Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Hanson’

22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[...]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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15 APRIL, 2014

Why There Was No First Human

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“It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old.”

We live in a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. And yet how can an intelligent being hold such beliefs when faced with a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree or an 80,000-year-old aspen? But even when we embrace science completely, one of the most baffling aspects of the timeline of evolution — for creatures as dependent on categories as we are to make sense of the world — is its incremental progress largely devoid of clear markers denoting when one primitive species ends and its evolved successor begins.

Inspired by The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — Richard Dawkins’s children’s book seeking to replace myth with science — PBS’s Joe Hanson offers a concise and elegant explanation of why there was no “first human.” Tracing any one person’s family tree — yes, yours, as well as mine — back 185 million generations takes us not to another human but to a fish, which begs the question of where the human species “began”:

You can never pinpoint the exact moment when a species came to be — because it never did. It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old… Evolution happens like a movie, with frames moving by both quickly and gradually, and we often can’t see the change while it’s occurring. Every time we find a fossil, it’s a snapshot back in time, often with thousands of frames missing in between, and we’re forced to reconstruct the whole film. Life is what happens in between the snapshots.

For a closer look at The Magic of Reality, go here, then see more of Henson’s terrific science illuminators, like the science of why we kiss, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, and why we can consider the avocado a curious ghost of evolution.

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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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