Brain Pickings

2010’s Best Long Reads: Science & Technology

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Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most fascinating in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Business and Art, Design, Film & Music. Our final spotlight shines on Science, Medicine & Technology.

FOR THE LOVE OF CULTURE

Google, Copyright and Our Future (Lawrence Lessig, The New Republic, Jan. 26, 2010)

Time to read: 26 minutes (6,454 words)

In the wake of the Google Books project—and the subsequent settlement with publishers — Lessig calls for a new approach that untangles copyright law and helps keep information accessible to all.

What are the rules that will govern culture for the next hundred years? Are we building an ecology of access that demands a lawyer at every turn of the page?”

For more on this complex and controversial subject, see our continuous coverage of remix culture.

SEARCH FOR A STRESS VACCINE

Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine (Jonah Lehrer, Wired, July 28, 2010)

Time to read: 23 minutes (5,700 words)

Lehrer profiles Robert Sapolsky, a scientist researching ways to create a vaccine-like treatment to protect people against stress. (In early research he’s injected a modified herpes virus into rodents’ brains.)

Sometimes it’s not enough just to tell people, ‘Jeez, you should really learn to relax.’ If stress is half as bad for you as we currently think it is, then it’s time to stop treating the side effects. It’s time to go after stress itself.”

NEW DRUGS AND CLINICAL TRIALS

New Drugs Stir Debate on Rules of Clinical Trials (Amy Harmon, New York Times, Sept. 19, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,173 words)

A heartbreaking story from Harmon’s “Target Cancer” series about two cousins with skin cancer enrolled in the same clinical trial — but only one of them received the powerful new drug.

At times beseeching and belligerent, Mr. McLaughlin argued his cousin’s case to get the new drug with anyone he could find at U.C.L.A. ‘Hey, put him on it, he needs it,’ he pleaded. And then: ‘Who the hell is making these decisions?'”

THE STATUS QUO OF ELECTRIC CARS

The Status Quo of Electric Cars: Better Batteries, Same Range (Gail E. Tverberg, The Oil Drum, May 19, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (3,940 words)

The Chevy Volt is Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year, but Tverberg argues that, in many ways, we’re no better off with electric cars than we were a century ago.

Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don’t need better batteries, we need better cars.”

AUTISM’S FIRST CHILD

Autism’s First Child (John Donvan and Caren Zucker, The Atlantic, October 2010)

Time to read: 33 minutes (8,165 words)

While there is quite a bit of attention on autism as it relates to children, what happens when they grow up? Donvan and Zucker track down Donald Gray Triplett, 77, the first person ever diagnosed with autism.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all.”

THE GOLDEN BOY AND THE INVISIBLE ARMY

The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army (Thomas Lake, Atlanta Magazine, June 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,777 words)

Writer Thomas Lake puts the H1N1 virus in human terms with this story of John Behnken, a 27-year-old Atlanta man who seemed an unlikely target for swine flu.

Dr. Stauffenberg had done close to 1,600 autopsies, and this was the first time she had seen an otherwise healthy person die from the unaided influenza virus.”

SHOULD WE CLONE NEANDERTHALS?

Should We Clone Neanderthals? (Zach Zorich, Archaeology, March/April 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,274 words)

An examination of the scientific, legal and ethical questions raised by the possibility that scientists may one day be able to clone neanderthals. At least one paleoanthropologist predicts: It’s going to happen.

If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails…well. It’s a lose-lose.”

THE PEANUT SOLUTION

The Peanut Solution (Andrew Rice, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2010)

Time to read: 21 minutes (5,258 words)

A peanut-buttery paste called Plumpy’nut is praised for its potential to help end malnutrition across the globe. Patents, intellectual property and competing interests make distribution more complicated.

I wouldn’t want to see a new world order where poor people are dependent on packaged supplementary foods that are manufactured in Europe or the United States.”

SHOOTING FOR THE SUN

Shooting for the Sun (Logan Ward, The Atlantic, November 2010)

Time to read: 13 minutes (3,149 words)

The story of Lonnie Johnson, an inventor with some 100 patents who is best-known for creating the Super Soaker squirt gun. His latest obsession: Bringing affordable solar power to the world.

Johnson is a member of what seems to be a vanishing breed: the self-invented inventor.”

THE PLASTIC PANIC

The Plastic Panic (Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,788 words)

Is the BPA found in plastic bottles actually harmful to us? And if so, why isn’t it banned in the United States? A look at the regulatory issues that keep potentially toxic chemicals in the marketplace.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

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Christina Tsevis Illustrates the Best of Brain Pickings

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This year, we asked some of our favorite visualization artists to each capture the 10 most popular Brain Pickings articles of 2010 in a single piece of artwork, and we’re revealing them one by one this month. After Stefanie Posavec, Sam Potts and Tiffany Farrant, we continue with one of our favorite artists — Greek illustrator Christina Tsevis, whom we interviewed last year and whose enchanted Alice in Wonderland work we featured earlier this year.

The articles, in order of popularity:

  1. Mythical Beasts & Modern Monsters — three humorous takes on the relational understanding of the monsters ecosystem.
  2. Mapping European Stereotypes — a Bulgarian designer based in London pokes fun at Europeans’ xeno-bias and the subjective reality of nationalism.
  3. 7 Image Search Tools That Will Change Your Life — 7 visually-driven image search interfaces that change how we look for, find and catalog images.
  4. 7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers — selection of the 7 most compelling books by speakers at this year’s TED Global in Oxford.
  5. How Do I Explain It To My Parents — Dutch abstract artists sit down with their parents and try to explain to them what they do, to a delightfully amusing effect.
  6. Vintage Posters for Modern Movies — a look at the faux-vintage design trend as it applies to film poster design, spotlighting the work of seven contemporary designers with a retrostalgic aesthetic.
  7. How To Be Alone — a poetic manifesto for the art of solitude.
  8. Strange Worlds: Miniature Condiment Landscapes — remarkable miniature landscapes made out of spices and condiments by artist Matthew Albanese.
  9. What Does It Mean To Be Human? — three disciplines (evolutionary biology, philosophy and neuroscience) tackle the grand question of existentialism.
  10. Literary Action Figures — you know you want them.

Christina unleashes her signature textured whimsy in this absolutely beautiful illustration incorporating visual elements from each of the top ten stories:

[Click image to enlarge]

See more of Christina’s wonderful work here and follow her on Twitter.

We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s main articles, and features short-form interestingness from our PICKED series. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Modernist Fairy Tales

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There’s hardly a genre older and more familiar yet timeless and relentlessly captivating than the fairy tale, and no one breathes new air into this classic blend of folklore and morality better than author and editor Kate Bernheimer. Her latest gem, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales is an ambitious anthology of 40 modernist fairy tales inspired by classic folktales from around the world and organized roughly by country of origin. With stories by some of today’s greatest fiction writers, including Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender and Lydia Millet, the book is a literary treasure chest, like the one in your grandmother’s attic where the whimsical and the macabre come to life on cold winter evenings as logs crackle in the fireplace downstairs.

Once you start looking, it is easy to see the variety — the sheer fractal ferocity — and intelligence of fairy tales. This collection contains stories reflective of current trends; it also contains stories told in more linear, straightforward ways. Some of the selections pay homage to midcentury and later styles; others come poetically through modes associated with the tradition of oral folklore. You will find stories that hew closely to their enchantment, and others that announce hardly any magic — until you encounter a tiny keyhole in the wall of their language. In each instance, you will easily enter these secret gardens.” ~ Kate Bernheimer

Beautifully written and utterly enchanted, the stories draw on everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s and Brothers Grimm’s classics to the popular entertainment of medieval Japan to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino. Brimming with dark whimsy and gorgeous grotesqueness, the imaginative tome is an absolute treat for readers of all ages — so go ahead and treat yourself.

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Stack, a Curated Selection of Beautiful Magazines

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We’ve been longtime fans of Stack, a periodic mailing of beautiful, hard-to-find independent magazines bundled with posters, zines and various other print treasures. Originally founded in the UK, Stack launched an American edition last year and has been delivering intelligently curated creative treats since, in a fine example of what we’ve termed “controlled serendipity” — the holy grail of content discovery. It also embodies our ethos of cross-disciplinary curiosity through meticulous, thoughtful curation — a true fountain of youth for the life of the creative mind.

The best independent magazines are inspiring, beautiful, amazing — and often really hard to obtain. I started Stack America to get these remarkable magazines into the hands of people who will love them. And hopefully keep reading, and keep them alive!” ~ Andrew Losowsky

It works like this: Once you subscribe, you have no idea what you’re going to get in each mailing — you simply place your trust in the curatorial judgement of Andrew and the Stack team, then keep an excited eye on your mailbox. In the first year, they sent out 14 exceptional publications to its subscribers, ranging from stylized design and cycling culture mag Embrocation to meat culture journal Meatpaper to architectural entertainment pub Pin-Up to Southern literary compendium Oxford American, for a total value of $132 and a priceless dose of mental stimulation.

Stack also commissions and sends out exclusive, original prints created by the top editorial design teams from leading publications like Fortune, Time Out New York and Bloomberg Businessweek.

In a way, Stack is like the blind date yenta whose every match turns into a passionate love affair, helping fantastic magazines find an audience who will love them. In a troubled publishing industry, Stack may just be the last saving grace of the relationship between the reader and the print magazine, using the vibrant medley of cross-disciplinary interestingness to keep things spicy.

Stack is the perfect gift for the creative thinker in your life — or a fantastic present to yourself for the new year. Six-month subscriptions start at $44.99 and annual ones at $71.99, but the fine folks at Stack America have offered an exclusive discount for Brain Pickings readers — get it here.

We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s main articles, and features short-form interestingness from our PICKED series. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.