Brain Pickings

The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

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What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with the meaning of life.

Several weeks ago, we took at look at What Is Time? — Michiu Kaku’s BBC documentary, exploring the nature and origin of the all-permeating phenomenon, and earlier this week Stephen Hawking’s iconic A Brief History of Time joined this list of 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. But the world might be ready for a compelling new voice to unravel and synthesize the fundamental fabric of existence, and hardly anyone is better poised to fill these giant shoes than Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.

In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning o the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytellng with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech. (And, on a related note, don’t miss TED’s freshly launched platform for TEDx talks, showcasing over 2,000 talks by some of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.)

From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, underpinning which is the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy. [P]urpose and meaning are not to be found in the laws of nature, or in the plans of any external agent. [I]t is our job to create them. One of those purposes — among many — stems from our urge to explain the world around us the best we can. If our lives are brief and undirected, at least we can take pride in our mutual courage as we struggle to understand things much greater than ourselves.” ~ Sean Carroll

Sitting at the relentlessly fascinating intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, From Eternity to Here comes as a fine addition to this running reading list of must-read books by some of this year’s TED speakers.

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A Rare Look at Michelangelo’s Private Papers

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The secret life of marginalia, or what private poetry has to do with humanity’s greatest public art.

Besides being one of humanity’s most beloved artists, Michelangelo is also a paragon of the kind of cross-disciplinary curiosity and creativity I try to foster with Brain Pickings. But the origin and process of his creative genius turns out to be much more layered and faceted than previously thought. In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper, Princeton scholar Leonard Barkan exposes a lesser-known side of Michelangelo, looking beyond the great artistic achievements like the Sistine ceiling, the David, the Piet, and the dome of St. Peter’s to reveal, with as much intimacy as history’s most coveted artifacts will allow, a rare glimpse of Michelangelo’s unconscious.

Both a journey into the serendipity and randomness of the great artist’s curiosity and a record of his practical creative process, the lavish tome features over 200 museum-quality reproductions of Michelangelo’s most private papers and sketches. The drawings and doodles are sprinkled with bits of poetry, personal budgets, contracts, memos to self and other ephemera of the life of the mind, presenting the first study of the remarkable interplay between words and images in Michelangelo’s work.

The book is really about [Michelangelo's] interior life. It’s an archive of the things that he put together when his mind was wandering and his hand was wandering and words popped into his head or drawings seeped out of his pen.” ~ Leonard Barkan

As a lover of language, I see as one of Barkan’s greatest feats the thoughtfulness with which he illuminates the role of the written word in Michelangelo’s creative process and the importance of marginalia in his — and anyone’s, really — artistic exploration.

Desire engenders desire and then leaves pain.” ~ Michelangelo

What makes Michelangelo: A Life on Paper all the more intriguing is that, by extending an invitation into Michelangelo’s private world of words written for his eyes alone, it raises the question of whom we create for — ourselves, as tender beings with a fundamental need for self-expression, or an audience, as social creatures with a fundamental desire to be liked, understood and acclaimed.

via @DesignObserver

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Arthur Conan Doyle, Psychic: Rare Footage from 1930

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What the world’s most analytical detective has to do with exploring the fringes of spiritual life.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be best-known as the creator of the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, but in this rare newsreel from 1930, recorded mere weeks before the author passed away, he talks about something unexpected: After telling the story of how Sherlock came to life, Conan Doyle delves into his profound fixation on spiritualism and the psychic world. It’s particularly fascinating to see a man whose literary thought hinged on analytical insight and objectivity explore the nebulous, shape-shifting corners of the human mind.

People ask me, will I write any more Sherlock Holmes stories and I certainly don’t think it’s at all probable. But as I grow older, the psychic subject always grows in intensity and one becomes more earnest upon it, and I should think that my few remaining years will be probably devoted much more in that direction than in the direction of literature. My principal thoughts are that i should extend, if I can, that knowledge, which I have on psychic matters, and spread it as far as I can to those who have been less fortunate.

I don’t for one moment suppose that I’m taking it upon my self to say that I’m the inventor of spiritualism, or that I’m even the principal exponent of it. There are many great mediums, many great psychical researchers, investigators of all sorts — all that I can do is be a gramophone on the subject, to go about, to meet people face to face, to try to make them understand that this thing is not the foolish thing, which is so often represented, but that it really is a great philosophy and, as I think, the basis for all religious improvement in the future of the human race.” ~ Arthur Conan Doyle

via @matthiasrascher

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