Category Archives: Great Humans

HERNANDO COLUMBUS, HIS FATHER’S SON. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books – Edward Wilson-Lee.

“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”

Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library.

Hernando’s travels in the realm of knowledge and the new routes he pioneered through it were in a very real sense akin to what his father had achieved.

To reconstruct Hernando’s life from his books is to find him present at many of the most significant events of the age of Renaissance, Reformation and exploration.

The fascinating history of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son Hernando, guardian of his father’s flame, courtier, bibliophile and catalogue supreme, whose travels took him to the heart of 16th century Europe.

This is the scarcely believable and wholly true story of Christopher Columbus’ bastard son Hernando, who sought to equal and surpass his father’s achievements by creating a universal library. His father sailed across the ocean to explore the known boundaries of the world for the glory of God, Spain and himself. His son Hernando sought instead to harness the vast powers of the new printing presses to assemble the world’s knowledge in one place, his library in Seville.

Hernando was one of the first and greatest visionaries of the print age, someone who saw how the scale of available information would entirely change the landscape of thought and society.

His was an immensely eventful life. As a youth, he spent years travelling in the New World, and spent one living with his father in a shipwreck off Jamaica. He created a dictionary and a geographical encyclopaedia of Spain, helped to create the first modern maps of the world, spent time in almost every major European capital, and associated with many of the great people of his day, from Ferdinand and Isabel to Erasmus, Thomas More, and Dürer. He wrote the first biography of his father, almost single-handedly creating the legend of Columbus that held sway for many hundreds of years, and was highly influential in crafting how Europe saw the world his father reached in 1492. He also amassed the largest collection of printed images and of printed music of the age, started what was perhaps Europe’s first botanical garden, and created by far the greatest private library Europe had ever seen, dwarfing with its 15,000 books every other library of the day.

Edward Wilson-Lee has written the first major modern biography of Hernando, and the first of any kind available in English. In a work of dazzling scholarship, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books tells an enthralling tale of the age of print and exploration, a story with striking lessons for our own modern experiences of information revolution and Globalisation.

Seville, Spain, 12 July 1539

On the morning of his death, Hernando Colén called for a bowl of dirt to be brought to him in bed. He told his servants that he was too weak to raise his arms and instructed them to rub the soil on his face. While many of them had been with him for a decade or more and were intensely loyal, they refused on this occasion to obey his orders, thinking he must finally have taken leave of his senses.

Hernando mustered the strength he needed and reached into the bowl by himself, smearing his face with the silt of the Guadalquivir, the river that meandered through Seville and held his house in the crook of its arm. As he painted himself with mud, Hernando spoke some words in Latin that began to make sense of this performance for those who had gathered at his side: remember that you are dust, he said, and unto dust you will return.

On the opposite bank of the river, Hernando’s father Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea had recently been raised from the same soil, from a grave in which he had lain for thirty years. If Hernando’s word is to be believed (and for many things in Columbus’ life we have only Hernando’s word) the men who opened his tomb may have been surprised to find, along with the explorer’s bones, a pile of chains. These chains were a link to a moment in Hernando’s past, when at twelve years old his mostly absent father appeared bound in them, returning as a prisoner from the paradise he looked upon as his discovery and his gift to Spain.

The meaning of the great explorer’s grave-goods, of these chains that he wished to be placed with him in his tomb, was something Hernando only divulged late in life, when he came to write his father’s story. But the dust with which he painted himself on the morning of his death would have made sense to all around him: it was a symbol of abject humility, humility he knew he could afford to vaunt because there was no doubt he had achieved something extraordinary. Hernando, the man who was welcoming his impending decay with open arms, had built an engine capable of withstanding for ever the onslaught of time. He died shortly after this performance, at eight o’clock in the morning.

An hour later the next act in Hernando’s strange death pageant began. Those closest to him had gathered at his house for the reading of his will, reaching his Italianate villa by the river by passing through the Puerta de Goles (‘Hercules Gate’) and the garden of unknown plants. Hernando had an extraordinary memory, an obsession with lists, and a delicate conscience, so his will tabulated in minute detail the people to whom he felt he owed something, right down to a mule-driver whom he had shortchanged nearly two decades previously.

But after the tables of his conscience had been cleared, his testament moved on to its great crescendo, a declaration all but incomprehensible to his time. The main heir to his fortune was not a person at all, but rather his marvellous creation, his library. As this was the first time in living memory that someone in Europe had left their worldly wealth to a group of books, the act itself must have been somewhat confusing; but it was even harder to make sense of given the form of the library in question. Most of Hernando’s books were not like the precious manuscripts treasured by the great libraries of the day venerated tomes of theology, philosophy and law, books that were often sumptuously bound to reflect the great value placed upon them. Instead, much of Hernando’s collection consisted of books by authors of no fame or reputation, flimsy pamphlets, ballads printed on a single page and designed for pasting on tavern walls, and other such things that would have seemed just so much trash to many of his contemporaries.

To some eyes, the great explorer’s son had left a legacy of rubbish. Yet to Hernando these things were priceless because they brought him closer to the goal of a library that would collect everything, to become universal in a sense never before imagined. It was not even clear where this strange and multifarious collection began and ended: in addition to all these written works, there were chests and chests of printed images the largest collection ever gathered and more printed music than had ever been brought together before. As some accounts would have it, even the garden outside had begun to collect the plant life of the world and arrange it in its beds. There was, however, no word yet for such a botanical garden.

Visitors to the library would have been greeted by the strangest of sights. The scale of the collection must surely have been impressive, by far the largest private library of the day, blurring the vision as the number of individual items expanded beyond what could be taken in at a glance. Contributing to this disorientation, they might have noticed next that the walls of the library had disappeared. In their place were row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in this new vertical way in specially designed wooden cases. To the modern viewer these kinds of bookshelves are so familiar as to escape notice, but visitors to the library were encountering these as the first of their kind.

This was just one of many elements in Hernando’s fabulous library design that defied explanation, beginning with the inscription at the entrance proudly declaring the edifice was founded on shit. Inside the library, the baffling marvels multiplied: the bookless cages in which readers were supposed to sit, the chests full of volumes that should be turned over two or three times a year but were not for reading, the bookshop of useless titles.

Then there was the army of paid readers, and the fiendishly complex system of security and surveillance. Most mysterious of all, perhaps, was the master blueprint for the library, which lay in pieces: more than ten thousand scraps of paper, to be precise, each bearing a different hieroglyphic symbol. Each of the myriad ways these pieces could be put together suggested a different path through the library.

It was possible to puzzle out some elements of the design by simple logic: the creation of the bookshelves, for instance, had been a matter of necessity. While previous collections, with hundreds or a few thousand volumes, might be stacked on tables or in chests and could be found at will by a librarian of good memory, a library on the scale of Hernando’s would have overwhelmed even the most capacious of human minds and quickly overflowed from most rooms. The new bookshelves took very little space from any room and displaced the weight of the books on to the walls behind them. They formed orderly ranks, so that their call-numbers could be read from left to right, in a sequence like a line of text; storing the books vertically also meant each one could be removed easily, unlike the horizontal stacks where removing the bottom book would make those above topple.

But here the logic of the library-explorer may have broken down. What did the line of text, made up of the titles of the books in sequence, actually say? How was the wanderer in the library to navigate their way through this world of books? As anyone who has ambled through a library will know, order is everything. The ways in which books can be organised multiplies rapidly as the collection grows, and each shows the universe in a slightly different light. Order the books alphabetically by author and the wanderer will find all of the Pérezes and the Patels together, whether or not their books share anything else. Ordering by size will save space by fitting books of the same height into snug shelves, but this puts pocket novels in the same place as prayer books.

The wanderer in the library is lost without the order that catalogues and shelving systems create; Hernando referred to such unmapped collections as ‘dead’. But even with a map the wanderer is stuck with the order given to them by the librarian, unable to go through the collection in any other way, especially in a book-hoard flooded as Hernando’s was with the kind of cheap print previously excluded from these civilised spaces.

Breaking old paradigms, whether by discovering a new continent or by allowing a new universe of information into the decorous space of the library, was useless or even dangerous unless there was a new paradigm to take its place, a new vision of what these expanded worlds meant. Without this those who had once felt at home in the world would simply be stranded in a pathless sea of information. As a solution, Hernando’s library aimed not simply to be universal but to provide a set of propositions about how that universe fit together. Some of these propositions could be found in the books kept at the centre of the library, colour-coded in leather that was black, red or white, or embossed which contained his catalogues (including the enchanting and mysteriously named Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books) while others can only be pieced together from the ten thousand pieces of the final map to the collection, with their hieroglyphic signs.

But not everything in the library fitted on to the shelves or could be put in the catalogues. Hernando’s will left strict instructions that as soon as both of his executors were together, they were to open in each other’s presence a chest containing his personal papers. An inventory of these survives, though now worm-eaten and delicate as a form left in ash. Among other things, it lists

designs for a house

ballads for singing

recipes for medicine

a catalogue of plants and gardens

the case of Doha Isabel de Gamboa

the art of making nautical maps

a book of the travels of the emperor

plans for the conquest of Persia and Arabia

a system of charity for the poor

a verse life of Columbus

a poetical treatise

certain geographical writings on Spain

a dictionary

a dialogue between Goodwill, Power and Justice

a ledger of Columbus’ writings

certain papers on the de Arana family

Most of the hundred-odd entries in the inventory are illegible, but the parts that can be deciphered begin to give some sense of the myriad adventures of Hernando’s extraordinary mind. Some of these works by Hernando survive the immense dictionary he compiled by hand, the geographical encyclopedia he began on a personal tour around the whole of Spain, but many are lost entirely. The list, moreover, is not complete, and omits many of the things in which he played a part, including the maps he helped create, some of which changed the shape of the known world. Some of his works were likely not listed because they were no longer in his possession at the time of his death.

Among those writings mysteriously missing from this list is perhaps the most famous document of all: the biography of Columbus which was printed, in Italian translation, under Hernando’s name in Venice three decades after his death. To this Life and Deeds of the Admiral we owe much of what we know about the great explorer, including the details of his early life and many of his voyages, especially the fourth voyage, the part of Columbus’ life we know most richly and intimately because Hernando was there as an eyewitness.

Though Hernando was not quite eighteen when his father died, he had the kind of intense knowledge of him that no one else could possibly have not only as his son, but as someone who had lived with him, in a confined space and facing death, for more than a year in a strange land. The fact that the Life was not mentioned among Hernando’s papers, and the curious circumstances surrounding its appearance in Italy long after his death, has led to endless controversies. The original Spanish version of this work has never been found, so we are entirely reliant on the Italian translation. Various theories emerged, many proposing a forgery undertaken in Hernando’s name, a conspiracy to falsify the life of one of history’s greatest figures.

But the missing pieces of this puzzle were waiting to be found in the labyrinthine remnants of Hernando’s library. Somewhat over four thousand titles today form the Biblioteca Colombina, housed in a wing of Seville Cathedral, all silence and spotless marble like a mausoleum. These are only a fraction of the books that made up this once immense library, but this fraction along with the map of the original collections that survives in the catalogues is more than enough to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary man in resplendent detail, detail almost unthinkable for most people who lived in his time. This is because Hernando’s books contain within their covers not just an exquisitely detailed map of the Renaissance world, but also a map of his life. In every book he bought, Hernando recorded the date and place of its acquisition and how much it cost, often also noting where and when he read it, if he met with the author, or from whom he received the book if it was a gift. He also responded in many cases to what the books said, though as will become apparent he had his own singular way of doing so. These many fragments, when pieced together, give an account of one of the most fascinating lives in a period filled with entrancing characters; of a man who not only saw more of the world and what it had to offer than almost any of his contemporaries, but also one whose insights into this changing world were astonishingly prescient.

To reconstruct Hernando’s life from his books is to find him present at many of the most significant events of the age of Renaissance, Reformation and exploration. But Hernando’s view of these events is rather like one of the deceptive, ‘anamorphic’ paintings of which the age was so fond, in which a picture viewed from another angle reveals something entirely different. This is in part because Hernando’s mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted. This will quickly become clear in the story of his life, for while most biographies start with a list of documents about their subject that need to be set in order, many of the documents through which we know about Hernando are themselves lists: catalogues, encyclopedias, inventories, logbooks, which he compiled obsessively and compulsively. We should not be deceived by the staid and impersonal appearance of these lists, documents which at first seem all fact and no interpretation. To the trained eye, each contains a story: how the list-maker imagines the place for which they have packed the items, their way of seeing the world that lies behind a particular kind of ordering, the secrets being hidden by omissions from the list.

If Hernando attempted to bring order to his rapidly expanding world by reducing it to catalogue entries and finding ways of organising these lists that seemed logical, he was far from immune to distorting influences, distortions that can be traced to the core of his being. Much of his life can be explained by his desire to become worthy of, perhaps even equal to, the father he worshipped, though this was a father whom he in a sense created, as he slowly and deliberately shaped our collective memory of Columbus into the man known today.

In death and in life, many of Hernando’s actions were in conversation with the father he last saw in his youth, but whose voice he continued to hear and record long after. Their relationship, both before and after the explorer’s death, was inevitably affected by the fact that Hernando was not the product of a legitimate union, he was, in the delicate Spanish phrase, a natural son. Although Columbus never paid this distinction much mind, the circumstances of his birth meant Hernando could win legitimacy only by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit. Hernando’s travels in the realm of knowledge and the new routes he pioneered through it were in a very real sense akin to what his father had achieved.

For all that he died nearly five centuries ago, Hernando’s discovery of his world bears striking, sometimes uncanny, resemblance to the one we are collectively discovering every day. Perhaps no one has been as helpless in the face of information as those who have lived through the beginning of the twenty-first century: the digital revolution has increased the amount of available information exponentially, and as a result we are wholly reliant on the search algorithms developed to navigate it, tools whose modes of ordering and ranking and categorising are quickly remaking our lives. The invention of print was another such revolution, and the tools developed in response to it profoundly shaped the world until yesterday, during the age of print. The way of seeing things created by the print library has become so natural to us as to be all but invisible; we forget that its form is far from inevitable, that it was the product of specific decisions with immense consequences, consequences which our current age, sleepwalking into new ways of organising knowledge by search algorithms, seems likely to face on an even larger and more pervasive scale.

Allegory of the Transience of Life (ca. 1480-90), 33.3 x 22.6 cm, engraving printed on vellum. In the collection of the British Museum. This print by the anonymous fifteenth century engraver Master I. A. M. of Zwolle is one example of the early prints collected by Hernando Columbus.


Hernando was, in a sense, one of the first and greatest visionaries of the age of print. If his life has escaped the notice of previous generations, it was perhaps because the power of tools that order our reservoirs of information was not as obvious. To reconstruct his life is not only to recover a vision of the Renaissance age in unparalleled depth, but also to reflect upon the passions and intrigues that lie beneath our own attempts to bring order to the world.



1 Return from Ocean

Hernando Colén’s earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the 25th of September 1493. He was standing next to his older half-brother, Diego, looking out at the harbour of Cadiz. Dancing on the water in front of him was a constellation of lamps, on and above the decks of seventeen ships about to weigh anchor, preparing to return to the islands in the west where their father had first made landfall less than a year before. Christopher Columbus was now the ‘Admiral of the Ocean Sea’ and was of sufficient fame that chroniclers took down each detail of the scene in front of the five-year-old Hernando.

The fleet was formed of a number of lighter craft from Cantabria in the north of Spain, vessels made with wooden joinery so as not to be weighed down with iron nails, as well as the slower but more durable caravels. On board the ships were thirteen hundred souls, including artisans of every sort and labourers to reap the miraculous and uninterrupted harvests of which Columbus had told, but also wellbred caballeros who went for adventure rather than work.

A favourable wind had begun to freshen, and as the dawn grew behind the city the dots of lamplight would slowly have been connected by the cabins and masts and riggings to which they were fixed. The scene and the mood were triumphant: tapestries hung from the sides of the ships and pennants fluttered from the braided cables, while the stems were draped in the royal ensigns of the Reyes Catélicos (Catholic Monarchs), Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the great sovereigns whose marriage had united a fragmented Spain. The piercing fanfare of hautboys, bagpipes, trumpets and clarions was so loud, according to one observer, that the Sirens and the spirits of the water were astonished, and the seabed resounded with the cannonades. At the harbour mouth a Venetian convoy, returning from a trade mission to Britain, augmented the noise with their own gunpowder salutes, preparing to follow Columbus part of the way in the hope of learning something of his course.

It is unclear whether, in later life, Hernando could reach back beyond this earliest recorded memory to the rather different circumstances in which, earlier that year, his father had returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus had arrived back in Europe with only one of the three vessels with which he had left Spain on 3 August 1492: his flagship Santa Maria had run aground off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, and on the return voyage he had lost sight of the Pinta during a storm near the Azores. Thirty-nine of Columbus’ original crew of ninety or so had been left on the other side of the ocean, in the newly founded settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, a town built from the shipwrecked lumber of the Santa Maria with the assistance of the local king or cacique, Guacanagari, and named in honour of the Christmas Day on which it was founded.

Columbus’ skeleton crew for the return voyage had been reduced to just three men when the rest were taken prisoner by unfriendly islanders in the Azores, though he did eventually secure their release. And when the great explorer finally did reach Europe in the only ship remaining to him, the Nina, he was running under bare poles after another heavy storm had split the sails. To make matters worse, he had arrived back not in Spain but in Portugal, dragging his ship past the Rock of Sintra to take shelter under the Castle of Almada in Lisbon estuary, where he was treated with suspicion before eventually receiving a summons to make his report to King Joéo. Though later reports would focus on the crowds who covered the harbour in their skiffs, swarming to see the island natives whom Columbus had brought home as part of his plunder, Columbus’ royal audience was for all intents and purposes an imprisonment, and his release was in part prompted by Joéo’s doubts regarding the discoverer’s claims. Hernando’s written records of these early events would record the hardship but leave out much of the confusion of this first return, of the forlorn man and his outlandish claims.

Hernando’s early life was unusual, perhaps unprecedented because from the youngest age his personal recollections of his father would have contended with widely circulated written accounts of Columbus’ exploits. He may have been present at Cordoba in March when a letter was read aloud at the cathedral announcing his father’s discoveries, and he kept as central relics in his library several editions of the letter, printed first at Barcelona, through which the discoveries were announced to the world. Hernando’s later collecting was to place at the heart of his universal library precisely this kind of cheap print whose first rustlings could be heard in these reports on Columbus’ voyage. The letter that was to be the common reading matter of Europe was written by Columbus when he landed in Portugal, and the crowds of Jews embarking from Lisbon harbour for Fez in north Africa would have served as a reminder that his ocean crossing would be forced to compete for public attention.

The tumultuous course of recent events had reached a peak of intensity in the early months of 1492, when with the taking of Granada Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed the Reconquista, the capture of the Spanish peninsula from the Muslims who had ruled it (almost whole or in parts) for seven hundred years, a crusade which was cast as the righteous restoration of Christian rule. In an attempt to transform the small symbolic victory at Granada into a turning point in the ancient clash between the Abrahamic faiths, the Reyes Catolicos celebrated their military triumph by presenting the Jews in their dominions with an ultimatum: forced conversion or exile. This was only an escalation of a long-standing Spanish history of persecuting those of the Jewish faith, but it proved a decisive one. Despite the fact that the Jewish community had been established in Iberia even longer than the Muslims, and had been central to the flourishing of culture and society in Arabic Spain, many of them could not stomach the price of keeping their homes, which included agreeing that their sacred Talmud was merely a forgery designed to stop the onward march of the Christian faith. Those who chose to stay also faced the prospect of having their property confiscated by the likes of Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition set up in 1478, who would use this fortune to finance a golden age of Spanish art and exploration.

A great multitude prepared to leave, and in their number went many of the greatest intellectuals of fifteenth-century Spain. Forced, as one chronicler records, to sell their houses for a donkey and their vineyards for a little bread, they made the most of the disaster by casting it as a new Exodus, in which the Lord of Hosts would lead them in triumph to the Promised Land. Observing this pathetic scene did not restrain the same chronicler from accusing them of secretly taking much of the kingdom’s gold with them. The rabbis attempted to alleviate any feeling of desperation by having the women and children sing to the sounds of timbrels as they walked away from their homes. Though the Jews were given temporary asylum in Portugal, their safe haven there lasted only as long as Columbus’ first voyage, and when their paths crossed in Lisbon the Jews were on the move again, boarding ships bound for north Africa.

Even in his travel-worn state Columbus was quick to find a way for his own expedition to play a part in this grand historic narrative. His voyage west had, after all, been given royal sanction from the camp at Santa Fe outside the walls of Granada, at which Ferdinand and Isabella were celebrating the recent capitulation of the city’s last Muslim king, Boabdil, and from which they would also later issue the edict expelling the Jews. The letter he sent ahead to Barcelona from Portugal sang of the marvellous fertility of the islands he had found, in perpetual bloom, and the naked innocence of the native people, who were willing to part with the abundant gold of that region for a few trifles from the visitors they regarded as descended from heaven. If the Jews had a new Exodus, Columbus offered Christians a new Eden. The letter announced that even if the natives knew nothing of Castile or of Christ, they showed themselves miraculously ready to serve both. As a token of their part in an expanded Spanish empire, Columbus had renamed these islands as he took possession of them, so that they now reflected the hierarchy of Spanish power, from Christ the Saviour on down through the monarchs and royal children:

San Salvador

Santa Maria de la Concepción





In its final paragraph the letter makes clear what has been implicit in the preceding pages, namely, that these islands Columbus had encountered should be added to the list of famous victories achieved by the Catholic Monarchs, one which like the conquest of the Moorish kingdoms and the expulsion of the Jews would expand both the dominion of the Church and fill the coffers of Spain.

This letter, soon printed again in Latin at Rome and Basel, and accompanied by a picture showing one man guiding a ship towards an endless and fertile archipelago, was one of the central relics of Hernando’s childhood, at once cheap and priceless, flimsy and timeless, manufactured and intimate, widely distributed and intensely personal. Overwriting the native place names with Spanish ones was only one of the word-tricks by which this New World was transformed, tricks that included set speeches through which Columbus and others legally ‘took possession’ of the islands, even though these speeches meant nothing to the indigenous peoples listening to them.

The former names began to lose their authority, and often were soon lost altogether, as Spanish power came to seem natural in a place with so many Spanish names. For all the momentous consequences of their actions, Columbus and his crew often seemed little conscious of the power of this act of naming. As Hernando was later to record, the last named island, Hispaniola, was so called because they caught there the same fish available in Spain (grey mullet, bass, salmon, shad, dory, skate, corvinas, sardines, crayfish).

The power of Columbus’ names to change the world was often at odds with the casual way in which he chose them: to commemorate a particular event or an impression of the landscape, or, as here, because it brought back a memory of somewhere he had been before. One of the most powerful experiences for Columbus the explorer, and for the European audience of his feats, was the feeling of having found the familiar in an unexpected place, and around these familiar things the European imagination of the New World began to form.

. . .


The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

get it at

Leonardo DaVinci – Walter Isaacson.

“The most relentlessly curious man in history.”

Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.

His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.

Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder.

I learnt from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.

Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter lsaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it fiirted with fantasy.

He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, fiying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.

His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper.

Isaacson also describes how Leonardo’s lifelong enthusiasm for staging theatrical productions informed his paintings and inventions.

Leonardo’s delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.


I Can Also Paint

Around the time that he reached the unnerving milestone of turning thirty, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons he should be given a job. He had been moderately successful as a painter in Florence, but he had trouble finishing his commissions and was searching for new horizons. In the first ten paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and public buildings. Only in the eleventh paragraph, at the end, did he add that he was also an artist. “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible,” he wrote.

Yes, he could. He would go on to create the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and engineering. With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, water flows, and weaponry. Thus he became the archetype of the Renaissance Man, an inspiration to all who believe that the “infinite works of nature,” as he put it, are woven together in a unity filled with marvelous patterns. His ability to combine art and science, made iconic by his drawing of a perfectly proportioned man spread-eagle inside a circle and square, known as Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.

His scientific explorations informed his art. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, delineated the muscles that move the lips, and then painted the world’s most memorable smile. He studied human skulls, made layered drawings of the bones and teeth, and conveyed the skeletal agony of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. He explored the mathematics of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced magical illusions of changing visual perspectives in The Last Supper.

By connecting his studies of light and optics to his art, he mastered the use of shading and perspective to model objects on a two-dimensional surface so they look three-dimensional. This ability to “make a flat surface display a body as if modeled and separated from this plane,” Leonardo said, was “the first intention of the painter.” Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.

As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation. When he groped for a theory of why the sky appears blue, it was not simply to inform his paintings. His curiosity was pure, personal, and delightfully obsessive.

But even when he was engaged in blue-sky thinking, his science was not a separate endeavor from his art. Together they served his driving passion, which was nothing less than knowing everything there was to know about the world, including how we fit into it. He had a reverence for the wholeness of nature and a feel for the harmony of its patterns, which he saw replicated in phenomena large and small. In his notebooks he would record curls of hair, eddies of water, and whirls of air, along with some stabs at the math that might underlie such spirals. While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.

I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology, is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius. Benjamin Franklin, a previous subject of mine, was a Leonardo of his era: with no formal education, he taught himself to become an imaginative polymath who was Enlightenment America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist. He proved by flying a kite that lightning is electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses, enchanting musical instruments, clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream, and America’s unique style of homespun humor. Albert Einstein, when he was stymied in his pursuit of his theory of relativity, would pull out his violin and play Mozart, which helped him reconnect with the harmonies of the cosmos. Ada Lovelace, whom I profiled in a book on innovators, combined the poetic sensibility of her father, Lord Byron, with her mother’s love of the beauty of math to envision a general-purpose computer. And Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of street signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. “He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, “and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”

Yes, he was a genius: wildly imaginative, passionately curious, and creative across multiple disciplines. But we should be wary of that word. Slapping the “genius” label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making it seem as if he were touched by lightning. His early biographer, Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth-century artist, made this mistake: “Sometimes, in supernatural fashion, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that his every act is divine and everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art.” In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.

Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering. His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.

At first I thought that his susceptibility to fantasia was a failing, revealing a lack of discipline and diligence that was related to his propensity to abandon artworks and treatises unfinished. To some extent, that is true. Vision without execution is hallucination. But I also came to believe that his ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy, just like his sfumato techniques for blurring the lines of a painting, was a key to his creativity. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.

My starting point for this book was not Leonardo’s art masterpieces but his notebooks. His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

Fortunately, Leonardo could not afford to waste paper, so he crammed every inch of his pages with miscellaneous drawings and looking-glass jottings that seem random but provide intimations of his mental leaps. Scribbled alongside each other, with rhyme if not reason, are math calculations, sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, siphons, plant stems, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles, and studies for paintings. The crossdisciplinary brilliance whirls across every page, providing a delightful display of a mind dancing with nature. His notebooks are the greatest record of curiosity ever created, a wondrous guide to the person whom the eminent art historian Kenneth Clark called “the most relentlessly curious man in history.”

My favorite gems in his notebooks are his to-do lists, which sparkle with his curiosity. One of them, dating from the 1490s in Milan, is that day’s list of things he wants to learn. “The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,” is the first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: “Draw Milan.” Others show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick: “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle. . . . Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled. . . . Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders. . . . Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner. . . . Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” He is insatiable.

Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn. Some involve the type of close observation most of us rarely pause to do. “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.” Others involve why-is-the-sky-blue questions about phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”

Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you even find out? It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture or even to understand the flight of birds. But there it is, and, as we shall see, there are fascinating things to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker. The reason he wanted to know was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.

Oddest of all, there is this entry: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.” We can imagine Leonardo wanting to do that, for reasons both anatomical and aesthetic. But did he really need to remind himself to do it? The next item on the list is “Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width.” As the New Yorker art critic Adam Gopnik once wrote, “Leonardo remains weird, matchlessly weird, and nothing to be done about it.”

To wrestle with these issues, I decided to write a book that used these notebooks as its foundation. I started by making pilgrimages to see the originals in Milan, Florence, Paris, Seattle, Madrid, London, and Windsor Castle. That followed Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” I also immersed myself in the little-tapped trove of academic articles and doctoral dissertations on Leonardo, each of which represents years of diligent work on very specific topics. In the past few decades, especially since the rediscovery of his Codices Madrid in 1965, there have been great advances in the analysis and interpretation of his writings. Likewise, modern technology has revealed new information about his painting and techniques.

After immersing myself in Leonardo, I did the best I could to be more observant of phenomena that I used to ignore, making a special effort to notice things the way he did. When I saw sunlight hitting drapes, I pushed myself to pause and look at the way the shadows caressed the folds. I tried to see how light that was reflected from one object subtly colored the shadows of another object. I noticed how the glint of a lustrous spot on a shiny surface moved when I tilted my head. When I looked at a distant tree and a near one, I tried to visualize the lines of perspective. When I saw an eddy of water, I compared it to a ringlet of hair. When I couldn’t understand a math concept, I did the best I was able to visualize it. When I saw people at a supper, I studied the relationship of their motions to their emotions. When I saw the hint of a smile come across someone’s lips, I tried to fathom her inner mysteries.

No, I did not come anywhere close to being Leonardo, mastering his insights, or mustering a modicum of his talents. I did not get a millimeter closer to being able to design a glider, invent a new way to draw maps, or paint the Mona Lisa. I had to push myself to be truly curious about the tongue of the woodpecker. But I did learn from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.

There are three major early accounts of Leonardo by writers who were almost contemporaries. The painter Giorgio Vasari, born in 1511 (eight years before Leonardo died), wrote the first real art history book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in 1550 and came out with a revised version in 1568 that included corrections based on further interviews with people who knew Leonardo, including his pupil Francesco Melzi. A Florentine chauvinist, Vasari gave Leonardo and especially Michelangelo the most fulsome treatments for creating what he dubbed, for the first time in print, a “renaissance” in art. As Huckleberry Finn said of Mark Twain, there were things that Vasari stretched, but he told the truth, mainly. The remainder is a mix of gossip, embellishments, inventions, and unintentional errors. The problem is knowing which picturesque anecdotes, such as Leonardo’s teacher throwing down his own brush in awe of his pupil, fall into which category.

An anonymous manuscript written in the 1540s, known as the “Anonimo Gaddiano” after the family that once owned it, contains colorful details about Leonardo and other Florentines. Once again, some of the assertions, such as that Leonardo lived and worked with Lorenzo de’ Medici, may be embellished, but it provides colorful details that ring true, such as that Leonardo liked to wear rose-colored tunics that reached only to his knee even though others wore long garments.

A third early source is by Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a painter who became a writer when he went blind. He wrote an unpublished manuscript called Dreams and Arguments in about 1560 and then published a voluminous treatise on art in 1584. He was the student of a painter who had known Leonardo, and he interviewed Leonardo’s pupil Melzi, so he had access to some firsthand stories. Lomazzo is especially revealing about Leonardo’s sexual proclivities. In addition, there are shorter accounts contained in writings by two Leonardo contemporaries, Antonio Billi, a Florentine merchant, and Paolo Giovio, an Italian physician and historian.

Many of these early accounts mention Leonardo’s looks and personality. He is described as a man of eyecatching beauty and grace. He had flowing golden curls, a muscular build, remarkable physical strength, and an elegance of bearing when he was walking through town in his colorful garb or riding on a horse. “Beautiful in person and aspect, Leonardo was well-proportioned and graceful,” according to the Anonimo. In addition, he was a charming conversationalist and a lover of nature, renowned for being sweet and gentle to both people and animals.

There is less agreement about certain specifics. In the course of my research I discovered that many facts about Leonardo’s life, from the site of his birth to the scene at his death, have been the subject of debate, mythology, and mystery. I try to give my best assessment and then describe the controversies and counterarguments in the notes.

I also discovered, at first to my consternation and then to my pleasure, that Leonardo was not always a giant. He made mistakes. He went off on tangents, literally, pursuing math problems that became timesucking diversions. Notoriously, he left many of his paintings unfinished, most notably the Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, and the Battle of Anghiari. As a result, there exist now at most fifteen paintings fully or mainly attributable to him.

Although generally considered by his contemporaries to be friendly and gentle, Leonardo was at times dark and troubled. His notebooks and drawings are a window into his fevered, imaginative, manic, and sometimes elated mind. Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder. One need not subscribe to the artist-as-troubled-genius trope to believe we are fortunate that Leonardo was left to his own devices to slay his demons while conjuring up his dragons.

In one of the quirky riddles in his notebooks is this clue: “Huge figures will appear in human shape, and the nearer you get to them, the more their immense size will diminish.” The answer: “The shadow cast by a man at night with a light.” Although the same may be said of Leonardo, I believe he is, in fact, not diminished by being discovered to be human. Both his shadow and his reality deserve to loom large. His lapses and oddities allow us to relate to him, to feel that we might emulate him, and to appreciate his moments of triumph even more.

The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own. That is why we have much to learn from Leonardo. His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity. So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, lefthanded, easily distracted, and at times heretical. Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people. Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.


Childhood: Vinci, 1452-1464


Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.

His family roots can be traced to the early 1300s, when his great-great-great-grandfather, Michele, practiced as a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, about seventeen miles west of Florence. With the rise of Italy’s mercantile economy, notaries played an important role drawing up commercial contracts, land sales, wills, and other legal documents in Latin, often garnishing them with historical references and literary flourishes.

Because Michele was a notary, he was entitled to the honorific “Ser” and thus became known as Ser Michele da Vinci. His son and grandson were even more successful notaries, the latter becoming a chancellor of Florence. The next in line, Antonio, was an anomaly. He used the honorific Ser and married the daughter of a notary, but he seems to have lacked the da Vinci ambition. He mostly spent his life living off the proceeds from family lands, tilled by sharecroppers, that produced a modest amount of wine, olive oil, and wheat.

Antonio’s son Piero made up for the lassitude by ambitiousiy pursuing success in Pistoia and Pisa, and then by about 1451, when he was twenty-five, establishing himself in Florence. A contract he notarized that year gave his work address as “at the Palazzo del Podesta,” the magistrates’ building (now the Bargello Museum) facing the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government. He became a notary for many of the city’s monasteries and religious orders, the town’s Jewish community, and on at least one occasion the Medici family.

On one of his visits back to Vinci, Piero had a relationship with an unmarried local peasant girl, and in the spring of 1452 they had a son. Exercising his littleused notarial handwriting, the boy’s grandfather Antonio recorded the birth on the bottom of the last page of a notebook that had belonged to his own grandfather. “1452: There was born to me a grandson, the son of Ser Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, at the third hour of the night [about 10 p.m.]. He bears the name Leonardo.”

Leonardo’s mother was not considered worth mentioning in Antonio’s birth notation nor in any other birth or baptism record. From a tax document five years later, we learn only her first name, Caterina. Her identity was long a mystery to modern scholars. She was thought to be in her mid-twenties, and some researchers speculated that she was an Arab slave, or perhaps a Chinese slave.

In fact, she was an orphaned and impoverished sixteen-year-old from the Vinci area named Caterina Lippi. Proving that there are still things to be rediscovered about Leonardo, the art historian Martin Kemp of Oxford and the archival researcher Giuseppe Pallanti of Florence produced evidence in 2017 documenting her background. Born in 1436 to a poor farmer, Caterina was orphaned when she was fourteen. She and her infant brother moved in with their grandmother, who died a year later, in 1451. Left to fend for herself and her brother, Caterina had a relationship in July of that year with Piero da Vinci, then twenty-four, who was prominent and prosperous.

There was little likelihood they would marry. Although described by one earlier biographer as “of good blood,” Caterina was of a different social class, and Piero was probably already betrothed to his future wife, an appropriate match: a sixteen-year-old named Albiera who was the daughter of a prominent Florentine shoemaker. He and Albiera were wed within eight months of Leonardo’s birth. The marriage, socially and professionally advantageous to both sides, had likely been arranged, and the dowry contracted, before Leonardo was born.

Keeping things tidy and convenient, shortly after Leonardo was born Piero helped to set up a marriage for Caterina to a local farmer and kiln worker who had ties to the da Vinci family. Named Antonio di Piero del Vacca, he was called Accattabriga, which means “Troublemaker,” though fortunately he does not seem to have been one.

Leonardo’s paternal grandparents and his father had a family house with a small garden right next to the walls of the castle in the heart of the village of Vinci. That is where Leonardo may have been born, though there are reasons to think not. It might not have been convenient or appropriate to have a pregnant and then breast-feeding peasant woman living in the crowded da Vinci family home, especially as Ser Piero was negotiating a dowry from the prominent family whose daughter he was planning to marry.

Instead, according to legend and the local tourist industry, Leonardo’s birthplace may have been a gray stone tenant cottage next to a farmhouse two miles up the road from Vinci in the adjacent hamlet of Anchiano, which is now the site of a small Leonardo museum. Some of this property had been owned since 1412 by the family of Piero di Malvolto, a close friend of the da Vincis. He was the godfather of Piero da Vinci and, in 1452, would be a godfather of Piero’s newborn son, Leonardo, which would have made sense if Leonardo had been born on his property. The families were very close. Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio had served as a witness to a contract involving some parts of Piero di Malvolto’s property. The notes describing the exchange say that Antonio was at a nearby house playing backgammon when he was asked to come over for that task. Piero da Vinci would buy some of the property in the 1480s.

At the time of Leonardo’s birth, Piero di Malvolto’s seventy-year-old widowed mother lived on the property. So here in the hamlet of Anchiano, an easy two-mile walk from the village of Vinci, living alone in a farmhouse that had a run-down cottage next door, was a widow who was a trusted friend to at least two generations of the da Vinci family. Her dilapidated cottage (for tax purposes the family claimed it as uninhabitable) may have been the ideal place to shelter Caterina while she was pregnant, as per local lore.

Leonardo was born on a Saturday, and the following day he was baptized by the local priest at the parish church of Vinci. The baptismal font is still there. Despite the circumstances of his birth, it was a large and public event. There were ten godparents giving witness, including Piero di Malvolto, far more than the average at the church, and the guests included prominent local gentry. A week later, Piero da Vinci left Caterina and their infant son behind and returned to Florence, where that Monday he was in his office notarizing papers for clients.

Leonardo left us no comment on the circumstances of his birth, but there is one tantalizing allusion in his notebooks to the favors that nature bestows upon a love child. “The man who has intercourse aggressively and uneasily will produce children who are irritable and untrustworthy,” he wrote, “but if the intercourse is done with great love and desire on both sides, the child will be of great intellect, witty, lively, and lovable.” One assumes, or at least hopes, that he considered himself in the latter category.

He split his childhood between two homes. Caterina and Accattabriga settled on a small farm on the outskirts of Vinci, and they remained friendly with Piero da Vinci. Twenty years later, Accattabriga was working in a kiln that was rented by Piero, and they served as witnesses for each other on a few contracts and deeds over the years. In the years following Leonardo’s birth, Caterina and Accattabriga had four girls and a boy. Piero and Albiera, however, remained childless. In fact, until Leonardo was twenty-four, his father had no other children. (Piero would make up for it during his third and fourth marriages, having at least eleven children.)

With his father living mainly in Florence and his mother nurturing a growing family of her own, Leonardo by age five was primarily living in the da Vinci family home with his leisure-loving grandfather Antonio and his wife. In the 1457 tax census, Antonio listed the dependents residing with him, including his grandson: “Leonardo, son of the said Ser Piero, non legittimo, born of him and of Caterina, who is now the woman of Achattabriga.”

Also living in the household was Piero’s youngest brother, Francesco, who was only fifteen years older than his nephew Leonardo. Francesco inherited a love of country leisure and was described in a tax document by his own father, in a pot-calling-the-kettle way, as “one who hangs around the villa and does nothing.” He became Leonardo’s beloved uncle and at times surrogate father. In the first edition of his biography, Vasari makes the telling mistake, later corrected, of identifying Piero as Leonardo’s uncle.


As Leonardo’s well-attended baptism attests, being born out of wedlock was not a cause for public shame. The nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt went so far as to label Renaissance Italy “a golden age for bastards.” Especially among the ruling and aristocratic classes, being illegitimate was no hindrance. Pius II, who was the pope when Leonardo was born, wrote about visiting Ferrara, where his welcoming party included seven princes from the ruling Este family, among them the reigning duke, all born out of wedlock. “It is an extraordinary thing about that family,” Pius wrote, “that no legitimate heir has ever inherited the principate; the sons of their mistresses have been so much more fortunate than those of their wives.” (Pius himself fathered at least two illegitimate children.) Pope Alexander Vl, also during Leonardo’s lifetime, had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children, one of whom was Cesare Borgia, who became a cardinal, commander of the papal armies, an employer of Leonardo, and the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

For members of the middle classes, however, illegitimacy was not as readily accepted. Protective of their new status, merchants and professionals formed guilds that enforced moral strictures. Although some of the guilds accepted the illegitimate sons of their members, that was not the case with the Arte dei Giuduci e Notai, the venerable (founded in 1197) guild of judges and notaries to which Leonardo’s father belonged. “The notary was a certified witness and scribe,” Thomas Kuehn wrote in Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. “His trustworthiness had to be above reproach. He had to be someone fully in the mainstream of society.”

These strictures had an upside. Illegitimacy freed some imaginative and free-spirited young men to be creative at a time when creativity was increasingly rewarded. Among the poets, artists, and artisans born out of wedlock were Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, his son Filippino, Leon Battista Alberti, and of course Leonardo.

Being born out of wedlock was more complex than merely being an outsider. It created an ambiguity of status. “The problem with bastards was that they were part of the family, but not totally,” wrote Kuehn. That helped some be, or forced them to be, more adventurous and improvisational. Leonardo was a member of a middle-class family but separate from it. Like so many writers and artists, he grew up feeling a part of the world but also detached. This limbo extended to inheritance: a combination of conflicting laws and contradictory court precedents left it unclear whether a son born out of wedlock could be an heir, as Leonardo was to find out in legal battles with his halfbrothers many years later. “Management of such ambiguities was one of the hallmarks of life in a Renaissance city-state,” explained Kuehn. “It was related to the more celebrated creativity of a city like Florence in the arts and humanism.”

Because Florence’s guild of notaries barred those who were non legittimo, Leonardo was able to benefit from the note-taking instincts that were ingrained in his family heritage while being free to pursue his own creative passions. This was fortunate. He would have made a poor notary: he got bored and distracted too easily, especially when a project became routine rather than creative.


Another upside for Leonardo of being born out of wedlock was that he was not sent to one of the “Latin schools” that taught the classics and humanities to wellgroomed aspiring professionals and merchants of the early Renaissance.” Other than a little training in commercial math at what was known as an “abacus school,” Leonardo was mainly self-taught. He often seemed defensive about being an “unlettered man,” as he dubbed himself with some irony. But he also took pride that his lack of formal schooling led him to be a disciple of experience and experiment. “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia,” he once signed himself. This freethinking attitude saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking. In his notebooks he unleashed a blast at what he called the pompous fools who would disparage him for this:

“I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! . . . They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others. . . . They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe, but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”

Thus was Leonardo spared from being trained to accept dusty Scholasticism or the medieval dogmas that had accumulated in the centuries since the decline of classical science and original thinking. His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years.

To that was added an intense desire and ability to observe the wonders of nature. He pushed himself to perceive shapes and shadows with wondrous precision. He was particularly good at apprehending movement, from the motions of a flapping wing to the emotions flickering across a face. On this foundation he built experiments, some conducted in his mind, others with drawings, and a few with physical objects. “First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further,” he announced, “because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.”

It was a good time for a child with such ambitions and talents to be born. In 1452 Johannes Gutenberg had just opened his publishing house, and soon others were using his moveable-type press to print books that would empower unschooled but brilliant people like Leonardo. Italy was beginning a rare forty-year period during which it was not wracked by wars among its citystates. Literacy, numeracy, and income were rising dramatically as power shifted from titled landowners to urban merchants and bankers, who benefited from advances in law, accounting, credit, and insurance. The Ottoman Turks were about to capture Constantinople, unleashing on Italy a migration of fleeing scholars with bundles of manuscripts containing the ancient wisdom of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, and Aristotle. Born within a year of Leonardo were Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who would lead an era of exploration. And Florence, with its booming merchant class of status-seeking patrons, had become the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism.


The most vivid memory Leonardo had of his infancy was one he recorded fifty years later, when he was studying the flight of birds. He was writing about a hawk-like bird called a kite, which has a forked tail and elegant long wings that allow it to soar and glide. Observing it with his typical acuity, Leonardo perceived precisely how it opened its wings and then spread and lowered its tail when it landed. This aroused a memory from when he was a baby: “Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since among the first recollections of my infancy, it seemed to me that, as l was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.” Like much of what came from Leonardo’s mind, there was probably some fantasy and fabulism in the brew. It is hard to imagine a bird actually landing in a cradle and prying open a baby’s mouth with its tail, and Leonardo appears to acknowledge this by using the phrase “it seemed to me,” as if it were perhaps partly a dream.

All of this, a childhood with two mothers, an often absent father, and a dreamlike oral encounter with a flapping tail, would provide great fodder for a Freudian analyst. And it did, from Freud himself. In 1910 Freud used the kite tale as the foundation for a short book, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.

Freud got off to a stumbling start by using a poor German translation of Leonardo’s note that mistakenly called the bird a vulture rather than a kite. This sent him into a long tangential explanation about the symbolism of vultures in ancient Egypt and the etymological relationship of the words for vulture and mother, all of which was irrelevant and, Freud later admitted, embarrassing. Leaving aside the bird mix-up, the main thrust of Freud’s analysis was that the word for tail in many languages, including Italian (coda), is slang for “penis” and that Leonardo’s memory was related to his homosexuality. “The situation contained in the fantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio,” Freud wrote. Leonardo’s repressed desires, he speculated, were channeled into his feverish creativity, but he left many works unfinished because he was inhibited.

These interpretations have prompted some devastating critiques, most famously by art historian Meyer Schapiro, and they seem, at least to me, to reveal more about Freud than about Leonardo. Biographers should be cautious about psychoanalyzing someone who lived five centuries earlier. Leonardo’s dreamlike memory may have simply reflected his lifelong interest in the flight of birds, which is how he framed it. And it does not take a Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality,” he wrote in one of his notebooks.

A better source for insight into Leonardo’s formative character and motivations is another personal memory he recorded, this one about hiking near Florence. The recollection involved chancing upon a dark cave and pondering whether he should enter. “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire, fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”

Desire won. His unstoppable curiosity triumphed, and Leonardo went into the cave. There he discovered, embedded in the wall, a fossil whale. “Oh mighty and once-living instrument of nature,” he wrote, “your vast strength was to no avail.” Some scholars have assumed that he was describing a fantasy hike or riffing on some verses by Seneca. But his notebook page and those surrounding it are filled with descriptions of layers of fossil shells, and many fossilized whale bones have in fact been discovered in Tuscany.

The whale fossil triggered a dark vision of what would be, throughout his life, one of his deepest forebodings, that of an apocalyptic deluge. On the next side of the sheet he described at length the furious power once held by the long-dead whale: “You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships.” Then he turned philosophical. “Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kings, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished.”

By this point Leonardo’s fears were about a realm far different from whatever dangers might be lurking inside the cave, instead they were driven by an existential dread in the face of the destructive powers of nature. He began scribbling rapidly, using a silverpoint on a redtinted page, describing an apocalypse that begins with water and ends with fire. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die,” he wrote. “In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.”

The dark cave that Leonardo’s curiosity compelled him to enter offered up both scientific discoveries and imaginative fantasies, strands that would be interwoven throughout his life. He would weather storms, literally and psychologically, and he would encounter dark recesses of the earth and soul. But his curiosity about nature would always impel him to explore more. Both his fascinations and his forebodings would be expressed in his art, beginning with his depiction of Saint Jerome agonizing near the mouth of a cave and culminating in his drawings and writings about an apocalyptic deluge.




Until he was twelve, Leonardo had a life in Vinci that, despite the complexities of being part of an extended family, was quite settled. He lived primarily with his grandparents and his idle uncle Francesco in the family house in the heart of Vinci. His father and stepmother were listed as living there when Leonardo was five, but after that their primary residence was in Florence. Leonardo’s mother and her husband lived with their growing brood of children, along with Accattabriga’s parents and his brother’s family, in a farmhouse an easy walk from town.

But in 1464 this world was disrupted. His stepmother, Albiera, died in childbirth, along with what would have been her first child. Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio, the head of the Vinci household, also had recently died. So just as Leonardo was reaching the age when he needed to prepare for a trade, his father, living alone and probably lonely, brought him to Florence.

Leonardo rarely wrote in his notebooks about his own emotions, so it is hard to know what he felt about the move. But the fables he recorded sometimes give a glimpse of his sentiments. One described the sad odyssey of a stone perched on a hill surrounded by colorful flowers and a grove of trees, in other words, a place like Vinci. Looking at the crowd of stones along the road below, it decided it wanted to join them. “What am I doing here among these plants?” the stone asked. “I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.” So it rolled down to the others. “After a while,” Leonardo recounted, “it found itself in continual distress from the wheels of the carts, the iron hoofs of horses, and the feet of the passers-by. One rolled it over, another trod upon it. Sometimes the stone raised itself up a little as it lay covered with mud or the dung of some animal, but it was in vain that it looked up at the spot whence it had come as a place of solitude and tranquil peace.” Leonardo drew a moral: “This is what happens to those who leave a life of solitary contemplation and choose to come to dwell in cities among people full of infinite evil.”

His notebooks have many other maxims praising the countryside and solitude. “Leave your family and friends and go over the mountains and valleys into the country,” he instructed aspiring painters. “While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” These paeans to country living are romantic and, for those who cherish the image of lonely genius, quite appealing. But they are infused with fantasy. Leonardo would spend almost all of his career in Florence, Milan, and Rome, crowded centers of creativity and commerce, usually surrounded by students, companions, and patrons. He rarely retreated alone to the countryside for an extended period of solitude. Like many artists, he was stimulated by being with people of diverse interests and (willing to contradict himself in his notebooks) declared, “Drawing in company is much better than alone.” The impulses of his grandfather and uncle, who both practiced the quiet country life, were imprinted in Leonardo’s imagination but not practiced in his life.

During his early years in Florence, Leonardo lived with his father, who arranged for him to get a rudimentary education and would soon help him get a good apprenticeship and commissions. But there is one significant thing that Ser Piero did not do, which would have been easy enough for a well-connected notary: go through the legal process of having his son legitimated. This could be accomplished by the father and child appearing before a local official known as a “count palatine,” usually a dignitary who had been granted power to act on such matters, and presenting a petition as the child knelt. Piero’s decision not to do this for Leonardo is particularly surprising, since he then had no other children of his own.

Perhaps one reason that Piero did not legitimate Leonardo was that he hoped to have as his heir a son who would follow family tradition and become a notary, and it was already clear, by the time Leonardo turned twelve, that he was not so inclined. According to Vasari, Piero noticed that his son “never ceased drawing and sculpting, pursuits which suited his fancy more than any other.” In addition, the notary guild had a rule, which may have been difficult to circumvent, that denied membership even to out-of-wedlock sons who had been legitimated. So Piero apparently saw no reason to go through the process. By not legitimating Leonardo, he could hope to have another son who would be his heir as a notary. A year later Piero married the daughter of another prominent Florence notary, but it would only be after his third marriage, in 1475 to a woman six years younger than Leonardo, that he would produce a legitimate heir who indeed became a notary.


There was no place then, and few places ever, that offered a more stimulating environment for creativity than Florence in the 1400s. Its economy, once dominated by unskilled wool-spinners, had flourished by becoming one that, like our own time, interwove art, technology, and commerce. It featured artisans working with silk makers and merchants to create fabrics that were works of art. In 1472 there were eighty-four woodcarvers, eighty-three silk workers, thirty master painters, and forty-four goldsmiths and jewelry craftsmen working in Florence. It was also a center of banking; the florin, noted for its gold purity, was the dominant standard currency in all of Europe, and the adoption of double-entry bookkeeping that recorded debits and credits permitted commerce to flourish. Its leading thinkers embraced a Renaissance humanism that put its faith in the dignity of the individual and in the aspiration to find happiness on this earth through knowledge. Fully a third of Florence’s population was literate, the highest rate in Europe. By embracing trade, it became a center of finance and a cauldron of ideas.

“Beautiful Florence has all seven of the fundamental things a city requires for perfection,” the essayist Benedetto Dei wrote in 1472, when Leonardo was living there. “First of all, it enjoys complete liberty; second, it has a large, rich, and elegantly dressed population; third, it has a river with clear, pure water, and mills within its walls; fourth, it rules over castles, towns, lands and people; fifth, it has a university, and both Greek and accounting are taught; sixth, it has masters in every art; seventh, it has banks and business agents all over the world.” Each one of those assets was valuable for a city, just as they are today: not only the “liberty” and “pure water,” but also that the population was “elegantly dressed” and that the university was renowned for teaching accounting as well as Greek.

The city’s cathedral was the most beautiful in Italy. In the 1430s it had been crowned with the world’s largest dome, built by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, which was a triumph of both art and engineering, and linking those two disciplines was a key to Florence’s creativity. Many of the city’s artists were also architects, and its fabric industry had been built by combining technology, design, chemistry, and commerce.

This mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled. Silk makers worked with goldbeaters to create enchanted fashions. Architects and artists developed the science of perspective. Wood-carvers worked with architects to adorn the city’s 108 churches. Shops became studios. Merchants became financiers. Artisans became artists.

When Leonardo arrived, Florence’s population was 40,000, which is about what it had been for a century but down from the 100,000 or so who lived there in 1300, before the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague. There were at least a hundred families that could be considered very wealthy, plus some five thousand guild members, shopkeepers, and merchants who were part of a prosperous middle class. Because most of them were new to wealth, they had to establish and assert their status. They did so by commissioning distinctive works of art, buying luxurious clothes of silk and gold, building palatial mansions (thirty went up between 1450 and 1470), and becoming patrons of literature, poetry, and humanist philosophy. Consumption was conspicuous but tasteful. By the time Leonardo arrived, Florence had more wood-carvers than butchers. The city itself had become a work of art. “There is no place more beautiful in all the world,” the poet Ugolino Verino wrote.

Unlike some city-states elsewhere in Italy, Florence was not ruled by hereditary royalty. More than a century before Leonardo arrived, the most prosperous merchants and guild leaders crafted a republic whose elected delegates met at the Palazzo della Signoria, now known as the Palazzo Vecchio. “The people were kept amused every day by shows, festivals, and novelties,” the fifteenth-century Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini wrote. “They were well fed from the provisions with which the city abounded. Industry of every sort flourished. Talented and able men were maintained, and a welcome and a position secured to all teachers of literature, art, and every liberal pursuit.”

The republic was not, however, democratic or egalitarian. In fact, it was barely a republic. Exercising power from behind its façade was the Medici family, the phenomenally wealthy bankers who dominated Florentine politics and culture during the fifteenth century without holding office or hereditary title. (In the following century they became hereditary dukes, and lesser family members became popes.)

After Cosimo de’ Medici took over the family bank in the 1430s, it became the largest in Europe. By managing the fortunes of the continent’s wealthy families, the Medici made themselves the wealthiest of them all. They were innovators in bookkeeping, including the use of debit-and-credit accounting that became one of the great spurs to progress during the Renaissance. By means of payoffs and plotting, Cosimo became the de facto ruler of Florence, and his patronage made it the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism.

A collector of ancient manuscripts who had been schooled in Greek and Roman literature, Cosimo supported the rebirth of interest in antiquity that was at the core of Renaissance humanism. He founded and funded Florence’s first public library and the influential but informal Platonic Academy, where scholars and public intellectuals discussed the classics. In art, he was a patron of Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, and Donatello. Cosimo died in 1464, just as Leonardo arrived in Florence from Vinci. He was succeeded by his son and then, five years later, his famous grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici, aptly dubbed Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Lorenzo had been tutored in humanist literature and philosophy under the watchful eye of his mother, an accomplished poet, and he patronized the Platonic Academy, launched by his grandfather. He was also an accomplished sportsman, distinguishing himself in jousting, hunting, falconry, and breeding horses. All of this made him a better poet and patron than he was a banker; he took more delight in using wealth than in making it. During his twenty-three-year reign, he would sponsor innovative artists, including Botticelli and Michelangelo, as well as patronize the workshops of Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, which were producing paintings and sculptures to adorn the booming city.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s patronage of the arts, autocratic rule, and ability to maintain a peaceful balance of power with rival city-states helped to make Florence a cradle of art and commerce during Leonardo’s early career there. He also kept his citizenry amused with dazzling public spectacles and grandly produced entertainments, ranging from Passion Plays to pre-Lenten carnivals. The work done for these pageants was ephemeral, but it was lucrative and stimulated the creative imagination of many of the artists involved, most notably young Leonardo.

Florence’s festive culture was spiced by the ability to inspire those with creative minds to combine ideas from disparate disciplines. In narrow streets, cloth dyers worked next to goldbeaters next to lens crafters, and during their breaks they went to the piazza to engage in animated discussions. At the Pollaiuolo workshop, anatomy was being studied so that the young sculptors and painters could better understand the human form. Artists learned the science of perspective and how angles of light produce shadows and the perception of depth. The culture rewarded, above all, those who mastered and mixed different disciplines.


The legacy of two such polymaths had a formative influence on Leonardo. The first was Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the designer of the cathedral dome. Like Leonardo, he was the son of a notary. Desiring a more creative life, he trained to become a goldsmith. Fortunately for his wide-ranging interests, goldsmiths were lumped together with other artisans as members of the guild of silk weavers and merchants, which also included sculptors. Brunelleschi’s interests soon embraced architecture as well, and he traveled to Rome to study classical ruins with his friend Donatello, another young Florentine goldsmith, who later achieved fame as a sculptor. They measured the Pantheon dome, studied other great buildings, and read the works of ancient Romans, most notably Vitruvius’s paean to classical proportions, De Architectura. Thus they became embodiments of the multidisciplinary interests and rebirth of classical knowledge that shaped the early Renaissance.

To build his cathedral dome, a self-supporting structure of close to four million bricks that is still the largest masonry dome in the world, Brunelleschi had to develop sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques and invent an array of hoists and other engineering tools. In an example of the diverse forces that were animating creativity in Florence, some of these hoists were then used to stage Lorenzo de’ Medici’s magnificent theatrics involving flying characters and moving scenery.

Brunelleschi also rediscovered and greatly advanced the classical concepts of visual perspective, which had been missing in the art of the Middle Ages. In an experiment that foreshadowed the work of Leonardo, he painted a panel that depicted the view of the Florence Baptistery across the plaza from the cathedral. After drilling a small hole in the panel, he put the back of it up to his eye while he faced the Baptistery. Then he took a mirror and held it at arm’s length, reflecting back on the painting. As he moved the mirror in and out of his line of sight, he would compare the reflection of his painting to the real Baptistery. The essence of realistic painting, he thought, was to render a three-dimensional view onto a two-dimensional surface. After accomplishing this trick on a painted panel, Brunelleschi showed how parallel lines seemed to converge in the distance toward a vanishing point. His formulation of linear perspective transformed art and also influenced the science of optics, the craft of architecture, and the uses of Euclidean geometry.

Brunelleschi’s successor as a theorist of linear perspective was another of the towering Renaissance polymaths, Leon Battista Alberti (1404 -1472), who refined many of Brunelleschi’s experiments and extended his discoveries about perspective. An artist, architect, engineer, and writer, Alberti was like Leonardo in many ways: both were illegitimate sons of prosperous fathers, athletic and good-looking, never-married, and fascinated by everything from math to art. One difference is that Alberti’s illegitimacy did not prevent him from being given a classical education. His father helped him get a dispensation from the Church laws barring illegitimate children from taking holy orders or holding ecclesiastical offices, and he studied law at Bologna, was ordained as a priest, and became a writer for the pope. During his early thirties, Alberti wrote his masterpiece analyzing painting and perspective, On Painting, the Italian edition of which was dedicated to Brunelleschi.

Alberti had an engineer’s instinct for collaboration and, like Leonardo, was “a lover of friendship” and “open-hearted,” according to the scholar Anthony Grafton. He also honed the skills of courtiership. Interested in every art and technology, he would grill people from all walks of life, from cobblers to university scholars, to learn their secrets. In other words, he was much like Leonardo, except in one respect: Leonardo was not strongly motivated by the goal of furthering human knowledge by openly disseminating and publishing his findings; Alberti, on the other hand, was dedicated to sharing his work, gathering a community of intellectual colleagues who could build on each other’s discoveries, and promoting open discussion and publication as a way to advance the accumulation of learning. A maestro of collaborative practices, he believed, according to Grafton, in “discourse in the public sphere.”

When Leonardo was a teenager in Florence, Alberti was in his sixties and spending much of his time in Rome, so it is unlikely they spent time together. Alberti was a major influence nonetheless. Leonardo studied his treatises and consciously tried to emulate both his writing and his demeanor. Alberti had established himself as “an avatar of grace in every word or movement,” a style that very much appealed to Leonardo. “One must apply the greatest artistry in three things,” Alberti wrote, “walking in the city, riding a horse, and speaking, for in each of these one must try to please everyone.” Leonardo mastered all three.

Alberti’s On Painting expanded on Brunelleschi’s analysis of perspective by using geometry to calculate how perspective lines from distant objects should be captured on a two-dimensional pane. He also suggested that painters hang a veil made of thin thread between themselves and the objects they are painting, then record where each element falls on the veil. His new methods improved not only painting but endeavors ranging from mapmaking to stage designs. By applying mathematics to art, Alberti elevated the painter’s status and advanced the argument that the visual arts deserve a standing equal to that of other humanist fields, a cause that Leonardo would later champion.


Leonardo’s only formal learning was at an abacus school, an elementary academy that emphasized the math skills useful in commerce. It did not teach how to formulate abstract theories; the focus was on practical cases. One skill that was emphasized was how to draw analogies between cases, a method that Leonardo would use repeatedly in his later science. Analogies and spotting patterns became for him a rudimentary method of theorizing.

His enthusiastic early biographer Vasari wrote, with what seems to be typical exaggeration, “In arithmetic, during the few months that he studied it, he made so much progress, that, by continually suggesting doubts and difficulties to the master who was teaching him, he would very often bewilder him.” Vasari also noted that Leonardo was interested in so many things that he got easily distracted. He turned out to be good in geometry, but he never mastered the use of equations or the rudimentary algebra that existed at the time. Nor did he learn Latin. In his thirties he would still be trying to remedy this deficiency by drawing up lists of Latin words, painstakingly writing out awkward translations, and wrestling with grammar rules.

A left-hander, Leonardo wrote from right to left on a page, the opposite direction of the words on this and other normal pages, and drew each letter facing backward. “They are not to be read save with a mirror,” as Vasari described these pages. Some have speculated that he adopted this script as a code to keep his writings secret, but that is not true; it can be read, with or without a mirror. He wrote that way because when using his left hand he could glide leftward across the page without smudging the ink. The practice was not completely uncommon. When his friend the mathematician Luca Pacioli described Leonardo’s mirror writing, he made the point that some other lefthanders wrote likewise. A popular fifteenth-century calligraphy book even shows left-handed readers the best way to do lettera mancina, or mirror script.

Being left-handed also affected Leonardo’s method of drawing. As with his writing, he drew from right to left so as not to smudge the lines with his hand. Most artists draw hatching strokes that slope upward to the right, like this: ////. But Leonardo’s hatching was distinctive because his lines started on the lower right and moved upward to the left, like this: \\. Today this style has an added advantage: the left-handed hatching in a drawing is evidence that it was made by Leonardo.

When viewed in a mirror, Leonardo’s writing is somewhat similar to that of his father, indicating that Piero probably helped Leonardo learn to write. However, many of his numerical calculations are written in conventional fashion, showing that the abacus school probably did not indulge his use of mirror script for math. Being left-handed was not a major handicap, but it was considered a bit of an oddity, a trait that conjured up words like sinister and gauche rather than dexterous and admit, and it was one more way in which Leonardo was regarded, and regarded himself, as distinctive.


Around the time Leonardo was fourteen, his father was able to secure for him an apprenticeship with one of his clients, Andrea del Verrocchio, a versatile artist and engineer who ran one of the best workshops in Florence. Vasari wrote, “Piero took some of his drawings and carried them to Andrea del Verrocchio, who was his good friend, and asked if he thought it would be profitable for the boy to study drawing.” Piero knew Verrocchio well, and he notarized at least four legal settlements and rental documents for him around this time. But Verrocchio probably gave the boy an apprenticeship on merit, not just as a favor to his father. He was, Vasari reported, “astonished” at the boy’s talent.

Verrocchio’s workshop, which was nestled in a street near Piero’s notarial office, was the perfect place for Leonardo. Verrocchio conducted a rigorous teaching program that involved studying surface anatomy, mechanics, drawing techniques, and the effects of light and shade on material such as draperies.

When Leonardo arrived, Verrocchio’s workshop was creating an ornate tomb for the Medici, sculpting a bronze statue of Christ and Saint Thomas, designing banners of white taffeta gilded with flowers of silver and gold for a pageant, curating the Medici’s antiques, and generating Madonna paintings for merchants who wanted to display both their wealth and their piety. An inventory of his shop showed that it had a dining table, beds, a globe, and a variety of books in Italian, including translated classical poetry by Petrarch and Ovid as well as humorous short stories by the fourteenth-century popular Florentine writer Franco Sacchetti. The topics of discussion in his shop included math, anatomy, dissection, antiquities, music, and philosophy. “He applied himself to the sciences, and particularly geometry,” according to Vasari.

Verrocchio’s bottega, like those of his five or six main competitors in Florence, was more like a commercial shop, similar to the shops of the cobblers and jewelers along the street, than a refined art studio. On the ground floor was a store and workroom, open to the street, where the artisans and apprentices mass-produced products from their easels, workbenches, kilns, pottery wheels, and metal grinders. Many of the workers lived and ate together in the quarters upstairs. The paintings and objects were not signed; they were not intended to be works of individual expression. Most were collaborative efforts, including many of the paintings commonly attributed to Verrocchio himself. The goal was to produce a constant flow of marketable art and artifacts rather than nurture creative geniuses yearning to find outlets for their originality.

With their lack of Latin schooling, the artisans in such shops were not considered to be part of the cultural elite. But the status of artists was beginning to change. The rebirth of interest in the ancient Roman classics had revived the writings of Pliny the Elder, who extolled classical artists for representing nature so accurately that their grapes could fool birds. With the help of the writings of Aiberti and the development of mathematical perspective, the social and intellectual standing of painters was rising, and a few were becoming sought after names.

Trained as a goldsmith, Verrocchio left much of the brushwork of painting to others, most notably a crop of young artists that included Lorenzo di Credi. Verrocchio was a kind master; students such as Leonardo often continued to live with and work for him after their apprenticeships were completed, and other young painters, including Sandro Botticelli, became part of his circle.

Verrocchio’s collegial nature did have one downside: he was not a tough taskmaster and his workshop was not renowned for delivering commissions on time. Vasari noted that Verrocchio once made preparatory drawings for a battle scene of nude figures and other narrative works of art, “but for some reason, whatever it may have been, they remained unfinished.” Verrocchio held on to some paintings for years before completing them. Leonardo would far exceed his master in all things, including in his propensity to get distracted, walk away from projects, and linger over paintings for years.

One of Verrocchio’s most captivating sculptures was a four-foot bronze of the young warrior David standing in triumph over the head of Goliath. His smile is tantalizing and a bit mysterious, what exactly is he thinking?, like the ones Leonardo would later paint. It quavers between expressing a childlike glory and a dawning realization of future leadership; a cocky smile is caught in the moment of being transformed into resolution. Unlike Michelangelo’s iconic marble statue of a muscular David as a man, Verrocchio’s David seems to be a slightly effeminate and strikingly pretty boy of about fourteen.

. . .


Leonardo DaVinci

by Walter Isaacson

get it at

I was an Isis sex slave. I tell my story because it is the best weapon I have – Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize 2018 recipient.

Nadia Murad was abducted with other Yazidi women in August 2014 when their home village of Kocho in Sinjar, northern Iraq, was attacked by Isis. Captured alongside her sisters, she lost six brothers and her mother. She was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege.

This is an extract from her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State

The slave market opened at night. We could hear the commotion downstairs where militants were registering and organising, and when the first man entered the room, all the girls started screaming. It was like the scene of an explosion. We moaned as though wounded, doubling over and vomiting on the floor, but none of it stopped the militants. They paced around the room, staring at us, while we screamed and begged. They gravitated toward the most beautiful girls first, asking, “How old are you?” and examining their hair and mouths. “They are Virgins, right?” they asked a guard, who nodded and said, “Of course!” like a shopkeeper taking pride in his product. Now the militants touched us anywhere they wanted, running their hands over our breasts and our legs, as if we were animals. … The Guardian

The Last Girl. My story of captivity and my fight against the Islamic State

Nadia Murad

This book is written for every Yazidi.

In 2014, ISIS attacked Nadia’s village in Iraq, and her life as a twenty-one-year-old student was shattered. She was forced to watch her mother and brothers be marched off to their deaths. And Nadia herself was traded from one ISIS fighter to another. She was forced to pray, forced to dress up and put makeup on in preparation for rape, and one night was brutally abused by a group of men until she was unconscious. She showed me her scars from cigarette burns and beatings. And she told me that throughout her ordeal ISIS militants would call her a “dirty unbeliever” and brag about conquering Yazidi women and wiping their religion from the earth.

Nadia was one of thousands of Yazidis taken by ISIS to be sold in markets and on Facebook, sometimes for as little as twenty dollars. Nadia’s mother was one of eighty older women who were executed and buried in an unmarked grave. Six of her brothers were among the hundreds of men who were murdered in a single day.

The Last Girl. My story of captivity and my fight against the Islamic State

THE RESTLESS WAVE. Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations – John McCain.

Tribute to a decent man, an honest man of honour. Even though he backed the Iraq disaster, and is a Republican.

Many an old geezer like me reaches his last years wishing he had lived more in the moment, had savored his days as they happened. Not me, friends. Not me. I have loved my life. All of it.


TEARS WELLED IN MY EYES as I watched the old men march. It was a poignant sight, but not an unfamiliar one, and I was surprised at my reaction. l have attended Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades in dozens of American cities, watched aging combat veterans, heads high, shoulders back, summon memories of their service and pay homage to friends they had lost. I had always kept my composure.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and I had been invited to the official commemoration. The President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, was there and would give an emotional, memorable address at the USS Arizona memorial. I assumed that I, a first term senator, had been included with more important dignitaries because that famous ship was named for the state I represent. Or perhaps I had been invited because I’m a Navy veteran, the son and grandson of admirals, and this was a Navy show.

My best friend from the Naval Academy, Chuck Larson, acted as host and master of ceremonies for the proceedings at the Arizona. Chuck had a far more distinguished naval career than I had, continuing a divergence that had begun in our first year at the Academy, where he had graduated at the top of our class and I very near the bottom. We had gone through flight training together, and remained the closest of friends. Chuck had been an aviator, then a submariner and a military aide to President Richard Nixon. He had been a rear admiral at forty three, one of the youngest officers in Navy history to make that rank. He was the only person to serve as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy twice. On the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he had four stars and was commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, CINCPAC, the largest operational command in the U.S. military, my father’s old command, headquartered in Hawaii.

The Arizona ceremony was the main event of the weekend. The President would also pay a visit to the battleship USS Missouri, as would I. She had come from operations in the Persian Gulf to join in the Remembrance Day tribute. It was her last mission before she would be decommissioned. The war that had begun for America in Pearl Harbor had ended on her deck. My grandfather had been there, standing in the first line of senior officers observing the surrender ceremony.

My father, a submarine skipper, was waiting in Tokyo Harbor to meet him for, as it turned outthe last time. They lunched together that afternoon in the wardroom of a submarine tender. When they parted that day my grandfather began his journey home to Coronado, California. He died of a heart attack the day after he arrived, during a welcome home party my grandmother had arranged for him. He was only sixty one years old, but looked decades older, aged beyond his years from “riotous living,” as he called it, and the strain of the war. My father, who admired his father above all other men, was inconsolable. Many years later he recalled in detail their final reunion and the last words his father spoke to him, “Son, there is no greater thing than to die for the country and principles that you believe in.”

The day before the ceremony on the Arizona I had joined a small group of more senior senators and combat veterans, among them Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and the senior senator from Hawaii, Dan Inouye. Bob had served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. A few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, he was grievously wounded by a German machine gun while trying to rescue his fallen radio operator. His wounds cost him the use of his right arm, and much of the feeling in his left. Around the same time, Dan had led an assault on a German bunker in Tuscany. He was shot in the stomach and a grenade severed his right arm. He kept fighting, and would receive the Medal of Honor for his valor. Bob and Dan had been friends longer than either had been a senator. They had met while recuperating from their wounds in Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, along with another future senator, Phil Hart, who had been wounded on D-Day.

That day, we watched two thousand Pearl Harbor survivors march to honor their fallen. Most appeared to be in their seventies. Neither the informality of their attire nor the falling rain nor the cheers of the crowd along the parade route detracted from their dignified comportment. A few were unable to walk and rode in Army trucks. All of a sudden I felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was the effect of their straight faces and erect bearing evoking such a hard-won dignity; maybe it was the men riding in trucks managing to match the poise of the marchers; maybe it was the way they turned their heads toward us as they passed and the way Bob and Dan returned their attention. A little embarrassed by my reaction, I confessed to Dan, “I don’t know what comes over me these days. I guess I’m getting sentimental with age.” Without turning his gaze from the marchers, he answered me quietly, “Accumulated memories.”

That was it. Accumulated memories. I had reached an age when I had begun to feel the weight of them. Memories evoked by a connection to someone or to an occasion, by a familiar story or turn of phrase or song. Memories of intense experiences, of family and friends from younger days, of causes fought, some worth it, others not so much, some won, some lost, of adventures bigger than those imagined as a child, memories of a life that even then had seemed to me so lucky and unlikely, and of the abbreviated lives of friends who had been braver but not as fortunate, memories brought to mind by veterans of a war I had not fought in, but I knew something of what it had cost them, and what it had given them.

I had been a boy of five, playing in the front yard of my family’s home in New London, Connecticut, when a black sedan pulled up and a Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted to my father, “Jack, the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.” The news and the sight of my father leaving in that sedan is one of my most powerful memories, the only memory of my father during the war I’ve managed to retain all these years. I know he didn’t go to sea immediately and I know we were briefly reunited with him when he was reassigned from a submarine command in the Atlantic to another in the Pacific theater. But I don’t recall seeing my father again after he got into that car until the war was over, and he had lost his father and many of his friends. He returned changed in the way most combat veterans are, more self-possessed and serious. I understood the journey the Pearl Harbor veterans had made.

That empathy stirred by my own memories had made me weep.

I feel the weight of memories even more now, of course. I’ve accumulated so many more of them. I was in my mid fifties in 1991. I’m eighty one now, twenty years older than my grandfather had been when he died, and more than ten years older than my father when we buried him, as it happened, on the day I left the Navy, a year before I was elected to my first term in Congress.

A quarter century’s worth of new memories, of new causes, won and lost, more fights, new friendships and a few new enemies, of more mistakes made and new lessons learned, of new experiences that enriched my life so far beyond my wildest dreams that I feel even luckier than I did in 1991.

Of course, the longer we live, the more we lose, too, and many people who figure prominently in my memories have left the scene. Friends from prison have passed away. Bob Craner, my closest confidant in prison, the man who got me back on my feet after the Vietnamese forced me to make a false confession and propaganda statement, died many years ago. Bill Lawrence, my exemplary senior ranking officer, died in 2005. Ned Shuman, whose good cheer was a tonic in the worst of times, is gone now, too. And Bud Day, the toughest man I ever knew, veteran of three wars, who wouldn’t let me die in those hard first months of my captivity, left us four years ago.

Close Senate friends have passed as well, including brave Dan Inouye. My pal Fred Thompson, whose company was a delight, died two years ago. Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy, with whom I worked and fought and joked in some of the more memorable moments of my time in the Senate, succumbed in 2009 to the cancer that I now have. Ted and I shared the conviction that a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed. We had some fierce ones in our time, fierce, worthwhile, and fun. I loved every minute of them.

Other friends have left, too. I’m tempted to say, before their time, but that isn’t the truth. What God and good luck provide we must accept with gratitude. Our time is our time. It’s up to us to make the most of it, make it amount to more than the sum of our days. God knows, my dear friend Chuck Larson, whom I had looked up to since we were boys, made the most of his. Leukemia killed him in 2014. He was laid to rest in the Naval Academy’s cemetery on Hospital Point, a beautiful spot overlooking the Severn River, near where our paths first crossed.

I’ve been given more years than many, and had enough narrow escapes along the way to make me appreciate them, not just in memory, but while I lived them. Many an old geezer like me reaches his last years wishing he had lived more in the moment, had savored his days as they happened. Not me, friends. Not me. I have loved my life. All of it. I’ve wasted more than a few days on pursuits that might not have proved as important as they seemed to me at the time. Some things didn’t work out the way I hoped they would. I had difficult moments and a few disappointments. But, by God, I enjoyed it. Every damn day of it. I have lived with a will. I served a purpose greater than my own pleasure or advantage, but I meant to enjoy the experience, and I did. I meant to be amazed and excited and encouraged and useful, and I was.

All that is attributable to one thing more than any other. I have been restless all my life, even now, as time grows precious. America and the voters of Arizona have let me exercise my restlessness in their service. I had the great good fortune to spend sixty years in the employ of our country, defending our country’s security, advancing our country’s ideals, supporting our country’s indispensable contributions to the progress of humanity. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege, and I have been repaid a thousand times over with adventure and discoveries, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the story of America, and the history we made. And I am so very grateful.

I share that sentiment with another naval aviator, the good man and patriot we elected our forty-first President, George Herbert Walker Bush. He paid tribute twenty-six years ago to those fellow patriots whose service to America was not repaid with a long life of achievement and adventure.

We had assembled at the Arizona memorial around seven o’clock the morning of December 7, 1991. President and Mrs. Bush and their party arrived shortly after. Chuck opened the proceedings and introduced a Navy chaplain to give an invocation. At 7:55, fifty years to the minute since the attack on Pearl Harbor had commenced, the cruiser USS Chosin crossed in front of the memorial and sounded its horn as its officers and crew standing along its rails saluted. The minute of silence we observed ended when four F-15 fighters roared overhead, and one pulled up and away in the missing man formation. A bugler sounded attention at eight o’clock, the colors were raised, and the national anthem sung. President and Mrs. Bush dropped flower wreaths into the well of the memorial.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney introduced retired USN Captain Donald Ross, who had been a warrant officer on the USS Nevada, one of eight battleships stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He was the senior engineer on the ship and managed to get her under way in the firestorm, the only one of the battleships to do so. The Nevada was struck by six bombs and a torpedo. Ross lost consciousness twice from the smoke and was twice resuscitated. He was blinded by an explosion, but he kept the ship steaming long enough to run her aground where she wouldn’t block the entrance to the harbor. He received the Medal of Honor for his valor. He was eighty-one years old in 1991, slight and stooped in his Navy whites, and walked with a cane. He would die the next spring. But he was exuberant that morning and emotional as he introduced his fellow World War II veteran, almost shouting, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the President of the United States.”

The President read from a printed text. He would give another, longer speech later that day about America’s leadership of the postwar world, and the international order we had superintended for nearly fifty years. But his speech at the memorial was devoted to the Americans who had fought and perished there at the dawn of the American century. “The heroes of the harbor,” he called them.

As he closed the speech, his voice grew thick with emotion. I think he must have felt not only the sacrifices made at Pearl Harbor, but the weight of his own memories, the memories of friends he had lost in the war, when he was the youngest aviator in the Navy.

“Look at the water here, clear and quiet,” he directed, “bidding us to sum up and remember. One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.” He paused and fussed with the pages of his speech, struggling to compose himself before delivering the last line of the speech. “May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous land on earth.”

The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed. We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for President.

We are blessed, and in turn, we have been a blessing to humanity. The world order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land shared its treasures and ideals and shed its blood to help make another, better world. And as we did we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war.

We have made mistakes. We haven’t always used our power wisely. We have abused it sometimes and we’ve been arrogant. But, as often as not, we recognized those wrongs, debated them openly, and tried to do better. And the good we have done for humanity surpasses the damage caused by our errors. We have sought to make the world more stable and secure, not just our own society. We have advanced norms and rules of international relations that have benefited all. We have stood up to tyrants for mistreating their people even when they didn’t threaten us, not always, but often. We don’t steal other people’s wealth. We don’t take their land. We don’t build walls to freedom and opportunity. We tear them down.

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic. American nationalism isn’t the same as in other countries. It isn’t nativist or imperial or xenophobic, or it shouldn’t be. Those attachments belong with other tired dogmas that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made from ideals, not blood and soil. We are custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world because we believed our ideals are the natural aspiration of all mankind, and that the principles, rules, and alliances of the international order we superintended would improve the security and prosperity of all who joined with us. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as well. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we let other powers assume our leadership role, powers that reject our values and resent our influence. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

I have served that cause all my adult life. I haven’t always served it well. I haven’t even always appreciated that I was serving it. But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I was part of something bigger than myself that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by personal interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past. Yes, l have enjoyed it, all of it, and I would love for it to continue. A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed, and I wouldn’t mind another scrap or two for a good cause before I’m a memory. Who knows, maybe I’ll get another round. And maybe I won’t. So be it. I’ve lived in this wondrous land for most of eight decades, and I’ve had enough good fights and good company in her service to satisfy even my restless nature, a few of which I relate in the pages that follow.

Who am I to complain? I’m the luckiest man on earth.

John McCain, Cornville, Arizona


NO Surrender

ON AN ORDINARY NOVEMBER MORNING in Phoenix, sunny and warm, Cindy and I walked the two blocks from our building to the nearest Starbucks. We stood in line with other early risers, and made our purchases. We walked back to our condo, coffees in hand, and got ready to drive to our place in Northern Arizona, where we go to rest and relax in good times and bad. Friends would join us there for a few days, and our conversations would inevitably return now and again to the intense experience we had just shared. But whenever it looked like we were about to dwell at length on that subject, I would steer the conversation in another direction, toward the future. And that morning in Phoenix, we were left entirely to ourselves, just another couple in need of their morning coffee, which made for a welcome change.

The night before, I had conceded the election to the man who had defeated me and would be our forty-fourth President, Barack Obama. After I had left the stage, Mark Hughes, the agent in charge of my Secret Service detail, started to brief me on the schedule and security procedures for the trip north. The Secret Service customarily continues to protect defeated presidential candidates for a little while after the election. I suppose they worry some fool might think the losing candidate deserved a more severe sanction than disappointment. I thought it unlikely, and while I regretted losing the election, I did not expect to regret recovering autonomy over decisions about where I would go and when and with whom. Wherever the hell I wanted, I thought to myself, and the notion brightened a day that might otherwise have been spent contemplating “if only.”

If only we had done this. If only we hadn’t done that. I intended to leave those questions to reporters and academics. They were unproductive. I still had a job, a job I enjoyed and looked forward to resuming. And, as I said, I looked forward to resuming the routine habits of a man without a security detail: opening doors, driving my car, walking to a coffee shop. Being at liberty. Having spent more than five years of my life in prison, I tend to appreciate even the more mundane exercises of my freedom more than others might.

Mark Hughes had done a fine job supervising my protection, as had Billy Callahan, the agent in charge of my other Secret Service detail, which alternated weeks with Mark’s crew. All the agents protecting Cindy and me, and my running mate, Sarah Palin, and her family, had been consummate professionals and had at my repeated requests exercised as much restraint as circumstances and good sense allowed. I was appreciative and grateful. But that didn’t stop me from taking a little pleasure in interrupting Mark’s briefing.

“Mark, my friend, you guys have been great, and I appreciate all your concern and hard work. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. But tomorrow, I want all of you to go home to your families like I’m going home to mine. I’d appreciate a ride home tonight. Then we’ll say goodbye, and we probably won’t see each other again.”

Mark was accustomed to my chafing at restrictions imposed on my independence, and did not argue. He smiled, and said, “Yes, sir.” I liked him all the more for it. We said goodbye that night. And the next morning, Cindy and I walked to Starbucks without any more protection than a little sunscreen. An hour or so after that, I was happily driving north on Interstate 17, a free man at last.

It had been an exhilarating and exhausting two years. And though almost every defeated candidate insists the experience was wonderful and satisfying, I imagine I was only slightly less pleased that it was over than was President-elect Obama. Don’t get me wrong, I fought as hard as I could to win, and I really don’t enjoy losing. We had triumphant moments, and deeply touching experiences in the campaign. We had disappointing experiences as well, and days that were blurred by adrenaline fueled activity and stress. It was like drinking from a firehose all day, every day, especially in the months between the party conventions and Election Day. But it had been for the most part a wonderful experience.

While some might find it odd, the part I had enjoyed the most were the days when l was again an underdog for the Republican nomination. I’m not sure why, but my enjoyment of a fight of any kind is inversely proportional to the odds of winning it. And in July of 2007 the odds that I would win the Republican nomination for President were starting to look pretty long.

I had formally announced my candidacy in April, but the campaign had been under way for months before then. I had started out as the presumed front-runner for the nomination, and my friend Hillary Clinton, whom I had gotten to know and like while serving with her on the Armed Services Committee, was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Her status would last a bit longer than mine. We had built a front-runner’s campaign with a large and experienced staff and a big budget. Much too big, it turned out. We were spending a lot more than we were raising. I’m not the most prodigious fund-raiser, to be sure. I don’t mind asking people for money, but I don’t really enjoy it, either, and I certainly wasn’t as good at it as was my principal rival for the nomination, Governor Mitt Romney. I suppose it didn’t help matters with many donors that I was the leading Republican proponent of limiting campaign donations or that I was inextricably tied to the deeply unpopular surge in Iraq. My support for comprehensive immigration reform was proving to be a liability as well, although majorities of Americans then and now support its provisions. I had sponsored an immigration bill that year with Ted Kennedy. The bill was as unpopular with some conservatives as Ted was. Some of the other candidates, particularly Mitt, were already making an issue of it, and it was starting to generate grassroots opposition to my candidacy.

Whatever the reasons for my failure to outraise the competition, our spending should have been more in line with our financing. We shouldn’t have assembled an operation with as big a payroll and expenses as we had until my front-runner status was earned by winning primaries. In the spring and early summer of 2007 it was based on not much more than the fact that I had been the runner-up for the nomination in 2000, and was at the moment better known nationally than Governor Romney.

I was, to put it mildly, unhappy with my situation and considering what to do about it when I left for an overseas trip in early July. The whole thing just didn’t feel right to me. I felt as if I was running someone else’s campaign or pretending my campaign was something it wasn’t or shouldn’t have been. I had enjoyed my experiences as the underdog in the 2000 Republican nomination race partly because hardly anyone expected me to win and I felt as if I had nothing to lose. Then we caught fire in the fall of 1999, won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide, and had a rocket ride for a couple months, losing South Carolina, winning Michigan, before crashing in the Super Tuesday primaries. I left the race having outperformed expectations, possessing a much bigger national reputation, increased influence in the Senate, and an abundance of truly wonderful memories. Not bad for a defeat.

Before I made the decision to run again, I had nagging doubts that I mentioned frequently to aides that we weren’t likely to bottle lightning twice. Compounding my concern over spending and the direction of the campaign in 2007 were my concerns about the surge in Iraq, which preoccupied me more than the campaign did. There had not been many advocates in Congress, even among Republicans, for President George W. Bush’s decision to surge troops to Iraq to run a counterinsurgency under the command of General David Petraeus.

The war had been almost lost in 2006. A Sunni insurgency had grown much stronger as it claimed more territory, and more Iraqis and foreign fighters were joining its ranks. Shia militias were working with Iran to terrorize Sunnis and, when the spirit moved them, to kill Americans. They operated practically unfettered in some neighborhoods. We were obviously losing ground and were at risk of losing the war. That reality wasn’t altered by repeated assurances from senior commanders in Baghdad and from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the American effort in Iraq was meeting all its targets (principally, the number of Iraqi troops trained, which proved as useless as a measure of success as body counts had in Vietnam). And a majority of the American people, which grew larger by the day, wanted us to get out.

I had been advocating for a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq since August 2003. I had lost all confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld’s willingness to change what clearly wasn’t working, and I said so. To my and many others’ relief, President Bush asked for his resignation in November 2006. Knowing the President was actively considering the idea, I had urged for months that we surge thousands more troops to Iraq. I knew it was a decision that some officials in his administration opposed, that Democrats and more than a few Republicans would strongly criticize, and that most of the American people would not agree with. They had already punished Republicans for Iraq in the 2006 midterm election. They would likely want to rebuke us again in 2008, and that probability would loom larger as casualties spiked in the first months of the surge.

President Bush knew all this as well or better than I did. Good man that he is, I knew he was deeply pained by the loss of Americans he had sent to Iraq. He knew that if he decided to order the surge the situation would get worse and more Americans would die before it got better. He knew there was no guarantee it would succeed.

We had gone into Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and destroyed the odious Saddam Hussein regime. Bad tactics, a flawed strategy, and bad leadership in the highest ranks of uniformed and civilian defense leadership had allowed violent forces unleashed by Saddam’s destruction to turn Iraq into hell on earth, and threaten the stability of the Middle East. The situation was dire, and the price that we had already paid in blood and treasure was clear. But we had a lot at stake and we had a responsibility to attempt one last, extremely difficult effort to turn it around, to test whether a genuine counterinsurgency could avert defeat. The President chose to do the right thing, and the hardest. I imagine it was a lonely, painful experience for him, and I admired his resolve. I admired also his choice to lead the effort, General David Petraeus.

I believed that we should have responded to the insurgency at its inception, and I was increasingly convinced with every month that followed that only a full-fledged counterinsurgency, with all the force it required, had any chance for winning the war. But I didn’t know in late 2006 whether or not the situation was too far gone to salvage. Advisors whose counsel I trusted believed it still could be won. General Petraeus believed it could be. But none of us felt as confident about the outcome as we would have liked, and we knew most Americans believed we were wrong.

Five additional Army brigades were deployed to lraq, and Marine and Army units already in country had their tours extended, providing just enough force to support a counterinsurgency. The numbers of Americans killed or wounded in the first months of 2007 increased substantially, as additional forces arrived and fought to take back territory from Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. For the first time in the war on a large scale, they held the ground they took and provided security for the affected populations. The spike in casualties was expected, but it was hard not to worry you were needlessly sending young kids to their death in a war that had been a mistake. You couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the best thing now was to cut our losses. But I believed our defeat would be catastrophic for the Middle East and our security interests there as terrorists and Tehran gained power and prestige at our expense. And I was worried about the humanitairian implications of our withdrawal, fearing that the raging sectarian war might descend into genocide. Of course, if the surge failed, there would be nothing we could realistically do to prevent that defeat or prevent history and our own consciences from damning us for having made this last, costly effort.

So, as I considered what to do about my campaign, I did so recognizing that I would be spending more time and energy focusing on the issue that was likely to cost me votes. Nowhere was that likelier to be the case than in my favorite state after Arizona, New Hampshire, scene of my 2000 landslide win. In the 2006 election, Democrats had swept almost every state and federal contest in New Hampshire, a Republican wipeout blamed on voters’ deep dissatisfaction with the war. There was no credible scenario in which I could win the nomination without winning the New Hampshire primary, as I had in 2000. And even Granite State voters who had supported me seven years before and who still liked me were not pleased with my support for the war. It was increasingly apparent that many of them would express their displeasure by voting for a candidate other than me.

Anxious about the surge, upset with the state of my campaign, increasingly aware of the extent of the challenge before me, I was in a bad frame of mind that summer. My uncertainty about what to do only aggravated my condition. There have been very few times in my life when I have felt I might be in a predicament that I could not eventually escape. But I had serious doubts that I could win an election and maintain my position on Iraq. In fact, I was beginning to ask myself if I should even be trying. And that was my attitude as I departed with my friend Senator Lindsey Graham for a long-scheduled trip to Iraq, leaving decisions about how to repair my campaign or even whether to continue it for my return.

On the flight over I confided to Lindsey my unhappiness with the campaign, and we discussed what I ought to do about it. I told him I was leaning toward getting out of the race. I wasn’t sure I could win. I wasn’t sure I wanted it badly enough to do what I had to do to win. We were broke. Unlike our merry little band of insurgents in 2000, factions had formed in the campaign, and they were sniping at each other in the press. Old friendships were becoming rivalries. It was an increasingly joyless experience, and I had begun to worry that it would ultimately prove pointless. Lindsey thought it was salvageable, that we could downsize, and fight more like a challenger than a front-runner. If nothing else, that would feel more natural to me. But I was skeptical. I would need to raise a lot more money to run any kind of serious campaign, and that would get harder, not easier, as donors saw us cutting payroll, shedding talented staff, and closing state offices six months before the lowa caucuses. We were about to become in the eyes of the press and donors the first casualty of the 2008 Republican nomination race.

The worst violence had started to subside by the time of our July visit to Baghdad, which strengthened our faith that the surge could succeed. Casualties had peaked in May. The number of killed and wounded declined every month thereafter. General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker and their staffs briefed us on the military and political gains that had been made since our last visit. We could see for ourselves that things were improving. There were visible signs of progress almost everywhere in Baghdad. Dangerous neighborhoods had been quieted, commercial activity was resuming. There wasn’t enough progress to convince you that victory was assured. Far from it. But it was enough to think that maybe, to quote Churchill, we were at the end of the beginning. I was more hopeful that the decision I had long advocated would not end up sacrificing the lives ransomed to it in a failed effort to rescue an already lost cause.

The experience that made the biggest impression on me was a ceremonial one. General Petraeus had asked us to participate in an Independence Day event at Saddam’s al-Faw Palace at Camp Victory that included the reenlistment of over 600 soldiers and the naturalization of 161 soldiers, mostly Hispanic immigrants, who had risked life and limb for the United States while they waited to become citizens. Some of these soldiers, the reenlisted and the newly naturalized, were on their second and third combat tours. Some of them had just had their current tour extended. Most were kids, of course, and some of them had spent two or three years of their short lives living with fear and fatigue, cruelty and confusion, and all the other dehumanizing effects of war. They had seen friends killed and wounded. Some had been wounded themselves. They had seen firsthand the failed strategy that had allowed the insurgency to gain strength, and had risked their lives to reinforce what they knew was a mistake. They had retaken the same real estate over and over again. They had conducted raids night after night looking for insurgents and caches of arms. They had been shot at by snipers and blasted by IEDs, and buried friends who hadn’t survived the encounters, while month after month the situation got worse. And here they were, re-upping again, choosing to stay in harm’s way. Most of them, it appeared, were excited to be finally doing something that made sense, taking and holding ground, protecting and earning the trust of the locals. Lindsey and I spoke at the ceremony. We were awed by them. It was hard to keep our composure while witnessing that kind of courage and selfless devotion to duty. And it was all the harder after General Petraeus recognized the sacrifice made by two soldiers who had planned to become naturalized citizens at the ceremony, and were now represented by two pairs of boots on two chairs, having been killed in action two days before. “They died serving a country that was not yet theirs,” Petraeus observed.

I wasn’t the only person there with a lump in his throat and eyes brimming with tears. I wish every American who out of ignorance or worse curses immigrants as criminals or a drain on the country’s resources or a threat to our “culture” could have been there. I would like them to know that immigrants, many of them having entered the country illegally, are making sacrifices for Americans that many Americans would not make for them.

The ceremony was one of the most inspirational displays of genuine loyalty to country and comrades I’d ever witnessed, and I’ll never forget it. On our return flight, Lindsey and I again discussed my political predicament and what to do about it. But I had decided before we boarded the flight that whatever I was risking by remaining a candidate, which wasn’t much more than embarrassment, it was nothing compared to what those kids were risking and the cause they were fighting for. I decided to stay in the race.

We had to downsize substantially. Many staffers left of their own accord and others involuntarily. We closed our operations in a number of states.

We borrowed money to keep the thing going. We developed a “living off the land” strategy that relied on debates and other free media opportunities to get out our message. We couldn’t afford to pay to advertise. And we had to adjust our expectations accordingly. I wasn’t able to run campaign operations with paid staff in as many primaries and caucuses as we had planned. We were going to have to downplay our involvement in the Iowa caucuses, as we had eight years before, and bet it all on New Hampshire again. We would be active in the states that immediately followed New Hampshire, Michigan, which was Governor Romney’s native state, and South Carolina. We knew we would have to win at least one of those to have a decent shot at winning the Florida primary. Whoever won Florida would have the most momentum going into Super Tuesday, when twenty-one states would hold primaries or caucuses. But for all practical purposes it was New Hampshire or bust for us again. There wasn’t a way to win without it.

I made one other commitment. I wouldn’t just stand by my position on the surge, I would make it the centerpiece of our campaign, arguing for its necessity and predicting its success if sustained, a message that many New Hampshire voters did not welcome. I couldn’t win the nomination without winning New Hampshire. I probably couldn’t win New Hampshire if I continued to support the surge. But I was going to make defending the surge my principal message in New Hampshire. An underdog again.

My very first campaign stop after returning from Iraq was in Concord, New Hampshire, where I was scheduled to deliver a speech on Iraq. Before we left, I planned to speak in the Senate about the progress Lindsey and I had witnessed and the necessity of sustaining the surge beyond its difficult first months. Before the speech, in difficult conversations with senior staff, I ordered the downsizing that necessitated staff departures, provoked bitter feelings between former colleagues and angry recriminations in the press, and spawned hours of political prognostication that our campaign was for all practical purposes “a corpse” as my days as a front-runner came to an abrupt and messy end.

I didn’t have an elaborate response to the situation. Rick Davis, my campaign manager, was working on a plan to run a smaller campaign, and find the money for it. I decided the best thing I could do was to put my head down and plod through the next few weeks. I’d like to say I ignored the skepticism and mockery directed my way. But I heard it and read it and felt it. I didn’t like it but I didn’t let it intimidate me. I intended to go to New Hampshire and make my case to people I had a pretty good rapport with even if they were no longer supporting me. If they didn’t buy it, so be it. I wouldn’t be President. I don’t want this to sound flip because it’s not as if I didn’t want to win. I did. I’m a very competitive person. But I just decided that if I was likely to lose and was going to run anyway, I shouldn’t be afraid of losing. I had something to say. I thought it was important that I say it. And I would see the damn thing through.

On a Friday morning in July, I boarded a flight to New Hampshire at Reagan National Airport with my youngest son, Jimmy, a Marine, who was about to deploy on his first combat tour, and my administrative assistant and co-writer, Mark Salter. No other staff accompanied me. Flights to Manchester, New Hampshire, in primary season are usually crowded with Washington reporters. Press accounts quickly proliferated that I had been spotted in much reduced circumstances carrying my own bag to the gate. I had carried my own bag before then. I almost always carried it, as a matter of fact (although it was another thing I was accustomed to doing for myself that the Secret Service would eventually relieve me of). I didn’t care that reporters remarked on it. The image gave them a handy metaphor for our humbled campaign. I kind of liked it.

When we arrived at the venue in Concord, which if I remember correctly was hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce, the room was congested with reporters, including some of the most well known and respected in the country. I knew most of them, and I liked many of them. A half dozen TV cameras were there to record the moment. Although we had announced I would be making remarks about the situation in Iraq, reporters, seeing what they thought was the chaos and confusion that beset a campaign in its death throes, suspected or hoped that I would withdraw from the race then and there. They were like crows on a wire, watching the unfortunate roadkill breathe its last before they descended to scavenge the remains.

I made my speech. It wasn’t a memorable one, I’m afraid. But it did not include an announcement that l was ending my campaign. Professionals that they are, none of the reporters present betrayed their disappointment that they had been denied their deathbed scene. Most of them believed I was a ghost candidate, who would sooner or later realize that he was not part of this world any longer. For my part, I would stick to my scheduled appearances for the time being while we sorted through tough decisions we would have to make about strategy, staffing, and financing. The next morning, I held a town hall meeting at the American Legion post in Claremont. Most of the questions were about Iraq. Many of them were skeptical, and a few hostile.

On a summer night a month later, I was halfway through a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, and had answered the usual questions about the war, federal spending, immigration, climate change, veterans care, questions I got at every event. Nothing out of the ordinary had yet occurred when a middle aged woman stood and gestured to the staffer holding the microphone. When he handed it to her she started speaking in a quiet voice. When you’ve done as many town halls as I have, you can tell in an instant the people who are used to questioning candidates and those who are uncomfortable with public attention. Lynne Savage, a special education assistant in the local school system, and a mother, was the latter. I sensed as I called on her that she had something to say that would affect me. I thought it might be a criticism. She was standing just a few feet from me. Shy but purposeful, she prefaced her question by recalling that during the Vietnam War she had “proudly worn a silver bracelet on her arm in support of a soldier who was fighting.” Then she got to her point. “Today, unfortunately I wear a black bracelet in memory of my son who lost his life in Baghdad.”

My first thought in the instant she uttered her statement was that she would hold me responsible for her loss, and she would be right to do so. By my vote in support of the war and my support for the surge, I assumed a share of that responsibility, and a Gold Star mother was well within her rights to resent me for it. But she didn’t speak of resentment or accountability. She didn’t ask any questions about the war. She had only come to ask me if I would wear his bracelet, “so you could remember your mission and their mission in support of them.” The room was completely still. My emotions began to swell and I worried I would lose my composure. I managed to get out “I would be honored and grateful” before giving her a hug. “Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain,” she instructed me. I took the bracelet from her and read the name inscribed on it, Matthew Stanley. I asked how old Matthew had been. “Twenty-two,” she replied. “Twenty-two,” I repeated. My voice cracked a little as I thanked her for his service. All I could find the wit and will to say after that was, “Yes, ma’am, I will wear this. Thank you.”

Specialist Matthew Stanley was two months into his second tour in Iraq in December 2006 when an IED destroyed the Humvee he was in, killing him and four other soldiers. He was ten days shy of his twenty-third birthday and was still a newlywed, having married Amy the previous New Year’s Eve. I wore Matthew Stanley’s bracelet every day of the campaign, and I’ve worn it every day since. I’ll wear it for the rest of my life.

“Why not make a virtue of necessity?” Steve Schmidt, who was acting as a volunteer strategist for us, had proposed a few days before the Wolfeboro town hall. His pitch went something like this: You’re broke. You’re down in the polls. You’re not drawing crowds. The press has moved on. Why not get some of your POW buddies and other friends to travel with you while you hold small events all over New Hampshire, and make the case for the surge. Go to VFW and American Legion halls, to people’s backyards if you have to, and tell them you’re not quitting on the men and women we sent to fight for us in Iraq, even if it costs you the election. Voters like seeing politicians stick to their guns, especially if it looks like it’s going to cost them the election. Call it the “No Surrender Tour.”

It made sense to me. We began that September and traveled in vans and cars at first. Buses were expensive. Some of the earliest events were held in people’s homes, which weren’t exactly bursting with crowds of cheering people. I traveled with old pals from prison, Bud Day, Orson Swindle, and others, as well as my dearest friends in the Senate, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman. I got to say what I wanted to say, what I believed was important to say and true, ending every speech with what, depending on your point of view, was either a boast or a prediction: “I’d rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.”

Being an underdog with low expectations can be liberating and fun. The humor gets a little dark, but that’s often the most fortifying kind. I have a quote I jokingly attribute to Chairman Mao that I like to use in tough situations: “It’s always darkest before it’s completely black.” I remember Lindsey and I were excited when we arrived at a VFW hall one Friday night and found the place packed with people. “We must be catching on,” we congratulated ourselves, only to learn that it was fried fish night, an event so popular with the locals they were willing to put up with the annoyance of politicians interrupting their supper. We eventually got a bus, wrapped it in our new motto, “No Surrender,” and rolled along the highways of the Granite State, stumping for the surge and my struggling candidacy wherever we could find people to listen.

It worked. We slowly started to revive. The crowds grew modestly, my poll numbers improved slightly, and the press started paying a little more attention. I doubt reporters thought I was a serious contender for the nomination again, but they believed I might fight until the New Hampshire primary. I think most of them appreciated that I was a proven campaigner in New Hampshire. I also think most of them expected Governor Romney to win the expensive, labor intensive Iowa caucuses, and probably have enough momentum coming out of Iowa to beat me in New Hampshire, where he had a vacation home and was well known and liked.

A defeat in New Hampshire would surely force my exit from the race. We had to hit a triple bank shot to stay viable. I had to place respectably in Iowa without being seen to have made a major investment of time and money there. One of the other candidates had to win or come awfully close to winning Iowa so the press would declare Governor Romney had underperformed expectations. Then I had to win New Hampshire on the strength of a good grassroots organization, nostalgia for my 2000 campaign by independents who can vote in New Hampshire party primaries, respect for my open style of campaigning, taking all questions and abuse, and my willingness to tell people what they didn’t want to hear and still ask for their vote.

I like and respect Mitt Romney. I think he would have made a very good President. I liked him before we ran against each other and I liked him after we were finished running against each other. In between, I and my more demonstrative staffers worked up a little situational antipathy for the governor and his campaign. That’s natural, of course. Presidential campaigns are exhausting, stressful experiences, run on coffee, adrenaline, and fear, and when you need a little extra boost, resentment of your opponent can be a handy motivator. Mitt is an intelligent, accomplished, decent, convivial man, who is really good at raising money and looks like a movie star. Deep into the endless series of primary debates, I and the other candidates were looking a little worse for wear. Mitt always arrived looking as if he had just returned from a two week vacation at the beach, tanned, smiling, and utterly self-possessed. If you’re not constantly reminding yourself to behave like an adult, you might start getting a little pissed off at your opponent’s many fine attributes. That kind of childishness usually ends when the contest is over as it did with our campaigns. But when the game is on between very competitive people, something akin to trash talking to the press can happen, as was the case with us. Nothing below the belt, really, from either side, just jabs here and there, enough to make you want to, well, beat the other guy.

We had worked hard. We had a strategy we could afford. And we got lucky. Iowa worked out about as well as it could have under the circumstances. A late surging Governor Mike Huckabee, who had extensive support in Iowa’s evangelical community, the most influential and well represented bloc of Republican caucus voters, caught Mitt and a lot of the press if not by surprise (it was evident in the last rounds of polls) then unprepared for the magnitude of his victory. Huckabee ended up winning the thing by a nine point margin, which meant Mitt wouldn’t only be deprived of momentum coming out of Iowa, he would drop in the polls in reaction to the unexpected size of his defeat there. I had managed to come in a respectable fourth, only a couple hundred votes behind the third place finisher, my friend Fred Thompson. It’s all an expectations game. The press thought I hadn’t put in the time in Iowa and didn’t have a real organization there, but I had just enough of both to do well enough to avoid hurting myself in New Hampshire.

I wasn’t overconfident after learning the Iowa results, but I did think I was now the candidate to beat in the New Hampshire primary five days later. I had a small lead in most of the latest polls. Huckabee didn’t have much support there, but his win in Iowa had likely cost Mitt some of his support. So, as I heard the news from Iowa that night after finishing an event in New Hampshire, the guy who had come in fourth in a six-man field was, after the actual winner, the happiest candidate in the race.

I didn’t expect to win a blowout as I had in 2000. My lead in the latest polls was in the two to three point range, way too tight to get cocky. But I was confident enough to ignore my usual superstition about not discussing my primary-night speech before I knew whether we would celebrate a victory or concede a defeat. The victory I and just about everyone expected would be the biggest that night would likely belong to the candidate riding the most momentum out of Iowa and the biggest wave of enthusiasm. That was Senator Barack Obama, the eloquent newcomer to American politics, who had just defeated the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in Iowa and given a victory speech that captured the imaginations of Americans who were tired of politics, including many first-time voters. He appeared unstoppable after Iowa. Everyone assumed he would win New Hampshire, too, and drive Hillary out of the race. I discussed with Davis, Salter, and Schmidt the right message for my speech that night, and we agreed I should begin by saluting Senator Obama’s historic achievement, and recognize what it meant to his supporters and to the entire country. I would also express my hope that should I be the Republican nominee, our contest would be conducted in a way that would impress Americans in both parties as respectful.

That sentiment wasn’t only a sincere wish for more civility in politics. The country wanted change. They wanted the biggest change they could get. Barack Obama was offering them change, and he had advantages I did not. He was not a member of the party in power, I was. He was young and cool and new to national politics. I was seventy one years old and had been a known commodity for some time, with a long record of votes and statements to criticize. He opposed the unpopular war in Iraq. I supported it. He would be the first African American to earn a major party’s presidential nomination. He represented change in his very person. I had to convince people I, too, was a change candidate. But the most effective means I had to convey that message was campaigning in ways that might appear novel and authentic to cynical voters. I intended to use my victory speech to start that effort.

When it became clear that night that I had managed a come-from-behind victory, beating Mitt by about five points, it was looking like Hillary might be doing the same. When the networks declared me the New Hampshire winner, the Democratic race was still too close to call, and we revised my speech accordingly. I began by noting I was too old to be called any kind of kid, “but we sure showed them what a comeback looks like.” I thanked the people of New Hampshire for hearing me out even when they disagreed with me. We were down in the polls and written off when we came here, I reminded them, “and we had just one strategy: to tell you what I believe.”

Unable to congratulate the winner of the Democrats’ primary, I paid my respects to the supporters of all the candidates, Republicans and Democrats, who “worked for a cause they believe is good for the country we all love.”

We had a long way to go. The Michigan primary was a little more than a week away. Mitt would be hard to beat there. South Carolina would be a close contest between Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and me. I needed to win one of them to continue. Winning both would be preferable, but South Carolina, the place where my rocket ride out of New Hampshire in 2000 crashed, loomed larger. Eight years before, I had stood on the steps of the Bedford, New Hampshire, town hall the night before the primary and looked out on a sea of faces. There were people crowding the streets and intersection, extending several blocks. It was thrilling, and I knew I was on the cusp of my biggest political triumph. It remains to this day my favorite campaign memory.

My 2008 primary win was not as heady as our victory in 2000. But I was deeply touched by it, and have had ever since a special affection for the proud voters in the first-in-the-nation primary. “These people have been so good to us,” I told Cindy that night. “I owe them so much.”

The next day, somewhere in Iraq’s Anbar Province, my son Jimmy helped dig an MRAP, a heavily armored personnel carrier, out of the mud in a wadi that had flooded in a downpour. He was knee-deep in the muck working a shovel, and sweating in the oppressive heat, when his sergeant walked over to him.


“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Your dad won New Hampshire.”

“Did he?”

“Yeah, keep digging.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

I laughed when Jimmy recounted the exchange for me when we were reunited some months later, and I laugh every time I retell it to friends. But as I have remembered it in the years that followed, and remembered, too, my worry then that my ambitions had exposed my youngest son to even greater danger, I’m moved to tears.


Country First

I RECEIVED A DECENT BUMP in the national polls following my New Hampshire win, and our fund raising picked up, although we still had to pay off the bank loan we borrowed in the summer to keep the campaign running. National polling leads can create a false impression that someone is a front-runner. We don’t have national primaries. The next contest was in Michigan on January 15, and Mitt and I were running neck and neck there. Michigan wasn’t do-or-die for me, but it was for Mitt. Huckabee and I had split the first two contests. Mitt had to get into the picture now or risk being written off by reporters and donors. South Carolina was four days after Michigan, and Mitt wasn’t competing there. I saw the chance to finish him off and secure a nearly invincible position by winning Michigan and beating Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina. I had upset George Bush in the 2000 Michigan primary, and believed I had a good feel for campaign…..


THE RESTLESS WAVE. Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations

by John McCain

get it at

The Last Girl. My story of captivity and my fight against the Islamic State – Nadia Murad.

This book is written for every Yazidi.

Nadia Murad is not just my client, she is my friend. When we were introduced in London, she asked if I would act as her lawyer. She explained that she would not be able to provide funds, that the case would likely be long and unsuccessful. But before you decide, she had said, hear my story.

In 2014, ISIS attacked Nadia’s village in Iraq, and her life as a twenty-one-year-old student was shattered. She was forced to watch her mother and brothers be marched off to their deaths. And Nadia herself was traded from one lSlS fighter to another. She was forced to pray, forced to dress up and put makeup on in preparation for rape, and one night was brutally abused by a group of men until she was unconscious. She showed me her scars from cigarette burns and beatings. And she told me that throughout her ordeal ISIS militants would call her a “dirty unbeliever” and brag about conquering Yazidi women and wiping their religion from the earth.

Nadia was one of thousands of Yazidis taken by ISIS to be sold in markets and on Facebook, sometimes for as little as twenty dollars. Nadia’s mother was one of eighty older women who were executed and buried in an unmarked grave. Six of her brothers were among the hundreds of men who were murdered in a single day.

What Nadia was telling me about is genocide. And genocide doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan it. Before the genocide began, the ISIS “Research and Fatwa Department” studied the Yazidis and concluded that, as a Kurdish speaking group that did not have a holy book, Yazidis were nonbelievers whose enslavement was a “firmly established aspect of the Shariah.” This is why, according to ISIS’s warped morality, Yazidis, unlike Christians, Shias, and others, can be systematically raped. Indeed, this was to be one of the most effective ways to destroy them.

What followed was the establishment of a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale. ISIS even released a pamphlet entitled Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves to provide more guidelines. “Question: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty? Answer: It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse. Question: Is it permissible to sell a female captive? Answer: It is permissible to buy, sell, or gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property.”

When Nadia told me her story in London, it had been almost two years since ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis had begun. Thousands of Yazidi women and children were still held captive by ISIS, but no member of ISIS had been prosecuted in a court anywhere in the world for these crimes. Evidence was being lost or destroyed. And prospects for justice looked bleak.

Of course, I took the case. And Nadia and I spent more than a year campaigning together for justice. We met repeatedly with the Iraqi government, United Nations representatives, members of the UN Security Council, and ISIS victims. I prepared reports, provided drafts and legal analysis, and gave speeches imploring the UN to act. Most of our interlocutors told us it would be impossible: the Security Council had not taken action on international justice in years.

But just as I write this foreword, the UN Security Council has adopted a landmark resolution creating an investigation team that will collect evidence of the crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a major victory for Nadia and all the victims of ISIS, because it means that evidence will be preserved and that individual ISIS members can be put on trial. I sat next to Nadia in the Security Council when the resolution was adopted unanimously. And as we watched fifteen hands go up, Nadia and I looked at each other and smiled.

As a human-rights lawyer, my job is often to be the voice of those who have been silenced: the journalist behind bars or the victims of war crimes fighting for their day in court. There is no doubt ISIS tried to silence Nadia when they kidnapped and enslaved her, raped and tortured her, and killed seven members of her family in a single day.

But Nadia refused to be silenced. She has defied all the labels that life has given her: Orphan, Rape victim, Slave, Refugee. She has instead created new ones: Survivor, Yazidi leader, Women’s advocate, Nobel Peace Prize nominee. United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, And now author.

Over the time I have known her, Nadia has not only found her voice, she has become the voice of every Yazidi who is a victim of genocide, every woman who has been abused, every refugee who has been left behind.

Those who thought that by their cruelty they could silence her were wrong. Nadia Murad’s spirit is not broken, and her voice will not be muted.

Instead, through this book, her voice is louder than ever.

Amal Clooney, Barrister, September 2017

Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad at the United Nations

Charter One

Early in the summer of 2014, while I was busy preparing for my last year of high school, two farmers disappeared from their fields just outside Kocho, the small Yazidi village in northern Iraq where I was born and where, until recently, I thought I would live for the rest of my life. One moment the men were lounging peacefully in the shade of scratchy homemade tarps, and the next they were captive in a small room in a nearby village, home mostly to Sunni Arabs. Along with the farmers, the kidnappers took a hen and a handful of her chicks, which confused us. “Maybe they were just hungry,” we said to one another, although that did nothing to calm us down.

Kocho, for as long as I have been alive, has been a Yazidi village, settled by the nomadic farmers and shepherds who first arrived in the middle of nowhere and decided to build homes to protect their wives from the desert-like heat while they walked their sheep to better grass. They chose land that would be good for farming, but it was a risky location, on the southern edge of Iraq’s Sinjar region, where most of the country’s Yazidis live, and very close to non-Yazidi Iraq.

When the first Yazidi families arrived in the mid 1950s, Kocho was inhabited by Sunni Arab farmers working for landlords in Mosul. But those Yazidi families had hired a lawyer to buy the land, the lawyer, himself a Muslim, is still considered a hero, and by the time l was born, Kocho had grown to about two hundred families, all of them Yazidi and as close as if we were one big family, which we nearly were.

The land that made us special also made us vulnerable. Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries because of our religious beliefs, and, compared to most Yazidi towns and villages, Kocho is far from Mount Sinjar, the high, narrow mountain that has sheltered us for generations. For a long time we had been pulled between the competing forces of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, asked to deny our Yazidi heritage and conform to Kurdish or Arab identities. Until 2013, when the road between Kocho and the mountain was finally paved, it would take us almost an hour to drive our white Datsun pickup across the dusty roads through Sinjar City to the base of the mountain. I grew up closer to Syria than to our holiest temples, closer to strangers than to safety.

A drive in the direction of the mountain was joyful. In Sinjar City we could find candy and a particular kind of lamb sandwich we didn’t have in Kocho, and my father almost always stopped to let us buy what we wanted. Our truck kicked up clouds of dust as we moved, but I still preferred to ride in the open air, lying flat in the truck bed until we were outside the village and away from our curious neighbors, then popping up to feel the wind whip through my hair and watch the blur of livestock feeding along the road. I easily got carried away, standing more and more upright in the back of the truck until my father or my eldest brother, Elias, shouted at me that if I wasn’t careful, I would go flying over the side.

In the opposite direction, away from those lamb sandwiches and the comfort of the mountain, was the rest of Iraq. In peacetime, and if he wasn’t in a hurry, it might take a Yazidi merchant fifteen minutes to drive from Kocho to the nearest Sunni village to sell his grain or milk. We had friends in those villages, girls I met at weddings, teachers who spent the term sleeping in Kocho’s school, men who were invited to hold our baby boys during their ritual circumcision, and from then on bonded to that Yazidi family as a kiriv, something like a god-parent. Muslim doctors traveled to Kocho or to Sinjar City to treat us when we were sick, and Muslim merchants drove through town selling dresses and candies, things you couldn’t find in Kocho’s few shops, which carried mostly necessities. Growing up, my brothers often traveled to non-Yazidi villages to make a little money doing odd jobs. The relationships were burdened by centuries of distrust, it was hard not to feel bad when a Muslim wedding guest refused to eat our food, no matter how politely, but still, there was genuine friendship.

These connections went back generations, lasting through Ottoman control, British colonization, Saddam Hussein, and the American occupation. In Kocho, we were particularly known for our close relationships with Sunni villages.

But when there was fighting in Iraq, and there always seemed to be fighting in Iraq, those villages loomed over us, their smaller Yazidi neighbor, and old prejudice hardened easily into hatred. Often, from that hatred, came violence. For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that began in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full-fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous. Neighboring villages began to shelter extremists who denounced Christians and non-Sunni Muslims and, even worse, who considered Yazidis to be kuffar, unbelievers worthy of killing (kafir is singular).

In 2007 a few of those extremists drove a fuel tanker and three cars into the busy centers of two Yazidi towns about ten miles northwest of Kocho, then blew up the vehicles, killing the hundreds of people who had rushed to them, many thinking they were bringing goods to sell at the market.

Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, spread orally by holy men entrusted with our stories. Although it has elements in common with the many religions of the Middle East, from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism to Islam and Judaism, it is truly unique and can be difficult even for the holy men who memorize our stories to explain. I think of my religion as being an ancient tree with thousands of rings, each telling a story in the long history of Yazidis. Many of those stories, sadly, are tragedies.

Today there are only about one million Yazidis in the world. For as long as I have been alive, and, I know, for a long time before I was born, our religion has been what defined us and held us together as a community. But it also made us targets of persecution by larger groups, from the Ottomans to Saddam’s Baathists, who attacked us or tried to coerce us into pledging our loyalty to them. They degraded our religion, saying that we worshipped the devil or that we were dirty, and demanded that we renounce our faith.

Yazidis survived generations of attacks that were intended to wipe us out, whether by killing us, forcing us to convert, or simply pushing us from our land and taking everything we owned. Before 2014, outside powers had tried to destroy us seventy-three times. We used to call the attacks against Yazidis firman, an Ottoman word, before we learned the word genocide.

When we heard about the ransom demands for the two farmers, the whole village went into a panic. “Forty thousand dollars,” the kidnappers told the farmers’ wives over the phone. “Or come here with your children so you can convert to Islam as families.” Otherwise, they said, the men would be killed. It wasn’t the money that made their wives collapse in tears in front of our mukhtar, or village leader, Ahmed Jasso; forty thousand dollars was an otherworldly sum, but it was just money. We all knew that the farmers would sooner die than convert, so the villagers wept in relief when, late one night, the men escaped through a broken window, ran through the barley fields, and showed up at home, alive, dust up to their knees and panting with fear. But the kidnappings didn’t stop.

Soon afterward Dishan, a man employed by my family, the Tahas, was abducted from a field near Mount Sinjar where he watched our sheep. It had taken my mother and brothers years to buy and breed our sheep, and each one was a victory. We were proud of our animals, keeping them in our courtyard when they weren’t roaming outside the village, treating them almost like pets. The annual shearing was a celebration in itself. I loved the ritual of it, the way the soft wool fell to the ground in cloudlike piles, the musky smell that took over our house, how the sheep bleated quietly, passively. I loved sleeping beneath the thick comforters my mother, Shami, would make from the wool, stuffing it between colorful pieces of fabric. Sometimes I got so attached to a lamb that I had to leave the house when it came time to slaughter it. By the time Dishan was kidnapped, we had over a hundred sheep, for us, a small fortune.

Remembering the hen and chicks that had been taken along with the farmers, my brother Saeed raced in our family’s pickup truck to the base of Mount Sinjar, about twenty minutes away now that the road was paved, to check on our sheep. “Surely, they took them,” we groaned. “Those sheep are all we have.”

Later, when Saeed called my mother, he sounded confused. “Only two were taken,” he reported, an old, slow-moving ram and a young female lamb. The rest were grazing contentedly on the brownish-green grass and would follow my brother home. We laughed, we were so relieved. But Elias, my eldest brother, was worried. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Those villagers aren’t rich. Why did they leave the sheep behind?” He thought it had to mean something.

The day after Dishan was taken, Kocho was in chaos. Villagers huddled in front of their doors, and along with men who took turns manning a new checkpoint just beyond our village walls, they watched for any unfamiliar cars coming through Kocho. Hezni, one of my brothers, came home from his job as a policeman in Sinjar City and joined the other village men who loudly argued about what to do. Dishan’s uncle wanted to get revenge and decided to lead a mission to a village east of Kocho that was headed by a conservative Sunni tribe. “We’ll take two of their shepherds,” he declared, in a rage. “Then they’ll have to give Dishan back!”

It was a risky plan, and not everyone supported Dishan’s uncle. Even my brothers, who had all inherited bravery and a quickness to fight from our father, were split on what to do. Saeed, who was only a couple of years older than me, spent a lot of his time fantasizing about the day he would finally prove his heroism. He was in favor of revenge, while Hezni, who was over a decade older and the most empathetic of us all, thought it was too dangerous. Still, Dishan’s uncle took what allies he could find and snatched two Sunni Arab shepherds, then drove them back to Kocho, where he locked them in his house and waited.

MOST VILLAGE DISPUTES were solved by Ahmed Jasso, our practical and diplomatic mukhtar, and he sided with Hezni. “Our relationship with our Sunni neighbors is already strained,” he said. “Who knows what they will do if we try to fight with them.” Besides, he warned, the situation outside Kocho was far worse and more complicated than we imagined. A group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, which had largely been born here in Iraq, then grown in Syria over the past few years, had taken over villages so close to us, we could count the black-clad figures in their trucks when they drove by. They were holding our shepherd, our mukhtar told us. “You’ll only make things worse,” Ahmed Jasso said to Dishan’s uncle, and barely half a day after the Sunni shepherds had been kidnapped, they were set free. Dishan, however, remained a captive.

Ahmed Jasso was a smart man, and the Jasso family had decades of experience negotiating with the Sunni Arab tribes. Everyone in the village turned to them with their problems, and outside Kocho they were known for being skilled diplomats. Still, some of us wondered if this time he was being too cooperative, sending the message to the terrorists that Yazidis would not protect themselves. As it was, all that stood between us and ISIS were Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, who had been sent from the Kurdish autonomous region to guard Kocho when Mosul fell almost two months earlier. We treated the peshmerga like honored guests. They slept on pallets in our school, and each week a different family slaughtered a lamb to feed them, a huge sacrifice for the poor villagers. I also looked up to the fighters. I had heard about female Kurds from Syria and Turkey who fought against terrorists and carried weapons, and the thought made me feel brave.

Some people, including a few of my brothers, thought we should be allowed to protect ourselves. They wanted to man the checkpoints, and Ahmed Jasso’s brother Naif tried to convince Kurdish authorities to let him form a Yazidi peshmerga unit, but he was ignored. No one offered to train the Yazidi men or encourage them to join the fight against the terrorists. The peshmerga assured us that as long as they were there, we had nothing to worry about, and that they were as determined to protect Yazidis as they were the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We will sooner let Erbil fall than Sinjar,” they said. We were told to trust them, and so we did.

Still, most families in Kocho kept weapons at home, clunky Kalashnikov rifles, a big knife or two usually used to slaughter animals on holidays. Many Yazidi men, including those of my brothers who were old enough, had taken jobs in the border patrol or police force after 2003, when those jobs became available, and we felt sure that as long as the professionals watched Kocho’s borders, our men could protect their families. After all, it was those men, not the peshmerga, who built a dirt barrier with their own hands around the village after the 2007 attacks, and it was Kocho’s men who patrolled that barrier day and night for a full year, stopping cars at makeshift checkpoints and watching for strangers, until we felt safe enough to go back to a normal life.

Dishan’s kidnapping made us all panic. But the peshmerga didn’t do anything to help. Maybe they thought it was just a petty squabble between villages, not the reason Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, had sent them out of the safety of Kurdistan and into the unprotected areas of Iraq. Maybe they were frightened like we were. A few of the soldiers looked like they couldn’t be that much older than Saeed, my mother’s youngest son. But war changed people, especially men. It wasn’t that long ago that Saeed would play with me and our niece, Kathrine, in our courtyard, not yet old enough to know that boys were not supposed to like dolls.

Lately, though, Saeed had become obsessed with the violence sweeping through Iraq and Syria. The other day I had caught him watching videos of Islamic State beheadings on his cell phone, the images shaking in his hand, and was surprised that he held up the phone so I could watch, too. When our older brother Massoud walked into the room, he was furious. “How could you let Nadia watch!” he yelled at Saeed, who cowered. He was sorry, but I understood. It was hard to turn away from the gruesome scenes unfolding so close to our home.

The image from the video popped back into my head when I thought about our poor shepherd being held captive. If the peshmerga won’t help us get Dishan back, I will have to do something, I thought, and ran into our house. I was the baby of the family, the youngest of eleven, and a girl. Still, I was outspoken and used to being heard, and I felt giant in my anger.

Our house was close to the northern edge of the village, a one-story row of mud brick rooms lined up like beads on a necklace and connected by doorways with no doors, all leading out to a large courtyard with a vegetable garden, a bread oven called a tandoor, and, often, sheep and chickens. I lived there with my mother, six of my eight brothers and my two sisters, plus two sisters-in law and the children they had between them, and within walking distance of my other brothers, half brothers, and half sisters and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. The roof leaked in the winter when it rained, and the inside could feel like an oven in the Iraqi summertime, pushing us up a staircase onto the roof to sleep. When one part of the roof caved in, we patched it with pieces of metal we scavenged from Massoud’s mechanic shop, and when we needed more space, we built it. We were saving money for a new home, a more permanent one made of cement blocks, and we were getting closer every day.

I entered our house through the front door and ran to a room I shared with the other girls, where there was a mirror. Wrapping a pale scarf around my head, one I normally wore to keep my hair from getting in my eyes when bending over rows of vegetables, I tried to imagine what a fighter might do to prepare for battle. Years of labor on the farm made me stronger than my appearance let on. Still, I had no idea what I would do if I saw the kidnappers or people from their village drive through Kocho. What would I say to them? “Terrorists took our shepherd and went to your village,” I practiced in the mirror, scowling. “You could have stopped them. At least you can tell us where he was taken.” From the corner of our courtyard, I grabbed a wooden stick, like the ones used by a shepherd, and made for the front door again, where a few of my brothers stood with my mother, deep in conversation. They barely noticed when I joined them.

A few minutes later a white pickup truck from the kidnappers’ village came down the main road, two men in the front and two in the back. They were Arabs I vaguely recognized from the Sunni tribe that had taken Dishan. We watched as their truck crept down the main dirt road that snaked through the village, slowly, as though totally without fear. They had no reason to drive through Kocho, roads around the village connected cities like Sinjar and Mosler, and their presence seemed like a taunt. Breaking away from my family, I ran into the middle of the road and stood in the path of the truck. “Stop!” I shouted, waving the stick over my head, trying to make myself look bigger. “Tell us where Dishan is!”

It took half my family to restrain me. “What did you think you were going to do?” Elias scolded. “Attack them? Break their windshield?” He and a few of my other siblings had just come from the fields and were exhausted and stinking from the onions they were harvesting. To them, my attempt to avenge Dishan seemed like nothing more than a child’s outburst. My mother was also furious with me for running into the road. Under normal circumstances she tolerated my temper and was even amused by it, but in those days everyone was on edge. It seemed dangerous to draw attention to yourself, particularly if you were a young, unmarried woman. “Come here and sit,” she said sternly. “It’s shameful for you to do that, Nadia, it’s not your business. The men will take care of it.”

Life went on. Iraqis, particularly Yazidis and other minorities, are good at adjusting to new threats. You have to be if you want to try to live something close to a normal life in a country that seemed to be coming apart. Sometimes the adjustments were relatively small. We scaled down our dreams of finishing school, of giving up farmwork for something less backbreaking, of a wedding taking place on time, and it wasn’t hard to convince ourselves that those dreams had been unreachable in the first place. Sometimes the adjustments would happen gradually, without anyone noticing. We would stop talking to the Muslim students at school, or be drawn inside in fear if a stranger came through the village. We watched news of attacks on TV and started to worry more about politics. Or we shut out politics completely, feeling it was safest to stay silent. After each attack, men added to the dirt barrier outside Kocho, beginning on the western side, facing Syria, until one day we woke up to see that it surrounded us completely. Then, because we still felt unsafe, the men dug a ditch around the village as well.

We would, over generations, get used to a small pain or injustice until it became normal enough to ignore. I imagine this must be why we had come to accept certain insults, like our food being refused, that probably felt like a crime to whoever first noticed it. Even the threat of another firman was something Yazidis had gotten used to, although that adjustment was more like a contortion. It hurt.

With Dishan still captive, I returned with my siblings to the onion fields. There nothing had changed. The vegetables we planted months before were now grown; if we didn’t pick them, no one would. If we didn’t sell them, we wouldn’t have money. So we all knelt in a line beside the tangles of green sprouts, tugging bulbs out of the soil a few at a time, collecting them in woven plastic bags where they would be left to ripen until it was time to take them to market. Will we take them to the Muslim villages this year? we wondered but could not answer. When one of us pulled up the black, poisonous smelling sludge of a rotten onion, we groaned, plugged our noses, and kept going.

Because it was what we normally did, we gossiped and teased one another, telling stories each had heard a million times before. Adkee, my sister and the joker of the family, recalled the image of me that day trying to chase the car, a skinny farm girl, my scarf falling in front of my eyes, waving the stick over my head, and we all nearly tipped over into the dirt laughing. We made a game of the work, racing to see who could pick the most onions just as, months before, we had raced to see who could plant the most seeds. When the sun started to go down, we joined my mother at home for dinner in our courtyard and then slept shoulder to shoulder on mattresses on the roof of our house, watching the moon and whispering until exhaustion brought the whole family to complete silence.

We wouldn’t find out why the kidnappers stole the animals, the hen, the chicks, and our two sheep, until almost two weeks later, after ISIS had taken over Kocho and most of Sinjar. A militant, who had helped round up all of Kocho’s residents into the village’s secondary school, later explained the kidnappings to a few of the village’s women. “You say we came out of nowhere, but we sent you messages,” he said, his rifle swinging at his side. “When we took the hen and the chicks, it was to tell you we were going to take your women and children. When we took the ram, it was like taking your tribal leaders, and when we killed the ram, it meant we planned on killing those leaders. And the young lamb, she was your girls.”

Chapter Two

My mother loved me, but she didn’t want to have me. For months before I was conceived, she saved money whenever she could, a spare dinar here and there, change from a trip to the market or a pound of tomatoes sold on the sly, to spend on the birth control she didn’t dare ask my father for. Yazidis don’t marry outside the religion or allow conversion into Yazidism, and large families were the best way to guarantee that we didn’t die out completely. Plus, the more children you had, the more help you had on the farm. My mother managed to buy the pills for three months until she ran out of money, and then, almost immediately, she was pregnant with me, her eleventh and last child.

She was my father’s second wife. His first had died young, leaving him with four children who needed a woman to help raise them. My mother was beautiful, born to a poor and deeply religious family in Kocho, and her father happily gave her to my father as a wife. He already had some land and animals and, compared to the rest of Kocho, was well-off. So before her twentieth birthday, before she had even learned how to cook, my mother became a wife and stepmother to four children, and then quickly she became pregnant herself.

She never went to school and didn’t know how to read or write. Like many Yazidis, whose mother tongue is Kurdish, she didn’t speak much Arabic and could barely communicate with Arab villagers who came to town for weddings or as merchants. Even our religious stories were a mystery to her. But she worked hard, taking on the many tasks that came with being a farmer’s wife. It wasn’t enough to give birth eleven times, each time, except for the dangerous labor with my twin brothers, Saoud and Massoud, at home, a pregnant Yazidi woman was also expected to lug firewood, plant crops, and drive tractors until the moment she went into labor and afterward to carry the baby with her while she worked.

My father was known around Kocho for being a very traditional, devout Yazidi man. He wore his hair in long braids and covered his head with a white cloth. When the qawwals, traveling religious teachers who play the flute and drums and recite hymns, visited Kocho, my father was among the men who would greet them. He was a prominent voice in the jevat, or meeting house, where male villagers could gather to discuss issues facing the community with our mukhtar.

Injustice hurt my father more than any physical injury, and his pride fed his strength. The villagers who were close to him loved to tell stories of his heroism, like the time he rescued Ahmed Jasso from a neighboring tribe who were determined to kill our mukhtar, or the time the expensive Arabian horses belonging to a Sunni Arab tribal leader escaped from their stables and my father used his pistol to defend Khalaf, a poor farmer from Kocho, when he was discovered riding one in nearby fields.

“Your father always wanted to do what was right,” his friends would tell us after he passed away. “Once he let a Kurdish rebel who was running away from the Iraqi Army sleep in his house, even though the rebel led the police right to his doorstep.” The story goes, when the rebel was discovered, the police wanted to imprison both men, but my father talked his way out of it. “I didn’t help him because of politics,” he told the police. “I helped him because he is a man and I am a man,” and they let him go. “And that rebel turned out to be a friend of Masoud Barzani!” his friends recall, still amazed all these years later.

My father wasn’t a bully, but he fought if he had to. He had lost an eye in a farm accident, and what was left in the socket-a small milky ball that looked like the marbles I played with as a kid could make him look menacing. I’ve often thought since then that if my father had been alive when ISIS came to Kocho, he would have led an armed uprising against the terrorists.

By 1993, the year I was born, my parents’ relationship was falling apart, and my mother was suffering. The eldest son born to my father’s first wife had died a few years earlier in the Iran-Iraq War, and after that, my mother told me, nothing was ever good again. My father had also brought home another woman, Sara, whom he married and who now lived with their children on one end of the house my mother had long considered her own. Polygamy isn’t outlawed in Yazidism, but not everyone in Kocho would have gotten away with it. No one questioned my father, though. By the time he married Sara, he owned a great deal of land and sheep and, in a time when sanctions and war with Iran made it hard for anyone to survive in Iraq, he needed a big family to help him, bigger than my mother could provide.

I still find it hard to criticize my father for marrying Sara. Anyone whose survival is directly linked to the number of tomatoes grown in one year or the amount of time spent walking their sheep to better grass can understand why he wanted another wife and more children. These things weren’t personal. Later on, though, when he officially left my mother and sent us all to live in a small building behind our house with barely any money and land, I understood that his taking a second wife hadn’t been completely practical. He loved Sara more than he loved my mother. I accepted that, just as I accepted that my mother’s heart must have been broken when he first brought home a new wife. After he left us, she would say to me and my two sisters, Dimal and Adkee, “God willing, what happened to me won’t happen to you.” I wanted to be like her in every way, except I didn’t want to be abandoned.

My brothers weren’t all as understanding. “God will make you pay for this!” Massoud shouted at our father once, in a rage. But even they admitted that life got a little easier when my mother and Sara weren’t living together and competing for my father’s attention, and after a few years we learned how to coexist. Kocho was small, and we often saw him and Sara. I passed by their house, the house I was born in, every day on my way to elementary school; theirs was the only dog along that walk that knew me well enough not to bark. We spent holidays together, and my father would sometimes drive us to Sinjar City or to the mountain. In 2003 he had a heart attack, and we all watched as my strong father instantly became an ill, elderly man, confined to a wheelchair in the hospital. When he died a few days later, it seemed just as likely that it was out of shame over his frailty as it was because of his bad heart. Massoud regretted having yelled at him. He had assumed his father was strong enough to take anything.

My mother was a deeply religious woman, believing in the signs and dreams that many Yazidis use to interpret the present or predict the future. When the moon first appeared in the sky as a crescent, I would find her in the courtyard, lighting candles. “This is the time when children are most vulnerable to illness and accidents,” she explained. “I am praying that nothing happens to any of you.”

I often got sick to my stomach, and when I did, my mother took me to Yazidi healers who gave me herbs and teas, which she urged me to drink even though I hated the taste, and when someone died, she visited a kochek, a Yazidi mystic, who would help confirm that the deceased had made it into the afterlife. Many Yazidi pilgrims take a bit of soil before they leave Lalish, a valley in northern Iraq where our holiest temples are, and wrap it up in a small cloth folded into a triangle, which they keep in their pocket or wallet as a talisman. My mother was never without some of that holy soil, particularly after my brothers started leaving home to work with the army. “They need all the protection they can get, Nadia,” she would say. “It’s dangerous, what they are doing.”

She was also practical and hardworking, trying against great odds to make our lives better. Yazidis are among the poorest communities in Iraq, and my family was poor even by Kocho’s standards, particularly after my parents separated. For years, my brothers dug wells by hand, lowering themselves delicately into the wet, sulfurous ground inch by inch, careful not to break a bone. They also, along with my mother and sisters, farmed other people’s land, taking only a small percentage of the profit for the tomatoes and onions they harvested. The first ten years of my life, we rarely had meat for dinner, living on boiled greens, and my brothers used to say they bought new pants only when they could see their legs through the old ones.

Gradually, thanks to my mother’s hard work and the economic growth in northern Iraq after 2003, our situation, and that of most Yazidis, improved. My brothers took jobs as border guards and policemen when the central and Kurdish governments opened up positions to Yazidis. It was dangerous work, my brother Jalo joined a police unit guarding Tal Afar airport that lost a lot of its men in combat in the first year, but it paid well. Eventually we were able to move from my father’s land into our own house.

People who knew my mother only for her deep religious beliefs and work ethic were surprised by how funny she could be, and how she turned her hardship into humor. She had a teasing way of joking, and nothing, not even the reality that she would almost certainly never marry again, was off limits. One day, a few years after she and my father separated, a man visited Kocho hopeful for my mother’s attention. When she heard he was at the door, she grabbed a stick and ran after him, telling him to go away, that she would never marry again. When she came back inside, she was laughing. “You should have seen how scared he was!” she told us, imitating him until we were all laughing too. “If I was going to marry, it wouldn’t be to a man who ran away from an old lady with a stick!”

She joked about everything, about being abandoned by my father, about my fascination with hair and makeup, about her own failures. She had been going to adult literacy classes since before I was born, and when I became old enough, I started tutoring her. She was a fast learner, in part, I thought, because she was able to laugh off her mistakes.

When she talked about that scramble for birth control before I was conceived, it was as if she were telling a story from a book she had read long ago and liked only for its punch lines. Her reluctance to get pregnant with me was funny because now she couldn’t imagine life without me. She laughed because of how she had loved me the moment I was born, and because I would spend each morning warming myself by our clay oven while she baked bread, talking to her. We laughed because I would get jealous whenever she doted on my sisters or nieces instead of me, because I vowed never to leave home, and because we slept in the same bed from the day l was born until ISIS came to Kocho and tore us all apart. She was our mother and our father at the same time, and we loved her even more when we became old enough to understand how much she must have suffered.

I grew up attached to my home and never imagined living anywhere else. To outsiders, Kocho may seem too poor to be happy, and too isolated and barren to ever be anything but desperately poor. American soldiers must have gotten that impression, given the way kids would swarm them when they came to visit, begging for pens and candy. I was one of those kids, asking for things.

Kurdish politicians occasionally came to Kocho, although only in recent years and mostly before elections. One of the Kurdish parties, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), opened a small two room office in Kocho after 2003, but it seemed to exist mostly as a clubhouse for the village men who belonged to the party. A lot of people complained privately that the KDP pressured them into supporting the party and into saying Yazidis were Kurds and Sinjar was part of Kurdistan. Iraqi politicians ignored us, and Saddam had tried to force us to say we were Arab, as though we could all be threatened into giving up our identities and that once we did we would never rebel.

Just living in Kocho was, in a way, defiant. In the mid-1970s Saddam began forcibly moving minorities, including Kurds and Yazidis, from their villages and towns into cinder-block houses in planned communities, where they could be more easily controlled, a campaign people call the “Arabization” of the north. But Kocho was far enough away from the mountain that we were spared. Yazidi traditions that became old fashioned in these new communities thrived in my village. Women wore the gauzy white dresses and headscarves of their grandmothers; elaborate weddings featured classic Yazidi music and dance; and we fasted in atonement for our sins when many Yazidis had given up that custom. It was safe and close-knit, and even fights over land or marriage ended up feeling minor. At least none of it had an impact on how much we loved one another. Villagers went to one another’s houses late into the night and walked the streets without fear. I heard visitors say that at night, from afar, Kocho glowed in the darkness. Adkee swore she once heard someone describe it as “the Paris of Sinjar.”

Kocho was a young village, full of children. There were few people living there who were old enough to have witnessed firmans first hand, and so a lot of us lived thinking those days were in the past, that the world was too modern and too civilized to be the kind of place where an entire group could be killed just because of their religion. I know that I felt that way. We grew up hearing about past massacres like folktales that helped bond us together. In one story, a friend of my mother’s described fleeing oppression in Turkey, where many Yazidis once lived, with her mother and her sister. Trapped for days in a cave with nothing to eat, her mother boiled leather to keep them alive. I heard this story many times, and it made my stomach turn. I didn’t think I could eat leather, even if I were starving. But it was just a story.

Admittedly, life in Kocho could be very hard. All those children, no matter how much they were loved, were a burden on their parents, who had to work day and night to feed their families. When we were sick, and the sickness couldn’t be healed with herbs, we would have to be taken to Sinjar City or to Mosul to see a doctor. When we needed clothes, those clothes were sewn by hand by my mother or, after we got a little wealthier, purchased once a year in a city market. During the years of United Nations sanctions on Iraq, intended to force Saddam from power, we cried when it became impossible to find sugar. When schools were finally built in the village, first a primary school and then, many years later, a secondary school, parents had to weigh the benefits of their kids getting an education against keeping them at home to work. Average Yazidis had long been denied an education, not just by the Iraqi government but also by religious leaders who worried that a state education would encourage intermarriage and, therefore, conversion and loss of Yazidi identity, but for the parents, giving up the free labor was a great sacrifice. And for what kind of future, the parents wondered, for what jobs, and where? There was no work in Kocho, and a permanent life outside the village, away from other Yazidis, attracted only the very desperate or the very ambitious.

A parent’s love could easily become a source of pain. Life on the farm was dangerous, and accidents happened. My mother pinpoints the moment she grew from a girl into an adult to when her older sister was killed, thrown from a speeding tractor and then run over right there in the middle of the family wheat field. Illnesses were sometimes too expensive to treat. My brother Jalo and his wife Jenan lost baby after baby to a disease that was inherited from Jenan’s side of the family. They were too poor to buy medication or take the babies to a doctor, and out of eight births, four children died.

Divorce took my sister Dimal’s children away. In Yazidi society, as in the rest of Iraq, women have few rights when a marriage ends, no matter what happened to end it. Other children died in wars. I was born just two years after the first Gulf War and five years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a pointless eight year conflict that seemed to fulfill Saddam’s desire to torture his people more than anything else. The memories of these children, who we would never see again, lived like ghosts in our house. My father cut off his braids when his eldest son was killed, and although one of my brothers was named after this son, my father could only bear to call him by a nickname, Hezni, which means “sadness.”

We measured our lives by harvests and by Yazidi holidays. Seasons could be brutal. In the wintertime Kocho’s alleyways filled with a cementlike mud that sucked the shoes off your feet, and in the summertime the heat was so intense, we had to drag ourselves to the farm at night rather than risk collapsing under the sun during the day. Sometimes harvests would disappoint, and when that happened, the gloom would stretch on for months, at least until we planted the next round of seeds. Other times, no matter how much we harvested, we didn’t make enough money. We learned the hard way, by lugging bags of produce to market and then having customers turn the vegetables over in their hands and walk away, what sold and what didn’t. Wheat and barley were the most profitable. Onions sold, but not for much. Many years we fed overripe tomatoes to our livestock, just to get rid of the excess.

Still, no matter the hardship, I never wanted to live anywhere other than Kocho. The alleyways may have filled with mud in the winter, but no one had to go far to see the people they loved most. In the summer, the heat was stifling, but that meant we all slept on the roof, side by side, talking and laughing with neighbors on their own roofs. Working on the farm was hard, but we made enough money to live a happy, simple life. I loved my village so much that when l was a child, my favorite game involved creating a miniature Kocho out of discarded boxes and bits of trash. Kathrine and I filled those model homes with handmade wooden dolls and then married the dolls to one another. Of course, before every wedding, the girl dolls would visit the elaborate house I made out of a plastic tomato crate, where I ran a hair salon.

Most importantly, I would never have left Kocho because my family was there. We were a little village ourselves. I had my eight brothers: Elias, the eldest, was like a father. Khairy was the first to risk his life as a border guard to help feed us. Pise was stubborn and loyal and would never let anything happen to us. There was Massoud, who grew up to be the best mechanic (and one of the best soccer players) in Kocho, and his twin Saoud, who ran a small convenience store in the village. Jalo opened his heart to everyone, even strangers. Saeed was full of life and mischief and longed to be a hero, and it was Hezni, the dreamer, whose affection we all competed for. My two sisters, the mothering, quiet Dimal, and Adkee, who one day would fight with our brothers to let her, a woman, drive our pickup truck and the next weep over a lamb who collapsed dead in the courtyard-still lived at home, and my half brothers, Khaled, Walid, Hajji, and Nawaf, and my half sisters, Halam and Haiam, were all nearby.

Kocho was where my mother, Shami, like good mothers everywhere, devoted her life to making sure we were fed and hopeful. It’s not the last place I saw her, but it’s where she is when I think about her, which I do every day. Even during the worst years of the sanctions, she made sure we had what we needed. When there was no money for treats, she gave us barley to trade for gum at the local store. When a merchant came through Kocho selling a dress we couldn’t afford, she badgered him into taking credit. “At least now our house is the first one they visit when they come to Kocho” she joked if one of my brothers complained about the debt.

She had grown up poor, and she never wanted us to appear needy, but villagers wanted to help us and gave us small amounts of flour or couscous when they could. Once when l was very young, my mother was walking home from the mill with only a little flour in her bag and was stopped by her uncle Sulaiman. “I know you need help. Why don’t you ever come to me?” he asked.

At first, she shook her head. “We’re fine, uncle,” she said. “We have everything we need.” But Sulaiman insisted, “I have so much extra wheat, you have to take some,” and the next thing we knew, four big oilcans full of wheat had been delivered to our house, enough for us to make bread for two months. My mother was so ashamed that she needed help that when she told us what happened, her eyes filled with tears, and she vowed that she would make our lives better. Day by day she did. Her presence was a reassurance even with terrorists nearby. “God will protect the Yazidis,” she told us every day.

There are so many things that remind me of my mother. The color white. A good and perhaps inappropriate joke. A peacock, which Yazidis consider a holy symbol, and the short prayers I say in my head when I see a picture of the bird. For twenty one years, my mother was at the center of each day. Every morning she woke up early to make bread, sitting on a low stool in front of the tandoor oven we kept in the courtyard, flattening balls of dough and slapping them against the sides of the oven until they were puffy and blistered, ready to be dipped into bowls of golden melted sheep’s butter.

Every morning for twenty one years I woke up to the slow slap, slap, slap of the dough against the oven walls and the grassy smell of the butter, letting me know my mother was close by. Half asleep, I would join her in front of the tandoor, in the winter warming my hands by the fire, and talk to her about everything, school, weddings, fights with siblings. For years, I was convinced that snakes were hatching babies on the tin roof of our outdoor shower.

“I heard them!” I insisted to her, making slithering sounds. But she just smiled at me, her youngest child. “Nadia is too scared to shower alone!” my siblings mocked me, and even when a baby snake fell on my head, prompting us to finally rebuild the shower, I had to admit they were sort of right. I never wanted to be alone.

I would pick burned edges off the fresh bread, updating my life plan for her. No longer would I simply do hair in the salon I planned to open in our house. We had enough money now to afford the kohl and eye shadow popular in cities outside Kocho, so I would also do makeup after I got home from a day teaching history at the secondary school. My mother nodded her approval. “Just as long as you never leave me, Nadia,” she would say, wrapping the hot bread in fabric. “Of course,” I always replied. “I will never leave you.”

Chapter Three

Yazidis believe that before God made man, he created seven divine beings, often called angels, who were manifestations of himself. After forming the universe from the pieces of a broken pearl-like sphere, God sent his chief Angel, Tawusi Melek, to earth, where he took the form of a peacock and painted the world the bright colors of his feathers. The story goes that on earth, Tawusi Melek sees Adam, the first man, whom God has made immortal and perfect, and the Angel challenges God’s decision. If Adam is to reproduce, Tawusi Melek suggests, he can’t be immortal, and he can’t be perfect. He has to eat wheat, which God has forbidden him to do. God tells his Angel that the decision is his, putting the fate of the world in Tawusi Melek’s hands. Adam eats wheat, is expelled from paradise, and the second generation of Yazidis are born into the world.

Proving his worthiness to God, the Peacock Angel became God’s connection to earth and man’s link to the heavens. When we pray, we often pray to Tawusi Melek, and our New Year celebrates the day he descended to earth. Colorful images of the peacock decorate many Yazidi houses, to remind us that it is because of his divine wisdom that we exist at all. Yazidis love Tawusi Melek for his unending devotion to God and because he connects us to our one God. But Muslim Iraqis, for reasons that have no real roots in our stories, scorn the Peacock Angel and slander us for praying to him.

It hurts to say it, and Yazidis aren’t even supposed to utter the words, but many people in Iraq hear the story of the Peacock Angel and call us devil worshippers. Tawusi Melek, they say, is God’s chief Angel, like Iblis, the devil figure of the Koran. They claim that our Angel defied Adam and therefore God. Some cite texts, usually written by outside scholars in the early twentieth century who were unfamiliar with the Yazidi oral tradition, that say that Tawusi Melek was sent to Hell for refusing to bow to Adam, which is not true. This is a misinterpretation, and it has had terrible consequences. The story we use to explain the core of our faith and everything we think of as good about the Yazidi religion is the same story others use to justify genocide against us.

This is the worst lie told about Yazidis, but it is not the only one. People say that Yazidism isn’t a “real” religion because we have no official book like the Bible or the Koran. Because some of us don’t shower on Wednesdays, the day that Tawusi Melek first came to earth, and our day of rest and prayer, they say we are dirty. Because we pray toward the sun, we are called pagans. Our belief in reincarnation, which helps us cope with Muslims because none of the Abrahamic faiths believe in it. Some Yazidis avoid certain foods, like lettuce, and are mocked for their strange habits. Others don’t wear blue because they see it as the color of Tawusi Melek and too holy for a human, and even that choice is ridiculed.

Growing up in Kocho, I didn’t know a lot about my own religion. Only a small part of the Yazidi population are born into the religious castes, the sheikhs and elders who teach all other Yazidis about the religion. I was a teenager before my family had enough money to take me to Lalish to be baptized, and it was not possible for me to make that trip regularly enough to learn from the sheikhs who lived there. Attacks and persecution scattered us and decreased our numbers, making it even harder for our stories to be spread orally, as they are supposed to be. Still, we were happy that our religious leaders guarded Yazidism, it was clear that in the wrong hands, our religion could be easily used against us.

There are certain things all Yazidis are taught at a young age. I knew about the Yazidi holidays, although more about how we celebrate them than about the theology behind them. I knew that on Yazidi New Year, we color eggs, visit the graves of family, and light candles in our temples. I knew that October was the best month to go to Lalish, a holy valley in the Sheikhan district where the Baba Sheikh, our most important spiritual leader, and Baba Chawish, the custodian of the shrines there, greet pilgrims. In December we fast for three days to atone for our sins. Marriage outside the faith is not allowed; nor is conversion. We were taught about the seventy three past firmans against Yazidis, and these stories of persecution were so intertwined with who we were that they might as well have been holy stories. I knew that the religion lived in the men and women who had been born to preserve it, and that l was one of them.

My mother taught us how to pray, toward the sun in the morning, Lalish during the day, and the moon at night. There are rules, but most are flexible. Prayer is meant to be a personal expression, not a chore or an empty ritual. You can pray silently by yourself or out loud, and you can pray alone or in a group, as long as everyone in that group is also Yazidi. Prayers are accompanied by a few gestures, like kissing the red and white bracelet that many Yazidi women and men wear around their wrist or, for a man, kissing the collar of his traditional white undershirt.

Most Yazidis I grew up with prayed three times a day, and prayers can be made anywhere. More often than I’ve prayed in temples, I’ve prayed in the fields, on our rooftop, even in the kitchen, helping my mother cook. After reciting a few standard lines in praise of God and Tawusi Melek, you can say anything you want. “Tell Tawusi Melek what is bothering you,” my mother told us, demonstrating the gestures. “If you are worried about someone you love, tell him that, or if you are scared of something. These are the things that Tawusi Melek can help you with.” I used to pray for my own future, to finish school and open my salon, and the futures of my siblings and my mother. Now I pray for the survival of my religion and my people.

Yazidis lived like this for a long time, proud of our religion and content to be removed from other communities. We had no ambition for more land or power, and nothing in the religion commands us to conquer non, Yazidis and spread our faith. No one can convert to Yazidism anyway. But during my childhood, our community was changing. Villagers bought televisions, first settling for state run TV before satellite dishes allowed us to watch Turkish soap operas and Kurdish news. We bought our first electric clothes washer, which seemed almost like magic, although my mother still hand, washed her traditional white veils and dresses. Many Yazidis emigrated to the United States, Germany, or Canada, creating connections to the West. And of course, my generation was able to do something our parents hadn’t even dreamed of. We went to school.

Kocho’s first school was built in the 1970s, under Saddam. It went only through the fifth grade, and the lessons were in Arabic, not Kurdish, and were deeply nationalistic. State curriculum was clear about who was important in Iraq and what religion they followed. Yazidis didn’t exist in the Iraqi history books I read in school, and Kurds were depicted as threats against the state. I read the history of Iraq as it unfolded in a sequence of battles, pitting Arab Iraqi soldiers against people who would take their country away from them. It was a bloody history, meant to make us proud of our country and the strong leaders who had kicked out the British colonists and overthrown the king, but it had the opposite effect on me. I later thought that those books must be one reason why our neighbors joined ISIS or did nothing while the terrorists attacked Yazidis.

No one who had been through an Iraqi school would think that we deserved to have our religion protected, or that there was anything bad or even strange about endless war. We had been taught about violence since our very first day of school.

As a child, my country bewildered me. It could seem like its own planet, made up of many different lands, where decades of sanctions, war, bad politics, and occupation pulled neighbors apart. In the far north of Iraq were Kurds, who longed for independence. The south was home mostly to Shiite Muslims, the country’s religious and now political majority. And lodged in the middle were Sunni Arabs, who, with Saddam Hussein as president, once dominated the state they now fight against.

That’s the simple map, one with three solid colorcoded stripes painted more or less horizontally across the country. It leaves out Yazidis or labels them as “other.” The reality of Iraq is harder to illustrate and can be overwhelming even for people who were born here. When I was growing up, the villagers in Kocho didn’t talk a lot about politics. We were concerned with the cycle of the crops, who was getting married, whether a sheep was producing milk, the kind of things that anyone from a small rural town will understand. The central government, apart from campaigns to recruit Yazidis to fight in their wars and to join the Baath Party, seemed just as uninterested in us. But we did think a lot about what it meant to be a minority in Iraq, among all the other groups in that “other” category with Yazidis that, if included on the map, would swirl those three horizontal stripes into colorful marble.

To the northeast of Kocho, a line of dots near the southern edge of Iraqi Kurdistan shows the places where Turkmens, both Shiite and Sunni Muslim, live. Christians, among them Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Armenians have many communities scattered throughout the country, especially in the Nineveh Plain. Elsewhere, flecks indicate the homes of small groups like Kaka’i, Shabak, Roma, and Mandaeans, not to mention Africans and Marsh Arabs. I have heard that somewhere near Baghdad there is still a tiny community of Iraqi Jews. Religion blends into ethnicity. Most Kurds, for instance, are Sunni Muslim, but for them, their Kurdish identity comes first. Many Yazidis consider Yazidism both an ethnic and a religious identity. Most Iraqi Arabs are Shiite or Sunni Muslims, and that division has caused a lot of fighting over the years. Few of these details appeared in our Iraqi history books.

To get from my house to the school, I had to walk along the dusty road that ringed the edge of the town, past Bashar’s house, whose father was killed by Al Qaeda; past the house I was born in, where my father and Sara still lived; and finally past my friend Walaa’s house. Walaa was beautiful, with a pale, round face, and her quiet demeanor balanced my rowdiness. Every morning she would run out to join me on my walk to the school. It was worse to walk alone. Many of the families kept Sheepdogs in their yards, and the enormous animals would stand in the gardens, barking and snarling at whoever passed by. If the gate was open, the dogs lunged after us, snapping their jaws. They weren’t pets; they were big and dangerous, and Walaa and I would sprint away from them, arriving at school panting and sweating. Only my father’s dog, who knew me, left us alone.

Our school was a dull structure made of sandcolored concrete, decorated with faded posters and surrounded by a low wall and a small, dry schoolyard garden. No matter what it looked like, it felt like a miracle to be able to go and study and meet friends. In the school garden, Walaa, Kathrine, and I would play a game with a few of the other girls called bin akhy, which in Kurdish means “in the dirt.” All at once we would each hide something, a marble, a coin, even just a soda cap, in the ground, then we would run around like crazy people, digging holes in the garden until the teacher yelled at us, caking our fingernails with dirt that was sure to upset our mothers. You kept whatever you found, which almost always ended with tears. It was an old game; even my mother remembered playing it.

History, in spite of all the gaps and injustices in the lessons, was my favorite subject and the one I excelled at. English was my worst. I tried hard to be a good student, knowing that while I studied, my siblings worked on our farm. My mother was too poor to buy me a backpack like most of the other students carried, but I wouldn’t complain. I didn’t like to ask her for things.

When she couldn’t pay the taxi fee to send me to a secondary school a few villages away while ours was being built, I started working on the farm again, and waited and prayed for the school to be finished soon. There was no point in complaining, the money wouldn’t just appear, and I was far from the only kid in Kocho whose parents couldn’t afford to send them away.

After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, the United Nations put sanctions on Iraq, hoping that it would limit the president’s power. While I was growing up, I didn’t know why the sanctions existed. The only people who talked about Saddam in my house were my brothers Massoud and Hezni, and that was just to shush anyone who complained during televised speeches or rolled their eyes at the propaganda on state TV. Saddam had tried to get loyalty from Yazidis so that they would side with him against the Kurds and fight in his wars, but he did so by demanding that we join his Baath Party and call ourselves Arab, not Yazidi.

Sometimes all that was on TV was Saddam himself, seated behind a desk smoking and telling stories about Iran, with a mustached guard beside him, going on about battles and his own brilliance. “What is he talking about?” we would ask one another, and everyone shrugged. There was no mention of Yazidis in the constitution, and any sign of rebellion was quickly punished. Sometimes I felt like laughing at what I saw on TV, the dictator in his funny hat, but my brothers cautioned me not to. “They are watching us,” Massoud said. “Be careful what you say.” Saddam’s enormous intelligence ministry had eyes and ears everywhere.

I knew during that time that it was ordinary Iraqis, not the political elite and certainly not Saddam himself, who suffered the most under the sanctions. Our hospitals and markets collapsed. Medicine became more expensive, and flour was cut with gypsum, which is more often used to make cement. The deterioration was most clear to me in the schools. Once Iraq’s education system had attracted students from all over the Middle East, but under the sanctions it crumbled. Teachers’ salaries were reduced to nothing, and so teachers became hard to find, even though nearly 50 percent of Iraqi men were unemployed. The few teachers who came to Kocho when I started, Arab Muslims who lived in the school, joining the Yazidi teachers, were heroes as far as l was concerned, and I worked hard to impress them.

When Saddam was in power, school had one obvious purpose: by offering us a state education, he hoped to take away our identity as Yazidis. This was clear in every lesson and every textbook that made no mention of us, our families, our religion, or the firmans against us. Although most Yazidis grew up speaking Kurdish, our lessons were in Arabic. Kurdish was the language of rebellion, and Kurdish Spoken by Yazidis could be seen as even more threatening to the State. Still, I eagerly went to school every day that I could, and I learned Arabic quickly. I didn’t feel like I was submitting to Saddam or betraying Yazidis by learning Arabic or studying the incomplete Iraqi history; I felt empowered and smart. I would still speak Kurdish at home and pray in Kurdish. When I wrote notes to Walaa or Kathrine, my two best friends, they would be in Kurdish, and I would never call myself anything other than Yazidi. I could tell that no matter what we were learning, going to school was important. With all the children in Kocho getting an education, our connections to our country and the outside world were already changing, and our society was opening up.

Young Yazidis loved our religion but also wanted to be part of the world, and when we grew up into adults, I was sure we would become teachers ourselves, writing Yazidis into the history lessons or even running for parliament and fighting for Yazidi rights in Baghdad. I had a feeling back then that Saddam’s plan to make us disappear would backfire.

Chapter Four


In 2003, a few months after my father died, the Americans invaded Bagdad. We didn’t have satellite television to watch the battle unfold, or cell phones connecting us to the rest of the country, and so we learned slowly, over time, how quickly Saddam fell. Coalition forces flew noisily over Kocho on the way to the capital, jerking us from sleep; it was the first time I had ever seen an airplane. We had no idea at the time just how long the war would go on and how much of an impact it would have on Iraq, but in the simplest terms, we hoped that after Saddam, it would be easier to buy cooking gas.

What I remember most from those early months after the invasion was the loss of my father and little else. In Yazidi culture, when someone dies-particularly if that death is sudden and comes too soon, mourning lasts for a long time and sweeps up the entire village. Neighbors retreat from normal life along with the family and friends of the dead. Grief takes over every house and shop and spreads through the streets, as though everyone has been made sick on the same batch of sour milk. Weddings are canceled, holiday celebrations are moved indoors, and women switch out their white clothes for black. We treat happiness like a thief we have to guard against, knowing how easily it could wipe away the memory of our lost loved ones or leave us exposed in a moment of joy when we should be sad, so we limit our distractions. Televisions and radios are kept off, no matter what might be happening in Baghdad.

A few years before he died, my father took Kathrine and me to Mount Sinjar to celebrate the Yazidi New Year. It was my last time with him at the mountain. Our New Year is in April, just as the hills in northern Iraq glow with a light green fuzz and the sharp cold eases into a pleasant cool, but before the summer heat sneaks up on you like a speeding bus. April is the month that holds the promise of a big profitable harvest and leads us into months spent outdoors, sleeping on rooftops, freed from our cold, overcrowded houses. Yazidis are connected to nature. It feeds us and shelters us, and when we die, our bodies become the earth. Our New Year reminds us of this.

On the New Year we visited whomever in the family had been working as shepherds that year, driving our sheep closer to the mountain and walking them from field to field in order to keep them fed. Parts of the job were fun. Shepherds slept outside underneath handwoven blankets and lived simply, with lots of time to think and little to worry about. But it was also grueling work, far from home and family, and while they grew homesick, we missed them back in Kocho. The year my mother left to take care of the sheep, I was in middle school, and l was so distraught that I failed every one of my classes. “I am blind without you,” I told her when she returned.

That last New Year with my father, Kathrine and I rode in the back of the truck while my father and Elias sat in front, watching us in the rearview mirror to make sure we didn’t do anything reckless. The landscape whipped by, a blur of wet spring grass and yellow wheat. We held hands and gossiped, concocting overblown versions of the day’s events that we would later use to taunt the kids who had to wait at home. As far as they were concerned, it would be the most fun we ever had, away from the fields and school and work. Kathrine and I would nearly bounce over the side of the truck as it raced down the road, and the lamb tied up in the back near us was the biggest lamb we had ever seen. “We ate so much candy,” we would tell them back home, watching for the envy in their faces. “We danced all night, it was light outside by the time we went to sleep. You should have seen it.”

The true story was only slightly less exciting. My father could hardly say no to the candy we longed for, and, at the base of the mountain, the reunion with the shepherds was always joyful. The lamb, which had in fact ridden in the back of the truck along with us and was then slaughtered by my father and cooked by the women, was tender and delicious, and we all danced Yazidi dances, holding hands and spinning in a wide circle. After the best parts of the lamb were eaten and the music turned off, we slept in tents surrounded by low fences made of reeds to keep out the wind. When the weather was mild, we took down those fences and slept in the open air. It was a simple, hidden life. All you had to worry about were the things and the people around you, and they were close enough to touch.

I don’t know how my father would have felt about the Americans invading Iraq and taking Saddam out of power, but I wished he had lived long enough to see Iraq change. Kurds welcomed the U.S. soldiers, helping them enter Iraq, and they were ecstatic at the idea of Saddam being deposed. The dictator had targeted Kurds for decades, and in the late 1980s his air force had tried to exterminate them with chemical weapons in what he called the Anfal campaign. That genocide shaped the Kurds, who wanted to protect themselves from the government in Baghdad in any way they could. Because of Anfal, the Americans, British, and French established a no-fly zone over the Kurdish north, as well as the Shia areas in the south, and Kurds had been their willing allies ever since. To this day, Kurds call the 2003 US. invasion a “liberation,” and they consider it the beginning of their transformation from small vulnerable villages into big modern towns full of hotels and the offices of oil companies.

In general, Yazidis welcomed the Americans but were less certain than Kurds about what our lives would be like after Saddam. Sanctions had made our life hard, as they had for other Iraqis, and we knew that Saddam was a dictator who ruled Iraq with fear. We were poor, cut off from education, and made to do the most difficult, dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs in Iraq. But at the same time, with the Baathists in power, we in Kocho had been able to practice our religion, farm our land, and start families. We had close ties with Sunni Arab families, particularly the kiriv, whom we considered bonded to our families, and our isolation taught us to treasure these connections while our poverty told us to be practical above all else. Baghdad and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, seemed worlds away from Kocho. The only decision the rich, connected Kurds and Arabs made that mattered to us was the decision to leave us alone.

Still, the promises Americans made-about work, freedom, and security-quickly brought Yazidis fully to their side. The Americans trusted us because we didn’t have any reason to be loyal to anyone they considered an enemy, and many of our men became translators or took jobs with the Iraqi or American armies. Saddam was pushed into hiding, then found and hanged, and his Baathist institutions dismantled. Sunni Arabs, including those close to Kocho, lost authority in the country, and in the Yazidi parts of Sinjar, Sunni Arab policemen and politicians were replaced with Kurdish ones.

Sinjar is a disputed territory, claimed by both Baghdad and Kurdistan, strategically close to Mosul and Syria and potentially rich with natural gas. Like Kirkuk, another disputed territory in eastern Iraq, Kurdish political parties consider Sinjar to be part of their greater Kurdish homeland. According to them, without Sinjar, the Kurdish nation, if there ever is one, would be born incomplete. After 2003, with American support, and with the Sunni Arabs steadily losing wealth and power, Kurds who were aligned with the KDP happily came to fill the void in Sinjar. They established political offices and staffed those offices with party members. With the Sunni insurgency mounting, they manned checkpoints along our roads. They told us that Saddam was wrong to call us Arabs; we had always been Kurds.

In Kocho the changes after 2003 were huge. Within a couple of years, the Kurds started building a cell phone tower, and after school I would go with friends just outside the village to watch the giant, metal structure grow out of our farmland like a skyscraper. “Finally Kocho will be connected to the rest of the world!” my brothers said, delighted, and soon enough, most of the men and some of the women had cell phones. Satellite dishes installed on the roofs of houses meant we were no longer limited to Syrian films and Iraqi state TV, and Saddam’s marches and speeches disappeared from our living room. My uncle was among the first to get a satellite dish, and as soon as he did, we all crowded into his sitting room to see what was on. My brothers looked for the news, particularly on Kurdish channels, and I became addicted to a Turkish soap opera where the characters constantly fell in and out of love.

We had resisted calling ourselves Arab, but being told that we were Kurdish was easier for some to accept. Many Yazidis feel close to a Kurdish identity, we share a language and ethnic heritage, and it was impossible to ignore the improvements in Sinjar after the Kurds came in, even if it had more to do with the United States than with Barzani.

Jobs in the military and security forces were suddenly open to Yazidis, and some of my brothers and cousins traveled to Erbil to work in the hotels and restaurants; a new one seemed to be built every day. They quickly filled with oil workers or tourists from other parts of Iraq looking for a cooler climate, reliable electricity, or a break from the violence plaguing the rest of the country. My brother Saoud worked construction jobs near Duhok, in the west of Kurdistan, operating a cement mixer. He would come home with stories of Kurds who, like Arabs, looked down on Yazidis. Still, we needed the money.

Khairy began working as a border guard, and soon afterward Hezni became a policeman in Sinjar City. Their salaries gave our family our first steady income, and we started to live what felt like real lives, thinking about the future and not just the next day. We bought our own land to farm and our own sheep to herd and didn’t have to work for landlords anymore. The paved roads outside Kocho made it much quicker to drive to the mountain. We picnicked in the fields near the village, eating plates of meat and chopped vegetables, the men drinking Turkish beer and then tea so sweet it made my lips pucker. Our weddings grew even more elaborate; women sometimes made two trips to Sinjar City for clothes, and men slaughtered more lambs, and if they were very well-off, a cow-to share with the guests.

Some Yazidis envisioned a future Sinjar with a strong local government that was still in lraq, but others thought we would eventually be part of an independent Kurdistan. With the KDP office in Kocho and the peshmerga in Sinjar, I grew up thinking that was our destiny. We became more distant from our Sunni Arab neighbors. While travel to Kurdistan got easier, it became harder to get to the Sunni villages where insurgents, and the extremist theology that guided them, were gaining ground. Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, didn’t like the Kurdish presence in Sinjar. It reminded them of the power they had lost, and they said that with the Kurds in control, they didn’t feel welcome in Sinjar and could no longer visit Yazidi villages, even the ones where their kiriv lived. Kurdish peshmerga interrogated them at checkpoints that were once manned by Baathists, and many lost their salaries and jobs when the Americans came and dismantled Saddam’s institutions. Only recently they had been the richest and best-connected people in the country, but with a Shiite government supported by the occupying Americans in power, Sunni Arabs suddenly lost their power. Isolated in their villages, they would soon decide to fight back. Within years that fight became fueled by a religious intolerance that made Yazidis, even though we had never had any power in Iraq, their target.

I didn’t know then that the Kurdish government was content to distance Yazidis from our Arab neighbors because it helped them in their campaign to take over Sinjar, or how disruptive the American occupation was for ordinary Sunnis. I was unaware that, while I went to school, an unnamed insurgency was paving the way for Al Qaeda, and eventually ISIS, to flourish in our neighboring villages. Sunni tribes across Iraq tried, and mostly failed, to rebel against the Shiite authority in Baghdad and the Americans. They became accustomed to violence and harsh rule, which went on for so long that many Sunnis my age and younger grew up knowing nothing but war and the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that became part of that war.

ISIS built up slowly in those villages just beyond our borders, a spark that I didn’t notice until it became a bonfire. For a young Yazidi girl, life only got better after the Americans and the Kurds took over. Kocho was expanding, I was going to school, and we were gradually lifting ourselves out of poverty. A new constitution gave more power to the Kurds and demanded that minorities be part of the government. I knew that my country was at war, but it didn’t seem like it was our fight.

IN THE BEGINNING, American soldiers visited Kocho almost once a week to hand out food and supplies and talk to the village leaders. Did we need schools? Paved roads? Running water so that we no longer had to buy tanks off of trucks? The answer to all of it, of course, was yes. Ahmed Jasso invited the soldiers over for large, elaborate meals, and our men glowed with pride when the Americans said they felt so safe in Kocho they could lean their weapons against the walls and relax. “They know the Yazidis will protect them,” Ahmed Jasso said.

Kids ran to the American soldiers when they pulled into Kocho, their armored cars kicking up dust and drowning out the village noises with their loud motors. They gave us gum and candy and took photos of us smiling with the presents. We marveled at their crisp uniforms and the friendly, conversational way they approached us, so unlike the Iraqi soldiers before them. They raved to our parents about Kocho hospitality, how comfortable and clean our village was, and how well we understood that America had liberated us from Saddam. “Americans love the Yazidis,” they told us. “And Kocho especially. We feel at home here.” Even when their visits slowed to a trickle and then stopped completely, we held on to the American praise like a badge of honor.

In 2006, when l was thirteen, one of the American soldiers gave me a ring as a present. It was a simple band with a small red stone, the first piece of jewelry I’d ever owned. It instantly became my most valued possession. I wore it everywhere, to school, digging on the farm, at home watching my mother bake bread, even to sleep at night. After a year, it had become too small for my ring finger, and I moved it onto my pinky so I wouldn’t have to leave it at home. But it slid up and down on that finger, barely catching on my knuckle, and I worried about losing it. I glanced at it constantly to make sure it was still there, curling my hand into a fist to feel it pressing against my finger.

Then one day I was out with my siblings planting rows of onion seedlings when I looked down and noticed that the ring was gone. I already hated planting the onions-each one had to be laid carefully into the cold dirt, and even the seedlings made your fingers and hands stink, and now l was furious at the tiny plants, digging frantically through them, trying to find my present. My siblings, noticing my panic, asked me what had happened. “I lost the ring!” I told them, and they stopped working to help look. They knew how important it was to me.

We walked our entire field, searching in the dark dirt for a little glimpse of gold and red, but no matter how hard we looked and how much I cried, we couldn’t find the ring. When the sun started to set, we had no choice but to give up and go home for dinner. “Nadia, it’s no big deal,” Elias said as we walked home. “It’s just a little thing. You’ll have more jewelry in your life.” But I cried for days. I was sure that I would never have anything as nice again and I worried that the American soldier, if he ever came back, would be angry with me for losing his present.

A year later a miracle happened. Picking the new onions that had sprouted from those seedlings, Khairy saw a small gold band poking out of the dirt. “Nadia, your ring!” My brother beamed, presenting it to me, and I ran to him, grabbing it out of his hand and hugging him, my hero. When I tried to slip it on, though, I found that, no matter how hard I tried, the ring was now too small even for my pinky. Later my mother saw it lying on my dresser and urged me to sell it. “It doesn’t fit you anymore, Nadia,” she said. “There’s no point in keeping it if you can’t wear it.” For her, poverty was just one wrong move away. Because I always did what she said, I went to a jewelry seller in the Sinjar City bazaar, who bought the ring from me.

Afterward I felt heavy with guilt. The ring had been a gift, and it didn’t seem right for me to sell it. I worried what the soldier would say if he returned and asked about his present. Would he think that I had betrayed him? That I didn’t love the ring? The armored cars were already pulling up to Kocho much less frequently, fighting had grown worse in the rest of the country, and the Americans were stretched thin, and I hadn’t seen that particular soldier in months.

Some of my neighbors complained that the Americans had forgotten about us, and they worried that without contact with them, Yazidis would be unprotected. But I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to explain what happened to the ring. Maybe the soldier who gave it to me, even though he was kind, would be upset that I had sold his present to the jewelry merchant in Sinjar City. Coming from America, he might not understand what even that small amount of money meant to us.

Charter Five

. . . . .


The Last Girl. My story of captivity and my fight against the Islamic State

by Nadia Murad

get it at



In November 2015, a year and three months after ISIS came to Kocho, I left Germany for Switzerland to speak to a United Nations forum on minority issues. It was the first time I would tell my story in front of a large audience. I had been up most of the night before with Nisreen, the activist who had organized the trip, thinking about what to say. I wanted to talk about everything, the children who died of dehydration fleeing ISIS, the families still stranded on the mountain, the thousands of women and children who remained in captivity, and what my brothers saw at the site of the massacre. I was only one of hundreds of thousands of Yazidi victims. My community was scattered, living as refugees inside and outside of Iraq, and Kocho was still occupied by ISIS. There was so much the world needed to hear about what was happening to Yazidis.

The first part of the journey was by train through the dark German woods. The trees passed by in a blur close to my window. I was frightened by the forest, which is so different from the valleys and fields of Sinjar, and glad that l was riding by it, not wandering between the trees. Still, it was beautiful, and I was starting to like my new home. Germans had welcomed us to their country; I heard stories of ordinary citizens greeting the trains and airplanes carrying fleeing Syrians and Iraqis. In Germany we were hopeful that we could become a part of society and not just live on the edge of it.

It was harder for Yazidis in other countries. Some refugees had arrived in places where it was clear they weren’t wanted, no matter what kind of horrors they were escaping. Other Yazidis were trapped in Iraq, desperate for the opportunity to leave, and that waiting was another kind of suffering. Some countries decided to keep refugees out altogether, which made me furious. There was no good reason to deny innocent people a safe place to live. I wanted to say all this to the UN that day.

I wanted to tell them that so much more needed to be done. We needed to establish a safe zone for religious minorities in Iraq; to prosecute ISIS, from the leaders down to the citizens who had supported their atrocities, for genocide and crimes against humanity; and to liberate all of Sinjar. Women and girls who escaped from ISIS needed help to rejoin and rebuild society, and their abuse needed to be added to the list of Islamic State war crimes. Yazidism should be taught in schools from Iraq to the United States, so that people understood the value of preserving an ancient religion and protecting the people who follow it, no matter how small the community. Yazidis, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, are what once made Iraq a great country.

They had only given me three minutes to talk, though, and Nisreen urged me to keep it simple. “Tell your own story,” she said, sipping tea in my apartment. That was a terrifying idea. I knew that if my story were to have any impact, I would have to be as honest as I could stand to be. I would have to tell the audience about Hajji Salman and the times he raped me, the terrifying night at the Mosul checkpoint, and all the abuse I witnessed. Deciding to be honest was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, and also the most important.

I shook as I read my speech. As calmly as I could, I talked about how Kocho had been taken over and girls like me had been taken as sabaya. I told them about how I had been raped and beaten repeatedly and how I eventually escaped. I told them about my brothers who had been killed. They listened quietly, and afterward a Turkish woman came up to me. She was crying. “My brother Ali was killed,” she told me. “Our whole family is in shock because of it. I don’t know how someone can handle losing six brothers all at once.”

“It is very hard,” I said. “But there are families who lost even more than us.”

When I returned to Germany I told Nisreen that any time they needed me, I would go anywhere and do anything I could to help. I had no idea that soon I would partner with the Yazidi activists running Yazda, and begin a new life. I know now that l was born in the heart of the crimes committed against me.

AT FIRST OUR new lives in Germany felt insignificant compared to those of the people living through war in Iraq. Dimal and I moved into a small two-bedroom apartment with two of our cousins, decorating it with photos of the people we had lost or left behind. At night I slept beneath large color photos of my mother and Kathrine. We wore necklaces that spelled out the names of the dead and each day came together to weep for them and to pray to Tawusi Melek for the safe return of the missing. Every night I dreamed about Kocho, and every morning I woke up and remembered that Kocho, as I knew it, no longer existed. It’s a strange, hollow feeling. Longing for a lost place makes you feel like you have also disappeared. I have seen many beautiful countries in my travels as an activist, but nowhere I wanted to live more than Iraq.

We went to German classes and to the hospital to make sure we were healthy. Some of us tried the therapy sessions they offered, which were almost impossible to endure. We cooked our food and did the chores we had grown up doing, cleaning and baking bread, this time in a small portable metal oven that Dimal set up in the living room. But without the truly time-consuming tasks like milking sheep or farming, or the social lives that come with living in a small, tight-knit village or school, we had too many empty hours. When I first got to Germany, I begged Hezni all the time to let me come back, but he told me to give Germany a chance. He said I had to stay, that eventually I would have a life there, but I wasn’t sure I believed him.

Soon enough, I met Murad Ismael. Along with a group of Yazidis living around the world, including Hadi Pir, Ahmed Khudida, Abid Shamdeen, and Haider Elias, the former translator for the US. military who had stayed on the phone with my brother, Jalo, almost until the moment of his death. Murad had cofounded Yazda, a group fighting tirelessly for Yazidis. When I first met him I was still uncertain about what my new life would be like. I wanted to help, and to feel useful, but I didn’t know how. But when Murad told me about Yazda and the work they were doing, particularly helping to free and then advocate for women and girls who had been enslaved by ISIS, I could see my future more clearly.

As soon as these Yazidis heard that ISIS had come into Sinjar they left their normal lives to help us back in Iraq. Murad had been studying geophysics in Houston when the genocide started; others were teachers or social workers who dropped everything to help us. He told me about a sleepless two weeks spent in a small hotel room near Washington, D.C., where he and a group including Haider and Hadi spent every moment fielding calls from Yazidis in Iraq, trying to help them to safety.

Often, they succeeded. Sometimes they didn’t. They had tried to save Kocho, he told me. They had called everyone they could think of in Erbil and Baghdad. They made suggestions based on their time working with the American military (Murad and Hadi has also been translators during the occupation) and tracked ISIS on every road and through every village. When they failed to save us they vowed to do whatever they could to help anyone who survived and to get us justice. They wore their sorrows on their bodies, Haider’s back aches constantly and Murad’s face is lined with exhaustion, and in spite of that, I wanted to be just like them. After I met Murad, I started to become the person I am today. Although the mourning never stopped, our lives in Germany began to feel significant again.

When I was with ISIS, I felt powerless. If I had possessed any strength at all when my mother was torn from me, I would have protected her. If I could have stopped the terrorists from selling me or raping me, I would have. When I think back to my own escape, the unlocked door, the quiet yard, Nasser and his family in the neighborhood full of Islamic State sympathizers, I shiver at how easily it could have gone wrong. I think there was a reason God helped me escape, and a reason I met the activists with Yazda, and I don’t take my freedom for granted.

The terrorists didn’t think that Yazidi girls would be able to leave them, or that we would have the courage to tell the world every detail of what they did to us. We defy them by not letting their crimes go unanswered. Every time I tell my story, I feel that I am taking some power away from the terrorists.

Since that first trip to Geneva, I have told my story to thousands of people, politicians and diplomats, filmmakers and journalists, and countless ordinary people who became interested in Iraq after ISIS took over. I have begged Sunni leaders to more strongly denounce ISIS publicly; they have so much power to stop the violence. I have worked alongside all the men and women with Yazda to help survivors like me who have to live every day with what we have been through, as well as to convince the world to recognize what happened to the Yazidis as a genocide and to bring ISIS to justice.

Other Yazidis have done the same with the same mission: to ease our suffering and keep what is left of our community alive. Our stories, as hard as they are to hear, have made a difference. Over the past few years, Canada has decided to let in more Yazidi refugees; the UN officially recognized what ISIS did to the Yazidis as a genocide; governments have begun discussing whether to establish a safe zone for religious minorities in Iraq; and most important, we have lawyers determined to help us. Justice is all Yazidis have now, and every Yazidi is part of the struggle.

Back in Iraq, Adkee, Hezni, Saoud, and Saeed fight in their own ways. They stayed in the camp, Adkee refused to go to Germany with the other women and when I talk to them, I miss them so much I can barely stand. Every day is a struggle for the Yazidis in the camps, and still they do whatever they can to help the whole community. They hold demonstrations against ISIS and petition the Kurds and Baghdad to do more. When a mass grave is uncovered or a girl dies trying to escape, it is the refugees in the camp who bear the burden of the news first and arrange the funeral. Each container home is full of people praying for loved ones to be returned to them.

Every Yazidi refugee tries to cope with the mental and physical trauma of what they have been through and works to keep our community intact. People who, just a few years ago, were farmers, students, merchants, and housewives have become religious scholars determined to spread knowledge about Yazidism, teachers working in the small container homes used as camp classrooms, and human rights activists like me. All we want is to keep our culture and religion alive and to bring ISIS to justice for their crimes. I am proud of all we have done as a community to fight back. I have always been proud to be Yazidi.

As lucky as I am to be safe in Germany, I can’t help but envy those who stayed behind in Iraq. My siblings are closer to home, eating the Iraqi food I miss so much and living next to people they know, not strangers. If they go to town, they can speak to shopkeepers and minivan drivers in Kurdish. When the peshmerga allow us into Solagh, they will be able to visit my mother’s grave. We call one another on the phone and leave messages all day. Hezni tells me about his work helping girls escape, and Adkee tells me about life in the camp. Most of the stories are bitter and sad, but sometimes my lively sister makes me laugh so hard that I roll off my couch. I ache for Iraq.

In late May 2017, I received news from the camp that Kocho had been liberated from ISIS. Saeed had been among the members of the Yazidi unit of the Hashd alShaabi, a group of Iraqi armed militias, who had gone in, and I was happy for him that he had gotten his wish and become a fighter. Kocho was not safe; there were still Islamic State militants there, fighting, and those who left had planted IEDs everywhere before they ran, but I was determined to go back. Hezni agreed, and I flew from Germany to Erbil and then traveled to the camp.

I didn’t know what it would feel like to see Kocho, the place where we were separated and where my brothers were killed. I was with some family, including Dimal, and Murad (by now, he and others from Yazda were like family) and when it was safe enough to go, we traveled as a group, taking a long route to avoid the fighting. The village was empty. The windows in the school had been broken and, inside, we saw what was left of a dead body. My house had been looted, even the wood had been stripped off the roof, and anything left behind was burned. The album of bridal photos was a pile of ashes. We cried so hard we fell onto the floor.

Still, in spite of the destruction, the moment I walked through my front door I knew it was my home. For a moment I felt the way I had before ISIS came, and when they told me it was time to leave I begged them to let me stay just an hour more. I vowed to myself that no matter what, when December comes and it is time for Yazidis to fast in order to draw closer to God and Tawusi Melek, who gave us all life, I will be in Kocho.

A LITTLE LESS than a year since giving that first speech in Geneva, and about a year before returning to Kocho, I went to New York with some members of Yazda, including Abid, Murad, Ahmed, Haider, Hadi, and Maher Ghanem, where the United Nations named me a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Again, I would be expected to talk about what happened to me in front of a large group of people. It never gets easier to tell your story. Each time you speak it, you relive it. When I tell someone about the checkpoint where the men raped me, or the feeling of Hajji Salman’s whip across the blanket as I lay under it, or the darkening Mosul sky while I searched the neighborhood for some sign of help, I am transported back to those moments and all their terror. Other Yazidis are pulled back into these memories, too. Sometimes even the Yazda members who have listened to my story countless times weep when I tell it; it’s their story, too.

Still, I have become used to giving speeches, and large audiences no longer intimidate me. My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism, and I plan on using it until those terrorists are put on trial. There is still so much that needs to be done. World leaders and particularly Muslim religious leaders need to stand up and protect the oppressed.

I gave my brief address. When I finished telling my story, I continued to talk. I told them I wasn’t raised to give speeches. I told them that every Yazidi wants ISIS prosecuted for genocide, and that it was in their power to help protect vulnerable people all over the world. I told them that I wanted to look the men who raped me in the eye and see them brought to justice. More than anything else, I said, I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.

Stephen Hawking. His Life And Work – Kitty Ferguson.

The Story and Science of One of the Most Extraordinary, Celebrated and Courageous Figures of Our Time.



Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable figures of our time, a Cambridge genius who has earned international celebrity and become an inspiration to those who have witnessed his triumph over disability. This is Hawking’s life story by Kitty Ferguson, written with help from Hawking himself and his close associates.

Ferguson’s Stephen Hawking’s Quest for a Theory of Everything was a Sunday Times bestseller in 1992. She has now transformed that short book into a hugely expanded, carefully researched, up to the minute biography giving a rich picture of Hawking’s life, his childhood, the heart rending beginning of his struggle with motor neurone disease, his ever increasing international fame, and his long personal battle for survival in pursuit of a scientific understanding of the universe. Throughout, Kitty Ferguson also summarizes and explains the cutting-edge science in which Hawking has been engaged.

Stephen Hawking is written with the clarity and simplicity for which all Kitty Ferguson’s books have been praised. The result is a captivating account of an extraordinary life and mind.


The quest for a Theory of Everything

Kitty Ferguson

IN THE CENTRE of Cambridge, England, There are a handful of narrow lanes that seem hardly touched by the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. The houses and buildings represent a mixture of eras, but a step around the corner from the wider thoroughfares into any of these little byways is a step back in time, into a passage leading between old college walls or a village street with a medieval church and churchyard or a malt house. Traffic noises from equally old but busier roads nearby are barely audible. There is near silence, birdsong, voices, footsteps. Scholars and townspeople have walked here for centuries.

When I wrote my first book about Stephen Hawking in 1990, I began the story in one of those little streets, Free School Lane. It runs off Bene’t Street, beside the church of St Bene’t’s with its eleventh century bell tower. Around the corner, in the lane, flowers and branches still droop through the iron palings of the churchyard, as they did twenty years ago. Bicycles tethered there belie the antique feel of the place, but a little way along on the right is a wall of black, rough stones with narrow slit windows belonging to the fourteenth-century Old Court of Corpus Christi College, the oldest court in Cambridge. Turn your back to that wall and you will see, high up beside a gothic-style gateway, a plaque that reads, THE CAVENDISH LABORATORY. This gateway and the passage beyond are a portal to a more recent era, oddly tucked away in the medieval street.

There is no hint of the friary that stood on this site in the twelfth century or the gardens that were later planted on its ruins. Instead, bleak, factory like buildings, almost oppressive enough to be a prison, tower over grey asphalt pavement. The situation improves further into the complex, and in the two decades since I first wrote about it some newer buildings have gone up, but the glass walls of these well-designed modern structures are still condemned to reflect little besides the grimness of their older neighbours.

For a century, until the University of Cambridge built the ‘New’ Cavendish Labs in 1974, this complex housed one of the most important centres of physics research in the world. Here, ‘J. J.’ Thomson discovered the electron, Ernest Rutherford probed the structure of the atom and the list goes on and on. When I attended lectures here in the 1990s (for not everything moved to the New Cavendish in 1974), enormous chalk-boards were still in use, hauled noisily up and down with crank driven chain pulley systems to make room for the endless strings of equations in a physics lecture.

The Cockcroft Lecture Room, part of this same site, is a much more up-to-date lecture room. Here, on 29 April 1980, scientists, guests and university dignitaries gathered in steep tiers of seats, facing a two-storey wall of chalk board and slide screen still well before the advent of PowerPoint. The occasion was the inaugural lecture of a new Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, 38-year-old mathematician and physicist Stephen William Hawking. He had been named to this illustrious chair the previous autumn.

The title announced for his lecture was a question: ‘Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?’ Hawking startled his listeners by announcing that he thought it was. He invited them to join him in a sensational escape through time and space on a quest to find the Holy Grail of science: the theory that explains the universe and everything that happens in it what some were calling the Theory of Everything.

Watching Stephen Hawking, silent in a wheelchair while one of his students read his lecture for the audience, no one unacquainted with him would have thought he was a promising choice to lead such an adventure.

Theoretical physics was for him the great escape from a prison more grim than any suggested by the Old Cavendish Labs. Beginning when he was a graduate student in his early twenties, he had lived with encroaching disability and the promise of an early death. Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankees’ first baseman, who died of it. The progress of the disease in Hawking’s case had been slow, but by the time he became Lucasian Professor he could no longer walk, write, feed himself, or raise his head if it tipped forward. His speech was slurred and almost unintelligible except to those who knew him best. For the Lucasian lecture, he had painstakingly dictated his text earlier, so that it could be read by the student.

Jane and Stephen Hawking in the 60s.

But Hawking certainly was and is no invalid. He is an active mathematician and physicist, whom some were even then calling the most brilliant since Einstein. The Lucasian Professorship is an extremely prestigious position in the University of Cambridge, dating from 1663. The second holder of the chair was Sir Isaac Newton.

It was typical of Hawking’s iconoclasm to begin this distinguished professorship by predicting the end of his own field. He said he thought there was a good chance the so-called Theory of Everything would be found before the close of the twentieth century, leaving little for theoretical physicists like himself to do.

Since that lecture, many people have come to think of Stephen Hawking as the standard bearer of the quest for that theory. However, the candidate he named for Theory of Everything was not one of his own theories but ‘N=8 supergravity’, a theory which many physicists at that time hoped might unify all the particles and the forces of nature. Hawking is quick to point out that his work is only one part of a much larger picture, involving physicists all over the world, and also part of a very old quest.

The longing to understand the universe must surely be as ancient as human consciousness. Ever since human beings first began to look at the night skies as well as at the enormous variety of nature around them, and considered their own existence, they’ve been trying to explain all this with myths, religion, and, later, mathematics and science. We may not be much nearer to understanding the complete picture than our remotest ancestors, but most of us like to think, as does Stephen Hawking, that we are.

Hawking’s life story and his science continue to be full of paradoxes. Things are often not what they seem. Pieces that should fit together refuse to do so. Beginnings may be endings; cruel circumstances can lead to happiness, although fame and success may not; two brilliant and highly successful scientific theories taken together yield nonsense; empty space isn’t empty; black holes aren’t black; the effort to unite everything in a simple explanation reveals, instead, a fragmented picture; and a man whose appearance inspires shock and pity, takes us joyfully to where the boundaries of time and space ought to be but are not.

Anywhere we look in our universe, we find that reality is astoundingly complex and elusive, sometimes alien, not always easy to take, and often impossible to predict. Beyond our universe there may be an infinite number of others. The close of the twentieth century has come and gone, and no one has discovered the Theory of Everything. Where does that leave Stephen Hawking’s prediction? Can any scientific theory truly explain it all?


“Our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in”

THE IDEA THAT all the amazing intricacy and variety we experience in the world and the cosmos may come down to something remarkably simple is not new or far-fetched. The sage Pythagoras and his followers in southern Italy in the sixth century BC studied the relationships between lengths of strings on a lyre and the musical pitches these produced, and realized that hidden behind the confusion and complexity of nature there is pattern, order, rationality. In the two and a half millennia since, our forebears have continued to find often, like the Pythagoreans, to their surprise and awe that nature is less complicated than it first appears.

Imagine, if you can, that you are a super-intelligent alien who has absolutely no experience of our universe: is there a set of rules so complete that by studying them you could discover exactly what our universe is like? Suppose someone handed you that rule book. Could it possibly be a short book?

For decades, many physicists believed that the rule book is not lengthy and contains a set of fairly simple principles, perhaps even just one principle that lies behind everything that has happened, is happening, and ever will happen in our universe. In 1980, Stephen Hawking made the brash claim that we would hold the rule book in our hands by the end of the twentieth century.

My family used to own a museum facsimile of an ancient board game. Archaeologists digging in the ruins of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia had unearthed an exquisite inlaid board with a few small carved pieces. It was obviously an elaborate game, but no one knew its rules. The makers of the facsimile had tried to deduce them from the design of the board and pieces, but those like ourselves who bought the game were encouraged to make our own decisions and discoveries about how to play it.

You can think of the universe as something like that: a magnificent, elegant, mysterious game. Certainly there are rules, but the rule book didn’t come with the game. The universe is no beautiful relic like the game found at Ur. Yes, it is old, but the game continues. We and everything we know about (and much we do not) are in the thick of the play. If there is a Theory of Everything, we and everything in the universe must be obeying its principles, even while we try to discover what they are.

You would expect the complete, unabridged rules for the universe to fill a vast library or super computer. There would be rules for how galaxies form and move, for how human bodies work and fail to work, for how humans relate to one another, for how subatomic particles interact, how water freezes, how plants grow, how dogs bark intricate rules, within rules within rules. How could anyone think this could be reduced to a few principles?

Richard Feynman, the American physicist and Nobel laureate, gave an excellent example of the way the reduction process happens. There was a time, he pointed out, when we had something we called motion and something else called heat and something else again called sound. ‘But it was soon discovered,’ wrote Feynman:

“After Sir Isaac Newton explained the laws of motion, that some of these apparently different things were aspects of the same thing. For example, the phenomena of sound could be completely understood as the motion of atoms in the air. So sound was no longer considered something in addition to motion. It was also discovered that heat phenomena are easily understandable from the laws of motion. In this way, great globs of physics theory were synthesized into a simplified theory.”

Life among the Small Pieces

All matter as we normally think of it in the universe, you and I, air, ice, stars, gases, microbes, this book, is made up of minuscule building blocks called atoms. Atoms in turn are made up of smaller objects, called particles, and a lot of empty space.

The most familiar matter particles are the electrons that orbit the nuclei of atoms and the protons and neutrons that are clustered in the nuclei. Protons and neutrons are made up of even tinier particles of matter called ‘quarks’. All matter particles belong to a class of particles called ‘fermions’, named for the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. They have a system of messages that pass among them, causing them to act and change in various ways. A group of humans might have a message system consisting of four different services: telephone, fax, e-mail and ‘snail mail’. Not all the humans would send and receive messages and influence one another by means of all four message services. You can think of the message system among the fermions as four such message services, called forces. There is another class of particles that carry these messages among the fermions, and sometimes among themselves as well: ‘messenger’ particles, more properly called ‘bosons’. Apparently every particle in the universe is either a fermion or a boson.

One of the four fundamental forces of nature is gravity. One way of thinking about the gravitational force holding us to the Earth is as ‘messages’ carried by bosons called gravitons between the particles of the atoms in your body and the particles of the atoms in the Earth, influencing these particles to draw closer to one another. Gravity is the weakest of the forces, but, as we’ll see later, it is a very long-range force and acts on everything in the universe. When it adds up, it can dominate all the other forces.

A second force, the electromagnetic force, is messages carried by bosons called photons among the protons in the nucleus of an atom, between the protons and the electrons nearby, and among electrons. The electromagnetic force causes electrons to orbit the nucleus. On the level of everyday experience, photons show up as light, heat, radio waves, microwaves and other waves, all known as electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic force is also long-range and much stronger than gravity, but it acts only on particles with an electric charge.

A third message service, the strong nuclear force, causes the nucleus of the atom to hold together.

A fourth, the weak nuclear force, causes radioactivity and plays a necessary role, in stars and in the early universe, in the formation of the elements.

The gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force, the activities of those four forces are responsible for all messages among all fermions in the universe and for all interactions among them. Without the four forces, every fermion (every particle of matter) would exist, if it existed at all, in isolation, with no means of contacting or influencing any other, oblivious to every other. To put it bluntly, whatever doesn’t happen by means of one of the four forces doesn’t happen. If that is true, a complete understanding of the forces would give us an understanding of the principles underlying everything that happens in the universe. Already we have a remarkably condensed rule book.

Much of the work of physicists in the twentieth century was aimed at learning more about how the four forces of nature operate and how they are related. In our human message system, we might discover that telephone, fax and e-mail are not really so separate after all, but can be thought of as the same thing showing up in three different ways. That discovery would ‘unify’ the three message services. In a similar way, physicists have sought, with some success, to unify the forces. They hope ultimately to find a theory which explains all four forces as one showing up in different ways, a theory that may even unite both fermions and bosons in a single family. They speak of such a theory as a unified theory.

A theory explaining the universe, the Theory of Everything, must go several steps further. Of particular interest to Stephen Hawking, it must answer the question, what was the universe like at the instant of beginning, before any time whatsoever had passed? Physicists phrase that question: what are the ‘initial conditions’ or the ‘boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe’? Because this issue of boundary conditions has been and continues to be at the heart of Hawking’s work, it behooves us to spend a little time with it.

The Boundary Challenge

Suppose you put together a layout for a model railway, then position several trains on the tracks and set the switches and throttles controlling the train speeds as you want them, all before turning on the power. You have set up boundary conditions. For this session with your train set, reality is going to begin with things in precisely this state and not in any other. Where each train will be five minutes after you turn on the power, whether any train will crash with another, depends heavily on these boundary conditions.

Imagine that when you have allowed the trains to run for ten minutes, without any interference, a friend enters the room. You switch off the power. Now you have a second set of boundary conditions: the precise position of everything in the layout at the second you switched it off. Suppose you challenge your friend to try to work out exactly where all the trains started out ten minutes earlier. There would be a host of questions besides the simple matter of where the trains are standing and how the throttles and switches are set. How quickly does each of the trains accelerate and slow down? Do certain parts of the tracks offer more resistance than others? How steep are the gradients? Is the power supply constant? Is it certain there has been nothing to interfere with the running of the train set, something no longer evident?

The whole exercise would indeed be daunting. Your friend would be in something like the position of a modern physicist trying to work out how the universe began, what were the boundary conditions at the beginning of time.

Boundary conditions in science do not apply only to the history of the universe. They simply mean the lie of the land at a particular point in time, for instance the start of an experiment in a laboratory. However, unlike the situation with the train set or a lab experiment, when considering the universe, one is often not allowed to set up boundary conditions.

One of Hawking’s favourite questions is how many ways the universe could have begun and still ended up the way we observe it today, assuming that we have correct knowledge and understanding of the laws of physics and they have not changed. He is using ‘the way we observe the universe today’ as a boundary condition and also, in a more subtle sense, using the laws of physics and the assumption that they have not changed as boundary conditions. The answer he is after is the reply to the question, what were the boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe, or the ‘initial conditions of the universe’ the exact layout at the word go, including the minimal laws that had to be in place at that moment in order to produce at a certain time in the future the universe as we know it today? It is in considering this question that he has produced some of his most interesting work and surprising answers.

A unified description of the particles and forces, and knowledge of the boundary conditions for the origin of the universe, would be a stupendous scientific achievement, but it would not be a Theory of Everything. In addition, such a theory must account for values that are ‘arbitrary elements’ in all present theories.

Language Lesson

Arbitrary elements include such ‘constants of nature’ as the mass and charge of the electron and the velocity of light. We observe what these are, but no theory explains or predicts them. Another example: physicists know the strength of the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. The electroweak theory is a theory that unifies the two, but it cannot tell us how to calculate the difference in strength between the two forces. The difference in strength is an ‘arbitrary element’, not predicted by the theory. We know what it is from observation, and so we put it into a theory ‘by hand’. This is considered a weakness in a theory.

When scientists use the word predict, they do not mean telling the future. The question ‘Does this theory predict the speed of light?’ isn’t asking whether the theory tells us what that speed will be next Tuesday. It means, would this theory make it possible for us to work out the speed of light if it were impossible to observe what that speed is? As it happens, no present theory does predict the speed of light. It is an arbitrary element in all theories.

One of Hawking’s concerns when he wrote A Brief History of Time was that there be a clear understanding of what is meant by a theory. A theory is not Truth with a capital T, not a rule, not fact, not the final word. You might think of a theory as a toy boat. To find out whether it floats, you set it on the water. You test it. When it flounders, you pull it out of the water and make some changes, or you start again and build a different boat, benefiting from what you’ve learned from the failure.

Some theories are good boats. They float a long time. We may know there are a few leaks, but for all practical purposes they serve us well. Some serve us so well, and are so solidly supported by experiment and testing, that we begin to regard them as truth. Scientists, keeping in mind how complex and surprising our universe is, are extremely wary about calling them that. Although some theories do have a lot of experimental success to back them up and others are hardly more than a glimmer in a theorist’s eyes brilliantly designed boats that have never been tried on the water it is risky to assume that any of them is absolute, fundamental scientific ‘truth’.

It is important, however, not to dither around for ever, continuing to call into question well-established theories without having a good reason for doing so. For science to move ahead, it is necessary to decide whether some theories are dependable enough, and match observation sufficiently well, to allow us to use them as building blocks and proceed from there. Of course, some new thought or discovery might come along and threaten to sink the boat. We’ll see an example of that later in this book.

In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking wrote that a scientific theory is ‘just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that may mean)? The easiest way to understand this definition is to look at some examples.

There is a film clip showing Hawking teaching a class of graduate students, probably in the early 1980s, with the help of his graduate assistant. By this time Hawking’s ability to speak had deteriorated so seriously that it was impossible for anyone who did not know him well to understand him. In the clip, his graduate assistant interprets Hawking’s garbled speech to say, ‘Now it just so happens that we have a model of the universe here’, and places a large cardboard cylinder upright on the seminar table. Hawking frowns and mutters something that only the assistant can understand. The assistant apologetically picks up the cylinder and turns it over to stand on its other end. Hawking nods approval, to general laughter.

A ‘model’, of course, does not have to be something like a cardboard cylinder or a drawing that we can see and touch. It can be a mental picture or even a story. Mathematical equations or creation myths can be models.

Getting back to the cardboard cylinder, how does it resemble the universe? To make a full-fledged theory out of it, Hawking would have to explain how the model is related to what we actually see around us, to ‘observations’, or to what we might observe if we had better technology. However, just because someone sets a piece of cardboard on the table and tells how it is related to the actual universe does not mean anyone should accept this as the model of the universe. We are to consider it, not swallow it hook, line and sinker. It is an idea, existing ‘only in our minds’. The cardboard cylinder may turn out to be a useful model. On the other hand, some evidence may turn up to prove that it is not. We shall have found that we are part of a slightly different game from the one the model suggested we were playing. Would that mean the theory was ‘bad’? No, it may have been a very good theory, and everyone may have learned a great deal from considering it, testing it, and having to change it or discard it. The effort to shoot it down may have required innovative thinking and experiments that will lead to something more successful or pay off in other ways.

What is it then that makes a theory a good theory? Quoting Hawking again, it must ‘accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations’.

For example, Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity describes a very large class of observations. It predicts the behaviour of objects dropped or thrown on Earth, as well as planetary orbits.

It’s important to remember, however, that a good theory does not have to arise entirely from observation. A good theory can be a wild theory, a great leap of imagination. ‘The ability to make these intuitive leaps is really what characterizes a good theoretical physicist,’ says Hawking. However, a good theory should not be at odds with things already observed, unless it gives convincing reasons for seeming to be at odds.

Superstring theory, one of the most exciting current theories, predicts more than three dimensions of space, a prediction that certainly seems inconsistent with observation. Theorists explain the discrepancy by suggesting the extra dimensions are curled up so small we are unable to recognize them.

We’ve already seen what Hawking means by his second requirement, that a theory contain only a few arbitrary elements.

The final requirement, according to Hawking, is that it must suggest what to expect from future observations. It must challenge us to test it. It must tell us what we will observe if the theory is correct. It should also tell us what observations would prove that it is not correct. For example, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that beams of light from distant stars bend a certain amount as they pass massive bodies like the sun. This prediction is testable. Tests have shown Einstein was correct.

Some theories, including most of Stephen Hawking’s, are impossible to test with our present technology, perhaps even with any conceivable future technology. They are tested with mathematics. They must be mathematically consistent with what we do know and observe. But we cannot observe the universe in its earliest stages to find out directly whether his ‘no-boundary proposal’ (to be discussed later) is correct. Although some tests were proposed for proving or disproving ‘wormholes’, Hawking does not think they would succeed. But he has told us what he thinks we will find if we ever do have the technology, and he is convinced that his theories are consistent with what we have observed so far. In some cases he has risked making some very specific predictions about the results of experiments and observations that push at the boundaries of our present capabilities.

If nature is perfectly unified, then the boundary conditions at the beginning of the universe, the most fundamental particles and the forces that govern them, and the constants of nature, are interrelated in a unique and completely compatible way, which we might be able to recognize as inevitable, absolute and self-explanatory. To reach that level of understanding would indeed be to discover the Theory of Everything, of Absolutely Everything even the answer, perhaps, to the question of why does the universe fit this description to ‘know the Mind of God’, as Hawking termed it in A Brief History of Time, or ‘the Grand Design’, as he would phrase it less dramatically in a more recent book by that name.

Laying Down the Gauntlet

We are ready to list the challenges that faced any ‘Theory of Everything’ candidate when Hawking delivered his Lucasian Lecture in 1980. You’ll learn in due course how some requirements in this list have changed subtly since then.

– It must give us a model that unifies the forces and particles.

– It must answer the question, what were the ‘boundary conditions’ of the universe, the conditions at the very instant of beginning, before any time whatsoever passed?

– It must be ‘restrictive’, allowing few options. It should, for instance, predict precisely how many types of particles there are. If it leaves options, it must somehow account for the fact that we have the universe we have and not a slightly different one.

– It should contain few arbitrary elements. We would rather not have to peek too often at the actual universe for answers. Paradoxically, the Theory of Everything itself may be an arbitrary element. Few scientists expect it to explain why there should exist either a theory or anything at all for it to describe. It is not likely to answer Stephen Hawking’s question: ‘Why does the universe [or, for that matter, the Theory of Everything] go to all the bother of existing?’

– It must predict a universe like the universe we observe or else explain convincingly why there are discrepancies. If it predicts that the speed of light is ten miles per hour, or disallows penguins or pulsars, we have a problem. A Theory of Everything must find a way to survive comparison with what we observe.

– It should be simple, although it must allow for enormous complexity. The physicist John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton wrote:

“Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that when in a decade, a century, or a millennium we grasp it, we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid for so long?”

The most profound theories, such as Newton’s theory of gravity and Einstein’s relativity theories, are simple in the way Wheeler described.

– It must solve the enigma of combining Einstein’s theory of general relativity (a theory that explains gravity) with quantum mechanics (the theory we use successfully when talking about the other three forces).

This is a challenge that Stephen Hawking has taken up. We introduce the problem here. You will understand it better after reading about the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics in this chapter and about general relativity later.

Theory Meets Theory

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the theory of the large and the very large stars, planets, galaxies, for instance. It does an excellent job of explaining how gravity works on that level.

Quantum mechanics is the theory of the very small. It describes the forces of nature as messages among fermions (matter particles). Quantum mechanics also contains something extremely frustrating, the uncertainty principle: we can never know precisely both the position of a particle and its momentum (how it is moving) at the same time. In spite of this problem, quantum mechanics does an excellent job of explaining things on the level of the very small.

One way to combine these two great twentieth century theories into one unified theory would be to explain gravity, more successfully than has been possible so far, as an exchange of messenger particles, as we do with the other three forces. Another avenue is to rethink general relativity in the light of the uncertainty principle.

Explaining gravity as an exchange of messenger particles presents problems. When you think of the force holding you to the Earth as the exchange of gravitons (messenger particles of gravity) between the matter particles in your body and the matter particles that make up the Earth, you are describing the gravitational force in a quantum-mechanical way. But because all these gravitons are also exchanging gravitons among themselves, mathematically this is a messy business. We get infinities, mathematical nonsense.

Physical theories cannot really handle infinities. When they have appeared in other theories, theorists have resorted to something known as ‘renormalization’. Richard Feynman used renormalization when he developed a theory to explain the electromagnetic force, but he was far from pleased about it. ‘No matter how clever the word,’ he wrote, ‘it is what I would call a dippy process!’ It involves putting in other infinities and letting the infinities cancel each other out. It does sound dubious, but in many cases it seems to work in practice. The resulting theories agree with observation remarkably well.

Renormalization works in the case of electromagnetism, but it fails in the case of gravity. The infinities in the gravitational force are of a much nastier breed than those in the electromagnetic force. They refuse to go away. Supergravity, the theory Hawking spoke about in his Lucasian lecture, and superstring theory, in which the basic objects in the universe are not pointlike particles but tiny strings or loops of string, began to make promising inroads in the twentieth century; and later in this book we shall be looking at even more promising recent developments. But the problem is not completely solved.

On the other hand, what if we allow quantum mechanics to invade the study of the very large, the realm where gravity seems to reign supreme? What happens when we rethink what general relativity tells us about gravity in the light of what we know about the uncertainty principle, the principle that you can’t measure accurately the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time? Hawking’s work along these lines has had bizarre results: black holes aren’t black, and the boundary conditions may be that there are no boundaries.

While we are listing paradoxes, here’s another: empty space isn’t empty. Later in this book we’ll discuss how we arrive at that conclusion. For now be content to know that the uncertainty principle means that so-called empty space teems with particles and antiparticles. (The matter-antimatter used in science fiction is a familiar example.)

General relativity tells us that the presence of matter or energy makes spacetime curve, or warp. We’ve already mentioned one result of that curvature: the bending of light beams from distant stars as they pass a massive body like the sun.

Keep those two points in mind: (1) ‘Empty’ space is filled with particles and antiparticles, adding up to an enormous amount of energy. (2) The presence of this energy causes curvature of spacetime.

If both are true the entire universe ought to be curled up into a small ball. This hasn’t happened. When general relativity and quantum mechanics work together, what they predict seems to be dead wrong. Both general relativity and quantum mechanics are exceptionally good theories, two of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. They serve us magnificently not only for theoretical purposes but in many practical ways. Nevertheless, put together they yield infinities and nonsense. The Theory of Everything must somehow resolve that nonsense.

Predicting the Details

Once again imagine that you are an alien who has never seen our universe. With the Theory of Everything you ought nevertheless to be able to predict everything about it right? It’s possible you can predict suns and planets and galaxies and black holes and quasars but can you predict next year’s Derby winner? How specific can you be? Not very. The calculations necessary to study all the data in the universe are ludicrously far beyond the capacity of any imaginable computer. Hawking points out that although we can solve the equations for the movement of two bodies in Newton’s theory of gravity, we can’t solve them exactly for three bodies, not because Newton’s theory doesn’t work for three bodies but because the maths is too complicated. The real universe, needless to say, has more than three bodies in it.

Nor can we predict our health, although we understand the principles that underlie medicine, the principles of chemistry and biology, extremely well. The problem again is that there are too many billions upon billions of details in a real-life system, even when that system is just one human body.

With the Theory of Everything in our hands we’d still be a staggeringly long way from predicting everything. Even if the underlying principles are simple and well understood, the way they work out is enormously complicated. ‘A minute to learn, the lifetime of the universe to master’, to paraphrase an advertising slogan. ‘Lifetime of the universe to master’ is a gross understatement.”

Where does that leave us? What horse will win the Grand National next year is predictable with the Theory of Everything, but no computer can hold all the data or do the maths to make the prediction. Is that correct?

There’s a further problem. We must look again at the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

The Fuzziness of the Very Small

At the level of the very small, the quantum level of the universe, the uncertainty principle also limits our ability to predict.

Think of all those odd, busy inhabitants of the quantum world, both fermions and bosons. They’re an impressive zoo of particles. Among the fermions there are electrons, protons and neutrons. Each proton or neutron is, in turn, made up of three quarks, which are also fermions. Then we have the bosons: photons (messengers of the electromagnetic force), gravitons (the gravitational force), gluons (the strong force), and Ws and Zs (the weak force). It would be helpful to know where all these and many others are, where they are going, and how quickly they are getting there. Is it possible to find out?

The diagram of an atom (fig 2.1) is the model proposed by New Zealander Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge early in the twentieth century. It shows electrons orbiting the nucleus of the atom as planets orbit the sun. We now know that things never really look like this on the quantum level. The orbits of electrons cannot be plotted as though electrons were planets. We do better to picture them swarming in a cloud around the nucleus. Why the blur?

The uncertainty principle makes life at the quantum level a fuzzy, imprecise affair, not only for electrons but for all the particles.

Regardless of how we go about trying to observe what happens, it is impossible to find out precisely both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time. The more accurately we measure how the particle is moving, the less accurately we know its position, and vice versa.

It works like a seesaw: when the accuracy of one measurement goes up, the accuracy of the other must go down. We pin down one measurement only by allowing the other to become more uncertain.

The best way to describe the activity of a particle is to study all the possible ways it might be moving and then calculate how likely one way is as opposed to another. It becomes a matter of probabilities. A particle has this probability to be moving that way or it has that probability to be here. Those probabilities are nevertheless very useful information.

It’s a little like predicting the outcome of elections. Election poll experts work with probabilities. When they deal with large enough numbers of voters, they come up with statistics that allow them to predict who will win the election and by what margin, without having to know how each individual will vote. When quantum physicists study a large number of possible paths that particles might follow, the probabilities of their moving thus and so or of being in one place rather than another become concrete information.

Pollsters admit that interviewing an individual can influence a vote by causing the voter to become more aware of issues. Physicists have a similar dilemma. Probing the quantum level influences the answers they find.

Thus far the comparison between predicting elections and studying the quantum level seems a good one. Now it breaks down: on election day, each voter does cast a definite vote one way or another, secret perhaps but not uncertain. lf pollsters placed hidden cameras in voting booths and were not arrested they could find out how each individual voted. It is not like that in quantum physics. Physicists have devised ingenious ways of sneaking up on particles, all to no avail. The world of elementary particles does not just seem uncertain because we haven’t been clever enough to find a successful way to observe it. It really is uncertain. No wonder Hawking, in his Lucasian lecture, called quantum mechanics ‘a theory of what we do not know and cannot predict’.

Taking this limitation into account, physicists have redefined the goal of science: the Theory of Everything will be a set of laws that make it possible to predict events up to the limit set by the uncertainty principle, and that means in many cases satisfying ourselves with statistical probabilities, not specifics.

Hawking sums up our problem. In answer to the question of whether everything is predetermined either by the Theory of Everything or by God, he says yes, he thinks it is. ‘But it might as well not be, because we can never know what is determined. If the theory has determined that we shall die by hanging, then we shall not drown. But you would have to be awfully sure that you were destined for the gallows to put to sea in a small boat during a storm.’ He regards the idea of free will as ‘a very good approximate theory of human behaviour’.

Is There Really a Theory of Everything?

Not all physicists believe there is a Theory of Everything, or, if there is, that it is possible for anyone to find it. Science may go on refining what we know by making discovery after discovery, opening boxes within boxes but never arriving at the ultimate box. Others argue that events are not entirely predictable but happen in a random fashion. Some believe God and human beings have far more freedom of give and-take within this creation than a deterministic Theory of Everything would allow. They believe that as in the performance of a great piece of orchestral music, though the notes are written down, there may yet be enormous creativity in the playing of the notes that is not at all predetermined.

Whether a complete theory to explain the universe is within our reach or ever will be, there are those among us who want to make a try. Humans are intrepid beings with insatiable curiosity. Some, like Stephen Hawking, are particularly hard to discourage. One spokesman for those who are engaged in this science, Murray Gell-Mann, described the quest:

“It is the most persistent and greatest adventure in human history, this search to understand the universe, how it works and where it came from. It is difficult to imagine that a handful of residents of a small planet circling an insignificant star in a small galaxy have as their aim a complete understanding of the entire universe, a small speck of creation truly believing it is capable of comprehending the whole.”

The advertising slogan for the game Othello is ‘A minute to learn, a lifetime to master’.

‘Equal to anything!’

WHEN STEPHEN HAWKING was twelve years old, two of his schoolmates made a bet about his future. John McClenahan bet that Stephen ‘would never come to anything’; Basil King, that he would ‘turn out to be unusually capable’. The stake was a bag of sweets.

Young S. W. Hawking was no prodigy. Some reports claim he was brilliant in a haphazard way, but Hawking remembers that he was just another ordinary English schoolboy, slow learning to read, his handwriting the despair of his teachers. He ranked no more than halfway up in his school class, though he now says, in his defence, ‘It was a very bright class.’ Maybe someone might have predicted a career in science or engineering from the fact that Stephen was intensely interested in learning the secrets of how things such as clocks and radios work. He took them apart to find out, but he could seldom put them back together. Stephen was never well coordinated physically, and he was not keen on sports or other physical activities. He was almost always the last to be chosen for any sports team.

John McClenahan had good reason to think he would win the wager.

Basil King probably was just being a loyal friend or liked betting on long shots. Maybe he did see things about Stephen that teachers, parents and Stephen himself couldn’t see. He hasn’t claimed his bag of sweets, but it’s time he did. Because Stephen Hawking, after such an unexceptional beginning, is now one of the intellectual giants of our modern world and among its most heroic figures. How such transformations happen is a mystery that biographical details alone cannot explain. Hawking would have it that he is still ‘just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these how and why questions. Occasionally I find an answer.’

1942 – 1959

Stephen William Hawking was born during the Second World War, on 8 January 1942, in Oxford. It was a winter of discouragement and fear, not a happy time to be born. Hawking likes to recall that his birth was exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo, who is called the father of modern science. But few people in January 1942 were thinking about Galileo.

Stephen’s parents, Frank and Isobel Hawking, were not wealthy. Frank’s very prosperous Yorkshire grandfather had over-extended himself buying farm land and then gone bankrupt in the great agricultural depression of the early twentieth century. His resilient wife, Frank’s grandmother and Stephen’s great-grandmother, saved the family from complete ruin by opening a school in their home. Her ability and willingness to take this unusual step are evidence that reading and education must already have been a high priority in the family.

Isobel, Stephen’s mother, was the second oldest of seven children. Her father was a family doctor in Glasgow. When lsobel was twelve, they moved to Devon.

It wasn’t easy for either family to scrape together money to send a child to Oxford, but in both cases they did. Taking on a financial burden of this magnitude was especially unusual in the case of lsobel’s parents, for few women went to university in the 1930s. Though Oxford had been admitting female students since 1878, it was only in 1920 that the university had begun granting degrees to women. Isobel’s studies ranged over an unusually wide curriculum in a university where students tended to be much more specialized than in an American liberal arts college or university. She studied philosophy, politics and economics.

Stephen’s father Frank was a meticulous, determined young man who kept a journal every day from the age of fourteen and would continue it until the end of his life. He was at Oxford earlier than Isobel, studying medical science with a speciality in tropical medicine. When the Second World War broke out he was in East Africa doing field research, and he intrepidly found his way overland to take ship for England and volunteer for militaw service. He was assigned instead to medical research.

Isobel held several jobs after graduation from Oxford, all of them beneath her ability and credentials as a university graduate. One was as an inspector of taxes. She so loathed it that she gave it up in disgust to become a secretary at a medical institute in Hampstead. There she met Frank Hawking. They were married in the early years of the war.

In January 1942 the Hawkings were living in Highgate, north London. In the London area hardly a night passed without air raids, and Frank and Isobel Hawking decided Isobel should go to Oxford to give birth to their baby in safety. Germany was not bombing Oxford or Cambridge, the two great English university towns, reputedly in return for a British promise not to bomb Heidelberg and Gottingen. In Oxford, the city familiar from her recent university days, Isobel spent the final week of her pregnancy first in a hotel and then, as the birth grew imminent and the hotel grew nervous, in hospital, but she was still able to go out for walks to fill her time. On one of those leisurely winter days, she happened into a bookshop and, with a book token, bought an astronomical atlas. She would later regard this as a rather prophetic purchase.

Not long after Stephen’s birth on 8 January his parents took him back to Highgate. Their home survived the war, although a V-2 rocket hit a few doors away when the Hawkings were absent, blowing out the back windows of their house and leaving glass shards sticking out of the opposite wall like little daggers. It had been a good moment to be somewhere else.

After the war the family lived in Highgate until 1950. Stephen’s sister Mary was born there in 1943 (when Stephen was less than two years old), and a second daughter, Philippa, arrived in 1946. The family would adopt another son, Edward, in 1955, when Stephen was a teenager. ln Highgate Stephen attended the Byron House School, whose ‘progressive methods’ he would later blame for his not learning to read until after he left there.

When Dr Frank Hawking, beginning to be recognized as a brilliant leader in his field, became head of the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, the family moved to St Albans.

Eccentric in St Albans

The Hawkings were a close family. Their home was full of good books and good music, often reverberating with the operas of Richard Wagner played at high volume on the record player. Frank and Isobel Hawking believed strongly in the value of education, a good bit of it occurring at home. Frank gave his children a grounding in, among other things, astronomy and surveying, and Isobel took them often to the museums in South Kensington, where each child had a favourite museum and none had the slightest interest in the others’ favourites. She would leave Stephen in the Science Museum and Mary in the Natural History Museum, and then stay with Philippa too young to be left alone at the Victoria and Albert. After a while she would collect them all again.

In St Albans the Hawkings were regarded as a highly intelligent, eccentric family. Their love of books extended to such compulsive reading habits that Stephen’s friends found it odd and a little rude of his family to sit at the dining table, uncommunicative, their noses buried in their books. Reports that the family car was a used hearse are false. For many years the Hawkings drove around in a succession of used London taxis of the black, boxlike sort. This set them apart not only because of the nature of the vehicle, but also because after the war cars of any kind were not easily available. Only families who were fairly wealthy had them at all. Frank Hawking installed a table in the back of the taxi, between the usual bench seat and the fold-down seats, so that Stephen and his siblings could play cards and games. The car and the game table were put to especially good use getting to their usual holiday location, a painted gypsy caravan and an enormous army tent set up in a field at Osmington Mills, in Dorset. The Hawking campsite was only a hundred yards from the beach. It was a rocky beach, not sand, but it was an interesting part of the coast smuggler territory in a past age.

In the post-war years it was not unusual for families to live frugally with few luxuries, unable to afford home repairs, and, out of generosity or financial constraint, house more than two generations under one roof. But the Hawkings, though their house in St Albans was larger than many British homes, carried frugality and disrepair to an extreme. In this three storey, strangely put together redbrick dwelling, Frank kept bees in the cellar, and Stephen’s Scottish grandmother lived in the attic, emerging regularly to play the piano spectacularly well for local folk dances. The house was in dire need of work when the Hawkings moved in, and it stayed that way. According to Stephen’s adopted younger brother Edward, ‘It was a very large, dark house really rather spooky, rather like a nightmare.’ The leaded stained glass at the front door must originally have been beautiful but was missing pieces. The front hall was lit only by a single bulb and its fine authentic William Morris wall covering had darkened. A greenhouse behind the rotting porch lost panes whenever there was a wind. There was no central heating, the carpeting was sparse, broken windows were not replaced. The books, packed two deep on shelves all over the house, added a modicum of insulation.

Frank Hawking would brook no complaints. One had only to put on more clothes in winter, he insisted. Frank himself was often away on research trips to Africa during the coldest months. Stephen’s sister Mary recalls thinking that fathers were ‘like migratory birds. They were there for Christmas and then they vanished until the weather got warm.’ She thought that fathers of her friends who didn’t disappear were ‘a bit odd’.

The house lent itself to imaginative escapades. Stephen and Mary competed in finding ways to get in, some of them so secret that Mary was never able to discover more than ten of the eleven that Stephen managed to use. As if one such house were not enough, Stephen had another imaginary one in an imaginary place he called Drane. It seemed he did not know where this was, only that it existed. His mother became a little frantic, so determined was he to take a bus to find it, but later, when they visited Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath, she heard him declare that this was it, the house he had seen in a dream.

‘Hawkingese’ was the name Stephen’s friends gave the Hawking ‘family dialect’. Frank Hawking himself had a stutter and Stephen and his siblings spoke so rapidly at home that they also stumbled over their words and invented their own oral short hand. That did not prevent Stephen from being, according to his mother, ‘always extremely conversational’. He was also ‘very imaginative loved music and acting in plays’, also ‘rather lazy’ but ‘a self-educator from the start like a bit of blotting paper, soaking it all up’. Part of the reason for his lack of distinction in school was that he could not be bothered with things he already knew or decided he had no need to know.

Stephen had a rather commanding nature in spite of being smaller than most of his classmates. He was well organized and capable of getting other people organized. He was also known as something of a comedian. Getting knocked around by larger boys didn’t bother him much, but he had his limits, and he could, when driven to it, turn rather fierce and daunting. His friend Simon Humphrey had a heftier build than Stephen, but Simon’s mother recalled that it was Stephen, not Simon, who on one memorable occasion swung around with his fists clenched to confront the much larger bullies who were teasing them. ‘That’s the sort of thing he did he was equal to anything.’

The eight year old Stephen’s first school in St Albans was the High School for Girls, curiously named since its students included young children well below ‘high school’ age, and its Michael House admitted boys. A seven year old named Jane Wilde, in a class somewhat younger than Stephen’s, noticed the boy with ‘floppy golden brown hair’ as he sat ‘by the wall in the next door classroom’, but she didn’t meet him. She would later become his wife.

Stephen attended that school for only a few months, until Frank needed to stay in Africa longer than usual and Isobel accepted an invitation to take the children for four months to Majorca, off the east coast of Spain. Balmy, beautiful Majorca, the home of lsobel’s friend from her Oxford days, Beryl, and Beryl’s husband, the poet Robert Graves, was an enchanting place to spend the winter. Education was not entirely neglected for there was a tutor for Stephen and the Graveses’ son William.

Back in St Albans after this idyllic hiatus, Stephen went for one year to Radlett, a private school, and then did well enough in his tests to qualify for a place at the more selective St Albans School, also a private school, in the shadow of the Cathedral. Though in his first year at St Albans he managed to rank no better than an astonishing third from the bottom of his class, his teachers were beginning to perceive that he was more intelligent than he was demonstrating in the classroom. His friends dubbed him ‘Einstein’, either because he seemed more intelligent than they or because they thought he was eccentric. Probably both. His friend Michael Church remembers that he had a sort of ‘overarching arrogance some overarching sense of what the world was about’.

‘Einstein’ soon rose in ranking to about the middle of the class. He even won the Divinity prize one year. From Stephen’s earliest childhood, his father had read him stories from the Bible. ‘He was quite well versed in religious things,’ Isobel later told an interviewer. The family often enjoyed having theological debates, arguing quite happily for and against the existence of God.

Undeterred by a low class placing, ever since the age of eight or nine Stephen had been thinking more and more seriously about becoming a scientist. He was addicted to questioning how things worked and trying to find out. It seemed to him that in science he could find out the truth, not only about clocks and radios but also about everything else around him. His parents planned that at thirteen he would go to Westminster School. Frank Hawking thought his own advancement had suffered because of his parents’ poverty and the fact that he had not attended a prestigious school. Others with less ability but higher social standing had get ahead of him, or so he felt. Stephen was to have something better.

The Hawkings could not afford Westminster unless Stephen won a scholarship. Unfortunately, he was prone at this age to recurring bouts of a low fever, diagnosed as glandular fever, that sometimes was serious enough to keep him home from school in bed. As bad luck would have it, he was ill at the time of the scholarship examination. Frank’s hopes were dashed and Stephen continued at St Albans School, but he believes his education there was at least as good as the one he would have received at Westminster.

Stephen, age 14.

After the Hawkings adopted Edward in 1955, Stephen was no longer the only male sibling. Stephen accepted his new younger brother in good grace. He was, according to Stephen, ‘probably good for us. He was a rather difficult child, but one couldn’t help liking him.’

Continuing at St Albans School rather than heading off to Westminster had one distinct advantage. It meant being able to continue growing up in a little band of close friends who shared with Stephen such interests as the hazardous manufacture of fireworks in the dilapidated greenhouse and inventing board games of astounding complexity, and who relished long discussions on a wide range of subjects. Their game ‘Risk’ involved railways, factories, manufacturing, and its own stock exchange, and took days of concentrated play to finish. A feudal game had dynasties and elaborate family trees. According to Michael Church, there was something that particularly intrigued Stephen about conjuring up these worlds and setting down the laws that governed them. John McClenahan’s father had a workshop where he allowed John and Stephen to construct model aeroplanes and boats, and Stephen later remarked that he liked ‘to build working models that I could control. Since I began my Ph.D., this need has been met by my research into cosmology. If you understand how the universe operates, you control it in a way.’ In a sense, Hawking’s grown-up models of the universe stand in relation to the ‘real’ universe in the same way his childhood model aeroplanes and boats stood in relation to real aeroplanes and boats. They give an agreeable, comforting feeling of control while, in actuality, representing no control at all.

Stephen was fifteen when he learned that the universe was expanding. This shook him. ‘I was sure there must be some mistake,’ he says. ‘A static universe seemed so much more natural. It could have existed and could continue to exist for ever. But an expanding universe would change with time. If it continued to expand, it would become virtually empty. That was disturbing.

Like many other teenagers of their generation, Stephen and his friends became fascinated with extrasensory perception (ESP). They tried to dictate the throw of dice with their minds. However, Stephen’s interest turned to disgust when he attended a lecture by someone who had investigated famous ESP studies at Duke University in the United States. The lecturer told his audience that whenever the experiments got results, the experimental techniques were faulty, and whenever the experimental techniques were not faulty, they got no results. Stephen concluded that ESP was a fraud. His scepticism about claims for psychic phenomena has not changed. To his way of thinking, people who believe such claims are stalled at the level where he was at the age of fifteen.

Ancestor of ‘Cosmos’

Probably the best of all the little group’s adventures and achievements and one that captured the attention and admiration of the entire town of St Albans was building a computer that they called LUCE (Logical Uniselector Computing Engine). Cobbled together out of recycled pieces of clocks and other mechanical and electrical items, including an old telephone switchboard, LUCE could perform simple mathematical functions. Unfortunately that teenage masterpiece no longer exists. Whatever remained of it was thrown away eventually when a new head of computing at St Albans went on a cleaning spree.

The most advanced version of LUCE was the product of Stephen’s and his friends’ final years of school before university. They were having to make hard choices about the future. Frank Hawking encouraged his son to follow him into medicine. Stephen’s sister Mary would do that, but Stephen found biology too imprecise to suit him. Biologists, he thought, observed and described things but didn’t explain them on a fundamental level. Biology also involved detailed drawings, and he wasn’t good at drawing. He wanted a subject in which he could look for exact answers and get to the root of things. If he’d known about molecular biology, his career might have been very different. At fourteen, particularly inspired by a teacher named Mr Tahta, he had decided that what he wanted to do was ‘mathematics, more mathematics, and physics’.

Stephen’s father insisted this was impractical. What jobs were there for mathematicians other than teaching? Moreover he wanted Stephen to attend his own college, University College, Oxford, and at ‘Univ’ one could not read mathematics. Stephen followed his father’s advice and began boning up on chemistry, physics and only a little maths, in preparation for entrance to Oxford. He would apply to Univ to study mainly physics and chemistry.

In 1959, during Stephen’s last year before leaving home for university, his mother Isobel and the three younger children accompanied Frank when he journeyed to India for an unusually lengthy research project. Stephen stayed in St Albans and lived for the year with the family of his friend Simon Humphrey. He continued to spend a great deal of time improving LUCE, though Dr Humphrey interrupted regularly to insist he write letters to his family something Stephen on his own would have happily neglected. But the main task of that year had to be studying for scholarship examinations coming up in March. It was essential that Stephen perform extremely well in these examinations if there was to be even an outside chance of Oxford’s accepting him.

Students who rank no higher than halfway up in their school class seldom get into Oxford unless someone pulls strings behind the scenes. Stephen’s lacklustre performance in school gave Frank Hawking plenty of cause to think he had better begin pulling strings. Stephen’s headmaster at St Albans also had his doubts about Stephen’s chances of acceptance and a scholarship, and he suggested Stephen might wait another year. He was young to be applying to university. The two other boys planning to take the exams with him were a year older. However, both headmaster and father had underestimated Stephen’s intelligence and knowledge, and his capacity to rise to a challenge. He achieved nearly perfect marks in the physics section of the entrance examinations. His interview at Oxford with the Master of University College and the physics tutor, Dr Robert Berman, went so well there was no question but that he would be accepted to read physics and be given a scholarship. A triumphant Stephen joined his family in India for the end of their stay.

Not a Grey Man

In October 1959, aged seventeen, Hawking went up to Oxford to enter University College, his father’s college. ‘Univ’ is in the heart of Oxford, on the High Street. Founded in 1249, it is the oldest of the many colleges that together make up the University. Stephen would study natural science, with an emphasis on physics. By this time he had come to consider mathematics not as a subject to be studied for itself but as a tool for doing physics and learning how the universe behaves. He would later regret that he had not exerted more effort mastering that tool.

Oxford’s architecture, like Cambridge’s, is a magnificent hodge-podge of every style since the Middle Ages. Its intellectual and social traditions predate even its buildings and, like those of any great university, are a mix of authentic intellectual brilliance, pretentious fakery, innocent tomfoolery and true decadence. For a young man interested in any of these, Stephen’s new environment had much to offer. Nevertheless, for about a year and a half, he was lonely and bored. Many students in his year were considerably older than he, not only because he had sat his examinations early but because others had taken time off for national service. He was not inspired to relieve his boredom by exerting himself academically. He had discovered he could get by better than most by doing virtually no studying at all.

Contrary to their reputation, Oxford tutorials are often not one-to-one but two or three students with one tutor. A young man named Gordon Berry became Hawking’s tutorial partner. They were two of only four physics students who entered Univ that Michaelmas (autumn) term of 1959. This small group of newcomers Berry, Hawking, Richard Bryan and Derek Powney spent most of their time together, somewhat isolated from the rest of the College.

It wasn’t until he was halfway through his second year that Stephen began enjoying Oxford. When Robert Berman describes him, it’s difficult to believe he’s speaking of the same Stephen Hawking who seemed so ordinary a few years earlier and so bored the previous year. ‘He did, I think, positively make an effort to sort of come down to the other students’ level and you know, be one of the boys. If you didn’t know about his physics and to some extent his mathematical ability, he wouldn’t have told you He was very popular.’ Others who remember Stephen in his second and third years at Oxford describe him as lively, buoyant and adaptable. He wore his hair long, was famous for his wit, and liked classical music and science fiction.

The attitude among most Oxford students in those days, Hawking remembers, was ‘very antiwork’: ‘You were supposed either to be brilliant without effort, or to accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a grey man, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.’ Stephen’s freewheeling, independent spirit and casual attitude towards his studies fitted right in. In a typical incident one day in a tutorial, after reading a solution he had worked out, he crumpled up the paper disdainfully and propelled it across the room into the wastepaper basket.

The physics curriculum, at least for someone with Hawking’s abilities, could be navigated successfully without rising above this blasé approach. Hawking described it as ‘ridiculously easy. You could get through without going to any lectures, just by going to one or two tutorials a week. You didn’t need to remember many facts, just a few equations.’ You could also, it seems, get through without spending very much time doing experiments in the laboratory. Gordon and he found ways to use shortcuts in taking data and fake parts of the experiments. ‘We just didn’t apply ourselves,’ remembers Berry. ‘And Steve was right down there in not applying himself.

Derek Powney tells the story of the four of them receiving an assignment having to do with electricity and magnetism. There were thirteen questions, and their tutor, Dr Berman, told them to finish as many as they could in the week before the next tutorial. At the end of the week Richard Bryan and Derek had managed to solve one and a half of the problems; Gordon only one. Stephen had not yet begun. On the day of the tutorial Stephen missed three morning lectures in order to work on the questions, and his friends thought he was about to get his comeuppance. His bleak announcement when he joined them at noon was that he had been able to solve only ten. At first they thought he was joking, until they realized he had done ten. Derek’s comment was that this was the moment Stephen’s friends recognized ‘that it was not just that we weren’t in the same street, we weren’t on the same planet’. ‘Even in Oxford, we must all have been remarkably stupid by his standards.’

His friends were not the only ones who sometimes found his intelligence impressive. Dr Berman and other dons were also beginning to recognize that Hawking had a brilliant mind, ‘completely different from his contemporaries’. ‘Undergraduate physics was simply not a challenge for him. He did very little work, really, because anything that was do-able he could do. It was only necessary for him to know something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it. Whether he had any books I don’t know, but he didn’t have very many, and he didn’t take notes. ‘l’m not conceited enough to think that I ever taught him anything.’ Another tutor called him the kind of student who liked finding mistakes in the textbooks better than working out the problems.

The Oxford physics course was scheduled in a way that made it easy not to see much urgent need for work. It was a three year course with no exams until the end of the third year. Hawking calculates he spent on the average about one hour per day studying: about one thousand hours in three years. ‘l’m not proud of this lack of work,’ he says. ‘l’m just describing my attitude at the time, which I shared with most of my fellow students: an attitude of complete boredom and feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for. One result of my illness has been to change all that: when you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.’

One major explanation why Stephen’s spirits improved dramatically in the middle of his second year was that he and Gordon Berry joined the college Boat Club. Neither of them was a hefty hunk of the sort who make the best rowers. But both were light, wiry, intelligent and quick, with strong, commanding voices, and these are the attributes that college boat clubs look for when recruiting a coxswain (cox) the person who sits looking forward, facing the line of four or eight rowers, and steers the boat with handles attached to the rudder. The position of cox is definitely a position of control, something that Hawking has said appealed to him with model boats, aeroplanes and universes, a man of slight build commanding eight muscle-men.

Stephen exerted himself far more on the river, rowing and coxing for Univ, than he did at his studies. One sure way to be part of the ‘in’ crowd at Oxford was to be a member of your college rowing team. If intense boredom and a feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for were the prevailing attitudes elsewhere, all that changed on the river. Rowers, coxes and coaches regularly assembled at the boathouse at dawn, even when there was a crust of ice on the river, to perform arduous calisthenics and lift the racing shell into the water. The merciless practice went on in all weather, up and down the river, coaches bicycling along the towpath exhorting their crews. On race days emotions ran high and crowds of rowdy well-wishers sprinted along the banks of the river to keep up with their college boats. There were foggy race days when boats appeared and vanished like ghosts, and drenching race days when water filled the bottom of the boat. Boat club dinners in formal dress in the college hall lasted late and ended in battles of winesoaked linen napkins.

All of it added up to a stupendous feeling of physical well-being, camaraderie, all-stops-out effort, and of living college life to the hilt. Stephen became a popular member of the boating crowd. At the level of intercollege competition he did well. He’d never before been good at a sport, and this was an exhilarating change. The College Boatsman of that era, Norman Dix, remembered him as an ‘adventurous type; you never knew quite what he was going to do’. Broken cars and damaged boats were not uncommon as Stephen steered tight corners and attempted to take advantage of narrow manoeuvring opportunities that other coxes avoided.

At the end of the third year, however, examinations suddenly loomed larger than any boat race. Hawking almost floundered. He’d settled on theoretical physics as his speciality. That meant a choice between two areas for graduate work: cosmology, the study of the very large; or elementary particles, the study of the very small. Hawking chose cosmology. ‘It just seemed that cosmology was more exciting, because it really did seem to involve the big question: Where did the universe come from?’

Fred Hoyle, the most distinguished British astronomer of his time, was at Cambridge. Stephen had become particularly enthusiastic about the idea of working with Hoyle when he took a summer course with one of Hoyle’s most outstanding graduate students, Jayant Narlikar. Stephen applied to do Ph.D. research at Cambridge and was accepted with the condition that he get a First from Oxford.

One thousand hours of study was meagre preparation for getting a First. However, an Oxford examination offers a choice from many questions and problems. Stephen was confident he could get through successfully by doing problems in theoretical physics and avoiding any questions that required knowledge of facts. As the examination day approached, his confidence faltered. He decided, as a fail-safe, to take the Civil Service exams and apply for a job with the Ministry of Works.

The night before his Oxford examinations Stephen was too nervous to sleep. The examination went poorly. He was to take the Civil Service exams the next morning, but he overslept and missed them. Now everything hung on his Oxford results.

As Stephen and his friends waited on tenterhooks for their results to be posted, only Gordon was confident he had done well in his examinations well enough for a First, he believed. Gordon was wrong. He and Derek received Seconds, Richard a disappointing Third. Stephen ended up disastrously on the borderline between a First and a Second.

Faced with a borderline result, the examiners summoned Hawking for a personal interview, a ‘viva’. They questioned him about his plans. In spite of the tenseness of the situation, with his future hanging in the balance, Stephen managed to come up with the kind of remark for which he was famous among his friends: ‘If I get a First, I shall go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I will remain at Oxford. So I expect that you will give me a First.’ He got his First. Dr Berman said of the examiners: ‘They were intelligent enough to realize they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves.’

That triumph notwithstanding, all was not well. Hawking’s adventures as a cox, his popularity, and his angst about his exams had pushed into the background a problem that he had first begun to notice that year and that refused to go away. ‘I seemed to be getting more clumsy, and I fell over once or twice for no apparent reason,’ he remembers. The problem had even invaded his halcyon existence on the river when he began to have difficulty sculling (rowing a one-man boat). During his final Oxford term, he tumbled down the stairs and landed on his head. His friends spent several hours helping him overcome a temporary loss of shortand long-term memory, insisted he go to a doctor to make sure no serious damage had been done, and encouraged him to take a Mensa intelligence test to prove to them and to himself that his mind was not affected. All seemed well, but they found it difficult to believe that his fall had been a simple accident.

There was indeed something amiss, though not as a result of his tumble and not with his mind. That summer, on a trip he and a friend took to Persia (now Iran), he became seriously ill, probably from a tourist stomach problem or a reaction to the vaccines required for the trip. It was a harrowing journey in other ways, more harrowing for his family back home than for Stephen. They lost touch with him for three weeks, during which time there was a serious earthquake in the area where he was travel ling. Stephen, as it turned out, had been so ill and riding on such a bumpy bus that he didn’t notice the earthquake at all.

He finally got back home, depleted and unwell. Later there would be speculation about whether a non-sterile smallpox vaccination prior to the trip had caused his illness in Persia and also his ALS, but the latter had, in fact, begun earlier. Nevertheless, because of his illness in Persia and the increasingly troubling symptoms he was experiencing, Stephen arrived at Cambridge a more unsettled and weaker twenty-year-old than he had been at Oxford the previous spring. He moved into Trinity Hall for the Michaelmas term in the autumn of 1962.

During the summer before Stephen left for Cambridge, Jane Wilde saw him while she was out walking with her friends in St Albans. He was a ‘young man with an awkward gait, his head down, his face shielded from the world under an unruly mass of straight brown hair immersed in his own thoughts, looking neither right nor left lolloping along in the opposite direction’. Jane’s friend Diana King, sister of Stephen’s friend Basil King, astonished her friends by telling them that she had gone out with him. ‘He’s strange but very clever. He took me to the theatre once. He goes on Ban the Bomb marches.“



Stephen Hawking. His Life And Work

by Kitty Ferguson

get it at

THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE by JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES, C.B. Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge – Introduction. 

A warning for our times. 

The writer of this book was temporarily attached to the British Treasury during the Great War and was their official representative at the Paris Peace Conference up to June 7, 1919; he also sat as deputy for the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Supreme Economic Council.

He resigned from these positions when it became evident that hope could no longer be entertained of substantial modification in the draft Terms of Peace.

The grounds of his objection to the Treaty, or rather to the whole policy of the Conference towards the economic problems of Europe, will appear in the following chapters.

They are entirely of a public character, and are based on facts known to the whole world.

J.M. Keynes. King’s College, Cambridge, November, 1919.



The power to become habituated to his surroundings is a marked characteristic of mankind. Very few of us realize with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organization by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century.
On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began, by a Peace which, if it is carried into effect, must impair yet further, when it might have restored, the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves and live.
Perhaps it is only in England and America that it is possible to be so unconscious.
In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or “labor troubles”; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.

In this lies the destructive significance of the Peace of Paris.
If the European Civil War is to end with France and Italy abusing their momentary victorious power to destroy Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate, they invite their own destruction also, being so deeply and inextricably intertwined with their victims by hidden psychic and economic bonds.

The British people received the Treaty without reading it. But it is under the influence of Paris, not London, that this book has been written by one who, though an Englishman, feels himself a European also, and, because of too vivid recent experience, cannot disinterest himself from the further unfolding of the great historic drama of these days which will destroy great institutions, but may also create a new world.


1919 – Keynes predicts economic chaos

At the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, Germany signs the Treaty of Versailles with the Allies, officially ending World War I. The English economist John Maynard Keynes, who had attended the peace conference but then left in protest of the treaty, was one of the most outspoken critics of the punitive agreement. In his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in December 1919, Keynes predicted that the stiff war reparations and other harsh terms imposed on Germany by the treaty would lead to the financial collapse of the country, which in turn would have serious economic and political repercussions on Europe and the world.

In January 1919, John Maynard Keynes traveled to the Paris Peace Conference as the chief representative of the British Treasury. The brilliant 35-year-old economist had previously won acclaim for his work with the Indian currency and his management of British finances during the war. In Paris, he sat on an economic council and advised British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, but the important peacemaking decisions were out of his hands, and President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wielded the real authority. Germany had no role in the negotiations deciding its fate, and lesser Allied powers had little responsibility in the drafting of the final treaty.

The treaty that began to emerge was a thinly veiled Carthaginian Peace, an agreement that accomplished Clemenceau’s hope to crush France’s old rival. According to its terms, Germany was to relinquish 10 percent of its territory. It was to be disarmed, and its overseas empire taken over by the Allies. Most detrimental to Germany’s immediate future, however, was the confiscation of its foreign financial holdings and its merchant carrier fleet. The German economy, already devastated by the war, was thus further crippled, and the stiff war reparations demanded ensured that it would not soon return to its feet. A final reparations figure was not agreed upon in the treaty, but estimates placed the amount in excess of $30 billion, far beyond Germany’s capacity to pay. Germany would be subject to invasion if it fell behind on payments.

Keynes, horrified by the terms of the emerging treaty, presented a plan to the Allied leaders in which the German government be given a substantial loan, thus allowing it to buy food and materials while beginning reparations payments immediately. Lloyd George approved the “Keynes Plan,” but President Wilson turned it down because he feared it would not receive congressional approval. In a private letter to a friend, Keynes called the idealistic American president “the greatest fraud on earth.” On June 5, 1919, Keynes wrote a note to Lloyd George informing the prime minister that he was resigning his post in protest of the impending “devastation of Europe.”

“If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the later German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation.”

This Day In History 

Fidel Castro was a ‘champion of social justice’ despite obvious flaws. 

As the US embarked on a decades-long attempt at destabilisation, Castro’s fight for survival became synonymous with his country’s battle for autonomy.

Many on the left of British politics feared that the CIA was intent on regime change across Central and South America, and started to champion the Caribbean island and its charismatic leader, whose influence and appeal grew with each day that he remained in power.

“Fidel himself became a beacon of resistance, demonstrating that there was the possibility for a small people to win their power and hold on to their power despite every possible provocation and blockade. The fact that Cuba still stood independent despite the deprivations is a real, lasting legacy.

Today, people are looking for alternatives, something different, and the relevance of the politics – socialism, if you like – in the Cuba embodied by Fidel, by Che, is becoming more interesting to people. They’re fed up with the current political infrastructure, which doesn’t really empower most people to play an active part within their societies. At a time of austerity, people will look for alternatives, and Cuba is one of those alternatives. I’m not saying it’s the only one or the best one, but it’s one we can look at.” – Rob Miller

“Although responsible for indefensible human rights and free speech abuses, Castro created a society of unparalleled access to free health, education and equal opportunity despite an economically throttling US siege. His troops inflicted the first defeat on South Africa’s troops in Angola in 1988, a vital turning point in the struggle against apartheid.” – Lord Hain

“Fidel Castro’s death marks the passing of a huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th-century socialism, for all his flaws Castro will be remembered as an internationalist and a champion of social justice.” – Jeremy Corbyn 

“Of course, Fidel did things that were wrong. Initially he wasn’t very good on lesbian and gay rights, but the key things that mattered was that people had a good education, good healthcare, and wealth was evenly distributed. He was not living as a billionaire laundering money off into a Panamanian bank account or anything like that – he was good for the people.” – Ken Livingstone

The Guardian 

Celia Lashlie Documentary Film: Research and pre-production – Givealittle. 

New Zealand has the worst domestic violence record in the world. Last year 13 babies and toddlers were killed by their parents or step parents. Domestic and child abuse is estimated to cost the country $7billion (2014). The statistics show no sign of an improvement. Yet, Celia Lashlie had the vision, the international credibility and the determination to change all that with her simple message to the world: “Turn to the mothers.” 
It’s only by working with the mothers that we will get to save the lives of these children.

Working with Helen. 

Helen was not a power freak. Power freaks are everywhere, I can usually spot them a mile off and I can’t work with them. Helen liked the Labour Party and that was a difference between us, but she never played power games with me. I felt free and trusted, so I naturally wanted to do a good job. The Standard 

Helen Kelly – a fearless campaigner and a fine New Zealander. 

Helen Kelly, the trade unionist who died yesterday after a brave and public battle with cancer, never shirked a fight.

She campaigned tirelessly for safe workplaces, advocated vigorously for women’s rights and employment equity, and was always willing to embrace unpopular causes and confront sacred cows.

Her courage made her a valuable asset to the union movement, and gave workers’ groups political momentum when their ranks thinned through economic change and workplace transformation.

Her qualities earned her respect too from those on the other side of the negotiating table because employers and industry leaders came to recognise a woman with fierce intelligence and tactical skill.

Kelly’s style favoured issues over individuals. “I’m just not into these personality politics,” she told the Weekend Herald this year during a break in treatment for her incurable cancer. “I think values matter.” NZ Herald 

Tractors cross the finish line for Sir Ed’s hut. 

Three tractors on a journey to raise money for the conservation of Sir Edmund Hillary’s hut in Antarctica have made it to the finish line.

The Expedition South team collected donations towards the $1 million needed for the hut between leaving Piha Beach on August 23 and arriving in Mt Cook village about 2pm on Monday.

“Being president isn’t anything like reality TV.” Michelle Obama

Her full speech at George Mason University. YouTube

Helen Kelly’s painful month without cannabis

Helen is taking morphine every four hours to manage the pain. The former Council of Trade Unions president took her fight against terminal lung cancer to Cuba and the United State in August, in search of a miracle treatment. Stuff

You’ll never have perfection amongst humans. Barack has been up there with the Greatest.