Brain Pickings

The Cloud Collector’s Handbook: Cloudy Images to Clear the Mind

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Why cirrus, cumulus, and stratus are only the tiny tip of a floating iceberg. Or wait, I think I see a dinosaur!

From childhood on, we look to the clouds for inspiration, believing we can see the entire world in their protean shapes. This early sense of dreaminess is why I immediately fell in love with The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, a beautiful guide by author (and cloud-lover) Gavin Pretor-Pinney. A virtual catalog of air, the almanac provides classifications of the billows, masses, and wisps that provoke our awe and wonder, as well as descriptions of the meteorological conditions that lead to their creation.

Even better, though, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook turns cloudspotting into a game by challenging the reader to chase specific formations and mark down their sightings. Throughout the guidebook each species comes with a corresponding point value, with higher scores for infrequently seen varietals (like the incredibly rare horseshoe vortex).

Flipping through the book, I found myself dreaming of a cross-country roadtrip with a hawk-eyed companion and windows all the way down…

Founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, a global organization that fights “blue-sky thinking,” Pretor-Pinney published a manifesto explaining the inspiration behind his project.

Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked. They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save on psychoanalysis bills.” ~ Gavin Pretor-Pinney

The Society’s 26,000-plus members have amassed a gorgeous gallery of images, from which it was remarkably hard to choose only a handful.

Storm rolling in at sunset, Lino Lakes, Minnesota, U.S.

Image courtesy of Jackie Zeleznikar

Above the Streets, taken passing over the south coast of England, on a flight from France to the U.K.

Image courtesy of Daniel Melconian

Mount Ranier could mix, Washington, U.S.

Image courtesy of Lori Cannon

Spotted over Pleasant Hill, Iowa. U.S.

Image courtesy of Tim McLean

Mouse in a sunset, Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, U.S.

Image courtesy of Maggi Rankin

And in case looking up makes you think of the skies’ aqueous mirror, Pretor-Pinney also authored The Wave Watcher’s Companion, an equally whimsical guide to waves of all kinds: audio, brain, light, traffic, and, of course, water.

via Cohabitaire

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Radioactive: The Incredible Story of Marie Curie Told in Cyanotype

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What the periodic table has to do with obscure photographic techniques and Italian erotic séances.

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: Radioactivity and love. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the thoughtfulness with which Redniss tailored her medium to her message, turning the book into a work of art in and of itself, every detail meticulously moulded to fit the essence of the narrative.

To stay true to Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in an early-20th-century image printing process called cyanotype, critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep blue color. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Watch an endearingly nervous Redniss tell the story of her book and her creative process in this talk from the recent TEDxEast:

Stunningly beautiful in both concept and execution, Radioactive is a rare cross-pollination of art and science, the kind of storytelling that makes us care about stories.

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Cold War Wonderland: Photographing the East/West Divide

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What Soviet babushkas have to do with the fall of the Roman Empire and the Egyptian Revolution.

Jason Eskenazi grew up in Queens during the peak of the Cold War, bombarded by the era’s typical propaganda about “The Evil Empire” on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Convinced that reality must be less black-and-white than what the Reagan administration was making it up to be, Eskenazi took off from his day job as security guard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent a decade documenting life in the former Soviet Union in stunning black-and-white photographs, collected in Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith. The result is an almost surreal, anachronistic, poetic portrait of a culture seemingly frozen in time, exuding an odd yet alluring symmetry between beauty and tragedy.

There were all these things from 50 years ago, and everything looked like the photography that I was brought up on.” ~ Jason Eskenazi

Army Base, Karagandar, Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Holiday, Shutilova, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Caspian Sea Baku, Azerbaijan, 1997

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Young Sailors Club, Kostrama, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Farm Milkmaid, Northern Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Space Museum, Moscow, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Waltz Competition, Moscow, 1996

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Images via NPR

This month, Eskenazi, now a Fulbright Scholar, is setting out to create an ambitious companion narrative to WonderlandThe Black Garden, a fascinating look at the East-West divide that seeped into culture long past the end of the Cold War explored through the lens of mythology, from the Trojan War, to the fall of the Roman Empire, to the Ottoman conquest of Europe, to today’s post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. And he’s funding it on Kickstarter.

It’s a truly inspired project, equal parts ambitious and needed, so please join me in supporting it.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.