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17 AUGUST, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Scientists on God, Part 2

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What uniform motion has to do with religion, or what Galileo can teach us about consciousness.

Last month, we watched 50 famous academics discuss God in a mashup video by British neurosurgeon Jonathan T. Pararajasingham, a fine addition to the ongoing conversation on science vs. religion and the psychology of faith. Now, Pararajasingham is back with a sequel mashup, featuring another 50 renowned academics, including Brain Pickings frequents Michio Kaku, Sean Carroll, V.S. Ramachandran, and Jonathan Haidt.

If you believe that the truth lies in strange scrolls, dug up by somewhere or other, written by someone, then there’s no logical counter to that.” ~ Sir Richard Friend

The sausage party in order of appearance:

51. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
52. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
53. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
54. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
55. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
56. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
57. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
58. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
59. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
60. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
61. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
62. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
63. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
64. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
65. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
66. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
67. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
68. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
69. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
70. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
71. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
72. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
73. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
74. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
75. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
76. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
77. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
78. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
79. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
80. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
81. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
82. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
83. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
84. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
85. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
86. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
87. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
88. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
89. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
90. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
91. Saul Perlmutter, World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
92. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
93. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
94. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
95. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
96. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
97. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
98. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
99. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
100. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist

For more on the subject, see BBC’s excellent documentary, The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion.

HT Open Culture

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17 AUGUST, 2011

Portraits of Cultural Icons by 80 of the World’s Top Illustrators

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What Stephen Hawking’s eyebrows have to do with Amy Winehouse and the artist as a storyteller.

Hardly does the responsibility of art get more intricate than in portraiture, with its expectation of capturing a person’s entire character and history with a few strokes of the proverbial brush. We’ve recently looked at Platon’s powerful portraits of political leaders and Noma Bar’s brilliant negative-space illustrated portraits of cultural icons. Today, we turn to Illustration Now! Portraits — a stunning new showcase of illustrated portraits by over 80 of the world’s most exciting artists, culled from Taschen‘s previously published Illustration Now! volumes, in addition to exclusive and unpublished work. The lavish 400-page tome spans a remarkable range of media, from ink and watercolor to collage to digital illustration, and covers a wide spectrum of styles, from the minimalist to the hyperrealistic to the grotesque and beyond.

What makes the project particularly interesting is that it’s essentially a visual meditation on the changing role of portraiture in an age where the barrier of entry for photography is at an all-time low and photographic portraits are technically accessible to just about anyone, making yesteryear’s gold standard of photographic accuracy no longer the merit metric for what makes a good portrait. Instead, a new creative meritocracy has emerged, pushing artists to differentiate themselves through unique styles, techniques and points of view in how they capture their subjects.

Miles Davis by Jorge Arevalo

Elijah Wood by Jorge Arevalo

Amy Winehouse by Jorje Arevalo

Rihanna by Pablo Lobato

Albert Einstein by Pablo Lobato

Stephen Hawking by Havoch Piven

Keith Richards by Havoch Piven

Borat by Havoch Piven

Precious by Tavis Coburn

Avatar by Tavis Coburn

Frida Kahlo by Montse Bernal

The anthology is also a study in the evolution of our culture’s narrative on faces and ideals. As editor Julius Wiedemann points out,

Editors and advertisers once demanded that illustrators idealize the face and figure, thus codifying an aesthetic of universal beauty. In Western society, that meant white, ethnically cleansed portraits of pretty or handsome models. Today portraits come in the proverbial all shapes and sizes, styles and mannerisms, colors and hues. They seem to be more honest and arguably today’s illustration is more in our face.”

Visually stunning and creatively stimulating, Illustration Now! Portraits is a coffeetable museum of our era’s expectations regarding faces, both of the artist’s role as a storyteller and of our collective response to the icons and personalities portrayed.

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17 AUGUST, 2011

The Stanford Prison Experiment: History’s Most Controversial Psychology Study Turns 40

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Insights on identity and the aberrations of authority from the most notorious psychology experiment of all time.

Forty years ago today, the Stanford Prison Experiment began — arguably history’s most notorious and controversial psychology experiment, which gleaned powerful and unsettling insights into human nature. Orchestrated by Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo, the study randomly assigned 24 middle-class college-aged males, recruited via newspaper classifieds and pre-screened to have no mental health issues or criminal history, to the roles of prisoners and prison guards in a hyper-realistic simulated prison environment. Though the guards were instructed to under no circumstances harm the prisoners physically, they were encouraged to think of themselves as actual prison guards and instill in the inmates a sense of powerlessness, frustration and “arbitrariness,” to make them fully believe that their lives were controlled entirely by “the system” and that they had no freedom of action whatsoever.

What followed was a devastating manifestation of the human capacity for cruelty and evil, so powerful and dehumanizing that the researchers had to end the two-week experiment after the sixth day. What’s most striking about the study is that all the participants were “normal” young men, yet they came to identify with their assigned roles so deeply that their behavior and entire personalities morphed to unrecognizable extremes, molded after the expectations of the respective role.

The study makes a very profound point about the power of situations — that situations affect us much more than we think, that human behavior is much more under the control of subtle situational forces, in some cases very trivial ones, like rules and roles and symbols and uniforms, and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits than we ordinarily think as determining behavior.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

Quiet Rage is a fascinating 1992 documentary about the SPE, written by Zimbardo himself and featuring archival footage of the actual experiment as well as interviews with the prisoners and guards conducted shortly after the study’s premature end. The 50-minute film is available online in its entirety — prepare to be hopelessly uncomfortable with both the experiment itself and the debriefing, which starts at around minute 32.

I really thought I was incapable of this kind of behavior, I was really dismayed that…I could act in a manner so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would ever really dream of doing. And while I was doing it, I didn’t feel any regret, I didn’t feel any guilt. It was only afterwards, after I began to reflect on what I had done that this began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I hadn’t really noticed before.” ~ Mock Guard

I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who volunteered to go into this prison…was distant from me, was remote, until, finally, I wasn’t that. I was 416, I was really my number. And 416 was gonna have to decide what to do.” ~ Mock Prisoner

Though the experiment was essentially about how authority and power dynamics affect our capacity for evil, it’s also a powerful demonstration of a great many human psychological liabilities, from bystander effect as third-parties like parents, the priest, and even the researchers themselves accepted the prison as a prison rather than an experiment, failing to intervene and end suffering, to in-group-out-group bias as the inmates singled out the new replacement prisoner and began to treat him as a vilified “other,” to the painful cognitive dissonance of the guards, trying to later reconcile their atrocious actions during the experiment with beliefs they had about who they were as persons and as human beings.

It’s important not to think of this as prisoner and guard in real prison. The important issue is the metaphor ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’ — what does it mean to be a prisoner, what does it mean to be a guard. And a guard is someone who limits the freedom of someone else, who uses the power in their role to control and dominate someone else, and that’s what the study is about.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

The study, as rattling and uncomfortable as it was, has connotations for everything from prison reform to conformity to self-improvement to violence, bullying and hate crime. For further insights from it, see Zimbardo’s excellent The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Curiously, Zimbardo has since set out to explore the human condition from the opposite end of the good/evil spectrum, launching the Heroic Imagination Project — an effort to harness what psychology knows in advancing everyday heroism and the perpetration of good rather than evil.

Another documentary about the SPE, The Evilness of Power, is available for free on The Internet Archive. Here’s a short excerpt, in which Zimbardo discusses the key takeaways from the study:

Above all, the SPE is a powerful case study in how easily we become identified with the roles and personas that have been assigned to us — by society, by our peers’ or parents’ or partners’ expectations, by our political leaders, and, perhaps most powerfully, by us ourselves. As soon as we begin to see ourselves as a “prisoner” or a “guard” (or a lawyer, or an alcoholic, or a victim, or a genius), we begin to act as one. Gandhi, it seems, had it right after all:

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