the liberal voice we now use both at home and in public. This presentation is a meditation as only Adam Gopnik can deliver it on how we got where we are and how we became who we are as children of robust democracy and science.
Through the Children’s Gate
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux gave names to all the entrances of their most famous work of genius, Central Park. The Children’s Gate is the entrance on the east side at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue; and it’s the metaphor for why, after five years in Paris, his family came back to New York: so their children could "grow up in New York, to be natives here, as we could never be, to come in through the Children’s Gate, not the Stranger’s Gate" (which is high on the West Side). From Bluei, a goldfish fated to meet a Hitchcockian end, to Charlie Ravioli, an imaginary playmate who, being a New Yorker, is too busy to play, Adam’s book—and his presentation—are full of characters with extraordinary resonance for parents and children, for city-dwelling lovers of place, and any audience eager to pass through the Children’s Gate with him.