Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Hanson’

28 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Science of How Clouds Actually Stay Up in the Sky

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How to keep the weight of 100 elephants in the air.

As Georgia O’Keeffe marveled at the beauty of the Southwest sky, which inspired much of her legendary art, she was especially enchanted by the “grey blue clouds … riding all through the holiness of it,” “bunches of clouds,” “different kinds of clouds.” Clouds, indeed, hold immeasurable mesmerism for children, artists, and ordinary grownups alike. But why do they actually exist and how do they work?

In this wonderful short video based on Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds (public library | IndieBound), Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart turns to science to make visible the invisible magic by which clouds hang oh so effortlessly in the sky.

This must be precisely what Richard Feynman meant in his unforgettable monologue about how “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe” of nature.

Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Could Appreciation Society, writes in the introduction:

I’ve always loved looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. If a glorious sunset of Altocumulus clouds were to spread across the heavens only once in a generation, it would surely be amongst the principal legends of our time. Yet most people barely seem to notice the clouds, or see them simply as impediments to the “perfect” summer’s day, an excuse to feel “under the weather.”

Prefacing the book is the wonderfully heartening manifesto of the Society:

We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking” wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.

And so, we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.

The Cloudspotter’s Guide was followed by the equally delightful The Cloud Collector’s Handbook.

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science-plus explainers, see how a glass of wine explains the universe, why sci-fi authors are so good at predicting the future, and the mathematical odds of finding your soul mate.

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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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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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