Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan’

07 NOVEMBER, 2011

A Painting of Cancer Cells Inspired by Carl Sagan


What supernovas have to do with cancer cells.

When she lost her friend Cathy to cancer, artist Michele Banks (whose stunning biological watercolors you might recall) set out to tell her friend’s story in the language she speaks most fluently and eloquently: painting. But she didn’t want it to be another “cancer painting.” Instead, she found unlikely inspiration at the intersection of the deadly disease and Carl Sagan’s iconic, life-affirming idea that we’re all made of “star stuff” — she saw a striking parallel between supernovas and dividing cancer cells. The result is simply breathtaking.

I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff”. That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. Um. This is difficult, because you can’t see them. If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells.” ~ Michele Banks

Curiously, Sagan himself also had myelodysplastic syndrome, or “preleukemia,” and underwent three bone marrow transplants before losing the long and difficult fight in 1996. Banks reflects:

This painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.”

You can find Banks on Twitter and her beautiful prints on Etsy.

In a similar vein, don’t forget composer Alexandra Pajak’s Sounds of HIV, which “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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17 OCTOBER, 2011

7 Must-Read Books on Time


What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with Saint Augustine, landscape art, and graphic novels.

Time is the most fundamental common denominator between our existence and that of everything else, it’s the yardstick by which we measure nearly every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, yet its nature remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. Last year, we devoured BBC’s excellent What Is Time? and today we turn to seven essential books that explore the grand question on a deeper, more multidimensional level, spanning everything from quantum physics to philosophy to art.


It comes as no surprise to start with A Brief History of Time — legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s 1988 masterpiece, which is commonly considered the most important book in popular science ever published and one of our 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. In it, Hawking attempted to answer one of humanity’s most fundamental questions — where did the universe come from? — and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, blending the rigor of a brilliant scientist with the eloquent ease of a masterful storyteller to invite even the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.)

With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there, and where we might be going.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking’s ending:

If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God.”


In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, CalTech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose. From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, at the intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, tied together by the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning of the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytelling with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech.

Full review here.


Our experience and understanding of time need not be confined to science. Time chronicles the extraordinary work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who for the past three decades has been defying the Western art tradition of creating work that outlasts the artist’s lifetime by instead creating exquisite temporal sculptures out of leaves, twigs, petals, ice, sand, feathers, water, stone, and other fragments of nature. These ephemeral, lyrical miracles, spanning Canada, Mexico, Japan, Scotland, and Holland, are left open to the forces of time and change, and are captured here in 500 magnificent photographs, most of which taken by Goldsworthy himself, alongside thoughtful meditations on the vision for and mutation of each piece.

Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.


My approach to photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was the subject of the excellent 2001 Scottish-German documentary Rivers & Tides: Working with Time — here’s a short excerpt for a taste:


Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, also one of these 7 favorite books on maps, traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present. The gorgeous, lavishly illustrated collection of timelines features everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

Cartographies of Time is easily one of the most beautiful books to come by in the past year, both a treasure trove of antique artwork and a priceless cultural timecapsule containing humanity’s understanding of time and place in the larger context of existence.

Full review here.


We’ve previously explored 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction and just last week swooned over this graphic novel biography of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, so it’s only fitting we explored time from within the genre. Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science.


Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo is best-known as the mastermind of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which revealed one of the most gruesome glimpses of human nature in the history of social science. (Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project in an effort to use what psychology knows about good and evil to harness the human potential for good.) In The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, Zimbardo brings his social psychologist’s lens to the phenomenon of time to explore its importance in our lives, why we systematically devalue it, and how to enlist insights from psychology and behavioral science to optimize our relationship with time. He segments people into past-, present-, and future-oriented based on our time-perspectives, and offers insights into how each type experiences the four central paradoxes of time he identifies.

Sample the book with this charmingly so-bad-it’s-good trailer:

Our ability to reconstruct the past, to interpret the present, and to construct the future gives us the power to be happy.” ~ Philip Zimbardo


The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, originally featured in our 5 cross-disciplinary perspectives on procrastination, is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.

Procrastination is familiar and interesting but also puzzling. Although it is generally perceived as harmful and irrational, recent studies suggest that most of us procrastinate occasionally and many of us procrastinate persistently. Not even saints are immune. Saint Augustine records in his Confessions how, after years of sexual hedonism, he vowed to return to Christianity and prayed for chastity and continence — ‘only not yet.’ Although he ‘abhorred’ his current way of living and ‘earnestly’ wanted to change his course, he kept deferring any change until ‘tomorrow.’” ~ Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White

From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.

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27 JULY, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Academics on God


Decoding divinity, or what the great intellectuals of our time have to say about science and spirituality.

The dialogue between science and religion is among humanity’s oldest and most controversial, drawing each era’s greatest thinkers into some of history’s most heated debates. We’ve previously looked at a BBC documentary on the complex relationship between the two and 7 essential books on the psychology of faith. Today, we turn to a fantastic mashup of 50 famous academics — including Brain Pickings favorites Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett — talking about spirituality and science, created by Jonathan Pararajasingham.

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large, because they seem to be too simple, to connected, too local, too provincial. The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth, mind you. And look at what’s out there! How can… It isn’t in proportion.” ~ Richard Feynman

My favorite has to be Brian Cox, at around 18:30, who echoes my own belief that curiosity is more important than knowledge — an alternative route to intellectual inquiry that offers an antidote to the fundamental human discomfort with the unknown.

The speakers, in order of appearance:

1. Lawrence Krauss, World-Renowned Physicist
2. Robert Coleman Richardson, Nobel Laureate in Physics
3. Richard Feynman, World-Renowned Physicist, Nobel Laureate in Physics
4. Simon Blackburn, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy
5. Colin Blakemore, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Neuroscience
6. Steven Pinker, World-Renowned Harvard Professor of Psychology
7. Alan Guth, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Physics
8. Noam Chomsky, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Linguistics
9. Nicolaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate in Physics
10. Peter Atkins, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Chemistry
11. Oliver Sacks, World-Renowned Neurologist, Columbia University
12. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
13. Sir John Gurdon, Pioneering Developmental Biologist, Cambridge
14. Sir Bertrand Russell, World-Renowned Philosopher, Nobel Laureate
15. Stephen Hawking, World-Renowned Cambridge Theoretical Physicist
16. Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics
17. Ned Block, NYU Professor of Philosophy
18. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Nobel Laureate in Physics
19. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of Mathematics
20. James Watson, Co-discoverer of DNA, Nobel Laureate
21. Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy, Miami University
22. Sir Patrick Bateson, Cambridge Professor of Ethology
23. Sir David Attenborough, World-Renowned Broadcaster and Naturalist
24. Martinus Veltman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
25. Pascal Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
26. Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge Professor of Economics
27. AC Grayling, Birkbeck Professor of Philosophy
28. Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate in Physics
29. John Searle, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
30. Brian Cox, Particle Physicist (Large Hadron Collider, CERN)
31. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate in Physics
32. Rebecca Goldstein, Professor of Philosophy
33. Michael Tooley, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado
34. Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
35. Leonard Susskind, Stanford Professor of Theoretical Physics
36. Quentin Skinner, Professor of History (Cambridge)
37. Theodor W. Hänsch, Nobel Laureate in Physics
38. Mark Balaguer, CSU Professor of Philosophy
39. Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
40. Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
41. Professor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princeton Research Scientist
42. Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Laureate in Physics
43. Hubert Dreyfus, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
44. Lord Colin Renfrew, World-Renowned Archaeologist, Cambridge
45. Carl Sagan, World-Renowned Astronomer
46. Peter Singer, World-Renowned Bioethicist, Princeton
47. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
48. Robert Foley, Cambridge Professor of Human Evolution
49. Daniel Dennett, Tufts Professor of Philosophy
50. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

(One also has to wonder why there’s only one woman on this list — are there really this few female voices in academia weighing in on the science vs. religion debate, or is this mashup simply reflective of whose opinions Pararajasingham has chosen to hear?)

via @kirstinbutler

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