Brain Pickings

Some of Today’s Hottest Scientific Mysteries, Illustrated by Some of Today’s Coolest Artists

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A beautiful celebration of the unknown at the intersection of art and science.

As a lover of the intersection of art and science, I find myself more excited about The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (public library) than I’ve been about a book in ages. In this gem, as intellectually stimulating as it is visually stunning, creative trifecta Julia Rothman ( ), Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe, better-known as Also Online, invite some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.

The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.

Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:

With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.

The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:

Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:

Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.

What existed before the big bang?

Illustrated by Josh Cochran

Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:

[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”

How does gravity work?

Illustrated by The Heads of State

In one of the more elegant explanations of the Higgs boson, often referred to — to the annoyance of some — as the “god” particle, Albert de Roeck writes:

The Higgs boson*, sometimes also called by its more complete name the Higgs-Brout-Englert boson, is a hypothetical massive elementary particle predicted to exist in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is the best theory we have to date in particle physics that describes the interactions between elementary particles. However, the problem with the Standard Model (without a Higgs field) is that, in order for it to work, all elementary particles would have to be massless. Since we know that particles have mass, we know that the Standard Model without an additional mechanism to give mass to particles is incomplete. Hence, the Higgs field is the name we give to the field which does the job of imparting mass to particles. And, since a field cannot exist without a matching particle, that gives us the Higgs boson.

What is the 'god' particle?

Illustrated by Jordin Isip

Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:

The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.

What is dark matter?

Illustrated by Betsy Walton

Equal parts delightful and illuminating, The Where, the Why, and the How is the kind of treat bound to tickle your brain from both sides.

* Earlier this year, likely after the book went to print, scientists at CERN (sort of) confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

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