Brain Pickings

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Remastered

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It’s hard not to love Carl Sagan, who has done for science what John Szarkowski has for photography and Paola Antonelli for design. What pushed him into the forefront of cultural awareness was the now-iconic 1980s 13-part TV series he narrated and co-wrote, entitled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was digitally remastered in 2002 and is now available in a glorious 7-disc DVD set. Nearly 3 decades ago, Sagan, eloquent and prfound as ever, touches on a number of today’s most critical issues — from international politics to our doomed dependence on fossil fuels — as he explores the universe and our place within it.

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Cosmos is an absolute cultural gem that we think should be required viewing in any education curriculum that purports to foster intellectual well-roundedness. The DVD set is well worth the investment, but you can also scour YouTube for segments from the different episodes.

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The Tell-Tale Brain: The Neuroscience of Being Human

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The question of what it means to be human is something we’ve explored before, and something humanity has grappled with for eons. Now, a compelling new answer may be before us.

V.S. Ramachandran is one of the most influential neuroscientists of our time, whose work has not only made seminal contributions to the understanding of autism, phantom limbs and synesthesia, among other fascinating phenomena, but has also helped introduce neuroscience to popular culture. The fact that he is better-known as Rama — you know, like Prince or Madonna or Che — is a fitting reflection of his cultural cachet.

Today, Rama releases his highly anticipated new book: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human — an ambitious exploration of everything from the origins of language to our relationship with art to the very mental foundation of civilization.

As heady as our progress [in the sciences of the mind] has been, we need to stay completely honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have only discovered a tiny fraction of what there is to know about the human brain. But the modest amount that we have discovered makes for a story more exciting than any Sherlock Holmes novel. I feel certain that as progress continues through the coming decades, the conceptual twists and technological turns we are in for are going to be at least as mind bending, at last as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended physics a century ago. The adage that fact is stranger than fiction seems to be especially true for the workings of the brain.” ~ V. S. Ramachandran

You can sample Rama’s remarkable quest to illuminate the brain with his excellent 2007 TED talk:

Both empirically rooted in specific patient cases and philosophically speculative in an intelligent, grounded way, with a healthy dose of humor thrown in for good measure, The Tell-Tale Brain is an absolute masterpiece of cognitive science and a living manifesto for the study of the brain.

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Citizen King: The Last Five Years of MLK’s Life

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Today marks the 25th annual Martin Luther King Day, commemorating the visionary whose work and legacy transcended borders of nationality, ethnicity and ideology to make one of the most important contributions to human rights in history. In 2004, PBS produced Citizen King — an extraordinary documentary that skirts the all-too-familiar stories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and instead offers a rare glimpse of the last five years of MLK’s life through personal recollections and eyewitness accounts of friends, journalists, policemen, historians and cultural luminaries.

The series is now available on YouTube in 13 parts — or, for those keen on quality, on DVD.

My dear fellow Clergymen: I came across your recent statement calling our present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~ Letter from the Birmingham Jail, MLK, 1963

Catch the remaining parts here: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

Finally, no celebration of MLK’s legacy is complete without his iconic I Have a Dream speech — catch it here in its full hair-raising glory:

For more on MLK’s legacy, we highly recommend A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. — published more than 20 years ago, still an absolutely critical capsule of thought leadership and moral history.

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