Brain Pickings

Author Archive

01 APRIL, 2011

5 Questions x 8 Interesting People x SXSW 2011


This year, we went to SXSW and decided to ask 8 of the most interesting people we know — including The New York Times’ David Carr, Behance founder Scott Belsky, and Fast Company’s Alissa Walker — 5 questions about technology, innovation and the information economy. We photographed them with their answers and used projeqt, the wonderful storytelling platform we introduced a few months ago, to share their answers.

The questions:

Go ahead and explore this visual micro-portrait of today’s tech landscape. And we’d love to hear what you — yes, you — would’ve said, so drop us a comment below if you’d like to share your 5 answers.

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01 APRIL, 2011

Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything


Out-geniusing Einstein, or what the Pope and quantum mechanics have in common.

In 1988, iconic theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking — the living paradox of a superhuman brain trapped in a body that doesn’t work, held in the merciless grip of Lou Gehrig’s disease — published the landmark A Brief History of Time as he set out to “know the mind of God” by developing a simple, elegant set of laws that would explain how our universe works and where it came from. And unlike other grand existential questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, whether God exists and what time is, his was the grandest quest of all: To build a complete theory everything. To do that, he had to do the seemingly impossible: Unify the two great theories of physics — the theory of the very big, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the theory of the very small, quantum mechanics.

Twenty years later, Discovery captured Hawking’s grand quest to find the fundamental reasons for our existence and his life’s work in Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything. The ambitious documentary follows Hawking who, at the age of 66, still puts in a tireless full week’s worth of teaching and research, and contextualizes his landmark work over the past two decades through rare and revealing interviews with renowned scientists who collaborated with Hawking, as well as with Hawking himself.

At a conference on cosmology in The Vatican, the pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began — I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo.” ~ Stephen Hawking

Though the DVD is most excellent, the film is also available on YouTube in 10 parts, gathered for your cognitive pleasure in this playlist:

My life’s work has been to unify the theories of the very large and the very small. Only then can we answer the more challenging questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?” ~ Stephen Hawking

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31 MARCH, 2011

Let’s Dance: A Stop-Motion Homage to Modern Love


What the evolution of cinema has to do with sexuality and storytellers’ moral responsibility.

We’re continuously fascinated by the trial and tribulations of modern romance. Last month, we swooned over You Deserve a Medal, designer Stefan G. Bucher’s lovely homage to the feats of modern love. Today, we’re thrilled to reveal, in a Brain Pickings exclusive — a beautiful short film about that very subject by director John Thompson and producer Sharon Lee, blending 2D cutouts with 3D live-action in a wonderfully playful visual narrative to use dance as a metaphor for, erm, the ultimate act of intimacy.

We sat down with John to chat about the inspiration behind the film, the visual language of romance, and storytellers’ responsibility about framing the cultural expectations for love.


How did the dance metaphor come about?

That was the brainchild of writer/producer Sharon Lee. When she called me about the project, she had the basics figured out: A creative short film about a relationship dealing with modern challenges, and dance would be the metaphor for love and sex. Dance has a long history in literature and film for symbolizing human ecstasy, both the sacred and physical.

From Shakespeare to the modern YouTube dance videos, human rhythmic movement connects us in a primal way.

I absolutely loved that concept and instantly jumped on board.


Filmmakers have been infatuated with the visual language of romance since the dawn of cinema. How are today’s cinematic techniques, styles and vehicles different from what came before in painting intimacy?

For me, the thing that is so exciting about cinema is the way it has continued to evolve. Technology, trends, experimentation and style are always changing, affecting one another, ultimately having a great impact on the story of the film.

After exploring various approaches to our film, we decided to shoot stop-motion hand-held with actors in a simplified world made of grey paper. Since we were telling people a story they already knew, it was important to tell it in a new way stylistically. The tone of the piece kept a nice balance between humor and sincerity, which was something Sharon and I always wanted.


Do you think storytellers have a certain responsibility in terms of conveying the normative expectations of romance and, if so, what does modern romance mean to you as a storyteller and creator?

Personally, I think an artist’s only responsibility is to follow his or her voice. I don’t think you go anywhere really meaningful unless you go deeply personal and highly instinctual, and that can’t be any truer than when dealing with relationships.

‘Modern romance’ sounds like an oxymoron. To me, the guts of love are timeless, and it is the world changing around it.

As a filmmaker, I wanted to break into those timeless basics by stripping down the world in our film to the bare essentials, but it was also a balancing act to accurately represent current challenges in relationships to give the piece an entry point for the audience.

But at the end of the day, the guide for me was my personal experiences; the love and the heartache.

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