Brain Pickings

The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

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How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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The Magic Box: A Whimsical Vintage Children’s Book for Grownups About Life, Death, and How To Be More Alive Every Day

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“This book was written outside the cemetery wall … in memory of life, the wonder & pain of it & the unspeakable worthwhileness of every second of it.”

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke in a beautiful 1923 letter, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” And yet most of us spend our days dreading this inevitable and natural conclusion to the human journey, casting death as life’s ultimate and most hateful antagonist — a fear that invariably contracts our aliveness.

How to have a more expansive and enlivening relationship with our mortality is what writer Joseph Pintauro and artist Norman Laliberté explore half a century after Rilke in the 1970 treasure The Magic Box (public library) — a most unusual and wonderful children’s book for adults about life and death, the seasonality of being, and the beauty that springs from our impermanence.

A grownup counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death, this vintage gem is part of a marvelous limited-edition set by Pintauro and Laliberté called The Rainbow Box — a collection of four such psychedelic art books, one for each season of the year: this one for autumn, The Peace Box for winter, The Rabbit Box for spring, and A Box of Sun for summer.

The Magic Box presents a series of short, vitalizing meditations on mortality, illustrated with beautiful typographic art and collage incorporating Victorian engravings reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s only children’s book. The back cover captures Pintauro’s charming tone of earnest, uncynical irreverence:

this book will scare you if you are stupid

if you are not stupid it will make you happy

Stupidity aside, if you are sensitive and wholehearted, it will most definitely make you rapturous with delight — here is a peek inside:

Complement The Magic Box, immeasurably wonderful in its entirety, with Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness and a very different contemporary take on the seasonality of life: Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s breathtaking The River.

Thanks, Ghazal

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Amanda Palmer Reads Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s Poem “Life While-You-Wait”

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Consolation for those moments when you feel “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.”

One spring evening not too long ago, I joined the wonderful Amanda Palmer on a small and friendly stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and we read some Polish poetry together from Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library) — the work of Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), for whom we share deep affection and admiration.

When Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality,” the Nobel commission rightly called her “the Mozart of poetry” — but, wary of robbing her poetry of its remarkable dimension, added that it also emanates “something of the fury of Beethoven.” I often say that she is nothing short of Bach, the supreme enchanter of the human spirit.

Amanda has previously lent her beautiful voice to my favorite Szymborska poem, “Possibilities,” and she now lends it to another favorite from this final volume, “Life While-You-Wait” — a bittersweet ode to life’s string of unrepeatable moments, each the final point in a fractal decision tree of what-ifs that add up to our destiny, and a gentle invitation to soften the edges of the heart as we meet ourselves along the continuum of our becoming.

Please enjoy:

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, is a work of immense beauty in its 464-page totality. Complement it with Amanda’s bewitching reading of “Possibilities” and join me in supporting her on Patreon — her art, like Brain Pickings, is free and made possible by donations. In fact, she wrote a whole fantastic book about the mutually dignifying and gratifying gift of patronage.

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Thomas Mann’s Moving Tribute for His Dear Friend Hermann Hesse’s Sixtieth Birthday

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“I… love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face…”

Nothing sustains creative culture more sturdily than the invisible scaffolding of kinship between artists supporting each other through the merciless cycles of criticism, acclaim, and indifference. Among the most heartening such dyads are Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) and Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955), who provided each other with a steady supply of support and encouragement over a lifetime of beautiful letters. But nowhere is their bond more touching than in the tribute Mann penned for his friend’s sixtieth birthday, published in the morning edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 2, 1937, and later included in the out-of-print gem The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Mann writes:

Today, July 2, is Hermann Hesse’s sixtieth birthday. A great, beautiful, memorable day! It is being fervently celebrated in thousands of hearts in all countries where German is spoken… It is by permitting themselves such feelings, by defiantly taking the liberty of loving, that people are saving their souls in Germany today.

By joyfully celebrating this day we too shall be saving our souls.

After a few laudatory remarks about Hesse’s patriotism, Mann extols his friend’s literary sensibility:

His work raises the familiar to a new, spiritual level, which may be termed revolutionary, not in a direct political or social, but in a psychological, poetic sense; it is truly and authentically open and sensitive to the future.

Noting that Hesse’s beloved tenth novel, Steppenwolf, is on par with James Joyce’s Ulysses “in experimental daring,” he adds what might be mistaken for a backhanded compliment by the less sensitive reader but is, at bottom, the kind of praise that can only be given by someone who knows an artist’s complex inner world intimately, cherishes that complexity, and holds the whole of the artist with immense love:

I feel very deeply that for all its sometimes cranky individualism, for all its grumpy-humorous or mystical-nostalgic rejection of the world and the times, this lifework … must be counted among the highest and purest spiritual endeavors of our epoch. Consequently it is an honor as well as a pleasure to offer the author of this work my hearty congratulations and the expression of my esteem on this festive occasion. I long ago chose him as the member of my literary generation closest and dearest to me and I have followed his growth with a sympathy that drew nourishment as much from the differences as from the similarities between us…

I also love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face of an old Swabian peasant.

[…]

And so, once again: Thanks and best wishes. Hesse’s humor, the exuberance of language shown in the visible fragments of his late work, and the manifest pleasure he takes in his craft offer us, I believe, every assurance that hand in hand with the heightened spirituality of his advanced years he has preserved the formative powers needed for the realization of so daring a dream-project as The Glass Bead Game. We wish him success and fulfillment… We also hope that his fame may spread ever more widely and deeply, and bring him the honor which has long been his due, but which at the present time would take on special meaning, in addition of course to providing a most delightful bit of news: the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Nine years later, Hesse was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize — in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated exhortations.

The two friends’ moving correspondence can be found in The Hesse/Mann Letters. Complement it with Mann on time and the soul of existence, then revisit other heartening dyads of support from the annals of creative culture: James Joyce and Ibsen, Maurice Sendak and Ursula Nordstrom, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, and Mark Twain and Helen Keller.

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