Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 FEBRUARY, 2014

Why Science-Fiction Writers Are So Good at Predicting the Future

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“At its core, good science fiction must rest on good science.”

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation,” Arthur C. Clarke declared in 1964, and yet he got it astoundingly right in his own predictions, including his 1968 vision for the iPad. He wasn’t alone — Isaac Asimov predicted online education, Douglas Adams predicted ebooks, Ray Bradbury predicted that we would reach Mars (though, so far, we’ve only done so with robotic extensions of ourselves), and Jules Verne envisioned the hi-tech Nautilus “at a time when even a can-opener [was] considered an exciting new concept.” In fact, science-fiction authors have a formidable track record of predicting the future — but why?

That’s exactly what Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart — who has previously explained the science of why we kiss and the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate — explores in this fantastic short film for PBS:

One right prediction in any one body of work would be lucky, but this many right answers can’t be luck — clearly, something sets these people apart. Many of the greatest sci-fi writers also had serious scientific training: Isaac Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and Arthur C. Clarke had degrees in math and physics; H.G. Wells had a degree in biology…

At its core, good science fiction must rest on good science…

How far can we see into the future? Well, it depends on what we’re looking for — Isaac Asimov said that when we look at stars or galaxies or DNA, we’re looking at simple things, things that follow nice, neat rules and equations; but when we look at human history, it’s chaotic, unpredictable, our vision is limited. Science transforms the complex into the simple — that’s how we explain the chaos. Science is how we see farther, and science fiction is where we write down what we see.

Complement with this fantastic visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction and some vintage visions for the future of technology, then revisit one of H.G. Wells’s as-yet unfulfilled predictions with Edward Gorey’s illustrations for The War of the Worlds.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2014

Mark Rothko on the Transcendent Power of Art and How (Not) To Experience His Paintings

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“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

Between January and July of 1956, a pivotal point in art when abstraction and realism confronted one another in a particularly fierce conflict and fine art was exorcising its ambivalence about the “organic” and the “formal” on canvases the world over, the celebrated writer, poet, critic, and public intellectual Selden Rodman (February 19, 1909–November 2, 2002) engaged in a series of conversations with some of the era’s greatest artists. Among them was the influential painter Mark Rothko. Found in Conversations with Artists (public library) — the same magnificent anthology that gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality and Frank Lloyd Wright’s feisty critique of other architects — the exchange with Rothko is equal parts amusing and profound.

Mark Rothko

Unlike most of the other interviews, it didn’t take place in the artist’s studio — rather, the two ran into each other at the Whitney Museum Annual. Rodman recounts Rothko, who was generally “touchy about his work,” was in a particularly cranky mood, mad at his dealer for having given Rodman permission to reproduce one of his paintings in the book The Eye of Man. Rodman recounts the exchange:

“Janis had no right to give permission,” he said, adding that he’d contemplated suing both me and the publisher.

“You should have, Mark,” I said, laughing, “you should have. That would have given abstract expressionism far more publicity than I ever could!”

“You might as well get one thing straight,” he said, relaxing, “I’m not an abstractionist.”

“You’re an abstractionist to me,” I said. “You’re a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?”

“I do. I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.”

Mark Rothko, No.5/No.22, oil on canvas (1949-1950)

Rothko then extracts from the particularity of his personal, momentary gripe a more general and timeless observation about the power of art, touching on Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and contemplating the psychological functions of art. (Even so, he still manages to scold Rodman in a charmingly curmudgeonly manner.)

I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

Conversations with Artists, should you be fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy, is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2014

Gorgeous Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Skiing

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A rare marriage of sports and fashion through mid-century graphic design.

As a devotee of winter sports, both as a lifelong practitioner and an Olympic spectator, and lover of vintage graphic design, especially mid-century travel posters, I was delighted to chance upon The Art of Skiing: Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Winter Sport (public library) — a remarkable collection of 800 vintage posters and paintings from the first half of the twentieth century when skiing, a sport that immigrant Scandinavian gold miners had introduced to America during the Gold Rush a century earlier, first took the world by blizzard as a fashionable modern sport. Curated by vintage ephemera enthusiast Jenny de Gex, these gorgeous and graphically striking posters were obsessively and lovingly amassed over a lifetime by Mason Beekley, owner of the world’s largest private collection of ski art. They are currently housed at the Mammoth Ski Museum in — surprisingly — California.

For a wholly different application of a similar vintage aesthetic, pair The Art of Skiing with these lovely vintage posters for libraries and reading.

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