Washington, D.C. (October 10, 2017)—Genius retains similar qualities across centuries: unbridled creativity, passion, invention, an interplay of art and science. The Atlantic’s November 2017 issue goes in search of The Science of Creativity in two captivating pieces: one by the journalist and writer Walter Isaacson on how Leonardo da Vinci made Mona Lisa smile in the world’s most famous painting; and the second by The Atlantic’s senior editor Derek Thompson, who was granted rare access to the secretive lab at X to see what it can teach us about breakthroughs and the lost art of invention. The magazine also features an explosive examination of the hazing abuse that occurs at some of the nation’s storied fraternities, and the system that allows this to perpetuate with little change.
The November issue also marks a milestone for The Atlantic: the 160th anniversary of the first printing of the magazine, which was published in Boston on November 1, 1857. In an Editor’s Note to lead the issue, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg writes of the magazine’s storied history, and how closely The Atlantic adheres today to its founding principles and manifesto. After Jefferson Davis refused to engage the possibility of a negotiated truce in 1864, Goldberg recalls in his note, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that the definitive account of Davis’s reticence be given to The Atlantic, because, Lincoln said, “it would have a less partisan look there” and “could be worth as much as a half a dozen battles” in the war.
The November issue of The Atlantic is online today, October 10. A selection of pieces from the issue are linked and highlighted below. For booking inquiries please contact The Atlantic’s Anna Bross or Sydney Simon.
COVER: Inside Google’s Moonshot Factory
A snake-robot designer, a balloon scientist, a liquid-crystals technologist, an extradimensional physicist, a psychology geek, an electronic-materials wrangler. The extraordinary minds at X, the so-called moonshot factory at Google’s parent company Alphabet, have a particular talent: They dream up far-out answers to crucial problems. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson received rare access to the secretive X enterprise and more than a dozen of its scientists, engineers, and thinkers. As Thompson reports, X is perhaps the only enterprise on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is not just permitted but encouraged, and even required; where risks are rewarded and failure is even sometimes rewarded. Thompson details one pie in the sky project that could actually work: a way to distribute internet globally, to impossible to reach places, through a network of computer-equipped balloons, or in short, “Project Loon.”
But X’s soft benefits and theoretical valuations can go only so far; at some point, Alphabet must determine whether X’s theories of failure, experimentation, and invention work in practice. After several days marinating in the company’s idealism, Thompson writes: “Insisting on quick products and profits is the modern attitude of innovation that X continues to quietly resist. For better and worse, it is imbued with an appreciation for the long gestation period of new technology.”
COVER: How Leonardo Made Mona Lisa Smile
The magic of the Mona Lisa’s smile is that it seems to react to our gaze. What is she thinking? She smiles back mysteriously. Look again. Her smile seems to flicker. We glance away, and the enigmatic smile lingers in our minds, as it does in the collective mind of humanity.
According to Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci’s creative genius stemmed from simply wanting to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known. His greatest triumph of combining art, science, optics, and illusion was the smile of the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa’s smile came not from some divine intervention, as the artist Giorgio Vasari believed; but instead, it was the product of years of painstaking and studied human effort involving applied science as well as artistic skill. He dissected human faces, delineating the muscles that move the lips, and combined that knowledge with the science of how the retina processes perceptions. During the years when he was perfecting Lisa’s smile, Leonardo was spending his nights in the depths of the morgue at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, near his Florence studio, peeling the skin off cadavers and studying the muscles and nerves underneath. He became fascinated by how a smile begins to form, and he analyzed every possible movement of each part of the face to determine the origin of every nerve that controlled each facial muscle. In doing so, he showed how the most-profound examples of creativity come from embracing both the arts and the sciences-- and became a pioneer of virtual reality.
A Death at Penn State
“Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?” challenges Caitlin Flanagan in this unflinching examination of the horrific abuse that is custom at many of the nation’s storied fraternities, who too often receive the protection of their universities, wealthy national chapters, and a system that allows them to continue on year after year with little change. Flanagan’s focus is Penn State and Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore pledge to Beta Theta Pi whose excruciating death at a hazing initiation earlier this year was caught on security cameras and pieced together with the texts and group chats of his fraternity brothers as they waited for 12 hours before calling 911.
Flanagan reports that fraternities do have a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing. And that’s probably one of the reasons Tim Piazza is dead. After begrieved parents sued and won huge damages from fraternities in the 1980s, the modern fraternity industry became essentially self-insured, with organizations pooling their money to create a fund from which damages are paid. They also created incredibly strict rules, which in turn create a culture of secrecy; when something does go terribly wrong, the young men usually scramble to protect themselves.
Is the American Idea Over?
On May 5, 1857, eight men sat down to dinner at Boston’s Parker House hotel to plan what would become The Atlantic magazine. The magazine they envisioned would, its prospectus later promised, “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” As a vision, it was bold and improbable—but it helped spur the nation to redefine itself around the pursuit of the American idea. And as the U.S. grew and prospered, others around the globe were attracted to its success, and the idea that produced it. Now, though, as The Atlantic’s politics editor Yoni Appelbaum describes, the American idea is in doubt. America no longer serves as a model for the world as it once did. Is the American idea obsolete?
When Working From Home Doesn’t Work
IBM may have pioneered the culture of telecommuting, but now it wants thousands of its workers back in actual, physical offices again. With this development, what are companies to make of the work from home versus the office debate? As Jerry Useem writes, “that IBM called back its employees anyway is telling, especially given its history as ‘a business whose business was how other businesses do business.’” According to one Gallup study, remote workers log significantly longer hours than their office-bound counterparts; but another batch of studies shows the exact opposite: that proximity boosts productivity. Is IBM’s decision a stumble in the inevitable march toward remote work for all, or a signal that more is lost working from home than previously apparent?
Montgomery, Alabama, is a city crowded with historical markers—including, by one count, 59 Confederate memorials, and a similar number devoted to the civil-rights movement—but you won’t find many markers of the racial violence following Reconstruction. Soon, however, on a six-acre site overlooking Montgomery’s Cottage Hill neighborhood, the Memorial to Peace and Justice will serve as a national monument to the victims of lynching—the first such memorial in the U.S. CityLab’s Kriston Capps profiles the forthcoming memorial and talks to its mastermind, Bryan Stevenson, about the inspiration for the project and the impact he hopes it will have on a country still trying to come to terms with the violence that has supported white supremacy across centuries.
This month’s Big Question asks: “What was the most influential power couple in history?” Nominees span Adam and Eve, for being responsible for such things as “the pain of childbirth” and “the concepts of sin, shame, and clothing”; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tokias; and Marie and Pierre Curie.