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26 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Best Art Books of 2012

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From Indian folklore to Paris vs. NYC, by way of Japanese Wonderland and 80 years of loving of dogs.

After last week’s look at the best science books of 2012, the season’s indulgently subjective and non-exhaustive best-of reading lists continue with the year’s favorite art books, in no particular order. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

DRAWING FROM THE CITY

From visionary Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Their latest gem, Drawing from the City (public library) by artist Tejubehan, is both more exquisite and born out of a more moving personal story than just about any book I’ve come across. Its gorgeous black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, brimming with expressive lines and dots somewhere between Yayoi Kusama and Edward Gorey, tell the partly autobiographical, partly escapist tale of this self-taught artist who came of age as a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society.

Tejubehan takes us on a journey from her small village into the big city, where her poor parents move to find work. Three years pass. Teju is now a young woman and she marries a man who sings for a living. With his encouragement, she becomes an artist.

It is like magic. I sit in one place with paper and pen, and it is my hand that starts to move. Lines, dots, more lines, and more dots, and you have a picture. I can bring to life things that I have seen and know, but also things that I imagine. I can even bring the two together.

I have been moving all my life, looking for ways to survive, but this is a new direction. My heart is full.

I see a girl going somewhere on a bicycle, and I draw a whole group of girls, all of them on the way somewhere.

We reach the city! Everything is on the move here, not just the train. People rush past, pushing their way through the streets. Only the tall buildings seem rooted to the spot, along with a few trees that stand guard on the other side.

I don’t mind the rush though. The sun is setting, and I marvel at the lampposts that can turn night into day. Nights in our village are really dark.

At its heart, however, the story is really a feminist story — a vision for women’s liberation in a culture with oppressive gender norms and limiting social expectations. In envisioning the woman of the city — biking, driving, flying — Tejubehan is really envisioning what it might be like to live in a world where to be female means to be free to move and free to just be.

I like cars. I wonder what it’s like to move at such a high speed and to be in control of where you’re going. There are always two women in my cars. One drives and the other looks out of the window.

I want to be both of those women.

But even in the plane, my women are not content to sit still. So I float them down, wondering where they should go next. Should they fly forever like birds? Or should I draw some lines taking them down to the sea?

I rest my pen here for a moment. I have time to decide.

Like many of Tara’s other books, Drawing from the City has been silkscreen-printed and bound by hand on handmade paper. The cover is colored with traditional Indian dyes, emanating an enchanting earthy smell that reminds you what it’s like to hold an analog labor of love in your analog human hands.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.

ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.

STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST

Much has been said about how creativity works, what its secrets are, and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:

So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist (UK; public library) — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.

The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

He writes in the introduction:

It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.

These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.

These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)

On doing what you love, Kleon urges:

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

Originally featured at length in March.

ABSTRACT CITY

Since 2008, Christoph NiemannLEGO-lover, imagination instigator, metaphorical chicken-chaser — has been delighting us with his visual blog for The New York Times, in which he has explored everything from his love-hate relationship with coffee to the fall of the Berlin Wall to his obsession with maps to the familiar drudgery of red-eye flights. Abstract City (public library) gathers sixteen of his visual essays, infused with his signature blend of humor, thoughtfulness, and exquisite conceptual freshness. An additional chapter on his creative process, echoing his excellent Creative Mornings talk on the same subject, presents the ultimate cherry on top.

'One of the most frustrating things in New York is that everything is always much more expensive than (a) you think and (b) what the price tag says. One way to come up with a reliable budget is to use the following Price-vs.-What-You-Actually-End-Up-Paying-Ratios.

Digital camera: Add 30 percent. (Because the particular model you picked is out of stock, and the one that’s left is more expensive. Plus sales tax.)

Burger and beer: Add 60 percent. (Tax and tip for you and for that friend from Europe who left early and 'didn’t know' that you have to pay tax and tip.)

Phone plans: Add 130 percent. (To cover F.C.C., U.S.F., T.R.S., A.B.C., C.I.A. and LOL.)'

'I must have been 5 when I first discovered the taste of coffee, when I was accidentally given a scoop of coffee ice cream. I was inconsolable: how could grown-ups ruin something as wonderful as ice cream with something as disgusting as coffee?

A few years later I was similarly devastated when my parents announced that for our big summer vacation we would go . . . hiking.'

'Here’s a chart that shows my coffee bias over the years.

For good measure I have added my bagel preferences over the same period. (1) Drip coffee, (2) Starbucks, (3) blueberry bagels, (4) sesame bagels, (5) poppy-seed bagels, (6) everything bagels

Please don’t hold my brief affair with blueberry bagels against me. I cured myself of this aberration.'

'Getting a good night’s sleep is actually a lot more complicated than one would think.'

'To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units.

PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area.

COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet)

DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn't take off his shoes first.'

Originally featured, with more images, in April.

100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED ART

100 Ideas That Changed Art (public library) offers a succinct account of the most influential developments in the history of art, from cave paintings to the internet, compiled by art historian and broadcaster Michael Bird. From conceptual innovations like negative space (#98), color codes (#33), and street art (#94) to landmarks of communication like making books (#21), propaganda (#12), and handwriting (#24) to ideological developments like “less is more” (#30), protest (#79), and the body as surface (#9), each idea is contextualized in a 500-word essay with key visual examples.

Bird writes in the introduction:

What does it mean to ‘change art’? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.

IDEA # 7: NARRATIVE

On Trajan’s Column in Rome significant moments in the story of Trajan’s Dacian campaign are grouped to align vertically, so that they make sense from several standpoints when viewed from the ground. Like a mime show, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money fresco conveys the drama of emotionally charged confrontation and resolute action even to modern viewers unfamiliar with the biblical story.

Whereas stories are diachronic — they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time — visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.

IDEA # 32: TROMPE-L'OEIL

Renaissance artists put the newly perfected technique of linear perspective to light-hearted as well as serious uses. The trompe-l’oeil ceiling opening Andrea Mantegna painted for his patron Ludovico Gonzaga is a virtuoso demonstration of perspective.

IDEA # 34: ALLEGORY

In devising his great allegory Primavera (Spring, c.1478), Sandro Botticelli followed Alberti’s advice to painters, to take their themes from literary sources. In the center Venus and Cupid represent love, while Flora scatters flowers.

IDEA # 54: THE ARTIST

A detail from Courbet’s The Studio of the Painter (1855) shows the artist painting a landscape, observed by a nude female model and, to the right, people he called 'shareholders'—friends and supporters from the art world.

IDEA # 59: CAPTURING THE INSTANT

John Constable’s studies of clouds over Hampstead Heath, London, in 1821-1822 are so accurate that they correlate with meteorological records. Art’s subject here is not the permanence of landscape but 'the ungraspable, the fleeting.'

IDEA # 65: ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

In George de la Tour’s Saint Joseph Carpenter (c.1640), the young Jesus holds a candle while his father drills a wooden beam, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Candlelight intensifies the spiritual drama of this apparently everyday scene.

IDEA # 82: SHOCK

Defending Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) from accusations of 'obscene intent,' the novelist Emile Zola took the scandalized public to task for being preoccupied with subject matter and ignoring the painting’s qualities as art.

Also from the series: 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, and 100 Ideas That Changed Photography.

Originally featured in October.

MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF

In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf * (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.

La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:

So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon speaks to the influence ecosystem that William Gibson once so eloquently termed “personal microculture” and captures the essence of combinatorial creativity:

Your style is still going to be constructed out of the material that you have inherited, but it’s going to be put together in some way that has, hopefully, never quite been heard before.

Maira Kalman

The ever-wise, ever-delightful Maira Kalman channels her love of libraries:

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:

My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:

Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem winks at the cumulative usefulness of useless knowledge:

The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.

Christoph Niemann

Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:

I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.

[…]

For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.

Patti Smith

The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:

I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris channels Henry Miller:

I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.

Stefan Sagmeister

Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:

As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.

Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, better-known as Lemony Snicket, confesses:

I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.

Pico Iyer

But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:

What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.

For the ultimate book-lover’s treat, Jane will paint your ideal bookshelf.

Originally featured, with more bookshelves and an important footnote, earlier this month.

I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL

Also from the wonderful Tara Books (see above) comes I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library) — a die-cut masterpiece two years in the making, based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti, who brought us the magnificent The Night Life of Trees.

Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal — but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is unlike any book you’ve ever held in your hands and in your heart, and outcharms even

Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, in May.

NO MAN’S LAND

French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex may be best-known for his contemplative meditations on people and time, aimed at children yet agelessly delightful and thought-provoking, but he is also a masterful explorer of complex grown-up themes. No Man’s Land (public library), from London indie publisher No Brow, is a poignant satire of the mind’s well-documented gift for fooling itself and seducing us into our own hand-spun illusory realities. Printed in three spot-colors, screenprint-like, on beautiful matte paper — Blexbolex’s signature style — it tells the story of a hero spiraling into an implausible dreamland in hopeless escapism from the processes of mortality.

And still, that insinuating, ever-growing silence.

Hell. I survived hell; you don’t even have the beginning of the slightest idea.

Originally featured in July.

PARIS VS. NEW YORK

For the past two years, graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” has been chronicling the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits. This year, Muratyan joined the finest blog-turned-books with Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) — an absolutely charming collection of these vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses. From beverages to beards, hands to houses, Muratyan captures the intricacies of cultural difference in a way that blends the minimalist and playful visual whimsy of Noma Bar’s Guess Who? with the side-by-side parallelism of Mark Laita’s Created Equal to deliver something entirely new and entirely delightful.

la romantique

le café

l'obsession

(You might recall the above from the excellent Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language.)

le roman

la barbe

le matin

les mains

la façade

le réalisateur

l'apéro

Also available as a set of postcards.

Originally featured, with more images, in January.

THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS

Dogs have enjoyed a long track record as fiction heroes, photography models, and subjects of scientific curiosity. But they’ve also had an admirable history of inhabiting the spectrum between trope and muse for some of literary history’s greatest talent. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) collects such canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — from a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including Brain Pickings regulars E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, the lavishly illustrated 400-page tome is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword:

A few words about you. You bought this book: several hundred pages on dogs. You are, in other words, as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us. Have you wondered why you bought it? One possible answer is that you see the subject of man’s affection for dogs as a way of examining all sorts of broader issues. Is it the case of a simple thing revealing a great many complex truths? We do a lot of this at The New Yorker. To be honest: I do a lot of this at The New Yorker — always going on and on about how A is just a metaphor for B, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s be clear. You didn’t really buy this boo because of some grand metaphor. Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.

Cover by Constantin Alajalov, February 12, 1938

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, June 10, 2002

From E. B. White comes a playful, heart-warming poem circa 1930:

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK
Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, least at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintances, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

Cover by Anatol Kovarsky, February 12, 1966

In a piece bearing the deceptively unassuming title “Dog Story,” Adam Gopnik deploys his formidable dual storytelling torpedo of disarming personal anecdote and uncompromising scientific rigor to explore post-Darwinian views on dog domestication:

[C]ountering [Darwin's] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us. A marginally calmer canid came close to the circle of human warmth — and, more important, human refuse — and was tolerated by the humans inside: let him eat the garbage. Then this scavenging wolf mated with another calm wolf, and soon a family of calmer wolves proliferated just outside the firelight. It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves, that gave us dogs. ‘Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,’ the protodogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. ‘We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.’ (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.)

A few pages later, Gopnik’s gentle arrow to the heart of our relationship with dogs:

Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.

Cover by Ana Juan, February 8, 2010

Cover by James Thurber, February 29, 1936

In another essay on Thurber, the magazine’s quintessential dog-lover, whose artwork graces the book cover, Gopnik does away with Gladwell’s disclaimer and offers an insightful A-is-a-metaphor-for-B analysis of Thurber’s meta-symbolism:

So why dogs? The answer is simple: for Thurber, the dog chimed with, represented, the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs—peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance—were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners. The American man had the permanent jumps, and the American dog did not. The dog was man set free from family obligations, Monastic Man. Dogs ‘would in all probability have averted the Depression, for they can go through lots tougher things than we and still think it’s boom time. They demand very little of their heyday; a kind word is more to them than fame, a soup bone than gold; they are perfectly contented with a warm fire and a good book to chew (preferably an autographed first edition lent by a friend); wine and song they can completely forgo; and they can almost completely forgo women.’ For Thurber, the dog is not man’s best friend so much as man’s sole dodgy ally in his struggle with man’s strangest necessity, woman.

Cover by John Cuneo, June 27, 2011

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, April 11, 2005

Indeed, it is also Gopnik who, in the same essay, captures in just a few short sentences the entire ethos of the book — and the very heart of man’s relationship with dog:

Integrity, even grouchy growling integrity, in a world that doesn’t value it; nobility in a time that doesn’t want it—what Thurber’s dogs do is absurd or even pernicious (they bite people, or drag junk furniture for miles) but demonstrates the necessary triumph of the superfluous. Which is what dogs are all about; it is the canine way. Nothing is less necessary than a pet dog, or more needed. Thurber’s theme is that a dog’s life is spent, as a man’s life should be, doing pointless things that have the solemnity of inner purpose.

Originally featured, with more covers and cartoons, earlier this month.

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19 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Best Science Books of 2012

By:

From cosmology to cosmic love, or what your biological clock has to do with diagraming evolution.

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are, in no particular order, my ten favorite science books of 2012. (Catch up on last year’s reading list here.)

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. (He would have scoffed at Einstein, then, who was known to require ten hours of sleep for optimal performance.) This perceived superiority of those who can get by on less sleep isn’t just something Napoleon shared with dictators like Hitler and Stalin, it’s an enduring attitude woven into our social norms and expectations, from proverbs about early birds to the basic scheduling structure of education and the workplace. But in Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), a fine addition to these 7 essential books on time, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

In fact, each of us possesses a different chronotype — an internal timing type best defined by your midpoint of sleep, or midsleep, which you can calculate by dividing your average sleep duration by two and adding the resulting number to your average bedtime on free days, meaning days when your sleep and waking times are not dictated by the demands of your work or school schedule. For instance, if you go to bed at 11 P.M. and wake up at 7 A.M., add four hours to 11pm and you get 3 A.M. as your midsleep.

The distribution of midsleep in Central Europe. The midsleep times (on free days) of over 60 percent of the population fall between 3:30 and 5:30 A.M.

Roenneberg traces the evolutionary roots of different sleep cycles and argues that while earlier chronotypes might have had a social advantage in agrarian and industrial societies, today’s world of time-shift work and constant connectivity has invalidated such advantages but left behind the social stigma around later chronotypes.

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society. The old moral is so prevalent, however, that it still dominates our beliefs, even in modern times. The postman doesn’t think for a second that the young man might have worked until the early morning hours because he is a night-shift worker or for other reasons. He labels healthy young people who sleep into the day as lazy — as long sleepers. This attitude is reflected in the frequent use of the word-pair early birds and long sleepers [in the media]. Yet this pair is nothing but apples and oranges, because the opposite of early is late and the opposite of long is short.

Roenneberg goes on to explore sleep duration, a measure of sleep types that complements midsleep, demonstrating just as wide a spectrum of short and long sleepers and debunking the notion that people who get up late sleep longer than others — this judgment, after all, is based on the assumption that everyone goes to bed at the same time, which we increasingly do not.

Sleep duration shows a bell-shaped distribution within a population, but there are more short sleepers (on the left) than long sleepers (on the right).

The disconnect between our internal, biological time and social time — defined by our work schedules and social engagements — leads to what Roenneberg calls social jet lag, a kind of chronic exhaustion resembling the symptoms of jet lag and comparable to having to work for a company a few time zones to the east of your home.

Unlike what happens in real jet lag, people who suffer from social jet lag never leave their home base and can therefore never adjust to a new light-dark environment … While real jet lag is acute and transient, social jet lag is chronic. The amount of social jet lag that an individual is exposed to can be quantified as the difference between midsleep on free days and midsleep on work days … Over 40 percent of the Central European population suffers from social jet lag of two hours or more, and the internal time of over 15 percent is three hours or more out of synch with external time. There is no reason to assume that this would be different in other industrialized nations.

The scissors of sleep. Depending on chronotype, sleep duration can be very different between work days and free days.

Chronotypes vary with age:

Young children are relatively early chronotypes (to the distress of many young parents), and then gradually become later. During puberty and adolescence humans become true night owls, and then around twenty years of age reach a turning point and become earlier again for the rest of their lives. On average, women reach this turning point at nineteen and a half while men start to become earlier again at twenty-one … [T]his clear turning point in the developmental changes of chronotype … [is] the first biological marker for the end of adolescence.

Roenneberg points out that in our culture, there is a great disconnect between teenagers’ biological abilities and our social expectations of them, encapsulated in what is known as the disco hypothesis — the notion that if only teens would go to bed earlier, meaning not party until late, they’d be better able to wake up clear-headed and ready for school at the expected time. The data, however, indicate otherwise — adolescents’ internal time is shifted so they don’t find sleep before the small hours of the night, a pattern also found in the life cycle of rodents.

Here, we brush up against a painfully obtrusive cultural obstacle: School starts early — as early as 7 A.M. in some European countries — and teens are expected to perform well on a schedule not designed with their internal time in mind. As a result, studies have shown that many students show the signs of narcolepsy — a severe sleeping disorder that makes one fall asleep at once when given the chance, immediately entering REM sleep. The implications are worrisome:

Teenagers need around eight to ten hours of sleep but get much less during their workweek. A recent study found that when the starting time of high school is delayed by an hour, the percentage of students who get at least eight hours of sleep per night jumps from 35.7 percent to 50 percent. Adolescent students’ attendance rate, their performance, their motivation, even their eating habits all improve significantly if school times are delayed.

Similar detrimental effects of social jet lag are found in shift work, which Roenneberg calls “one of the most blatant assaults on the body clock in modern society.” (And while we may be tempted to equate shift work with the service industry, any journalist, designer, developer, or artist who works well into the night on deadline can relate — hey, it’s well past midnight again as I’m writing this.) In fact, the World Health Organization recently classified “shift work that involves circadian disruption” as a potential cause of cancer, and the consequences of social jet lag and near-narcolepsy extend beyond the usual suspects of car accidents and medical errors:

We are only beginning to understand the potentially detrimental consequences of social jet lag. One of these has already been worked out with frightening certainty: the more severe the social jet lag that people suffer, the more likely it is that they are smokers. Tis is not a question of quantity (number of cigarettes per day) but simple whether they are smokers or not … Statistically, we experience the worst social jet lag as teenagers, when our body clocks are drastically delayed for biological reasons, but we still have to get up at the same traditional times for school. This coincides with the age when most individuals start smoking. Assuredly there are many different reasons people start smoking at that age, but social jet lag certainly contributes to the risk.

If young people’s psychological and emotional well-being isn’t incentive enough for policy makers — who, by the way, Roenneberg’s research indicates tend to be early chronotypes themselves — to consider later school times, one would think their health should be.

The correlation between social jet lag and smoking continues later in life as well, particularly when it comes to quitting:

[T]he less stress smokers have, the easier it is for them to quit. Social jet lag is stress, so the chances of successfully quitting smoking are higher when the mismatch of internal and external time is smaller. The numbers connecting smoking with social jet lag are striking: Among those who suffer less than an hour of social jet lag per day, we find 15 to 20 percent are smokers. This percentage systematically rises to over 60 percent when internal and external time are more than five hours out of sync.

Another factor contributing to our social jet lag is Daylight Savings Time. Even though DST’s proponents argue that it’s just one small hour, the data suggest that between October and March, DST throws off our body clocks by up to four weeks, depending on our latitude, not allowing our bodies to properly adjust to the time change, especially if we happen to be later chronotypes. The result is increased social jet lag and decreased sleep duration.

But what actually regulates our internal time? Though the temporal structures of sun time — tide, day, month, and year — play a significant role in the lives of all organisms, our biological clocks evolved in a “time-free” world and are somewhat independent of such external stimuli as light and dark. For instance, early botanical studies showed that a mimosa plant kept in a pitch-dark closet would still open and close its leaves the way it does in the day-night cycle, and subsequent studies of human subjects confined to dark bunkers showed similar preservation of their sleep and waking patterns, which followed, albeit imperfectly, the 24-hour cycle of day and night.

Our internal clocks, in fact, can be traced down to the genetic level, with individual “clock genes” and, most prominently, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN — a small region in the brain’s midline that acts as a kind of “master clock” for mammals, regulating neuronal and hormonal activity around our circadian rhythms. Roenneberg explains how our internal clocks work on the DNA level:

In the nucleus, the DNA sequence of a clock gene is transcribed to mRNA; the resulting message is exported from the nucleus, translated into a clock protein, and is then modified. This clock protein is itself part of the molecular machinery that controls the transcription of its ‘own’ gene. When enough clock proteins have been made, they are imported back into the nucleus, where they start to inhibit the transcription of their own mRNA. Once this inhibition is strong enough, no more mRNA molecules are transcribed, and the existing ones are gradually destroyed. As a consequence, no more proteins can be produced and the existing ones will also gradually be destroyed. When they are all gone, the transcriptional machinery is not suppressed anymore, and a new cycle can begin.

[…]

Despite this complexity, the important take-home message is that daily rhythms are generated by molecular mechanisms that could potentially work in a single cell, for example a single neuron of the SCN.

Internal Time goes on to illuminate many other aspects of how chronotypes and social jet lag impact our daily lives, from birth and suicide rates to when we borrow books from the library to why older men marry younger women, and even why innovators and entrepreneurs tend to have later chronotypes.

Originally featured at length in May.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

At the intersection of art and science, The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (public library) invites some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.

The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.

Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:

With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.

The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:

Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:

Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.

What existed before the big bang?

Illustrated by Josh Cochran

Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:

[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”

How does gravity work?

Illustrated by The Heads of State

Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:

The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.

What is dark matter?

Illustrated by Betsy Walton

Equal parts delightful and illuminating, The Where, the Why, and the How is the kind of treat bound to tickle your brain from both sides.

Originally featured in October.

IN PURSUIT OF THE UNKNOWN

When legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was setting out to release A Brief History of Time, one of the most influential science books in modern history, his publishers admonished him that every equation included would halve the book’s sales. Undeterred, he dared include E = mc², even though cutting it out would have allegedly sold another 10 million copies. The anecdote captures the extent of our culture’s distaste for, if not fear of, equations. And yet, argues mathematician Ian Stewart in In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, equations have held remarkable power in facilitating humanity’s progress and, as such, call for rudimentary understanding as a form of our most basic literacy.

Stewart writes:

The power of equations lies in the philosophically difficult correspondence between mathematics, a collective creation of human minds, and an external physical reality. Equations model deep patterns in the outside world. By learning to value equations, and to read the stories they tell, we can uncover vital features of the world around us… This is the story of the ascent of humanity, told in 17 equations.

From how the Pythagorean theorem, which linked geometry and algebra, laid the groundwork of the best current theories of space, time, and gravity to how the Navier-Stokes equation applies to modeling climate change, Stewart delivers a scientist’s gift in a storyteller’s package to reveal how these seemingly esoteric equations are really the foundation for nearly everything we know and use today.

Some the most revolutionary of the breakthroughs Stewart outlines came from thinkers actively interested in both the sciences and the humanities. Take René Descartes, for instance, who is best remembered for his timeless soundbite, Cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am. But Descartes’ interests, Stewart points out, extended beyond philosophy and into science and mathematics. In 1639, he observed a curious numerical pattern in regular solids — what was true of a cube was also true of a dodecahedron or an icosahedron, for all of which subtracting from the number of faces the number of edges and then adding the number of vertices equaled 2. (Try it: A cube has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 vertices, so 6 – 12 + 8 = 2.) But Descartes, perhaps enchanted by philosophy’s grander questions, saw the equation as a minor curiosity and never published it. Only centuries later mathematicians recognized it as monumentally important. It eventually resulted in Euler’s formula, which helps explain everything from how enzymes act on cellular DNA to why the motion of the celestial bodies can be chaotic.

So how did equations begin, anyway? Stewart explains:

An equation derives its power from a simple source. It tells us that two calculations, which appear different, have the same answer. The key symbol is the equals sign, =. The origins of most mathematical symbols are either lost in the mists of antiquity, or are so recent that there is no doubt where they came from. The equals sign is unusual because it dates back more than 450 years, yet we not only know who invented it, we even know why. The inventor was Robert Recorde, in 1557, in The Whetstone of Witte. He used two parallel lines (he used an obsolete word gemowe, meaning ‘twin’) to avoid tedious repetition of the words ‘is equal to’. He chose that symbol because ‘no two things can be more equal’. Recorde chose well. His symbol has remained in use for 450 years.

The original coinage appeared as follows:

To avoide the deiouse repetition of these woordes: is equalle to: I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or gemowe lines of one lengthe: =, bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle.

Far from being a mere math primer or trivia aid, In Pursuit of the Unknown is an essential piece of modern literacy, wrapped in an articulate argument for why this kind of knowledge should be precisely that.

Stewart concludes by turning his gaze towards the future, offering a kind of counter-vision to algo-utopians like Stephen Wolfram and making, instead, a case for the reliable humanity of the equation:

It is still entirely credible that we might soon find new laws of nature based on discrete, digital structures and systems. The future may consist of algorithms, not equations. But until that day dawns, if ever, our greatest insights into nature’s laws take the form of equations, and we should learn to understand them and appreciate them. Equations have a track record. They really have changed the world — and they will change it again.

Originally featured in full in April.

IGNORANCE

“Science is always wrong,” George Bernard Shaw famously proclaimed in a toast to Albert Einstein. “It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.”

In the fifth century BC, long before science as we know it existed, Socrates, the very first philosopher, famously observed, “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Some 21 centuries later, while inventing calculus in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton likely knew all there was to know in science at the time — a time when it was possible for a single human brain to hold all of mankind’s scientific knowledge. Fast-forward 40 generations to today, and the average high school student has more scientific knowledge than Newton did at the end of his life. But somewhere along that superhighway of progress, we seem to have developed a kind of fact-fetishism that shackles us to the allure of the known and makes us indifferent to the unknown knowable. Yet it’s the latter — the unanswered questions — that makes science, and life, interesting. That’s the eloquently argued case at the heart of Ignorance: How It Drives Science, in which Stuart Firestein sets out to debunk the popular idea that knowledge follows ignorance, demonstrating instead that it’s the other way around and, in the process, laying out a powerful manifesto for getting the public engaged with science — a public to whom, as Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reminded Senate, the government is accountable in making the very decisions that shape the course of science.

The tools and currencies of our information economy, Firestein points out, are doing little in the way of fostering the kind of question-literacy essential to cultivating curiosity:

Are we too enthralled with the answers these days? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long? We seem to have come to a phase in civilization marked by a voracious appetite for knowledge, in which the growth of information is exponential and, perhaps more important, its availability easier and faster than ever.*

(For a promise of a solution, see Clay Johnson’s excellent The Information Diet.)

The cult of expertise — whose currency are static answers — obscures the very capacity for cultivating a thirst for ignorance:

There are a lot of facts to be known in order to be a professional anything — lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant, teacher. But with science there is one important difference. The facts serve mainly to access the ignorance… Scientists don’t concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but minuscule, but rather on what they don’t know…. Science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it. Mucking about in the unknown is an adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege.

[…]

Working scientists don’t get bogged down in the factual swamp because they don’t care all that much for facts. It’s not that they discount or ignore them, but rather that they don’t see them as an end in themselves. They don’t stop at the facts; they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out. Facts are selected, by a process that is a kind of controlled neglect, for the questions they create, for the ignorance they point to.

Firestein, who chairs the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, stresses that beyond simply accumulating facts, scientists use them as raw material, not finished product. He cautions:

Understanding the raw material for the product is a subtle error but one that can have surprisingly far-reaching consequences. Understanding this error and its ramifications, and setting it straight, is crucial to understanding science.

What emerges is an elegant definition of science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

(What is true of science is actually also true of all creativity: As Jonah Lehrer puts it “The only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” Einstein knew that, too, when he noted that without a preoccupation with “the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed… empty.” And Kathryn Schulz touched on it with her meditation on pessimistic meta-induction.)

In highlighting this commonality science holds with other domains of creative and intellectual labor, Firestein turns to the poet John Keats, who described the ideal state of the literary psyche as Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Firestein translates this to science:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

He captures the heart of this argument in an eloquent metaphor:

Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle.

However, more important than the limits of our knowledge, Firestein is careful to point out, are the limits to our ignorance. (Cue in Errol Morris’s fantastic 2010 five-part New York Times series, The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.) Science historian and Stanford professor Robert Proctor has even coined a term for the study of ignorance — agnotology — and, Firestein argues, it is a conduit to better understanding progress.

Science historian and philosopher Nicholas Rescher has offered a different term for a similar concept: Copernican cognitivism, suggesting that just like Copernicus showed us there was nothing privileged about our position in space by debunking the geocentric model of the universe, there is also nothing privileged about our cognitive landscape.

But the most memorable articulation of the limits of our own ignorance comes from the Victorian novella Flatland, where a three-dimensional sphere shows up in a two-dimensional land and inadvertently wreaks havoc on its geometric inhabitants’ most basic beliefs about the world as they struggle to imagine the very possibility of a third dimension.

An engagement with the interplay of ignorance and knowledge, the essential bargaining chips of science, is what elevated modern civilization from the intellectual flatness of the Middle Ages. Firestein points out that “the public’s direct experience of the empirical methods of science” helped humanity evolve from the magical and mystical thinking of Western medieval thought to the rational discourse of contemporary culture.

At the same time, Firestein laments, science today is often “as inaccessible to the public as if it were written in classical Latin.” Making it more accessible, he argues, necessitates introducing explanations of science that focus on the unknown as an entry point — a more inclusive gateway than the known.

In one of the most compelling passages of the book, he broadens this insistence on questions over answers to the scientific establishment itself:

Perhaps the most important application of ignorance is in the sphere of education, particularly of scientists… We must ask ourselves how we should educate scientists in the age of Google and whatever will supersede it… The business model of our Universities, in place now for nearly a thousand years, will need to be revised.

[…]

Instead of a system where the collection of facts is an end, where knowledge is equated with accumulation, where ignorance is rarely discussed, we will have to provide the Wiki-raised student with a taste of and for boundaries, the edge of the widening circle of ignorance, how the data, which are not unimportant, frames the unknown. We must teach students how to think in questions, how to manage ignorance. W. B. Yeats admonished that ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’

Firestein sums it up beautifully:

Science produces ignorance, and ignorance fuels science. We have a quality scale for ignorance. We judge the value of science by the ignorance it defines. Ignorance can be big or small, tractable or challenging. Ignorance can be thought about in detail. Success in science, either doing it or understanding it, depends on developing comfort with the ignorance, something akin to Keats’ negative capability.

Originally featured in April.

* See some thoughts on the difference between access and accessibility.

DREAMLAND

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg (see above) — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.

Originally featured in August.

TREES OF LIFE

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.

Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.

Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:

The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.

The Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Intellect, not tree-like at first glance, but certainly branching dichotomously, the steps labeled from bottom to top, with representative figures on the right and upper left: Lapis (stone), Flamma (fire), Planta (plant), Brutum (beast), Homo (human), Caelum (sky), Angelus (angel), and Deus (God), a scheme that shows how one might ascend from inferior to superior beings and vice versa. After Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus, written about 1305 but not published until 1512.

The 'Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology,' presenting, at one glance, the 'distribution of the principle types of animals, and the order of their successive appearance in the layers of the earth’s crust,' published by Louis Agassiz and Augustus Addison Gould as the frontispiece of their 1848 Principles of Zoölogy. The diagram is like a wheel with numerous radiating spokes, each spoke representing a group of animals, superimposed over a series of concentric rings of time, from pre-Silurian to the 'modern age.' According to a divine plan, different groups of animals appear within the various 'spokes' of the wheel and then, in some cases, go extinct. Humans enter only in the outermost layer, at the very top of the diagram, shown as the crowning achievement of all Creation.

'Genealogy of the class of fishes' published by Louis Agassiz in his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on fossil fishes) of 1844.

The 'genealogico-geographical affinities' of plant families based on the natural orders of Carl Linnaeus (1751), published by Paul Dietrich Giseke in 1792. Each family is represented by a numbered circle (roman numerals), the diameter of which gives a rough measure of the relative number of included genera (arabic numerals).

The unique egg-shaped 'system of animals' published by German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss in his Über de Entwicklungsstufen des Thieres (On animal development) of 1817.

'Universal system of nature,' from Paul Horaninow’s Primae lineae systematis naturae (Primary system of nature) of 1834, an ingenious and seemingly indecipherable clockwise spiral that places animals in the center of the vortex, arranged in a series of concentric circles, surrounded in turn by additional nested circles that contain the plants, nonmetallic minerals, and finally metals within the outermost circle. Not surprisingly, everything is subjugated to humans (Homo) located in the center.

Ernst Haeckel’s famous 'great oak,' a family tree of animals, from the first edition of his 1874 Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des menschen (The evolution of man).

(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)

Tree by John Henry Schaffner showing the relationships of the flowering plants. The early split at the base of the tree leads to the monocotyledonous plants on the left and the dicotyledons on the right.

Schaffner, 1934, Quarterly Review of Biology, 9(2):150, fig. 2; courtesy of Perry Cartwright and the University of Chicago Press.

A phylogeny of horses showing their geological distribution throughout the Tertiary, by Ruben Arthur Stirton.

Stirton, 1940, plate following page 198; courtesy of Rebecca Wells and the University of California Press.

Ruben Arthur Stirton’s revised view of horse phylogeny.

Stirton, 1959, Time, Life, and Man: The Fossil Record, p. 466, fig. 250; courtesy of Sheik Safdar and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Used with permission.

William King Gregory’s 1946 tree of rodent relationships.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The frontispiece of William King Gregory’s two-volume Evolution Emerging.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Originally featured in May.

SPACE CHRONICLES

Neil deGrasse Tyson might be one of today’s most prominent astrophysicists, but he’s also a kind of existential philosopher, bringing his insights from science into the broader realm of the human condition — a kind of modern-day Carl Sagan with a rare gift for blending science and storytelling to both rub neurons with his fellow scientists and engage a popular-interest audience. In Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Tyson explores the future of space travel in the wake of NASA’s decision to put human space flight essentially on hold, using his signature wit and scientific prowess to lay out an urgent manifesto for the economic, social, moral, and cultural importance of space exploration. This excerpt from the introduction captures Tyson’s underlying ethos and echoes other great thinkers’ ideas about intuition and rationality, blending the psychosocial with the political:

Some of the most creative leaps ever taken by the human mind are decidedly irrational, even primal. Emotive forces are what drive the greatest artistic and inventive expressions of our species. How else could the sentence ‘He’s either a madman or a genius’ be understood?

It’s okay to be entirely rational, provided everybody else is too. But apparently this state of existence has been achieved only in fiction [where] societal decisions get made with efficiency and dispatch, devoid of pomp, passion, and pretense.

To govern a society shared by people of emotion, people of reason, and everybody in between — as well as people who think their actions are shaped by logic but in fact are shaped by feelings and nonempirical philosophies — you need politics. At its best, politics navigates all the minds-states for the sake of the greater good, alert to the rocky shoals of community, identity, and the economy. At its worst, politics thrives on the incomplete disclosure or misrepresentation of data required by an electorate to make informed decisions, whether arrived at logically or emotionally.

Nowhere does Tyson’s gift shine more brilliantly than in this goosebump-inducing mashup by Max Schlickenmeyer, remixing images of nature at its most inspiring with the narration of Tyson’s answer to a TIME magazine reader, who asked, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?”

When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.”

Originally featured in March.

HIDDEN TREASURE

For the past 175 years, the The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda has been building the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera. With more than 17 million items spanning ten centuries, it’s a treasure trove of rare, obscure, extravagant wonders, most of which remain unseen by the public and unknown even to historians, librarians, and curators. Until now.

Hidden Treasure is an exquisite large-format volume that culls some of the most fascinating, surprising, beautiful, gruesome, and idiosyncratic objects from the Library’s collection in 450 full-color illustrations. From rare “magic lantern slides” doctors used to entertain and cure inmates at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane to astonishing anatomical atlases to the mimeographed report of the Japanese medical team first to enter Hiroshima after the atomic blast, each of the curious ephemera is contextualized in a brief essay by a prominent scholar, journalist, artist, collector, or physician. What results is a remarkable journey not only into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of the physicality of being human, but also into the evolution of librarianship itself, amidst the age of the digital humanities.

The Artificial Teledioptric Eye, or Telescope (1685-86) by Johann Zahn

Zahn's baroque diagram of the anatomy of vision (left) needs to be viewed in relation to his creation of a mechanical eye (right), the scioptric ball designed to project the image of the sun in a camera obscura

Printed book, 3 volumes

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), helene Flud Health Foundation

Left to right, top to bottom: Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

Jersey City, New Jersey. 93 color photographs, glossy

Michael North, Jeffrey Reznick, and Michael Sappol remind us in the introduction:

It’s no secret that nowadays we look for libraries on the Internet — without moving from our desks or laptops or mobile phones… We’re in a new and miraculous age. But there are still great libraries, in cities and on campuses, made of brick, sandstone, marble, and glass, containing physical objects, and especially enshrining the book: the Library of Congress, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, the great university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And among them is the National LIbrary of Medicine in Bethesda, the world’s largest medical library, with its collection of over 17 million books, journals, manuscripts, prints, photographs, posters, motion pictures, sound recordings, and “ephemera” (pamphlets, matchbook covers, stereograph cards, etc.).

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers (1772)

Muscles and attachments

Kaishi Hen. Kyoto, Japan. Printed woodblock book, color illustrations

Darwin Collection (1859-1903)

The expression of emotions in cats and dogs, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872)

London, New York, and other locations

(Also see how Darwin’s photographic studies of human emotions changed visual culture forever.)

Civil War Surgical Card Collection (1860s)

The Army Medical Museum's staff mined incoming reports for 'interesting' cases -- such as a gunshot would to the 'left side of scalp, denuding skull' or 'gunshot would, right elbow with gangrene supervening' -- and cases that demonstrated the use of difficult surgical techniques, such as an amputation by circular incision or resection of the 'head of humerus and three inches of the left clavicle.'

Washington, DC. 146 numbered cards, with tipped-in photographs and case histories

Studies in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Connective Tissue (1875-76) by Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius

Arachnoid villi, or pacchionian bodies, of the human brain.

Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes. Stockholm. Printed book, with color and black-and-white lithographs, 2 volumes.

Anti-Germ Warfare Campaign Posters (ca. 1952), Second People's Cultural Institute

Hand-drawn Korean War propaganda posters, from two incomplete sequence in the collection of Chinese medical and health materials acquired by the National Library of Medicine

Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, China. Hand-inked and painted posters on paper.

Medical Trade Card Collection (ca. 1920-1940s)

The front of a Dr. Miles' Laxative Tablets movable, die-cut advertising novelty card, lowered and raised (Elkhart, Indiana, ca. 1910)

France, Great Britain, Mexico, United States, and other counties. Donor: William Helfand

Thoughtfully curated, beautifully produced, and utterly transfixing, Hidden Treasure unravels our civilization’s relationship with that most human of humannesses. Because try as we might to order the heavens, map the mind, and chart time in our quest to know the abstract, we will have failed at being human if we neglect this most fascinating frontier of concrete existence, the mysterious and ever-alluring physical body.

Originally featured, with more images, in April.

Honorable mention: The Art of Medicine.

QUANTUM UNIVERSE

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. “We’re made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan countered. But some of the most fascinating and important stories are those that explain atoms and “star stuff.” Such is the case of The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen by rockstar-physicist Brian Cox and University of Manchester professor Jeff Forshaw — a remarkable and absorbing journey into the fundamental fabric of nature, exploring how quantum theory provides a framework for explaining everything from silicon chips to stars to human behavior.

Quantum theory is perhaps the prime example of the infinitely esoteric becoming the profoundly useful. Esoteric, because it describes a world in which a particle really can be in several places at once and moves from one place to another by exploring the entire Universe simultaneously. Useful, because understanding the behaviour of the smallest building blocks of the universe underpins our understanding of everything else. This claim borders on the hubristic, because the world is filled with diverse and complex phenomena. Notwithstanding this complexity, we have discovered that everything is constructed out of a handful of tiny particles that move around according to the rules of quantum theory. The rules are so simple that they can be summarized on the back of an envelope. And the fact that we do not need a whole library of books to explain the essential nature of things is one of the greatest mysteries of all.

The story weaves a century of scientific hindsight and theoretical developments, from Einstein to Feynman by way of Max Planck, who coined the term “quantum” in 1900 to describe the “black body radiation” of hot objects through light emitted in little packets of energy he called “quanta,” to arrive at a modern perspective on quantum theory and its primary role in predicting observable phenomena.

The picture of the universe we inhabit, as revealed by modern physics, [is] one of underlying simplicity; elegant phenomena dance away out of sight and the diversity of the macroscopic world emerges. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of modern science; the reduction of the tremendous complexity in the world, human beings included, to a description of the behaviour of just a handful of tiny subatomic particles and the four forces that act between them.

To demonstrate that quantum theory is intimately entwined with the fabric of our everyday, rather than a weird and esoteric fringe of science, Cox offers an example rooted in the familiar. (An example, in this particular case, based on the wrong assumption — I was holding an iPad — in a kind of ironic meta-wink from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.)

Consider the world around you. You are holding a book made of paper, the crushed pulp of a tree. Trees are machines able to take a supply of atoms and molecules, break them down and rearrange them into cooperating colonies composed of many trillions of individual parts. They do this using a molecule known as chlorophyll, composed of over a hundred carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms twisted into an intricate shape with a few magnesium and nitrogen atoms bolted on. This assembly of particles is able to capture the light that has travelled the 93 million miles from our star, a nuclear furnace the volume of a million earths, and transfer that energy into the heart of cells, where it is used to build molecules from carbon dioxide and water, giving out life-enriching oxygen as it does so. It’s these molecular chains that form the superstructure of trees and all living things, the paper in your book. You can read the book and understand the words because you have eyes that can convert the scattered light from the pages into electrical impulses that are interpreted by your brain, the most complex structure we know of in the Universe. We have discovered that all these things are nothing more than assemblies of atoms, and that the wide variety of atoms are constructed using only three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. We have also discovered that the protons and neutrons are themselves made up of smaller entities called quarks, and that it is where things stop, as far as we can tell today. Underpinning all of this is quantum theory.

But at the core of The Quantum Universe are a handful of grand truths that transcend the realm of science as an academic discipline and shine out into the vastest expanses of human existence: that in science, as in art, everything builds on what came before; that everything is connected to everything else; and, perhaps most importantly, that despite our greatest compulsions for control and certainty, much of the universe — to which the human heart and mind belong — remains reigned over by chance and uncertainty. Cox puts it this way:

A key feature of quantum theory [is that] it deals with probabilities rather than certainties, not because we lack absolute knowledge, but because some aspects of Nature are, at their very heart, governed by the laws of chance.”

Originally featured in February.

BIG QUESTIONS

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children.

Alain de Botton explores why we have dreams:

Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.

But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.

[…]

In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.

Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.

Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:

Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.

Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.

You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.

Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.

If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.

Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.

[…]

The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:

To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.

You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.

Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.

[…]

Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.

And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.

Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:

Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.

[…]

How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.

So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love? Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

Evolutionary psychologist and sociologist Robin Dunbar balances out the poetics with a scientific look at what goes on inside the brain when we love:

What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.

But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.

These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.

Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.

But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.

Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.

Originally featured earlier this month.

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27 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2011

By:

Illustrated correspondence, rock’n'roll, and what an old Kurt Vonnegut has to do with a young Hemingway.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, food books, and psychology and philosophy books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.

STEVE JOBS

In 2004, Steve Jobs asked former TIME Magazine editor and prolific biographer Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Isaacson — who has previously profiled such icons as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger — thought the request not only presumptuous but also odd for a man of Jobs’s age. What he didn’t know was that Jobs had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had starkly brushed up against his mortality. Over the next few years, Isaacson ended up having over 40 interviews and conversations with Jobs, from which he gleaned the backbone for Steve Jobs, his highly anticipated biography — perhaps an expected pick for my omnibus of the year’s best biographers and memoirs, yet very much a deserving one, not merely because Jobs was a personal hero who shaped my own intellectual and creative development, but also because beneath the story of Jobs as an individual lies a broader story about the meat of innovation and creativity at large.

He was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation. Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is thus both instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.”

Sample the book through Isaacson’s conversation with Charlie Rose and Nick Bilton’s excellent one-on-one interview with the author.

For a complementary read, see I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words — a wonderful anthology of more than 200 quotes and excerpts from his many appearances in the media over the years.

RADIOACTIVE

Just when you thought I couldn’t possibly slip Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout into another best-of reading list — it appeared among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books — here it is, again. But consider this a measure of its merit: 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.

It’s also 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.

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

AND SO IT GOES

Kurt Vonnegut — prolific author, anarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead. And, apparently, troubled soul. At least that’s what’s behind the curtain Charles Shields (of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee fame) peels in And So It Goes, subtitled Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — the first-ever true Vonnegut biography, revealing a vulnerable private man behind the public persona, a difficult and damaged man deeply scarred by his experiences.

The project began in 2006, when Shields reached out to Vonnegut in a letter, asking his permission for a planned biography. Though Vonnegut at first declined, Shields wasn’t ready to take “no” for an answer and eventually persuaded the counterculture hero into a “yes,” spending precious time with Vonnegut and his letters during the last year of the author’s life.

From his uneasy childhood to his tortured divorces to his attempted suicide to his explosion into celebrity, Vonnegut’s life was an intricate osmotic balance between private hell and public performance. As a leading figure in a movement of authors as a public intellectuals and a former PR agent for GE, he knew how to craft an image that would appeal to an audience — an art timelier than ever as we watch some of yesterday’s media pundits voice increasingly disconnected opinions on today’s issues.

He read the signs of what was happening in the country, and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about.” ~ Charles Shields

In a lot of ways, Vonnegut was an embodiment of the spirit behind today’s Occupy movement. Shields observes on NPR:

Kurt was a disenchanted American. He believed in America, he believed in its ideals … and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another.”

But Shields makes a special point not to vilify Vonnegut or frame him as cynical. Beneath the discomfort with this new private persona lies a deep respect for the iconic author and the intricate balance between private demons and public creativity, channelled perhaps most eloquently in this quote from Vonnegut himself, printed on the book’s opening page:

I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”

The downside of And So It Goes is that it perpetuates, all too dangerously in my opinion, the myth of the creative genius as a damaged soul — something Vonnegut’s son has since attacked the book for misportraying. Nonetheless, it remains a powerful, revealing, and ultimately deeply human read.

Originally featured in November.

FELTRON REPORT 2010

Every year since 2005, Nicholas Felton has been publishing his wonderful and entertaining annual reports, which capture the minutia of his life — drinks drunk, trips taken, methods of transportation, mood experienced, and just about everything in between — in clean, beautiful infographics. In 2010, however, Felton lost his father and decided to make his annual report a reconstruction of his father’s life based on calendars, letters, slides, postcards, passports, and other ephemera in his possession. The result is a poignant, beautiful, and tender journey into the adventures and qualities of Felton’s father through the unexpected lens of the quantitative.

The report was printed in a limited-edition run of 3,000 and is long sold out, but you can see it online in its entirety.

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, also one of the year’s best photography books, 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 — underpinned by a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex. 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

Poignant and provocative, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus offers an entirely new way of relating to and understanding one of the most revered and influential postmodern photographers, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self.

Originally featured in August.

BOSSYPANTS

It’s hard not to adore Tina Fey, who has had a pretty grand year, from becoming the third female and youngest ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — and giving a brilliant acceptance speech that unequivocally validates the award — to the publication of Bossypants, her excellent and impossibly funny sort-of-memoir about modern comedy, that whole gender thing and, well, life.

Once in a generation a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her.”

In April, Fey brought Bossypants to the fantastic Authors@Google. Besides Fey’s lovable brand of awkward, it’s particularly priceless to watch Google’s Eric Schmidt — who’s had quite a year himself — fumble with various politically incorrect phrases and, you know, “women things.”

Originally featured in April.

YOUNG HEMINGWAY’S LETTERS

Though neither exactly a memoir nor exactly a biography, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922 captures the lived experience and biographical milestones of the iconic author’s life through the unusual lens of his previously unpublished correspondence. After spending a decade sifting through Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes, peeling away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.

Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story. (Note the contrast with the Vonnegut biography above.)

My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway

The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.

From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.

Originally featured in October.

LIFE

For the past 10 years, Rolling Stone Keith Richards has been consistently chosen in music magazine list after music magazine list as the rocker most likely to die. And, yet, he hasn’t. Instead, he has recorded his rocking, rolling, riveting story in Life — a formidable 547-page tome of a memoir that traces his tale from his childhood in the grey suburbs of London, to the unlikely formation and rapid rise of the Stones (who, at their peak, didn’t finish a single show in 18 months, playing five to ten minutes before the teenage fans started screaming, then the fainting, then getting piled unconscious on the stage by the security), to the drugs and the disillusionment and the ultimate downfall. Funny, difficult, touching, harrowing, mischievous, the narrative — written with the help of James Fox — spans the entire spectrum of emotion and experience, only to always return to its heart: the love of rock.

You try going into a truck stop in 1964 or ’65 or ’66 down south or in Texas. It felt much more dangerous than anything in the city. You’d walk in and there’s the good ol’ boys and slowly you realize that you’re not going to have a very comfortable meal in there… They’d call us girls because of the long hair. ‘How you doing, girls? Dance with me.’ Hair… the little things that you wouldn’t think about that changed whole cultures.”

Best paired with Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which came out late last year.

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, also one of the year’s best science books 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.

MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN

Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip? Those questions are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to unravel when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is his fascinating sort-of-memoir, telling the story of his journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the pre-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t. (It’s also a fine addition to the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.)

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer

In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer

Originally featured in March.

FLOATING WORLDS

Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also one of the year’s finest art and design books.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Originally featured, with more wonderful illustrations, in September.

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