Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

24 APRIL, 2014

The Dark Side of Certainty: Jacob Bronowski on the Spirit of Science and What Auschwitz Teaches Us About Our Compulsion for Control

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“Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Richard Feynman memorably argued that the chief responsibility of a great scientist is to remain uncertain. “It’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance,” Stuart Firestein asserted in his wonderfully poetic TED talk on why ignorance rather than knowledge drives science. And yet the toxic belief persists that science is about our insatiable appetite for knowledge, power and, ultimately, control over the world.

In 1973, a year before his death, Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, and science historian Jacob Bronowski captivated the world with his pioneering BBC series and companion book of the same title, The Ascent of Man (public library), tracing the development of human civilization through science, from flint tools to alchemy to quantum physics. Celebrated as one of the first works of “popular science,” it bears Carl Sagan’s succinct and perfectly descriptive one-word blurb: “Superb!”

In this excerpt from the eleventh episode of the series, titled “Knowledge and Certainty,” Bronowski addresses with goosebump-giving poignancy the most dangerous extremes of our counterproductive compulsion for control and our quintessential discomfort with uncertainty:

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false.

Look for yourself.

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible…

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

In the preface to The Ascent of Man, which is a magnificent and incredibly important read in its totality, Richard Dawkins captures Bronowski’s singular gift for weaving science and culture together:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science? And does it lightly, effortlessly, never sinking to pretension? Bronowski uses the English language — not his first language, which makes it all the more remarkable — as a painter uses his brush, with mastery all the way from broad canvas to exquisite miniature.

The full documentary is well worth watching as well. Complement it with Richard Feynman on the universal responsibility of scientists.

Thanks, Scott

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22 APRIL, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nabokov: A BBC Documentary on Lolita and Life

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“Though he never returned, Russia never really left him, either.”

Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) is one of the most influential writers in modern history, no doubt in large part due to his strong opinions on literature and the creative process. In the 2010 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, writer and broadcaster Stephen Smith traces Nabokov’s trail to attempt cracking open the mind that gave us Lolita. The film begins with one of the author’s classic rants and goes on to explore the artistry and psychology behind his legendary novel, complete with a necessary pronunciation guide to Nabokov’s name. (Yes, you’re probably saying it wrong.)

Complement with Nabokov on inspiration and what makes a good reader, the curious tale of his American immigration troubles, some gorgeous graphic reimaginings of Lolita, and this rare BBC interview, in which the beloved author discusses literature and life.

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24 MARCH, 2014

The Timekeeper: Behind the Scenes of Humanity’s Most Accurate Atomic Clocks, Which Dictate Our Daily Lives

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“Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.”

Since the beginning of human existence, we have sought to understand time, to map it, to hack it, to standardize it, and to perfect our bodily experience of it. We have turned it into our civilization’s greatest meme and have probed it with our most unrelenting scientific rigor. Today, time not only dictates the rhythms of our daily lives but is also at the center of our digital universe — and yet it remains largely misunderstood by us lay people.

In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.

Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.

[…]

In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.

Complement it with Dan Falk’s excellent In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, a fine addition to these 7 excellent books about time, then revisit the curious psychology of why we experience time as elastic.

via The Dish

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