Brain Pickings

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14 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power & Technology

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What 14th-century cathedrals have to do with Google, Darwin and the purpose of art’s existence.

Yesterday, we devoured The Mind — the first in a series of anthologies by Edge.org editor John Brockman, curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. On its heels comes Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built [...] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual [...] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture is on par with The Mind as one of this year’s most significant time-capsules of contemporary thought.

Images via Flickr Commons

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Wonderstruck: Remarkable New Work from Brian Selznick

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What a 50-year fold in the spacetime continuum of New York has to do with three pounds of love and Scorsese.

You might recall author and illustrator extraordinaire Brian Selznick from his magnificent The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, a masterpiece of a children’s book inspired by Georges Méliès, the first “cinemagician,” and currently being made into a film by Martin Scorsese.

Today, Selznick is back with his much-anticipated Wonderstruck, which tells the parallel stories of Ben and Rose, two children trying to find their place of belonging in the world. One story takes place is 1977 and is told in text, the other in 1927 and is told in pictures. The two narratives weave back and forth, in Selznick’s signature style of intricate and ephemeral pencil sketches, to converge into a single story in the end.

But this is no ordinary 12-page children’s book — like Selznick’s previous tome, the mesmerizing 600-page volume weighs in at nearly three pounds and features hundreds of his original illustrations, whose intricate details exude incredible thoughtfulness and truthfulness to the era, bound to leave any adult, indeed, wonderstruck.

I really love working with a great amount of detail, I love doing research, I love making sure that every inch of the drawing has a reason to exist. It’s a very immersive experience to be inside the time period, having done all this research.” ~ Brian Selznick

And as book trailer fetishists, we have to give props to publisher Scholastic for the true feat of 2D/3D animation and analog/digital storytelling in the book’s beautiful trailer:

Selznick seems to share the Brain Pickings ethos of endless curiosity, discovery and learning through the research and creative process:

I write about things I love. In Wonderstruck, I write about museums, and I write about deaf culture, and I write about New York in 1927 and 1977. I did as much research as I possibly could on all of those things, and I learned so much, and I loved so much of what it was I discovered, and so what I hope for the reader is when they read this book, when they open this book up and see the pictures and read the stories and watch how they come together, that the love that I felt for all of these different elements and these different characters comes through for them.” ~ Brian Selznick

Absolutely beautiful and full of fascinating detail, Wonderstruck is a living testament to all that makes books — and their creators — so very special, and a true artifact of human creativity and curiosity.

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

How the Aurora Borealis Works

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Demystifying the cosmic origins of one of Earth’s greatest wonders, or what solar storms have to do with snow.

If you’ve ever wondered how the magic of the aurora borealis works, today is your lucky day. This short video by Norwegian animator and sound artist Per Byhring illuminates the cosmic secret of the Northern lights, one of our planet’s most magnificent wonders.

For the real thing, don’t forget you can watch the aurora borealis live from the comfort of your nomad screen.

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 an example. Like? Sign up.