Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

14 DECEMBER, 2011

No Ordinary Genius: BBC Captures Richard Feynman’s Legacy

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Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.

As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle” this week, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.

When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT

At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:

In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.

HT @matthiasrascher

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13 DECEMBER, 2011

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

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From fiberglass to James Franco, or what Ice Cube has to do with designing the American imagination.

It’s been a grand year for Charles and Ray Eames, from the rediscovery of Charles Eames’ fantastic 1982 Q&A on design to architect-turned-rapper Ice Cube singing the duo’s praises. The Eames, of course, very much warrant cultural paeans — they not only gave a shape and style to the American twentieth century, but they also defined a new cultural role for designers as architects of imagination who invite people to look at the world differently. Today marks the highly anticipated DVD release of Eames: The Architect and the Painter — a fascinating documentary about the legendary husband-and-wife design duo, exploring their personal lives, their creative process, and their enduring influence on the American aesthetic, design sensibility, and outlook on life.

Oh, and it’s narrated by James Franco.

Beautifully filmed and brimming with insight, Eames: The Architect and the Painter is easily the most exciting design documentary since Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica / Objectified / Urbanized trilogy.

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12 DECEMBER, 2011

From Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand: Iconic Writers on Symbolism, 1963

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A Rorschach Test with a spine, or what the art of fluid writing has to do with salt.

In 1963 — long before Twitter, email, and even the Internet itself as we know it — a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Bruce McAllister set out to settle a dispute with his English teacher over whether symbolism existed as a conscious device authors employed in writing. So he devised a four-question mimeographed survey to probe the issue and mailed it to 150 of the era’s most notable writers, much like librarian Marguerite Hart did in the lovely Letters to the Children of Troy project. To McAllister’s surprise, he got 75 responses, ranging from the passionate to the reprimanding to the deeply philosophical. Here are some of the best. (And if the cultural demise of handwriting has rendered you incapable of reading cursive, enjoy the transcriptions in good ‘ol type.)

Symbolism arises out of action and functions best in fiction when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolisms which arise in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource for his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is being added.” ~ Ralph Ellison

I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.” ~ Ray Bradbury

After all, each story is a Rorschach Test, isn’t it? and if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them, anyway, and this is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true — and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” ~ Ayn Rand

Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true stories simply about what happened to people I know.” ~ Jack Kerouac

It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.” ~ John Updike

(Cue in Marian Bantjes’s brilliant recent advice to design students.)

Let me refer you to an article in the NYTimes book review called ‘Deep Readers of the World, Beware!’” ~ Saul Bellow

A pattern of shared sentiments begins to emerge — at its best, symbolism, like salt, is invisible and seamless; it’s organic rather than engineered; and it is, above all, the product of your own mind rather than a prescriptive recipe.

Sarah Funke Butler over at The Paris Review, who uncovered the letters, spoke with McAllister over the phone, some 48 years later — it’s worth a read.

But perhaps what this experiment bespeaks, most of all, is the timeless ambiguity of both the writer’s ego and altruism itself, a kind of binary bet — did these writers respond because they selflessly wanted to help an earnest student, or because they loved hearing themselves speak with authority about their craft, or a combination of the two? And what does our wager say about our own character’s place on the spectrum between cynicism and idealism?

via The Paris Review

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