Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘best of’

16 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best History Books of 2011

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What African drum languages have to do with women’s emancipation, radioactivity, and the future of the web.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, and science books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the most fascinating history books featured on Brain Pickings this year, tomes that unearth unknown treasures from the annals of yesteryear or offer an unusual lens on a familiar piece of our cultural past.

THE INFORMATION

The future of information can’t be complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — the book you’d have to read if you only read one book this year. Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

Originally featured here in March.

THE SWERVE

Poggio Bracciolini is the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. […] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.”

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous […] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.”

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.

RADIOACTIVE

Wait, how can a book be among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books? Well, if it’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, it can. In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — 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, and 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 — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process 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 shade of blue. 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.

Redniss tells 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.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

HEDY’S FOLLY

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World tells the fascinating story of a Hollywood-starlet-turned-inventor whose radio system for remote-controlling torpedoes laid the foundations for technologies like wifi and Bluetooth. But her story is also one of breaking free of society’s expectations for what inventors should be and look like. After our recent review, reader Carmelo “Nino” Amarena, an inventor himself, who interviewed Lamarr in 1997 shortly before her death, captures this friction in an email:

Ever since I found out back in 1989 that Hedy had invented Spread Spectrum (Frequency Hopping type only), I followed her career historically until her death. My interview with her is one of the most notable memories I have of speaking with an inventor, and as luck would have it, she was underestimated for nearly 60 years on the smarts behind her beauty. One of the things she said to me in our 1997 talk was, ‘my beauty was my curse, so-to-speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was’. I believe we all have our own version of Hedy’s curse and trying to overcome it could take a lifetime.”

In 1937, the dinner table of Fritz Mandl — an arms dealer who sold to both sides during the Spanish Civil War and the third richest man in Austria — entertained high-ranking Nazi officials who chatted about the newest munitions technologies. Mandl’s wife, a twenty-four-year-old former movie star, whom he respected but also claimed “didn’t know A from Z,” sat quietly listening. Hedy Kiestler, whose parents were assimilated Jews, and who would be rechristened by Louis B. Meyer as Hedy Lamarr, wanted to escape to Hollywood and return to the screen. From these dinner parties, she knew about about submarines and wire-guided torpedoes, about the multiple frequencies used to guide bombs. She knew that she had present herself as the glamorous wife of an arms dealer. And she knew that in order to leave her husband, she would have to take a good amount of this information with her.

An MGM studio portrait of Hedy Lamarr, 1938

Hedy’s story is intertwined with that of American composer George Antheil, who lived during the 1920s with his wife in Paris above the newly opened Shakespeare and Company, and who could count among his friends Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Louise Bryant, and Igor Stravinsky. When Antheil attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the composer invited him afterward to a player piano factory, where he wished to have his work punched out for posterity. There, Antheil conceived of a grand composition for sixteen player pianos, bells, sirens, and several airplane propellers, which he called his Ballet mecanique. When he premiered the work in the US, the avant-garde composition proved a disaster.

Composer George Antheil during the 1920s in Paris, when he was living above the newly founded Shakespeare & Co with his wife.

Antheil and his wife decamped for Hollywood, where he attempted to write for the screen. When Antheil met Hedy, now bona fide movie star, in the summer of 1940 at a dinner held by costume designer Adrian, they began talking about their interests in the war and their backgrounds in munitions (Antheil had been a young inspector in a Pennsylvania munitions plant during World War I.) Hedy had been horrified by the German torpedoing of two ships carrying British children to Canada to avoid the Blitz, and she had begun to think about a way to control a torpedo remotely, without detection.

Hedy had the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies and Antheil had the idea of achieving this with a coded ribbon, similar to a player piano strip. A year of phone calls, drawings on envelopes, and fiddling with models on Hedy’s living room floor produced a patent for a radio system that was virtually jam-proof, constantly skipping signals.

The patent filed in 1941 by Hedy and Antheil for a 'secret communication system'

Antheil responded to Hedy’s enthusiasm, although he thought her sometimes scatterbrained, and Hedy to Antheil’s mechanical focus as a composer. The two were always just friends and respected one another’s quirks. Antheil wrote to a friend about a new scheme Hedy was planning with Howard Hughes:

Hedy is a quite nice, but mad, girl who besides being very beautiful indeed spends most of her spare time inventing things—she’s just invented a new ‘soda pop’ which she’s patenting—of all things!”

In the center, Heddy Lamarr, with George Antheil to the right and his wife Boski Antheil to the left

Hedy’s Folly isn’t the story of a science prodigy or a movie star with a few hobbies, it’s a star-studded picaresque about two undeniably creative people whose interests and backgrounds unlocked the best in one another — the mark of true inventors.

Adapted from Michelle Legro’s fantastic full review.

IN THE PLEX

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what acclaimed technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

Originally featured, with video, in August.

BOOKS: A LIVING HISTORY

What is an omnibus about history books without a book about the history of books? We’ve previously explored how books have been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented — something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books. Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Lyons offers an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate.” ~ Martyn Lyon

Illustration from 1889 showing three women reading the three successive volumes of a novel, possibly borrowed from a circulating library

Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Yves Gellie / Corbis

Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper — the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book’s conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term ‘book’, then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials.” ~ Martyn Lyons

Calmann-Lèvy’s bookshop on the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens in Paris

Stefano Blanchetti / Corbis

A fresco at Pompeii depicting a woman browsing through a scroll

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today’s ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, revolution.

The library at Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses the Tripitaka Koreana

Leonard de Selva / Corbis

Amman woodcuts showing a compositor with his composing stick and two-page forme, and printers and bookbinders at work

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

A reading scene by George Morland (1763-1804) entitled Domestic Happiness

Christi’s Images / Bridgeman Art Library

In this hand-colored engraving by British humorist Thomas Rowlandson, a writer has some difficulty in persuading a bookseller to accept his manuscript

British Museum, London

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

Images courtesy of Getty Publications

1493

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This year, Mann came back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493 will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Originally featured here in August.

WHEELS OF CHANGE

National Geographic’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), which also happens to be one of the year’s best photography , tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity. (Not to be confused with another excellent tome that came out this year, It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, which offers a more general chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.)

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: © Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: © Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March.

HARK! A VAGRANT

History doesn’t have to always take itself seriously. From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant — a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name. Scientists and artists, revolutionaries and superheroes, suffragists and presidents — they’re all there, as antique hipsters, and they’re all skewered with equal parts comedic and cerebral prod.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Nikola Tesla and Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren’t paying attention.

I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you’ve enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you’re just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too.” ~ Kate Beaton

Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what’s already an absolute delight.

Handsome and hilarious, the six-panel stories in Hark! A Vagrant will undo all the uptightness about history instilled in you by academia, leaving you instead with a hearty laugh and some great lines for dinner party banter.

Images courtesy of Kate Beaton / Drawn and Quarterly

THE MAN OF NUMBERS

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, also one of the year’s best science books, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.

MASTERS OF MYSTERY

As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets any unlikelier than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant, the two even stood in stark physical contrast, once likened by a journalist to Pooh and Piglet.

But when they met in 1920, something extraordinary began. In Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandford tells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

From Queen Victoria to W. B. Yeats to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln, even the era’s political, scientific, and artistic elite engaged in efforts to reach departed loved ones in worlds unseen. By the time Houdini arrived in America in 1878, more than 11 million people admitted to being Spiritualists. Spiritualism, of course, wasn’t a new idea at the time. The notion that the soul survives intact after physical death and lives on on another plane, Sandford reminds us, could be traced back at least as far back as the writings of Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the mid-18th century. His Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”) made an eight-volume case for the supernatural and provoked a published retort from Immanuel Kant, who pronounced Swedenborg’s opinions “nothing but illusions.”

This notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” ~ Harry Houdini

Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed. In 1920, Houdini went on a six-month tour in Europe, attending more than a hundred séances. He wanted, desperately, to believe — but, himself professional skeptic in the business of fooling people, he never quite managed to suspend his disbelief. In fact, he became the Penn & Teller of his day, seeing it as his duty to myth-bust psychics and other prophets of Spiritualism.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was only 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with, as we’ve already seen in this rare footage from 1930, reached a manically obsessive proportion by his old age.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

Originally featured here earlier this month.

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12 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Science Books of 2011

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From Infinity to Fibonacci, or what religious mythology has to do with the inner workings of field science.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids, art, design, and creativity books, and photography books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the year’s most compelling science books, spanning everything from medicine to physics to quantum mechanics. (And before you raise an eyebrow at the absence of the social and “soft” sciences, know that an omnibus of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books is coming next week.)

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

Rebecca Skloot is one of the finest science writers working today. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, one of five fantastic books about unsung heroes, she tells the story of a woman who unwittingly shaped contemporary science. (Though the book came out in 2010, the paperback was released in 2011 so, hey, it counts.)

When Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African-American mother of five who migrated from the tobacco farms of Virginia to poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, died at the tragic age of 31 from cervical cancer, she didn’t realize she’d be the donor of cells that would create the HeLa immortal cell line — a line that didn’t die after a few cell divisions — making possible some of the most seminal discoveries in modern medicine. Though the tumor tissue was taken with neither her knowledge nor her consent, the HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. To date, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells.

Skloot weaves a fascinating and tender detective story about HeLa’s legacy through the discovery of Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who didn’t know her mother but who always knew she wanted to be a scientist. As Skloot and Deborah, infinitely different yet united by the shared quest for answers, unravel one of the most absorbing mysteries of modern science, we also get a rich and sensitive tale about family, community, and the dark side of society’s capacity for exploiting its poorest and most vulnerable members. The book, one of the decade’s most excellent and ambitious science-and-so-much-more reads, is currently being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong, and letting everything change while you’re working on it — and I think writing is the same way.” ~ Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.

Deborah Lacks at about age four.

Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at Hopkins, circa 1951.

In an interview with Skloot, David Dobbs offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the book came to life — a must-read for anyone interested in the intricacies of intelligent inquiry and storytelling, in science and in general.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

The Beginning of Infinity comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

Originally reviewed in July.

RADIOACTIVE

In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — 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, and 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 — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. Granted, the book was also atop my omnibus of the year’s best art and design books — but that’s because it’s truly extraordinary — a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process 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 shade of blue. 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.

Redniss tells 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.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

THE PHYSICS BOOK

Einstein famously noted that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. In The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics, acclaimed science author Clifford Pickover offers a sweeping, lavishly illustrated chronology of comprehension by way of physics, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), through such watershed moments as Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and gravity (1687), the invention of fiber optics (1841), Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1915), the first speculation about parallel universes (1956), the discovery of buckyballs (1985), Stephen Hawking’s Star Trek cameo (1993), and the building of the Large Hadron Collider (2009).

The book, which could well be the best thing since Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything, begins with a beautiful quote about the poetry of science and curiosity:

As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers, and poets thrive at this shoreline.” ~ W. Mark Richardson, ‘A Skeptic’s Sense of Wonder,’ Science

Pickover takes a wide-angle view of what physics actually is, encompassing everything from relativity to quantum mechanics to dark matter and beyond, in a spirit that honors the American Physical Society’s founding mission statement of 1899, which holds physics as “the most basic and fundamental science.” As much as it is about the great ideas of physics, the book is also about the great minds behind them, including Brain Pickings darlings Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Erwin Schrödinger.

From the magnetic monopole to quasicrystals to dark matter, The Physics Book is an invaluable treasure trove of curated knowledge in an age when, as Andrew Zolli put it at the opening of PopTech 2011, “the scale of our knowledge is expanding faster than most of our ability to comprehend.” For once, it’s rather nice to make some of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements feel contained and digestible.

Originally reviewed, with plenty more images, last month.

I HAVE LANDED

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This year marked the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Originally featured in October.

THE MAGIC OF REALITY

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This year, Dawkins released his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, also among the year’s best children’s books — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, an antidote to the creationism mythology teaching young readers how to replace myth with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

FIELD NOTES

Field Notes on Science and Nature, one of five fascinating peeks inside the notebooks of great creators, offers an unprecedented look at the inner workings of scientific inquiry and observation. It’s as much a scientific travelogue as it is a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment, its beautiful reproductions of original journal pages taking us from Baja, California, with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

Michael Canfield, who edited the book and is himself a biologist at Harvard, invites us to “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

E.O. Wilson articulates the book’s voyeuristic magic in its introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Kirstin Butler’s original review here.

FEYNMAN

Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.

CULTURE

This year, Edge.org editor John Brockman launched a new series of anthologies curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. First came The Mind, followed by Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built […] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual […] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture expands both the scope of science and your comfort zone of intellectual inquiry.

THE MAN OF NUMBERS

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.

FUTURE SCIENCE

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? That’s exactly what literary agent Max Brockman explores in Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge — a fantastic anthology of short pieces by 19 first-rate researchers spanning everything from astronomy to virology to computer science, and a wealth in between. The provocative yet digestible essays are intended for the curious layperson, which Brockman reminds us in the introduction doesn’t come without risk: “If you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

As you might have guessed, Brockman is the son of John Brockman, who masterminded Culture above.

Kirstin Butler reviewed this in full in August.

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05 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Photography Books of 2011

By:

What the world’s last living nomads have to do with Victorian strongwomen, tweed, and the unseen Beatles.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids and finest art, design, and creativity books, my best-of series continues with a look at the best photography books of 2011 — visual treasure troves that tell an important story, reveal a fascinating piece of history, or just deeply delight with a fresh perspective on a familiar subject.

PILGRIMAGE

Annie Leibovitz is one of today’s most prolific and celebrated photographers, her lens having captured generations of cultural icons with equal parts admiration and humanity. Unlike her other volumes, her latest book, out earlier this month, features no celebrities, no luminaries, no models — at least not directly. Instead, Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s thoughtful meditation on how she can sustain her creativity in the face of adversity and make the most of her remaining time on Earth. The quest took her to such fascinating locales and pockets of cultural history as Charles Darwin’s cottage in the English countryside, Virginia Woolf’s writing table, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Freud’s final couch. It’s is as much a photographic feat of Leibovitz’s characteristically epic proportion as it is a timeless cultural treasure chest full of mementos and meta-iconography from the hotbed of 20th-century thought.

The kernel of the idea came before Leibovitz’s partner, the great Susan Sontag, died — the two of them had planned to do a book of places that were important to them, which they meticulously compiled in lists. Years after Sontag’s death, upon visiting Niagara Falls with her three young kids, Leibovitz decided to start her own list and do the book on her own.

From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal. It taught me to see again.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

The darkroom in Ansel Adams's home in Carmel, California, now owned by Adams’s son, Michael, and his wife, Jeanne, friends of Leibovitz

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

The Niagara Falls in Ontario

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Annie Oakley’s heart target from a private collection in Los Angeles, California

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress at the Amherst Historical Society in Amherst, Massachusetts

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A glass negative of a multiple-lens portrait of Lincoln made on Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger at the Brady Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A door in the adobe patio wall of Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance warehouse in Yonkers, New York

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Dominique Browning paid Leibovitz a visit to chat about the book and has a lovely piece about it in the Times.

I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

Images courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

VENUS WITH BICEPS

Good thing this omnibus isn’t actually a ranked list, or else I might have been tempted to put Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women at the very top. This fascinating collection of rare archival images, 30 years in the making, chronicles nearly 200 years of sociocultural narrative about the strong female physique. It explores strongwomen’s legacy through rare posters, advertisements, comic books, flyers, and magazines, many never-before-published, for a total of 200 fantastic full-color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs, framed in their intriguing and far from frictionless cultural context. The women in them expanded and redefined femininity itself, reining in a new era of relating to the will and the body, but their plight was and remains far from easy, carried out most prominently in the battlefield of popular imagery.

Among the earliest strongwomen whose names have come down to us is the subject of this lithograph: Elise Serafin Luftmann. Apparently from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830.

There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman. She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages. This inability to come to grips with a strong, heavily muscled woman accounts for much of the confusion and downright hostility that often greets her.” ~ David L. Chapman

A way to diffuse male worries about women being too strong and threatening was to portray them in photos that emphasized their grace and beauty rather than their mass and musculature. Trapeze artists like this one had highly developed arms and upper bodies; it is significant that the photographer chose not to emphasize those parts of the subject's anatomy. Although her name and date are unknown, this gymnast is almost certainly a circus or music hall performer from the 1890s.

The ambivalence about women and muscularity has a long history, as it pushes at the limits of gender identity. Images of muscular women are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations.” ~ Patricia Vertinsky

The Belgian strongwoman had figured out that the one of the ways that she could amaze audiences was to lift a man on her shoulders. Eventually she was able to support half a dozen burly males as well as an oversized barbell.

In the early twentieth century, nothing conveyed the modern spirit of mobility, freedom, and independence better than the bicycle. When a pretty athletic girl was included, she added sexual desirability to the mix -- a sleek human machine joined to the manufactured machine. To many observers, this novel combination was exciting and perhaps a little frightening.

(On that note, see Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) below.)

Created between 1800 and 1980, the images trace society’s conflicted relationship with muscular women, met with everything from fascination to erotic objectification to derision, and even moral admonition. (A 1878 article for The American Christian Review, for instance, outlined a nine-step path to sin and humiliation, down which women participating in sports were headed — a simple croquet game could lead to picnics, which led to dances, which led to absence from church, which engendered moral degeneration…poverty…disconnect…disgrace…and, finally, ruin.) Coupled with this is the permeating fear that a sculpted musculature would effectively “unsex a woman.”

The strongest and most famous strongwoman of the Golden Age of the early twentieth century was Sandwina. Her birth name was Katie Brumbach. She stood over six feet tall and had enough bulk and muscle to amaze audiences with her prowess. Sandwina came from an athletic family, and in this poster c. 1900 she lifts three people (probably siblings) on a bicycle.

The Braselly Sisters were a pair of strongwomen who specialized in graceful and artistic strength stunts. They were also sisters of the even more famous female athlete, Sandwina. Here the two ladies do an adagio (acrobatic balancing) act. The photo found its way into The Police Gazette in 1909 where it was titled 'Muscles and Music.' The editors asked rhetorically, 'But don't you think the lady athletes are a stunning pair of statuesque beauties?'

When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise. here two cheerful ladies work out in their street clothes in a photograph c. 1910 by Willis T. White.

Curiously, the period between 1900 and 1914 was a golden age for images of muscular women, but these images become mysteriously difficult to find in popular media, until about the 1970s. Chapman speculates the advent of cinema and other popular entertainment displaced fairs, circuses, and vaudevilles, a prime venue for strongwomen, causing these foremothers to gradually disappear.

Lydia Pinkham marketed a vegetable compound that was supposed to alleviate menstrual and menopausal pains. The company was successful because the remedy was sold by a woman to women at a a time when females were considered childish and emotional to have much medical knowledge. Pinkham's company produced this booklet (with the same title as Bernarr Mcfadden's well-known magazine), c. 1900. It featured a female athlete flexing her muscles, and was emblematic of the positive and respectful attitude toward their customers.

In the 1940s and '50s, there were few places where muscular women congregated; one of the most important was in the circus. Aerialists, trapeze artists, and acrobats all developed impressive musculature by practicing their arts. There was a cadre of men who pursued these women and captured their flexing biceps on film. The pictures do not show much creativity or talent, but they document female muscularity at a time when such images were very rare. There is a rustic charm to these photographs, taken in off-hours in fort of circus wagons or company busses. Unfortunately, few paying customers wanted to see girls posing like this.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, women had to appear as ladylike as possible, even when doing something as traditionally masculine as working out with weights. This girl is doing a seated press with respectably heavy weight, but her high heels and helmet0like hairdo are like fig leaves preserving her femininity.

Captioned images courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press © 2011

Visually stunning, rigorously researched, and thoughtfully written, Venus with Biceps is as much a treasure chest of rare vintage ephemera as it is a fascinating and important meditation on a contentious facet of gender identity and cultural politics.

Full review, with many more images, here.

THE LOST BEATLES PHOTOGRAPHS

On the heels of last year’s release of Nowhere Boy, the lovely documentary about John Lennon’s little-known early life, rock historian Larry Marion deepens our cultural obsession with knowing the unknown Beatles in The Lost Beatles Photographs: The Bob Bonis Archive, 1964-1966 — a rare and revealing look at the iconic band through a series of intimate, never-before-seen photographs taken during The Beatles’ three U.S. tours.

The photos were taken by The Fab Four’s tour manager, Bob Bonis, who carried his Leica M3 camera everywhere, capturing pockets of wonderfully candid private moments tucked beneath the band’s overscheduled, overexposed public selves.

Bonis, a man of honor and loyalty, felt wrong about capitalizing on his unprecedented access, so for 40 years his photos remained a rare treat for his friends and family only. He passed away in 1992, and almost two decades later, his son Alex decided it was time to share his father’s collection with the thousands of Beatles fans around the world in The Lost Beatles Photographs.

In 1964, The Beatles boarded their charter jet at Seattle-Tacoma airport, heading to Vancouver for their first-ever Canadian concert, and the fourth in their first American tour, at the Empire Stadium on August 22.

George Harrison and Ringo Starr get ready to go onstage in Detroit on August 13, 1966

George Harrison and John Lennon at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, August 21, 1966

Ringo plays with a toy gun -- allegedly a gift from Elvis Presley -- during The Beatles' stay at British actor Reginald Owen's Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles while on their 1964 U.S. tour

While on stage at Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium on August 12, 1965, George Harrison turns around to face Bonis and gives him a warm thumbs-up

The Beatles begin the last tour they'd ever go on in Detroit, August 13, 1966

John Lennon in Portland, Oregon, on August 22, 1965

After the Vancouver shows, The Beatles flew to Los Angeles, only to find their reservation cancelled when the Ambassador Hotel was overrun by Beatlemaniacs. British actor Reginald Owen stepped in, offering them his Bel Air mansion for $1,000

Images courtesy of NPR / 2269 Productions, Inc. / NotFadeAwayGallery.com

Another fantastic Beatles-related release this year, worthy of an honorable mention, is Linda McCartney: Life in Photographs — a remarkable retrospective volume of work by the late and great Linda McCartney, wife of Paul and formidable music photographer who captured cultural icons like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Grateful Dead; she was also the first woman to land the coveted Rolling Stone magazine cover with her portrait of Eric Clapton in 1968.

Originally reviewed, with more images, in March.

SOUTH AFRICAN TOWNSHIP BARBERSHOPS

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for collaborative betterment.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

Originally featured in May, with more images.

BELIEVING IS SEEING

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Case in point, the thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo in August.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

Originally featured here in September.

WHEELS OF CHANGE

Even as a die-hard bike lover, the full scope of the bicycle as an agent of cultural change eluded me until the release of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) — a remarkable National Geographic tome that tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: © Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: © Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March.

On a similar note, another photographic treat for bike-lovers released this year is Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design — part heartfelt homage to the beauty of the bicycle, part museum of notable bike innovations, channeled by Vienna-based designer, bike aficionado and collector Michael Embacher through 100 remarkable bicycles.

AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION

Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — in a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Featured here in August.

SEA

You might recall photographer Mark Laita and his superb Created Equal series, with its beautiful and stark “parallel portraits” of contrasting subcultures. In October, Laita took his masterful eye for visual poetry to another fascinating, even more mysterious and alluring world in Sea — an otherworldly look at the creatures of the deep captured with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world’s water. From iridescent jellyfish to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish to playful sea horses, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.

North Pacific Giant Octopus

Blue Blubber Jellyfish

Golden Butterfly

Green Chromis

Humpback Anglerfish

Red Feather Starfish

Blue Spot Stingray

Miniatus Grouper

Images courtesy of Abrams Books / Mark Laita

HARRIS TWEED

Harris Tweed is a unique fabric hand-woven by the islanders on Scotland’s Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra, using local wool and vegetable dyes. Despite its rustic roots, this unusual cloth has risen to international fame, appearing as anything from a premium finish on limited-edition Nike shoes to the attire of choice for celebrated fictional characters like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, the Doctor from Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. Known for its distinctive flecks of color and peculiar scent, produced by the lichen dyes known as “crottle,” Harris Tweed is as much a material as it is a fascinating story about tradition, community, collaboration, and heritage.

In 2010, British photographer and Royal Society of the Arts fellow Lara Platman spent seven months on the islands of Scotland, documenting the intricate human machinery of Harris Tweed production, from the backs of the Blackface and Cheviot sheep to the artisanal looms to the high-end tailors of Savile Row. The result is Harris Tweed: From Land to Street — a stunning large-format tome that captures a group portrait of the men and women who spend their lives and make their living crafting the legendary textile.

'The box room contains all the colours of yarn required for the recipes created by the mill's designer from the colour palette of the mill.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

On a farm in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, Will and Ruth Dickenson set up maternity wards next to the farmhouse during lambing season. The children play with the newly born lambs and give them names. Along with their extended family, they help look after the lambs.

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Patrick Grant captures the cloth’s magical tradition and heartfelt humanity in the book’s foreword:

I love the island and I love the people who live there and make the tweed. Harris Tweed is made by enthusiasts, craftsmen and women who understand its history, have had its methods passed on by hand and mouth through generations of their families and their neighbours’ families. This cloth, painstakingly woven, from yarn locally spun, from wool of the local clip, is imbued with something personal and humane that no other textile comes close to possessing. And the wearer, in his or her turn, adds something more to it by the wearing. He softens it and scuffs it and shapes it, cherishes and repairs it, and all in good time he passes it on so that a new owner may enjoy it anew. All of this makes Harris Tweed the greatest cloth of all.”

'Bill Walton is one of the best-known faces in the British wool industry, having worked in the business for the past forty years. He has been responsible for grading wool and helped adapt the new wools going into the Harris Tweed industry, working on the production of carding machines in the new double-width looms.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald John Mackenzie, one of the younger weavers, tried a number of careers before he thought he would have a go at this one. He likes the fact that weaving is a regular commitment and you know what salary you will achieve if you work a full week. He has a small croft and has written for the local community about the weaving process.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald Murray started weaving in 1987. His shed is very spacious and has great light. There is a top bar on his loom and although his tweed will be checked when it goes back to the mill, he checks it on the bar under the light before it goes.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'When the weavers have completed their work, the mills' lorries collect the lengths of tweed and bring them back to the mills to be finished. The tweed arrives in bales, which here Donald John Mackenzie is unloading at the Shawbost mill. First the tweed is sent off to be darned. Then it is washed: the process is similar to any domestic wash, and takes place in a big washing tub. Finally it is pressed.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Ultimately Harris Tweed has transcended fashion in terms of transient trends and been prompted to timeless style. As the tailors of Saville Row will tell you, no wardrobe is complete without an item in Harris Tweed, and this will always be the case.” ~ Guy Hills, Dashing Tweeds

Originally featured, with more images, in November.

HURRICANE STORY

When Hurricane Katrina swept across New Orleans six years ago next month, killing 1,836 people, damaging and destroying over 76,000 houses, and leaving many homeless, photographer Jennifer Shaw found solace in capturing the turmoil with a plastic Holga camera. Hers is a story both incredible and true — from the dramatic birth of her first child on the very day of Katrina’s first strike, to her struggle with depression and her husband’s rage episodes, to their eventual return to New Orleans in time for their son’s first Mardi Gras. Hurricane Story is part memoir, part fairy tale, part poetic story of exile and homecoming, told through 46 beautiful, dream-like images and simple but powerful prose. The Holga’s rudimentary functionality, with its limited control over exposure, focus and lighting, further intensifies the story’s haunting, cinematic feel, drawing you into a seemingly surreal world that sprang from an extraordinary and brave reality.

For an ultimate cherry on top, the book comes with a poignant foreword by New York Times “Consumed” columnist and fellow Design Observer writer Rob Walker.

Any city worth living in strikes a balance between order and chaos. I guess any life worth living strikes that balance too. In late August 2005, Jennifer Shaw’s city, and I can only assume her life, tilted too far in one direction. The remarkable series of forty-six images collected in Hurricane Story tells the tale, and in doing so sets the balance right again.” ~ Rob Walker

'We left in the dark of night.'

'My water broke at one-thirty that morning.'

'The next morning we turned on the TV.'

'It was impossible not to watch.'

'We took our hurricane sideshow on the road.'

'It was nice to have a distraction.'

'FEMA hauled off our downed trees.'

'It was months til the phone was restored.'

'We got a new roof before Christmas.'

'Anointed in glitter, we reclaimed the streets.'

Images courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

Originally featured here in July.

NOMAD

What is it about Dutch photographers that makes them so visually eloquent at capturing the human condition? From Jeroen Toirkens comes Nomad — a fascinating and strikingly beautiful visual anthropology of the Northern Hemisphere’s last living nomadic peoples, from Greenland to Turkey. A decade in the making, this multi-continent journey unfolds in 150 black-and-white and full-color photos that reveal what feels like an alternate reality of a life often harsh, sometimes poetic, devoid of many of our modern luxuries and basic givens, from shiny digital gadgets to a permanent roof over one’s head. A stunning exercise in perspective-shifting, it invites you to see the world — our world, and yet a world that feels eerily other — with new eyes, embracing it with equal parts fascination and profound human empathy.

Since the beginning of time, nomadic people have roamed the earth. Looking for food, feeding their cattle. Looking for an existence, freedom. Living in the wild, mountains, deserts, on tundra and ice. With only a thin layer of tent between them and nature. Earth in the 21st century is a crowded place, roads and cities are everywhere. Yet somehow, these people hold on to traditions that go back to the very beginning of human civilization.” ~ Jelle Brandt Corstius

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, 2009

Altai Mountains, Russia, 2006

Nuuk, Greenland, 2009

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Arghangai Aimag, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Nenets, Russia, 2005

Baruun Taiga, Mongolia, 2004

Kazakh, Altai Mountains, Russia, 2004

Berbers, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2002

Kirgiz, Kyrgystan, 2000

Yörük, Bolkar Mountains, Turkey, 1999

Sami, Karesuvanto, Finland, 2001

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Images courtesy of Jeroen Toirkens

Originally featured here, with more images and video, in October.

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A big part of what makes great photography books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?

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