Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

05 JULY, 2012

Freeman Dyson on Tool-Creation, Technology, and What Makes a Scientific Revolution


“In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization.”

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, Steve Jobs famously said, “you can only connect them looking backwards.” The same is true of technology and its impact on civilization — thousands of years later, we are able to appreciate the linkage between the products of our mind and the tools we create to further their reach. This is the basic lens of The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution (public library) by legendary Princeton physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (father of science historian George Dyson), originally published in 1999. Tool-creation has been indispensable to scientific progress, Dyson argues — and has been since the dawn of techne.

Science originated from the fusion of two old traditions, the tradition of philosophical thinking that began in ancient Greece and the tradition of skilled crafts that began even earlier and flourished in medieval Europe. Philosophy supplied the concepts for science, and skilled crafts provided the tools.

Dyson refutes the idea that scientific revolutions are concept-driven, a stance pioneered by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and later endorsed by other theory-driven scientists. Instead, Dyson argues, the art of tool-creation is its relationship to science.

The human heritage that gave us toolmaking hands and inquisitive brains did not die. In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization….

Science will continue to generate unpredictable new ideas and opportunities. And human beings will continue to respond to new ideas and opportunities with new skills and inventions. We remain toolmaking animals, and science will continue to exercise the creativity programmed into our genes.

Sole discovery, Dyson asserts, is simply inadequate to account for change. Instead, real, functional projects are the basis of revolutions, implicitly adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era.

Lexi Lewtan is an avid reader, writer, and technology nerd. You can find her on geeking out on Twitter and Quora.

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04 JULY, 2012

Meet the Real Alice: How the Story of Alice in Wonderland Was Born


“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”

On July 4, 1862, a young mathematician by the name of Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll, boarded a boat with a small group, setting out from Oxford to the nearby town of Godstow, where the group was to have tea on the river bank. The party consisted of Carroll, his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the three little sisters of Carroll’s good friend Harry Liddell — Edith (age 8), Alice (age 10), and Lorina (age 13). Entrusted with entertaining the young ladies, Dodgson fancied a story about a whimsical world full of fantastical characters, and named his protagonist Alice. So taken was Alice Liddell with the story that she asked Dodgson to write it down for her, which he did when he soon sent her a manuscript under the title of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

Alice Liddell, age 7, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860

Alice Liddell (right) with her sisters circa 1859, photographed by Lewis Carroll

Alice Liddell, age 7, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860

Historian Martin Gardner writes in The Annotated Alice (public library), originally published in 1960 and revised in a definite edition in 1999:

A long procession of charming little girls (we know today that they were charming from their photographs) skipped through Carroll’s life, but none ever took the place of his first love, Alice Liddell. ‘I have had some scores of child-friends since your time,’ he wrote to her after her marriage, ‘but they have been quite a different thing.’

Liddell dressed up as a beggar-maid, photographed by Lewis Carroll (1858)

The manuscript also made its way to George MacDonald, and idol of Dodgson’s, who had the perfect litmus test for the story’s merit: He read it to his own children, who single-mindedly loved it. Encouraged, Dodgson revised the story for publication, retitling it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and adding the now-famous scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the character of the Cheshire Cat for a grand total nearly twice as long as the manuscript he’d originally sent to Alice Liddell.

John Tenniel's original illustrations of Alice

In 1865, John Tenniel illustrated the story and it was published in its earliest version. Gardner recounts this curious anecdote of the collaboration:

Tenniel’s pictures of Alice are not pictures of Alice Liddell, who had dark hair cut short with straight bangs across her forehead. Carroll sent Tenniel a photograph of Mary Hilton Badcock, another child-friend, recommending that he use her for a model, but whether Tenniel accepted that advice is a matter of dispute. That he did not is strongly suggested by these lines from a letter Carroll wrote sometime after both Alice books had been published…

‘Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to use a model, and declared he no more need one than I should need a multiplication table to work a mathematical problem! I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of ‘Alice’ entirely out of proportion — head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.’

For more Alice gold, see Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations for the Carroll classic, a pop-up adaptation of it, and some gorgeous illustrated interpretations by Yayoi Kusama, Leonard Weisgard, and Lisbeth Zwerger.

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03 JULY, 2012

Digesting the Most Important Food Politics Book of the Past 50 Years


Up close and personal with a book whose highest aspiration is to one day be quaint.

BOOKD is a new bi-weekly series from THNKR, spotlighting “game-changing books.” The inaugural episode zooms in on Michael Pollan’s 2006 classic, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (public library) — rightfully called “the most important food politics book of the past 50 years,” and an essential lens on understanding our place, as well as our responsibility, in the natural and industrial ecosystems we inhabit and participate in. A number of famous chefs and food writers — Tom Colicchio, Dan Barber, Katie Lee, Jennifer Pelka, and of course Michael Pollan himself — discuss the book’s core claims, the urgency of its message, and its impact on contemporary culture in the half-decade since its publication.

One meal at a time is how you turn this ship… It’s not going to happen overnight. I would hope at some point in the future this book would seem quaint — that things would have changed so much in the food system that people would read it as a historical curiosity.

Realistically, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I mean, we’ll get as far as we can, but it’s going to be a lot of little maneuvers. Cheap food is baked into our economy. So we’re going to need pressure from both the consumer, voting with his or her fork, and it’s going to take changes in policy.” ~ Michael Pollan

For more essential Pollan, see his follow-up, Food Rules, illustrated by Maira Kalman — one of the best food books in 2011 — as well as this delightful stop-motion adaptation.

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