Brain Pickings

David Brooks on the Dangerous Division Between Reason and Emotion, Animated

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The false division of the self, or what’s wrong with using physics to assess human behavior.

Yesterday, we marveled at a fantastic short film that captured Michael Pollan’s classic Food Rules in animated stop-motion vegetables. Another wonderful motion graphics entry from the same RSA film competition by Tomas Flodr is based on an RSA talk The New York Times’ David Brooks gave about his newish book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which echoes an older RSA sketchnote animation about the divided brain and the dangers that lurk in modern society’s propensity for prioritizing the left brain over the right. (Something at which Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott would all have raised an eyebrow.)

We have inherited a view of ourselves that we’re divided selves. We have reason over here and emotion over here, and if anything, they’re on a teeter-totter — that if reason is up emotion is down or vise versa, and society advances to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. So this has created methodologies of studying human behavior that try to use the methodologies of physics to do social science, which emphasize the things we can count and measure, and which amputate all the rest.”

For more, see Brooks’ TED talk and, of course, the book itself.

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Urville: An Autistic Savant’s Remarkable Imaginary City, 20 Years in the Making

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A rare glimpse of the extreme frontiers of human ability and imagination.

With its population of 12 million, its formidable architecture, and its extensive infrastructure, Urville, the capital of a large island province, is one of Europe’s most important cities. If your geographic confidence is beginning to quiver and crumble, you can exhale — Urville is entirely imaginary.

For the past 20 years, French autistic savant Gilles Trehin has been devising and developing this fanciful megacity, from the remarkable architectural detail to the thoughtful cultural context rooted in real world history, including WWII’s impact on the city and how the forces of globalization are changing its fabric. For instance, on the French Revolution:

In 1789, during the French Revolution, Urville has 2.8 millions inhabitants, but the number of habitations became too limited to host the huge population growth due to the Industrial Revolution. In order to cope, the authorities of Urville call upon the famous town-planner Oscar Laballière (1803/ 1883) to start gigantic urban projects which are still outlining Urville even today.”

Urville gathers 300 of Trehin’s meticulous, obsessive drawings and sets the door ajar to this complex and intricately woven alternate reality, inviting you in. It’s part Stephen Wiltshire’s panoramas, part Gregory Blackstock’s lists, part Jerry’s Map — an utterly original.

At its heart, Urville offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a savant, the artistic equivalent of Daniel Tammet’s linguistic and mathematical prowess.

Thanks, Wy

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Richard Feynman Makes a Wager

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Fifteen dollars of irreverence and honor, or how to avoid “occupational disease.”

Twenty-four years ago, the world lost the great Richard Feynman — champion of curiosity, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. Among Feynman’s most memorable and beloved qualities was his singular blend of irreverence and honor, which shines in this wonderful anecdote from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, a priceless collection of more than 40 years of Feynman’s letters and a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence.

Immediately after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman made a wager with MIT Professor Viktor Weisskop, who was convinced that The Great Explainer would succumb to a career in administration — or what Feynman once referred to in a letter as an “occupational disease.” A man of his word, Feynman sent Weisskop the following note a decade later:

Prof. W. Weisskopf
Physics Department
M.I.T.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Professor:

I have found the document describing our wager and find that you gave me too much money so here’s $15 back. For your records, may I state in writing that as of this date, January 6, 1976, I am not holding, nor during the last ten years have I held, a responsible position as defined in the contract of the wager. Therefore I consider that the wager has been paid by Professor Weisskopf and that’s that!

Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman

The wager contract itself:

–On this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE, at a Luncheon given at the Laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin, Geneva, the following WAGER was made between Professor Viktor F. WEISSKOPF and Professor Richard P. FEYNMAN.

The terms of the WAGER are as follows:

– Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e., before the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said Mr. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

–Conversely, if on the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE, the said Mr. FEYNMAN shall have held or be holding no such position, Mr. WEISSKOPF will be deemed to have forfeited his WAGER and will be in duty bound to pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. FEYNMAN.

–For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.

–In case of contention or of non-fulfillment of the aforementioned conditions, the sole arbiter shall be Mr. Giuseppe COCCONI.

Signed at Meyrin on this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE.

Richard P. Feynman
Viktor F. Weisskopf
Signed and witnessed: G. Cocconi

Here’s to a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

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