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11 JULY, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers, Part 2

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From life before birth to living with death, or what marine life has to do with global equality.

With TED Global a mere 24 hours way, it’s time for the second part of this year’s reading list of books by TED Global speakers, a continuation of the first installment of five featured here last month. Here are five more powerhouses of cognitive stimulation for your vicarious TED experience, spanning everything from philosophy to economics to marine biology.

ORIGINS

We’ve previously pondered the grand questions of what makes us human and what makes us uniquely us. But most inquiries into these existential fundamentals have focused on insights from life after birth — after the commonly agreed upon marker for our entry into selfhood and the world. And yet there’s an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that our selves begin before our first breath. That’s precisely what Annie Murphy Paul explores in Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives — a fascinating journey into the emerging science of epigenetics and how it has changed medicine’s understanding of pregnancy and even psychology’s understanding of self, blending equal parts scientific rigor and human tenderness.

An excerpt from the book was a TIME cover story last year and The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof rightfully called it a “terrific and important new book.”

[P]regnancy is now something it’s never been before: a frontier. The nine months of gestation are at the leading edge of scientists’ efforts to cure disease; to improve public health; to end vicious cycles of poverty, infirmity, and illness; and to initiate virtuous cycles of health, strength, and stability. Life on a frontier can be nerve-wracking, no question — but it’s also among the most interesting and invigorating places to spend your time.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Engrossing and deeply enlightening, Origins tackles the age-old mystery of what makes us who we are with a compelling new vision for our beginnings at the intersection of science, philosophy and personal memoir.

THE SPIRIT LEVEL

How come some of the world’s most “developed” nations are also among the most dysfunctional? The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson explores the multitude of social problems that income inequality creates, but rather than a somber meditation on the statistics — like, for instance, the high positive correlation between income disparity and homicide, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness and high school dropout rates — at the heart of the book lies an empathic belief in the human ability to transcend self-interest, framed in a set of practical propositions for closing the equality gap.

The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggest that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Above all, The Spirit Level is the vessel for a powerful political message and a tremendously important call for social action, made all the more compelling by the crisp writing, meticulously culled evidence and remarkable timeliness of the issue.

CENSUS OF MARINE LIFE

Last fall, the world witnessed its very first Census of Marine Life — an ambitious global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. In Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count, Paul Snelgrove explores the most dramatic and fascinating findings of the census, how new technologies and partnerships have enabled a richer understanding of the world’s oceans, and what humanity needs to do in the future to honor and conserve wondrous worlds that live beneath the ocean’s surface. At the heart of the book are the stories, manuscripts, imagery and ideas of the dozens of scientists involved.

Snelgrove’s presence on the TED stage is a fine reflection of TED’s continued commitment to marine sustainability and ocean conservation.

The Census of Marine Life is a different intellectual enterprise. Disregarding many objections from Mainstream Road, the leaders of the initiative used a metaphor to rally the interest of the relevant scienti?c community: to conduct a Census of marine life, an impossible task sensu strictu. By choosing an extremely broad subject, the living ocean, and setting a research vector, or direction, to count and account for the living in the ocean, the founders were able to form a community of researchers with quite disparate research interests and objectives, to weave a delicate fabric of research topics that brought together the main ingredients of scienti?c discovery: deploying new technologies, poking through disciplinary boundaries, transporting knowledge produced in one ?eld to another, attacking simultaneously the small and the large and the extremely large scales usually unavailable to single teams of scientists. Using as an epistemic Occam’s razor the distinction between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable, they collectively and systematically selected a limited number of bets to maximize results. This book demonstrates unreservedly their success.” ~ Paul Snelgrove

With dozens of breathtaking full-color photographs and glimpses of previously unknown species, convoluted migration routes and otherworldly habitats, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life explores the ocean with equal parts urgency, poeticism and enthusiasm, stimulating, illuminating and enchanting at the same time, leaving you with a newfound respect and profound love for the extraordinary universe of life beneath the surface.

POST-SECULAR PHILOSOPHY

Last week, we explored 7 essential books on faith and spirituality. But where does philosophy fit into the conversation? The Western philosophical tradition, with its insistence on the secular, has remained largely wary, of not dismissive, of religion. In Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology, Phillip Blond gathers 15 essays distilling how iconic philosophers like Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida have placed God at the center of their thinking. Blond — who in the 13 years since the book’s publications has become a leading British political theorist, the mastermind behind David Cameron’s “Big Society” concept — pens a poignant introduction to the anthology, discussing the broader role of theology in secular philosophy and the often conflicted relationship between the two.

[I]t is a classical and cardinal point that the utterly dissimilar would have great difficulty in attaining any knowledge of one another, for mutual knowledge can only be achieved if ‘like is known by like.'” ~ Phillip Blond

Though the writing is anything but light and at times fringes on academia’s most prolix, the volume’s broad lens and sharp focus make it a powerful and read-worthy synthesis of the Western philosophical tradition’s tortured yet fascinating relationship with theology and religion.

Blond’s most recent book, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is being released in the US in 2012 as Radical Republic and reworked with an international focus. Blond is the opening speaker for this year’s TED Global.

FINAL EXAM

Facing mortality is hard enough for us ordinary people, but it’s particularly challenging for medical parctitioners, whose very mission in life is so profoundly antithetical to the concept of death. That’s exactly what transplant surgeon Pauline Chen examines in Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. From her first dissection of a human cadaver to the first time she pronounced a patient dead to having to face taking responsibility for the accidental death of a patient in her care, Chen uses profound personal anecdotes as the linchpin to a deeper discussion of mortality in the context of medicine, but also in the broader context of human existence.

There is an essential paradox in medicine: a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes the dying.” ~ Pauline Chen

Beautifully written, passionately argued and lined with equal parts humility and dignity, Final Exam is poetry for medicine, equally thought-provoking for those in the medical profession as it is for those of us in the profession of merely living with the diagnosis of the human condition.

If you missed the first part of this year’s TED Global reading list or last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

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08 JULY, 2011

Polymorphic Computing, Explained in Vintage Stop-Motion (1959)

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What wooden boxes and stick figures have to do with predicting the future of the social web.

Though the world didn’t see its first polymorphic computer until 2007, the concept of “polymorphic computing” predates it by nearly half a century. In this lovely stop-motion animation from 1959, found on The Internet Archive and now in the public domain, John Salzer illustrates the principles of polymorphic computing, first outlined by technology pioneer Simon Ramo, and, in the process, presages subsequent landmarks in the evolution of technology, from parallel processing to peer-to-peer filesharing to cloud computing to the very architecture of the Internet — a striking case of two contemporary fixations, the social web and stop-motion animation, converging long before either had reached critical cultural mass.

This is distributed control, distributed memory, distributed arithmetics, distributed everything. And it makes sense. Because now more than one guy can be using the system at the same time.”

Also curious to note is how cluelessly reflective the film is of the fundamental biases of the era, what with its male-centricity (hey there, computing “guys”) and its analogies to the telephone as the base-level, universal standard for communication.

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07 JULY, 2011

The Dawn of Computer Music: A PBS Segment from 1986

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A brief history of MIDI, or what the dawn of digital sampling has to do with air pressure.

The question of whether technology dehumanizes people, as MoMA’s Paola Antonelli convincingly argues, humanizes objects isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the heart of this vintage PBS segment (I II III) on computer music recorded in 1986, at the dawn of CDs, synthesizers and other “new” music-making machines, voicing the inevitable question that every technological innovation brings:

Is high technology depersonalizing music or, instead, is music serving to humanize the machine?”

From how computers must recreate the complex waveforms of physical instruments to what role the composer’s choice plays in technology-assisted music to the intricacies of the then-emergent art of digital sampling, the segment, featuring legendary music historian Max Matthews, encompasses some early concerns about man and machine as collaborative creators, many of which have endured through waves of technological innovation to remain at the forefront of our philosophical and practical concerns today.

It’s been predicted that the personal computer will soon replace the piano as the primary instrument on which children learn music.”

(Alas, in classic digi-douchery fashion, the uploader has disabled embedding — catch the three parts here: I II III.)

Sound is a series of vibrations transmitted by air pressure. A computer hooked up to an amplifier and speaker can create sound merely by switching on and off, causing a vibration in the form of an electrical current. If these on-off vibrations are frequent enough, they sound like musical notes.”

Published the following year and of equal fascination is Foundations of Computer Music — an excellent primer on the profound shifts in music consumption and production that took place in that era, mixed in with a healthy dose of paleofuture amusement.

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07 JULY, 2011

Ordering the Heavens: A Visual History of Mapping the Universe

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From Copernicus to Ancient Korea, or what the Chinese concept of change has to do with Aztec astrology.

The love of maps is a running theme here at Brain Pickings, from these 7 must-read books on creative cartography to, most recently, BBC’s fantastic documentary on important medieval maps. Humanity’s long history of visual sensemaking is as much a source of timeless inspiration as a living record of how our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it evolved. It seems like the farther from the known mapmakers’ imaginations traveled, the more fascinating their maps became. And hardly does the unknown glimmer with more alluring sparkle than the cosmos. Explaining and Ordering the Heavens is a fantastic online exhibition from The Library of Congress, examining over 8 centuries of humanity’s evolving views of the universe, from ancient Buddhist cosmological maps to Galileo’s seminal work in astronomy to Persian celestial globes and more. Gathered here is a curated selection of images from the exhibition, alongside the original caption text accompanying them.

The Emperor's Astronomy

Petrus Apianus. Astronomicum Caesareum. (The Emperor's Astronomy). Ingolstadt, Germany: 1540.

The 'Emperor's Astronomy'(dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) elegantly depicts the cosmos and heavens according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. By means of hand-colored maps and moveable paper parts (volvelles), Petrus Apianus (1495-1552) laid out the mechanics of a universe that was earth- and human-centered. Within three years of Apianus's book, this view was challenged by Copernicus's assertion that the earth revolved around the sun, making this elaborate publication outdated.

Popular Sixteenth-Century Scientific Work

Petrus Apianus and Gemma Frisius. Cosmographia, Petri Apiani. additis euisdem argumenti libellis ipsius Gemmaa Frisii. (Cosmographia of Petrus Apianus,carefully corrected and with all errors set to right by Gemma Frisius.) Antwerp: Arnoldi Birckmanni, 1564.

Cosmographia (1524) by German mathematician Petrus Apianus (1492-1552) provides a layman's introduction to subjects such as astronomy, geography, cartography, surveying, navigation, and mathematical instruments. In this popular edition with changes by another noted mathematician, Gemma Frisius (1508-1555), movable paper instruments (volvelles) enabled readers to solve calendar problems and find the positions of the sun, moon, and the planets. Apianus depicted the cosmos according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, a theory challenged by Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) in Apianus's lifetime.

A Heliocentric Cosmos

Nicolaus Copernicus. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI. Nuremberg: Ioh. Petreius, 1543.

This volume is the first edition of the work that set forth evidence that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Written by Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and published just before his death, the work was met by tremendous opposition because it contradicted religious beliefs of the time. The Copernican views provided the basis for the later work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Ancient Chinese Concept of Change

The Astronomical Phenomena. (Tien Yuan Fa Wei). Compiled by Bao Yunlong in the 13th century. Ming Dynasty edition, 1457-1463.

The book is an explanation of the 'Ba Gua' used in the Yi-ching (I Ching or Classic of Changes, also known as the Book of Divination). According to this Chinese world view, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles--yin and yang. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and five associated agents, which affect the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change.

Earth-Centered Universe View

William Cuningham. 'Coelifer Atlas' from The Cosmographical Glasse. London: John Day, 1559.

This illustration from William Cuningham's The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) represents Ptolemy's conception of the universe. Atlas, dressed like an ancient king, bears on his shoulders an armillary sphere representing the universe. In the center of the sphere is earth, made up of the elements of earth and water. Surrounding the earth are two more elemental spheres, for air and for fire. Other bands represent the spheres of the planets, the firmament of fixed stars, the crystalline sphere, the primum mobile, and the signs of the zodiac. Below Atlas are lines on cosmological themes from Virgil's Aeneid.

Descartes's Mechanical Philosophy

René Descartes. Principia philosophiae. Amsterdam: Apud L. Elzevirium, 1644.

According to French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the universe operated as a continuously running machine which God had set in motion. Since he rejected Newton's theory of gravity and idea of a vacuum in space, Descartes argued that instead the universe was composed of a 'subtle matter' he named 'plenum,' which swirled in vortices like whirlpools and actually moved the planets by contact. Here, these vortices carry the planets around the Sun.

First Atlas of the Moon

Johannes Hevelius. Selenographia sive lunae descriptio, atque accurata tum macularum eius, quam motuum diversorum. Danzig: Hunefeldianis, 1647.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Picturing the Universe

Konrad von Megenberg, Buch der Natur (Book of Nature). Augsberg: Johannes Bämler, 1481.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Buddhist Cosmological Map

Sekai dais no zu (Buddhist Cosmological Map). Japan: 1830

This map represents the Buddhist mythological and real worlds. The upper half of the map depicts the seven great forests interwoven with seven rivers, the Sun God Palace, and the 'Great Jambu Tree.' The tree is described as 10,000 miles high and bearing the most delicious fruits. Only those who cultivated the divine power can visit the tree. The central section is the Sun God Palace in heaven.

Traditional Korean Maps

Chonhado (World Map) from Chonha Chido (Map of the World).Hand-copied manuscript map. Korea: mid-eighteenth century.

From the oldest known examples (perhaps from the sixteenth century) to almost the end of the tradition in the nineteenth century, the content and structure of traditional Korean maps such as these examples changed very little. The map of the world (or Chonhado) presents Korea, China, and their East Asian neighbors surrounded by rings of exotic, mythical lands and peoples and reflects the traditional Korean view that the world was flat. Being a peninsula, Korea stood out on the map and was close to China, the classical center of Asian civilization.

Tibetan Astrological Thangka

Srid pa ho (Divination Chart). Tibet, late twentieth century. Paint on cloth.

Tibetan astrology depicts the signs and symbols of the universe in this traditional format, possibly introduced from China as early as the seventh century and popular in Tibet since the seventeenth century. The central figure is a large golden tortoise, representing the Bodhisattva of Knowledge, upon whom are drawn various geomantic diagrams, such as the nine magic squares and symbols of the eight planets. This type of Thangka is often hung in homes for protection and displayed for special occasions.

Constellations from Classical Antiquity

Reiner Ottens. Atlas maior cvm generales omnivm totius orbis regnorvm. Amsterdam: 1729. Hand-colored engraving.

The star charts of Reiner Ottens (1698-1750) were intended first and foremost as a feast for the eye and had no pretensions to scientific precision or the presentation of the most recent cartographic information. The constellations on this chart are elaborately represented by figures from classical antiquity. In the corners of the chart are illustrations of four European observatories, including that of the noted sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). This atlas is a seven-volume compendium of assembled-to-order star charts and geographical maps.

Aztec Calendar Stone

Antonio de León y Gama. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras. Mexico City: F. Zuniga y Ontiveros, 1792.

In 1790 workers repaving near the Cathedral in Mexico City discovered a stone eleven and one-half feet in diameter inscribed with the Aztec calendar. When in use, the stone would have had bright polychrome colors and would have held sacrificed human hearts that the Aztecs believed were needed to feed the sun and keep civilization alive. This first study (pictured to the left) of the stone explained its 260-day divinatory cycle. The stone's colossal size, elaborate patterning, and symbolic imagery have made it an unofficial emblem of Mexico.

Omens in the Sun

Burmese astronomical-astrological manuscript, mid-nineteenth century. Accordion-style paper manuscript.

This manuscript of the mid-nineteenth century, possibly of Sgau Karen origin (the Karen are a minority people in the mountainous parts of Burma), shows various appearances in the sun, the moon, clouds, etc., and indicates the primarily bad omens these appearances foretell. Explanations in English were added to this manuscript by a nineteenth-century American missionary.

Astronomy Cards

Jehoshaphat Aspin. A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy. London, 1825.

An unidentified lady, referred to by her nom-de-plume, Jehoshaphat Aspin, designed these whimsical astronomy cards. Most of the names of the zodiacal constellations date from the early Babylonian period, possibly from the Sumerians. The zodiac itself is a mathematical concept, which does not appear to be in use prior to 400 B.C. It provides a frame of reference in which the positions of the sun, moon, and planets could be expressed by their angular distance from the beginning of the sign in which they were located.

See more gems in the Library of Congress online exhibition. You can read more about how the exhibition was envisioned, curated and brought to life here.

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