Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

08 JULY, 2014

The Man Who Turned Paper into Pixels: How Mathematician and Black Jack Wizard Claude Shannon Ignited the Information Age

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How the most important man you never heard of laid the groundwork for the digital world.

The so-called Information Age we live in, like all major leaps in human achievement, isn’t a self-contained bubble that coalesced out of nothingness in a flash of genius but the cumulative product of incremental innovation stretching back centuries. It builds upon the work of multiple inventors, scientists, and thinkers, including Lady Ada Lovelace, celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer, Alan Turing, considered the godfather of modern computing, Paul Otlet, who built a proto-internet in the early twentieth century, and Vannevar Bush, who envisioned the web in 1945.

Among them was the American mathematician, engineer, and cryptographer Claude Shannon (April 30, 1916–February 24, 2001), who laid the foundation for the Information Age. According to British filmmaker Adam Westbrook — who gave us those fantastic video essays on the long game of creativity — Shannon is “the most important man you’ve probably never heard of” and his work impacted the modern world as profoundly as Einstein’s did. In this short film inspired by James Gleick’s remarkable The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (public library) — one of the very best, most illuminating and stimulating books I’ve ever read — Westbrook traces Shannon’s story and his enduring legacy, which permeates our everyday lives more powerfully than we dare imagine.

A Renoir and a receipt — they’re completely different… You couldn’t possibly think of them in the same way — or could you?

For a deeper dive, do treat yourself to Gleick’s The Information, then complement with the story of The Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first analog computer circa 150 B.C., and The Mundaneum, an analog version of the world wide web from the early twentieth century.

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23 MAY, 2014

The Long Game: Brilliant Visual Essays on the Only Secret to Creative Success, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marie Curie

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Why showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” a wise woman once said — a seemingly simple observation that is among the 7 most important things I’ve learned in the many years of doing what I do. This notion of doggedness is something countless admired creators have advocated — from Anthony Trollope’s advice to aspiring writers to Tchaikovsky’s admonition about work ethic — and it’s even something scientists have confirmed, in finding that “grit” is a greater predictor of success than intelligence. And yet, as a culture that worships at the altar of immediacy and instant gratification, we continue to romanticize the largely mythic notion of the overnight success, overlooking the years of struggle and failure that paved the way for some of humanity’s most admired and accomplished luminaries.

That mythology of genius is precisely what British filmmaker Adam Westbrook explores in his fantastic video essay series The Long Game — a feat of storytelling partway between Kirby Ferguson’s remix culture documentaries and Temujin Doran’s cinematic essays.

The first installment tackles the story of one of history’s most celebrated artists: Leonardo da Vinci, it turns out, got his big break at the age of 46 — elderly by the era’s life expectancy standards.

In the second installment, inspired in part by Robert Greene’s book Mastery (public library), Westbrook explores the notion of “the difficult years” — those rough stretches in a creative career that separate the ones who persevere and end up celebrated as “geniuses” from those who throw in the towel and sink into obscurity. From the seven years Marie Curie spent in poverty while researching radioactivity to the nine years of thankless writing Stephen King plowed through before selling his first novel, Westbrook reminds us that showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.

All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?

Complement with this magnificent read on the difference between mastery and success and an important revision of the “10,000 hours rule” of excellence.

Thanks, Kirby

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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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