Brain Pickings

Author Archive

23 FEBRUARY, 2012

Systematic Wonder: A Definition of Science That Accounts for Whimsy

By:

On “the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free.”

We march through the world armed with intuition and rationality to conquer the unknown, the two in near-constant friction in a culture that frames them as opposing forces. We turn to science and the scientific method as the ultimate bastion of rationality in our quest for Truth. But science isn’t merely reason, science is culture. It’s a poetic and practical sensemaking mechanism for the universe and our place in it, the totality of whose machinery is greater than the sum of its logical parts. In this poignant short excerpt from A General Theory of Love, one of the 5 essential books on the psychology of love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon eloquently capture that elusive, often intentionally dismissed, but wildly important aspect of science that embraces intuition and imagination:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity

By:

How an early-twentieth-century French banker shaped your favorite Instagram filters.

In 1909, millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn decided to enlist the era’s burgeoning photographic technology in a mission far greater than aesthetic fetishism, and set out to use the new autochrome — the world’s first true color photographic process, invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907 — to produce a color photographic record of human life on Earth as a way of promoting peace and fostering cross-cultural understanding. For Kahn, photography was a way of cataloging the human “tribes” of the world and constructing a vibrant, colorful quilt of our shared humanity.

Over the next two decades, until he was ruined by The Great Depression, Kahn dispatched a crew of photographers to more than 50 countries around the world, shooting over 100 hours of film footage and 72,000 images in what became the most important and influential collection of early color photographs of all time. Yet, for decades, the collection — which spanned everything from religious rituals to cultural customs to watershed political events — remained virtually unknown, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.

In The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, BBC tells the story of Kahn’s ambitious project and its monumental legacy, exploring how his collection and vision came to shape everything from the visual vocabulary of photojournalism to your favorite Instagram filters.

Marne, France

Paris, France

Finistère, France

Norway

Sweden

Greece

Macedonia

Switzerland

Turkey

Serbia

Greece

Montenegro

India

India

India

Mongolia

Mongolia

India

Vietnam

Syria

Djibouti

Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)

Vietnam

This excerpt from the BBC program on Kahn, on which The Dawn of the Color Photograph is based, takes a fascinating look at how Kahn’s photographs helped frame the Balkans — my homeland — as the layered, multifaceted set of cultures they were, rather than the lump-sum caricature the world had seen them as after the fall of the Ottoman Empire:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Disappearing Bicyclist: A Vintage Puzzle to Tickle Your Brain

By:

“Which boy has vanished? Where did he go?”

Chess player Sam Loyd (1841-1911) had a knack for mind-bending puzzles, which his New York Times obituary described as “a real gift… for the fantastic in mathematical science.” Among his most famous feats was a vanishment puzzle titled Get Off the Earth. It depicted a rectangular background, topped with a circular card — the “world” — which could be rotated. Along the rim of the circle sit 13 Chinese men. When the world is oriented with the large arrow pointing to the North East, you could count 13 men. But when you turned the Earth slightly so that the arrow pointed to the North West, there were suddenly only 12 men.

This decidedly less racist version of the puzzle, known as The Disappearing Bicyclist, offers the same intentional discombobulation:

Turn the disc so the arrow points to A — and count 13 boys. Then move the arrow to B — and there are only 12 boys in view.

Which boy has vanished? Where did he go?

The genius of Loyd’s puzzle? Each of the many bodyparts — arms, legs, heads, flags — has tiny slivers missing. When the disc rotates, these slices get ever so slightly rearranged, so that each boy gains a part from his neighbor — a clever puzzle, certainly, but also a playfully poetic reminder that our perception of reality is but a function of our angle, and that everything is connected to everything else.

Find more such delightful discombobulators in The Universal Book of Mathematics: From Abracadabra to Zeno’s Paradoxes and the 1959 Loyd original Mathematical Puzzles of Sam Loyd.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.