Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Hanson’

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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13 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Science of Why We Kiss

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Oxytocin, dopamine, and what the hineys of monkeys have to do with the faces of our lovers.

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves,” Einstein allegedly smirked. “Like a bee that settles on the fragrant pistils of a flower, and sips in the nectar for honey, so should you sip in the nectar from between the lips of your love,” Hugh Morris counseled in The Art of Kissing, his entertaining 1936 guide for lovers. The first kiss in cinema both scandalized and tantalized audiences when it appeared on the silver screen in 1896. But why, exactly, do we like kissing so much?

In this illuminating short video, based on the altogether fascinating book The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us (public library) by our mutual friend Sheril Kirshenbaum, Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart, who has previously explored the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, takes us through the neurochemistry, evolutionary biology, and social science of kissing — all with the necessary disclaimer that we know much less than we don’t, a vital reminder that science and human knowledge are driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance.”

In the book, Kirshenbaum writes:

Scientists are not exactly sure why we kiss. This may be in part because they have not even definitively decided what a kiss is. Unlike most other areas of scientific investigation, there’s no accepted “taxonomy,” or classification system, for different kinds of kisses and closely related behaviors. What’s more, you don’t find the experts crunching the numbers and figures on kissing across world cultures, as researchers would surely do if they wanted to get a handle on the available data. Why so little analysis of osculation? Perhaps kissing seems so commonplace that few of us have paused to reflect on its deeper significance. Or it’s possible the subject has been intentionally avoided under the microscope given the challenges of interpreting what a kiss really means.

[…]

Because a kiss brings two individuals together in an exchange of sensory information by way of taste, smell, touch, and possibly even silent chemical messengers called pheromones (odorless airborne signals), it has the potential to provide all kinds of insight into another person. So even when our conscious minds may not recognize it, the act can reveal clues about a partner’s level of commitment and possibly his or her genetic suitability for producing children.

Dive deeper with The Science of Kissing, then take a vintage sidewise step with The Art of Kissing.

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