Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

06 APRIL, 2012

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions

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“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.

So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Stuart Firestein writes in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he appeared on the Bill Moyers show in 1988 and shared some timeless, remarkably timely insights on creativity in science and education:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.

Carl Sagan echoed the same sentiment when he remarked:

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

In a letter to Hans Mühsam dated July 9th, 1951, an elderly Albert Einstein observed:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

In his recent New York Review of Books piece on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, Freeman Dyson offers:

All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, articulated the same idea in 1964 in the first volume of his iconic Mythologiques collection of cultural anthropology:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

In the fantastic A General Theory of Love, psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon give this beautiful definition:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world.

This element of wonder and whimsy also comes through in the words of iconic physicist and mathematician Max Born (thanks, Joe):

Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already possess it.

In his iconic book On Human Nature, which should be required reading for all, the great biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson observed:

The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.

In 1894, upon having received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother:

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…

Curie also likely inspired this interpretation of her famous words on the essence of the scientific ethos:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Richard Feynman would have nodded in agreement. Einstein certainly did when he observed:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

This comes full-circe to Firestein’s book on ignorance, where he asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

But hardly anyone captures the essence and ethos of science more eloquently than The Great Explainer. In 1966, the National Science Teachers Association asked the great Richard Feynman to give an address that answers the question, “What is science?” The answer comes true to character:

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:

A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.

Later in the speech, Feynman hones a more answer-like answer:

[I]f you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it — although possibly not every time.

Later:

[Science] teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true.

He closes with a keen point for his audience of professional science educators:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

Science, then, necessitates a certain comfort with being wrong, a tolerance for the fear of failure — perhaps cultivating that capacity is an essential prerequisite not only for science but also for the basic appreciation of science.

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23 MARCH, 2012

Advice on Advice from Literary Greats

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Cultivating the wisdom to know when to ignore wisdom.

There’s indisputable value in turning to our greatest heroes for wisdom on everything from how to find our purpose to the balance of rationality and intuition to the key to happiness to the secret of life. But blindly following advice, even from the greatest of minds, is a recipe for disappointment since, after all, every human experience is different from every other. Gathered here are five pieces of anti-advice from literary greats — mostly on writing, but also applicable to life at large — reminding us that, sometimes, the best advice is to ignore advice.

JOHN STEINBECK

Even though he issued six timeless tips on writing, John Steinbeck followed them with a sort of caveat cautioning against relying too heavily on such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

GEORGE ORWELL

In 1946, George Orwell issued a similar list of six rules for writers, the last of which is a disclaimer to the rest of the list:

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

STEPHEN KING

While feedback and input are a critical form of advice, they too can warp our own ideals. Stephen King puts it best:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

JACK KEROUAC

Popular opinion is, of course, a form of feedback and, as such, implicit peer advice. Jack Kerouac — whose 30 tips on writing and life are among the most follow-worthy advice there is — cautions against it, echoing Paul Graham’s thoughts on prestige:

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

An essential part of advice is, in fact, knowing when to ignore it. The excellent Advice to Writers recounts the story of Charlotte Brontë, who in 1845 wrote to the British poet Robert Southey to ask whether to be a successful writer. He replied with “cool admonition”:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.”

Brontë, of course, chose to ignore his advice and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, produced a wealth of poetry under male pseudonyms before publishing Jane Eyre the following year.

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14 MARCH, 2012

5 Art and Design Projects Inspired by Literary Classics

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From James Joyce to Jonah, or what the Brontë Sisters’ objectification of men has to do with Holden Caulfield.

Art inspires art, often crossing boundary lines in magnificent cross-disciplinary manifestations. As a lover of remix culture and a hopeless bookworm, I revel in the cross-pollination of visual art and literature. Here are five wonderful art and design projects, inspired by literary classics.

WAKE IN PROGRESS

In February of 2010, Paris-based designer and illustrator Stephen Crowe set out on an ambitious project — to not only read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, considered one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language, but to also illustrate it. The result is Wake in Progress — a creative feat that’s part Saul Bass, part Edward Gorey, part Lynd Ward, and yet entirely its own and entirely terrific.

First Line

Page 22

Page 25

Page 75

Page 76

Page 79: Kate Strong, a widow

Nothing that appears in Finnegans Wake is ever just one thing. How exactly do you draw a talking fox which is also a mouse, one of two arguing brothers, a pope, and modernist author Wyndham Lewis?” ~ Stephen Crowe

A number of the illustrations are available as prints.

EVERY PAGE OF MOBY DICK

Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Last year, the project became Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page — one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011, gathering Kish’s magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.

I’ve read the book eight or nine times […] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism […] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.” ~ Matt Kish

'...Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel's wards.'

Ballpoint pen on paper, September 17, 2009

'But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.'

Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 6, 2009

'Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it - it may be - a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 22, 2011

'...and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains...'

Acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, September 30, 2009

'...hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling...'

Crayon, ink and marker on found paper, November 24, 2009

'Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 11, 2011

'Thou Bildad!' roared Peleg, starting up and clattering about the cabin. 'Blast ye, Captain Bildad, if I had followed thy advice in these matters, I would afore now had a conscience to lug about that would be heavy enough to founder the largest ship that ever sailed round Cape Horn.''

Ballpoint pen and ink on found paper, November 16, 2009

WORD BIBLE DESIGNS

In his Word project, designer Jim LePage set out to create original designs for every book of the Bible, in an exercise in self-discipline that allowed him to mary his love of design with his desire to read the Bible more. Though the impetus for the project sets off my own religious alarms, the Bible, too, is literature, and it’s hard to dismiss the refreshing approach of this literary art project. Besides, perhaps this is the kind of secular silver lining Alain de Botton promised in Religion for Atheists.

Word: 3 John

Word: Jude

Word: 2 John

Word: 2 Timothy

Word: 2 Thessalonians

Word: Nahum

HARK! A VAGRANT

From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant — a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren’t paying attention.

I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you’ve enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you’re just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too.” ~ Kate Beaton

Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what’s already an absolute delight.

Originally featured here in October.

BEHOLDING HOLDEN

From writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson comes Beholding Holden, an enchanted visual exploration of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a follow-up to their earlier collaboration on depicting the fictional Glass family.

Holden Caulfield

Old Mr. Spencer

Ackley

Stradlater, Holden's roommate at Pencey

Jane Gallagher

Sunny, the prostitute Maurice, an elevator operator moonlighting as pimp, offers Holden in Manhattan for 'five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon.'

Mr. Antolini

Norris and Richardson also collaborated on a fantastic series of illustrations based on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, considered the third greatest book of the 20th century.

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