Brain Pickings

Space Shuttle’s Legacy: A Carl Sagan Remix

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What Koyaanisqatsi has to do with William Shatner and the future of space exploration.

We’ve seen — and loved — our share of Carl Sagan remixes over the years. This month, as NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle took its final launch, Reid Gower has commemorated the program’s momentous legacy with another fantastic Carl Sagan mashup, remixing voiceover from Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot with classic footage from sources as varied as Baraka, Stephen Hawkins’ Into The Universe, BBC’s The Cell and Sagan’s own Cosmos, among many more.

We had an expansive run in the ’60s and the ’70s. You might have thought, as I did then, that our species would be on Mars before the century was over. But, instead, we’ve pulled inward. Robots aside, we’ve backed off from the planets and the stars. I keep asking myself: is it a failure of nerve, or a sign of maturity?” ~ Carl Sagan

The remix is part of Gower’s excellent ongoing Sagan Series. For more fan-made NASA love, don’t miss these two remarkable tributes, as well as this beautiful NASA-produced documentary about Space Shuttle’s legacy narrated by none other than William Shatner.

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5 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers, Part 2

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From life before birth to living with death, or what marine life has to do with global equality.

With TED Global a mere 24 hours way, it’s time for the second part of this year’s reading list of books by TED Global speakers, a continuation of the first installment of five featured here last month. Here are five more powerhouses of cognitive stimulation for your vicarious TED experience, spanning everything from philosophy to economics to marine biology.

ORIGINS

We’ve previously pondered the grand questions of what makes us human and what makes us uniquely us. But most inquiries into these existential fundamentals have focused on insights from life after birth — after the commonly agreed upon marker for our entry into selfhood and the world. And yet there’s an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that our selves begin before our first breath. That’s precisely what Annie Murphy Paul explores in Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives — a fascinating journey into the emerging science of epigenetics and how it has changed medicine’s understanding of pregnancy and even psychology’s understanding of self, blending equal parts scientific rigor and human tenderness.

An excerpt from the book was a TIME cover story last year and The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof rightfully called it a “terrific and important new book.”

[P]regnancy is now something it’s never been before: a frontier. The nine months of gestation are at the leading edge of scientists’ efforts to cure disease; to improve public health; to end vicious cycles of poverty, infirmity, and illness; and to initiate virtuous cycles of health, strength, and stability. Life on a frontier can be nerve-wracking, no question — but it’s also among the most interesting and invigorating places to spend your time.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Engrossing and deeply enlightening, Origins tackles the age-old mystery of what makes us who we are with a compelling new vision for our beginnings at the intersection of science, philosophy and personal memoir.

THE SPIRIT LEVEL

How come some of the world’s most “developed” nations are also among the most dysfunctional? The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson explores the multitude of social problems that income inequality creates, but rather than a somber meditation on the statistics — like, for instance, the high positive correlation between income disparity and homicide, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness and high school dropout rates — at the heart of the book lies an empathic belief in the human ability to transcend self-interest, framed in a set of practical propositions for closing the equality gap.

The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggest that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Above all, The Spirit Level is the vessel for a powerful political message and a tremendously important call for social action, made all the more compelling by the crisp writing, meticulously culled evidence and remarkable timeliness of the issue.

CENSUS OF MARINE LIFE

Last fall, the world witnessed its very first Census of Marine Life — an ambitious global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. In Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count, Paul Snelgrove explores the most dramatic and fascinating findings of the census, how new technologies and partnerships have enabled a richer understanding of the world’s oceans, and what humanity needs to do in the future to honor and conserve wondrous worlds that live beneath the ocean’s surface. At the heart of the book are the stories, manuscripts, imagery and ideas of the dozens of scientists involved.

Snelgrove’s presence on the TED stage is a fine reflection of TED’s continued commitment to marine sustainability and ocean conservation.

The Census of Marine Life is a different intellectual enterprise. Disregarding many objections from Mainstream Road, the leaders of the initiative used a metaphor to rally the interest of the relevant scienti?c community: to conduct a Census of marine life, an impossible task sensu strictu. By choosing an extremely broad subject, the living ocean, and setting a research vector, or direction, to count and account for the living in the ocean, the founders were able to form a community of researchers with quite disparate research interests and objectives, to weave a delicate fabric of research topics that brought together the main ingredients of scienti?c discovery: deploying new technologies, poking through disciplinary boundaries, transporting knowledge produced in one ?eld to another, attacking simultaneously the small and the large and the extremely large scales usually unavailable to single teams of scientists. Using as an epistemic Occam’s razor the distinction between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable, they collectively and systematically selected a limited number of bets to maximize results. This book demonstrates unreservedly their success.” ~ Paul Snelgrove

With dozens of breathtaking full-color photographs and glimpses of previously unknown species, convoluted migration routes and otherworldly habitats, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life explores the ocean with equal parts urgency, poeticism and enthusiasm, stimulating, illuminating and enchanting at the same time, leaving you with a newfound respect and profound love for the extraordinary universe of life beneath the surface.

POST-SECULAR PHILOSOPHY

Last week, we explored 7 essential books on faith and spirituality. But where does philosophy fit into the conversation? The Western philosophical tradition, with its insistence on the secular, has remained largely wary, of not dismissive, of religion. In Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology, Phillip Blond gathers 15 essays distilling how iconic philosophers like Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida have placed God at the center of their thinking. Blond — who in the 13 years since the book’s publications has become a leading British political theorist, the mastermind behind David Cameron’s “Big Society” concept — pens a poignant introduction to the anthology, discussing the broader role of theology in secular philosophy and the often conflicted relationship between the two.

[I]t is a classical and cardinal point that the utterly dissimilar would have great difficulty in attaining any knowledge of one another, for mutual knowledge can only be achieved if ‘like is known by like.’” ~ Phillip Blond

Though the writing is anything but light and at times fringes on academia’s most prolix, the volume’s broad lens and sharp focus make it a powerful and read-worthy synthesis of the Western philosophical tradition’s tortured yet fascinating relationship with theology and religion.

Blond’s most recent book, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is being released in the US in 2012 as Radical Republic and reworked with an international focus. Blond is the opening speaker for this year’s TED Global.

FINAL EXAM

Facing mortality is hard enough for us ordinary people, but it’s particularly challenging for medical parctitioners, whose very mission in life is so profoundly antithetical to the concept of death. That’s exactly what transplant surgeon Pauline Chen examines in Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. From her first dissection of a human cadaver to the first time she pronounced a patient dead to having to face taking responsibility for the accidental death of a patient in her care, Chen uses profound personal anecdotes as the linchpin to a deeper discussion of mortality in the context of medicine, but also in the broader context of human existence.

There is an essential paradox in medicine: a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes the dying.” ~ Pauline Chen

Beautifully written, passionately argued and lined with equal parts humility and dignity, Final Exam is poetry for medicine, equally thought-provoking for those in the medical profession as it is for those of us in the profession of merely living with the diagnosis of the human condition.

If you missed the first part of this year’s TED Global reading list or last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

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Polymorphic Computing, Explained in Vintage Stop-Motion (1959)

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What wooden boxes and stick figures have to do with predicting the future of the social web.

Though the world didn’t see its first polymorphic computer until 2007, the concept of “polymorphic computing” predates it by nearly half a century. In this lovely stop-motion animation from 1959, found on The Internet Archive and now in the public domain, John Salzer illustrates the principles of polymorphic computing, first outlined by technology pioneer Simon Ramo, and, in the process, presages subsequent landmarks in the evolution of technology, from parallel processing to peer-to-peer filesharing to cloud computing to the very architecture of the Internet — a striking case of two contemporary fixations, the social web and stop-motion animation, converging long before either had reached critical cultural mass.

This is distributed control, distributed memory, distributed arithmetics, distributed everything. And it makes sense. Because now more than one guy can be using the system at the same time.”

Also curious to note is how cluelessly reflective the film is of the fundamental biases of the era, what with its male-centricity (hey there, computing “guys”) and its analogies to the telephone as the base-level, universal standard for communication.

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