Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘futurism’

31 MAY, 2011

E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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What the future of personalized medicine has to do with the cross-pollination of design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a “postmodern Michelangelo” — and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg’s most notable projects — an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

The project won MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival.

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I’m skeptical about how we should use it — just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” ~ Daisy Ginsberg

What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

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26 MAY, 2011

Follow For Now: A Time-Capsule of Contemporary Thought

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What the changing guard of design has to do with evolutionary theories of network dynamics.

Much of today’s fixation on retrofuturism and the paleofuture meme has to do with the pleasure we take in fact-checking the visions and predictions of the past against the commonly agreed upon reality of the present. And while there’s an undeniable luster to the shiny jetpack visions of yesteryear’s gadget-dreaming, what I find even more fascinating are the cultural and intellectual movements that powered these visions. In Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, Roy Christopher collects over seven years’ worth of conversations with contemporary cultural luminaries, including TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, street artist and remix culture frontman Shepard Fairey, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Brain Pickings favorite DJ Spooky and 39 more.

The book was originally published in 2007, which makes it a rare, paradoxical and infinitely fertile cross between sort-of-contemporary cultural critique of the present and near-prophetic time-capsule of the recent past, swiftly fluttering across disciplines and ideologies to deliver a powerful cross-pollinator of modern intellectual and creative curiosity.

I love Steven Johnson, so it’s no surprise his interview is one of my favorites. Here, he captures precisely where I stand on the debate on what the internet is doing to our brains and the future of information:

Popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago.” ~ Steven Johnson, No Bitmaps for These Territories

The time elapsed since the book’s publication makes it particularly fascinating to reverse-engineer how the ideas in recent popular books by these thinkers originally germinated. For instance, Albert-László Barabási‘s interview presages his excellent 2010 book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do:

For many decades we believed that networks are random. Whenever we had to face a very complex system, such as people are connected by social links (society), chemicals in the cell connected by chemical reactions, webpages connected by URLs, we assumed that the links are thrown randomly around. In the last few years, we learned that this is not the case. Instead, networks hide wonderful order and are described by rather rigid evolutionary laws. These laws lead to the emergence of hubs, nodes with an extraordinary large number of links, that partly dominate real networks but they also keep them together.” ~ Albert-László Barabási, Think Networks

And as a longtime fan of Shepard Fairey‘s (whose portrait of Blondie’s Debbie Harry is my favorite piece of art that I own), I enjoyed this 2002 peek inside his creative reservoir, pre-Obama notoriety.

I like people who blur the line between fine art and graphic design. There are a lot of people who have grown up with a lot of advertising and sensory over-stimulation from video games and MTV, who are making very smart and engaging art and graphics. I don’t know what to call this movement [but] I really think the changing of the guard in the art and design world is beginning.” ~ Shepard Fairey, Giant Steps

Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.

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30 MARCH, 2011

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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What African drum languages have to do with the future of the Internet.

The future of information is something we’re deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — a new book that may just be the book to read this year, flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes to deliver an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

For a closer look at The Information, we highly recommend Freeman Dyson’s fantastic essay, How We Know, in this month’s New York Review of Books. Publishers Weekly also just released an excellent interview with Gleick, very much worth a read as well.

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