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Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

27 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2011

By:

Illustrated correspondence, rock’n’roll, and what an old Kurt Vonnegut has to do with a young Hemingway.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, food books, and psychology and philosophy books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.

STEVE JOBS

In 2004, Steve Jobs asked former TIME Magazine editor and prolific biographer Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Isaacson — who has previously profiled such icons as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger — thought the request not only presumptuous but also odd for a man of Jobs’s age. What he didn’t know was that Jobs had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had starkly brushed up against his mortality. Over the next few years, Isaacson ended up having over 40 interviews and conversations with Jobs, from which he gleaned the backbone for Steve Jobs, his highly anticipated biography — perhaps an expected pick for my omnibus of the year’s best biographers and memoirs, yet very much a deserving one, not merely because Jobs was a personal hero who shaped my own intellectual and creative development, but also because beneath the story of Jobs as an individual lies a broader story about the meat of innovation and creativity at large.

He was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation. Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is thus both instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.”

Sample the book through Isaacson’s conversation with Charlie Rose and Nick Bilton’s excellent one-on-one interview with the author.

For a complementary read, see I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words — a wonderful anthology of more than 200 quotes and excerpts from his many appearances in the media over the years.

RADIOACTIVE

Just when you thought I couldn’t possibly slip Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout into another best-of reading list — it appeared among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books — here it is, again. But consider this a measure of its merit: In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

AND SO IT GOES

Kurt Vonnegut — prolific author, anarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead. And, apparently, troubled soul. At least that’s what’s behind the curtain Charles Shields (of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee fame) peels in And So It Goes, subtitled Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — the first-ever true Vonnegut biography, revealing a vulnerable private man behind the public persona, a difficult and damaged man deeply scarred by his experiences.

The project began in 2006, when Shields reached out to Vonnegut in a letter, asking his permission for a planned biography. Though Vonnegut at first declined, Shields wasn’t ready to take “no” for an answer and eventually persuaded the counterculture hero into a “yes,” spending precious time with Vonnegut and his letters during the last year of the author’s life.

From his uneasy childhood to his tortured divorces to his attempted suicide to his explosion into celebrity, Vonnegut’s life was an intricate osmotic balance between private hell and public performance. As a leading figure in a movement of authors as a public intellectuals and a former PR agent for GE, he knew how to craft an image that would appeal to an audience — an art timelier than ever as we watch some of yesterday’s media pundits voice increasingly disconnected opinions on today’s issues.

He read the signs of what was happening in the country, and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about.” ~ Charles Shields

In a lot of ways, Vonnegut was an embodiment of the spirit behind today’s Occupy movement. Shields observes on NPR:

Kurt was a disenchanted American. He believed in America, he believed in its ideals … and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another.”

But Shields makes a special point not to vilify Vonnegut or frame him as cynical. Beneath the discomfort with this new private persona lies a deep respect for the iconic author and the intricate balance between private demons and public creativity, channelled perhaps most eloquently in this quote from Vonnegut himself, printed on the book’s opening page:

I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”

The downside of And So It Goes is that it perpetuates, all too dangerously in my opinion, the myth of the creative genius as a damaged soul — something Vonnegut’s son has since attacked the book for misportraying. Nonetheless, it remains a powerful, revealing, and ultimately deeply human read.

Originally featured in November.

FELTRON REPORT 2010

Every year since 2005, Nicholas Felton has been publishing his wonderful and entertaining annual reports, which capture the minutia of his life — drinks drunk, trips taken, methods of transportation, mood experienced, and just about everything in between — in clean, beautiful infographics. In 2010, however, Felton lost his father and decided to make his annual report a reconstruction of his father’s life based on calendars, letters, slides, postcards, passports, and other ephemera in his possession. The result is a poignant, beautiful, and tender journey into the adventures and qualities of Felton’s father through the unexpected lens of the quantitative.

The report was printed in a limited-edition run of 3,000 and is long sold out, but you can see it online in its entirety.

AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION

Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, also one of the year’s best photography books, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — underpinned by a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Poignant and provocative, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus offers an entirely new way of relating to and understanding one of the most revered and influential postmodern photographers, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self.

Originally featured in August.

BOSSYPANTS

It’s hard not to adore Tina Fey, who has had a pretty grand year, from becoming the third female and youngest ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — and giving a brilliant acceptance speech that unequivocally validates the award — to the publication of Bossypants, her excellent and impossibly funny sort-of-memoir about modern comedy, that whole gender thing and, well, life.

Once in a generation a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her.”

In April, Fey brought Bossypants to the fantastic Authors@Google. Besides Fey’s lovable brand of awkward, it’s particularly priceless to watch Google’s Eric Schmidt — who’s had quite a year himself — fumble with various politically incorrect phrases and, you know, “women things.”

Originally featured in April.

YOUNG HEMINGWAY’S LETTERS

Though neither exactly a memoir nor exactly a biography, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922 captures the lived experience and biographical milestones of the iconic author’s life through the unusual lens of his previously unpublished correspondence. After spending a decade sifting through Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes, peeling away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.

Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story. (Note the contrast with the Vonnegut biography above.)

My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway

The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.

From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.

Originally featured in October.

LIFE

For the past 10 years, Rolling Stone Keith Richards has been consistently chosen in music magazine list after music magazine list as the rocker most likely to die. And, yet, he hasn’t. Instead, he has recorded his rocking, rolling, riveting story in Life — a formidable 547-page tome of a memoir that traces his tale from his childhood in the grey suburbs of London, to the unlikely formation and rapid rise of the Stones (who, at their peak, didn’t finish a single show in 18 months, playing five to ten minutes before the teenage fans started screaming, then the fainting, then getting piled unconscious on the stage by the security), to the drugs and the disillusionment and the ultimate downfall. Funny, difficult, touching, harrowing, mischievous, the narrative — written with the help of James Fox — spans the entire spectrum of emotion and experience, only to always return to its heart: the love of rock.

You try going into a truck stop in 1964 or ’65 or ’66 down south or in Texas. It felt much more dangerous than anything in the city. You’d walk in and there’s the good ol’ boys and slowly you realize that you’re not going to have a very comfortable meal in there… They’d call us girls because of the long hair. ‘How you doing, girls? Dance with me.’ Hair… the little things that you wouldn’t think about that changed whole cultures.”

Best paired with Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which came out late last year.

FEYNMAN

Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, also one of the year’s best science books and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.

MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN

Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip? Those questions are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to unravel when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is his fascinating sort-of-memoir, telling the story of his journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the pre-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t. (It’s also a fine addition to the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.)

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer

In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer

Originally featured in March.

FLOATING WORLDS

Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also one of the year’s finest art and design books.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Originally featured, with more wonderful illustrations, in September.

Donating = Loving

In 2011, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





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22 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2011

By:

What it means to be human, how pronouns are secretly shaping our lives, and why we believe.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, and food books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.

YOU ARE NOT SO SMART

We spend most of our lives going around believing we are rational, logical beings who make carefully weighted decisions based on objective facts in stable circumstances. Of course, as both a growing body of research and our own retrospective experience demonstrate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For the past three years, David McRaney’s cheekily titled yet infinitely intelligent You Are Not So Smart has been one of my favorite smart blogs, tirelessly debunking the many ways in which our minds play tricks on us and the false interpretations we have of those trickeries. This month, YANSS joins my favorite blog-turned-book success stories with You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself — an illuminating and just the right magnitude of uncomfortable almanac of some of the most prevalent and enduring lies we tell ourselves.

The original trailer for the book deals with something the psychology of which we’ve previously explored — procrastination:

And this excellent alternative trailer is a straight shot to our favorite brilliant book trailers:

From confirmation bias — our tendency to seek out information, whether or not it’s true, that confirms our existing beliefs, something all the more perilous in the age of the filter bubble — to Dunbar’s Number, our evolution-imposed upper limit of 150 friends, which pulls into question those common multi-hundred Facebook “friendships,” McRaney blends the rigor of his career as a journalist with his remarkable penchant for synthesis, humanizing some of the most important psychology research of the past century and framing it in the context of our daily lives.

Despite his second-person directive narrative, McRaney manages to keep his tone from being preachy or patronizing, instead weaving an implicit “we” into his “you” to encompass all our shared human fallibility.

From the greatest scientist to the most humble artisan, every brain within every body is infested with preconceived notions and patterns of thought that lead it astray without the brain knowing it. So you are in good company. No matter who your idols and mentors are, they too are prone to spurious speculation.” ~ David McRaney

And in the age of Books That Should’ve Stayed Articles, it’s refreshing to see McRaney distill each of these complex phenomena in articulate, lucid narratives just the right length to be stimulating without being tediously prolix.

Originally featured in November.

MONOCULTURE

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. And breaking through them becomes exponentially difficult because part of our shared human downfall is our ego’s blind conviction that we’re autonomous agents acting solely on our own volition, rolling our eyes at any insinuation we might be influenced by something external to our selves. Yet we are — we’re infinitely influenced by these stories we’ve come to internalize, stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience.

That’s exactly what F. S. Michaels explores in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything — a provocative investigation of the dominant story of our time and how it’s shaping six key areas of our lives: our work, our relationships with others and the natural world, our education, our physical and mental health, our communities, and our creativity.

The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.” ~ F. S. Michaels

During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. When Galileo challenged the Catholic Church’s geocentricity with his heliocentric model of the universe, he was accused of heresy and punished accordingly, but he did spark the drawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the seventeenth century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines and mathematics — the scientific monoculture was born.

Ours, Micheals demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).

A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the mater story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.” ~ F. S. Michaels

Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.

The independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. But the development and visibility of that parallel structure is not the goal — the goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values.” ~ F. S. Michaels

We’ve previously examined various aspects of this dominant story — why we choose what we choose, how the media’s filter bubble shapes our worldview, why we love whom and how we love, how money came to rule the world — but Monoculture, which comes from the lovely Red Clover, weaves these threads and many more into a single lucid narrative that’s bound to first make you somewhat uncomfortable and insecure, then give you the kind of pause from which you can step back and move forward with more autonomy, authenticity and mindfulness than ever.

The book’s epilogue captures Michaels’ central premise in the most poetic and beautiful way possible:

Once we’ve thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

Originally featured in September.

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

Legendary Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. A Nobel laureate and founding father of modern behavioral economics, his work has shaped how we think about human error, risk, judgement, decision-making, happiness, and more. For the past half-century, he has profoundly impacted the academy and the C-suite, but it wasn’t until this year’s highly anticipated release of his “intellectual memoir,” Thinking, Fast and Slow, that Kahneman’s extraordinary contribution to humanity’s cerebral growth reached the mainstream — in the best way possible.

Absorbingly articulate and infinitely intelligent, this “intellectual memoir” introduces what Kahneman calls the machinery of the mind — the dual processor of the brain, divided into two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive, reactive, and emotional. (If you’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Happiness Hypothesis, as you should have, this system maps roughly to the metaphor of the elephant.) The other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. (That’s Haidt’s rider.)

The mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate, sometimes difficult osmotic balance between the two systems, a push and pull responsible for both our most remarkable capabilities and our enduring flaws. From the role of optimism in entrepreneurship to the heuristics of happiness to our propensity for error, Kahneman covers an extraordinary scope of cognitive phenomena to reveal a complex and fallible yet, somehow comfortingly so, understandable machine we call consciousness.

Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition. However, the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health… [My aim is to] improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

Among the book’s most fascinating facets are the notions of the experiencing self and the remembering self, underpinning the fundamental duality of the human condition — one voiceless and immersed in the moment, the other occupied with keeping score and learning from experience.

I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman spoke of these two selves and the cognitive traps around them in his fantastic 2010 TED talk:

The word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things.”

What’s most enjoyable and compelling about Thinking, Fast and Slow is that it’s so utterly, refreshingly anti-Gladwellian. There is nothing pop about Kahneman’s psychology, no formulaic story arc, no beating you over the head with an artificial, buzzword-encrusted Big Idea. It’s just the wisdom that comes from five decades of honest, rigorous scientific work, delivered humbly yet brilliantly, in a way that will forever change the way you think about thinking.

Originally featured in October.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS

We’re social beings wired for communicating with one another, and as new modes and platforms of communication become available to us, so do new ways of understanding the complex patterns, motivations and psychosocial phenomena that underpin that communication. That’s exactly what social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker explores in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us — a fascinating look at what Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research in computational linguistics reveals about our emotions, our sense of self, and our perception of our belonging in society. Analyzing the subtle linguistic patterns in everything from Craigslist ads to college admission essays to political speeches to Lady Gaga lyrics, Pennebaker offers hard evidence for the insight that our most unmemorable words — pronouns, prepositions, prefixes — can be most telling of true sentiment and intention.

Both a fascinating slice of human psychology and a practical toolkit for deciphering our everyday email exchanges, tweets and Facebook statuses, the research looks at what our choice of words like “I,” “she,” “mine” and “who” reveals about our deeper thoughts, emotions and motivations — and those of the people with whom we communicate.

One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status.” ~ James Pennebaker

Like much of scientific discovery, Pennebaker’s interest in pronouns began as a complete fluke — in the 1980s, he and his students discovered when asked to write about emotional upheavals, people’s physical health improved, indicating that putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. They eventually developed a computerized text analysis program to examine how language use might predict later health improvements, trying to find out whether there was a “healthy” way to write. To his surprise, the greatest predictor of health was people’s choice of pronouns.

Scientific American has an excellent interview with Pennebaker:

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts — blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.” ~ James Pennebaker

From gender differences that turn everything you know on its head to an analysis of the language of suicidal vs. non-suicidal poets to unexpected insights into famous historical documents, The Secret Life of Pronouns gleans insights with infinite applications, from government-level lie-detection to your everyday email inbox, and makes a fine addition to these 5 essential books on language.

Originally featured in September.

INCOGNITO

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman is one of my favorite books of the past few years, so I was thrilled for the release of Eagleman’s latest gem, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain — a fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind to reveal the complex machinery of the subconscious. Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the book’s case studies, examples, and insight are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.

Bringing a storyteller’s articulate and fluid narrative to a scientist’s quest, Eagleman dances across an incredible spectrum of issues — brain damage, dating, drugs, beauty, synesthesia, criminal justice, artificial intelligence, optical illusions and much more — to reveal that things we take as passive givens, from our capacity for seeing a rainbow to our ability to overhear our name in a conversation we weren’t paying attention to, are the function of remarkable neural circuitry, biological wiring and cognitive conditioning.

The three-pound organ in your skull — with its pink consistency of Jell-o — is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” ~ David Eagleman

Sample some of Eagleman’s fascinating areas of study with this excellent talk from TEDxAlamo:

Originally featured in June.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?

Last year, we explored what it means to be human from the perspectives of three different disciplines — philosophy, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology — and that omnibus went on to become one of the most-read articles in Brain Pickings history. But the question at its heart is among the most fundamental inquiries of existence, one that has puzzled, tormented, and inspired humanity for centuries. That is exactly what Joanna Bourke (of Fear: A Cultural History fame) explores in What It Means to Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s to the Present.

Decades before women sought liberation in the bicycle or their biceps, a more rudimentary liberation was at stake. The book opens with a letter penned in 1872 by an anonymous author identified simply as “An Earnest Englishwoman,” a letter titled “Are Women Animals?” by the newspaper editor who printed it:

Sir, —

Whether women are the equals of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask [for a definitive acknowledgement that at least they are animals?… Many hon. members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, ‘wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women;’ but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that ‘whenever the word “animal” occur it shall be held to include women?’ Suffer me, thorough your columns, to appeal to our 650 [parliamentary] representatives, and ask — Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then be at least an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog, or woman…

Yours respectfully,

AN EARNEST ENGLISHWOMAN

The broader question at the heart of the Earnest Englishwoman’s outrage, of course, isn’t merely about gender — “women” could have just as easily been any other marginalized group, from non-white Europeans to non-Westerners to even children, or a delegitimized majority-politically-treated-as-minority more appropriate to our time, such as the “99 percent.” The question, really, is what entitles one to humanness.

But seeking an answer in the ideology of humanism, Bourke is careful to point out, is hasty and incomplete:

The humanist insistence on an autonomous, willful human subject capable of acting independently in the world was based on a very particular type of human. Human civilization had been forged in the image of the male, white, well-off, educated human. Humanism installed only some humans at the centre of the universe. It disparaged ‘the woman,’ ‘the subaltern’ and ‘the non-European’ even more than ‘the animal.’ As a result, it is hardly surprising that many of these groups rejected the idea of a universal and straightforward essence of ‘the human’, substituting something much more contingent, outward-facing and complex. To rephrase Simone de Beauvoir’s inspired conclusion about women, one is not born, but made, a human.”

Bourke also admonishes against seeing the historical trend in paradigms about humanness as linear, as shifting “from the theological towards the rationalist and scientific” or “from humanist to post-humanist.” How, then, are we to examine the “porous boundary between the human and the animal”?

In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life. Perhaps the very concept of ‘culture’ is an attempt to differentiate ourselves from our ‘creatureliness,’ our fleshly vulnerability.”

(Cue in 15 years of leading scientists’ meditations on “culture”.)

Bourke goes on to explore history’s varied definitions of what it means to be human, which have used a wide range of imperfect, incomplete criteria — intellectual ability, self-consciousness, private property, tool-making, language, the possession of a soul, and many more.

For Aristotle, writing in the 4th century B.C., it meant having a telos — an appropriate end or goal — and to belong to a polis where “man” could truly speak:

…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, or just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”

In the early 17th century, René Descartes, whose famous statement “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) implied only humans possess minds, argued animals were “automata” — moving machines, driven by instinct alone:

Nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, as one sees that a clock, which is made up of only wheels and springs can count the hours and measure time more exactly than we can with all our art.”

For late 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, rationality was the litmus test for humanity, embedded in his categorical claim that the human being was “an animal endowed with the capacity of reason”:

[The human is] markedly distinguished from all other living beings by his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness), by his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes), and by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under the laws.)”

In The Descent of Man, Darwin reflected:

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”

(For more on Darwin’s fascinating studies of emotion, don’t forget Darwin’s Camera.)

Darwin’s concern was echoed quantitatively by Jared Diamond in 1990s when, in The Third Chimpanzee, he wondered how the 2.9% genetic difference between two kids of birds or the 2.2% difference between two gibbons made for a different species, but the 1.6% difference between humans and chimpanzees makes a different genus.

In the 1930s, Bertrand Lloyd, who penned Humanitarianism and Freedom, observed a difficult paradox of any definition:

Deny reason to animals, and you must equally deny it to infants; affirm the existence of an immortal soul in your baby or yourself, and you must at least have the grace to allow something of the kind to your dog.”

In 2001, Jacques Derrida articulated a similar concern:

None of the traits by which the most authorized philosophy or culture has thought it possible to recognize this ‘proper of man’ — none of them is, in all rigor, the exclusive reserve of what we humans call human. Either because some animals also possess such traits, or because man does not possess it as surely as is claimed.”

A Möbius strip, from a 1963 poster of the woodcut by M. C. Escher: 'Which side of the strip are the ants walking on?'

M. C. Escher's 'Möbius Strip 11' © The M. C. Escher Company -- Holland

Curiously, Bourke uses the Möbius strip as the perfect metaphor for deconstructing the human vs. animal dilemma. Just as the one-sided surface of the strip has “no inside or outside; no beginning or end; no single point of entry or exit; no hierarchical ladder to clamber up or slide down,” so “the boundaries of the human and the animal turn out to be as entwined and indistinguishable as the inner and outer sides of a Möbius strip.” Bourke points to Derrida’s definition as the most rewarding, calling him “the philosopher of the Möbius strip.”

Ultimately, What It Means to Be Human is less an answer than it is an invitation to a series of questions, questions about who and what we are as a species, as souls, and as nodes in a larger complex ecosystem of sentient beings. As Bourke poetically puts it,

Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives.”

And whether this lens applies to animals or social stereotypes, one thing is certain: At a time when the need to celebrate both our shared humanity and our meaningful differences is all the more painfully evident, the question of what makes us human becomes not one of philosophy alone but also of politics, justice, identity, and every fiber of existence that lies between.

Originally featured earlier this month. For a related read that missed the cut by a hair, see Christian Smith’s excellent What Is A Person.

THE EGO TRICK

How “you” are you, really? Character is something we tend to think of as a static, enduring quality, and yet we glorify stories of personal transformation. In reality, our essence oscillates between a set of hard-wired patterns and a fluid spectrum of tendencies that shift over time and in reaction to circumstances. This is exactly what journalist Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine, tries to reconcile in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self — an absorbing journey across philosophy, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, religion and psychology, painting “I” as a dynamic verb rather than a static noun, a concept in conflict with much of common sense and, certainly, with the ideals of Romantic individualism we examined this morning. In his illuminating recent talk at The RSA, Baggini probes deeper into the theory of self-creation and the essence of our identity.

The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.” ~ Julian Baggini

For a great companion read, you won’t go wrong with Antonio Damasio’s excellent Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

Originally featured in June.

FLOURISH

Back in the day, I had the pleasure of studying under Dr. Martin Seligman, father of the thriving positive psychology movement — a potent antidote to the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. His seminal book, Authentic Happiness, was among the 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, and this year marked the release of his highly anticipated follow-up. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being is rather radical departure from Seligman’s prior conception of happiness, which he now frames as overly simplistic and inferior to the higher ideal of lasting well-being.

Flourish is definitely not a self-help book, though it does offer insightful techniques to optimize yourself, your relationships and your business for well-being. If anything, it can read a bit wonky at times, as Seligman delves into fascinating empirical evidence culled from years of rigorous research. But I find this remarkably refreshing and stimulating amidst the sea of dumbed down psycho-fluff.

Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.'” ~ Martin Seligman

Seligman identifies five endeavors crucial to human flourishing — positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose in life, and accomplishment — and examines each in detail, ultimately proposing that public policy have flourishing as its central goal.

The content itself — happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships — constitutes human flourishing. Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing. Glimpsing the vision of a flourishing human future is life changing.” ~ Martin Seligman

Seligman’s work over the years has taken him inside the brains of British lords, Australian school kids, billionaire philanthropists, Army generals, artists, educators, scientists and countless more of humanity’s most interesting and inspired specimens. The insights gleaned from these clinical cases are both sage and surprising, inviting you to look at the pillars of your own happiness with new eyes.

Originally featured in April.

THE TELL-TALE BRAIN

V.S. Ramachandran — one of the most influential neuroscientists of our time, whose work has not only made seminal contributions to the understanding of autism, phantom limbs and synesthesia, among other fascinating phenomena, but has also helped introduce neuroscience to popular culture. The fact that he is better-known as Rama — you know, like Prince or Madonna or Che — is a fitting reflection of his cultural cachet. This year, in furthering the inquiry into what it means to be human, Rama released his highly anticipated new book: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human — an ambitious exploration of everything from the origins of language to our relationship with art to the very mental foundation of civilization. Both empirically rooted in specific patient cases and philosophically speculative in an intelligent, grounded way, with a healthy dose of humor thrown in for good measure, it’s an absolute masterpiece of cognitive science and a living manifesto for the study of the brain.

As heady as our progress [in the sciences of the mind] has been, we need to stay completely honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have only discovered a tiny fraction of what there is to know about the human brain. But the modest amount that we have discovered makes for a story more exciting than any Sherlock Holmes novel. I feel certain that as progress continues through the coming decades, the conceptual twists and technological turns we are in for are going to be at least as mind bending, at last as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended physics a century ago. The adage that fact is stranger than fiction seems to be especially true for the workings of the brain.” ~ V. S. Ramachandran

You can sample Rama’s remarkable quest to illuminate the brain with his excellent 2007 TED talk:

Originally featured in January.

THE BELIEF INSTINCT

We’re deeply fascinated by how the human mind makes sense of the world, and religion is one of the primary sensemaking mechanisms humanity has created to explain reality. On the heels of our recent explorations of the relationship between science and religion, the neuroscience of being human and the nature of reality comes The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life — an ambitious new investigation by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering, exploring one of the most important questions of human existence. Eloquently argued and engagingly written, it provides a compelling missing link between theory of mind and the need for God.

If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”

A leading scholar of religious cognition, Bering — who heads Oxford’s Explaining Religion Project — proposes a powerful new hypothesis for the nature, origin and cognitive function of spirituality. Far from merely regurgitating existing thinking on the subject, he connects dots across different disciplines, ideologies and materials, from neuroscience to Buddhist scriptures to The Wizard of Oz. Blending empirical evidence from seminal research with literary allusions and cultural critique, Bering examines the central tenets of spirituality, from life’s purpose to the notion of afterlife, in a sociotheological context underlines by the rigor of a serious scientists.

Originally featured in February, and one of our 7 fundamental meditations on faith.

OUT OF CHARACTER

The dichotomy of good and evil is as old as the story of the world, and timeless in its relevance to just about everything we do in life, from our political and spiritual views to our taste in music, art and literature to how we think about our simple dietary choices. But while most of us recognize that these concepts of good and bad aren’t always black-and-white categories, we never cease to be surprised when someone or something we’ve perceived as “good” does or becomes something we perceive as “bad,” from an esteemed politician’s transgression to a beloved celebrity’s slip into addiction or scientology or otherwise socially undesirable behavior.

In Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo explore this curious disconnect through the rigorous lens of science. Drawing on their research at the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University, the authors offer a fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others, with a more balanced moral view that reflects the fluidity of human psychology.

The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno

In this excellent talk from Northeastern’s Insights series, DeSteno reveals some of the fascinating research behind the book and the illuminating insights that came from it.

The analogy of color is an interesting way to think about [character]. Most of us think that colors are very discrete things — something’s red, it’s got redness; something’s blue, it’s got blueness. But we are creating these categories. They’re not natural kinds, they’re not given in ways that represent fundamentally distinct things. Ultimately, what determines what colors we see are the frequencies of light waves entering our eyes, so it’s along a continuum. It’s kind of the same with character. Things blend. We assume that if someone is good, that we’ve characterized them as good, that’s a discrete category, they can’t be bad. And when they are, our categories shatter. That’s because we have this illusory, arbitrary idea of what vice and virtue mean” ~ David DeSteno

Ultimately, Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us makes a compelling case for seeing human character as a grayscale continuum, not a black-and-white dichotomy of good and bad, enlisting neuroscience and cognitive psychology to reaffirm the age-old Aristotelian view of virtue and vice as fluid, interlaced existential capacities.

Originally featured in May.

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19 DECEMBER, 2011

The Best Food Books of 2011

By:

From farm life to molecular gastronomy, or what The Beatles have to do with the history of menu design.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, and history books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a taste of the year’s most delectable food books, a literary lobster course of the finest variety.

FOOD RULES / MAIRA KALMAN

It’s not every day that one of the greatest food books of our time gets a makeover by one of the greatest illustrators of our time. Such is the case of this new edition of Michael Pollan’s classic compendium, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman () — the timelessly sensible blueprint to a healthy relationship with food redone in Kalman’s characteristically colorful and child-like yet irreverent aesthetic. This new edition also features 19 additional food rules, including Place a bouquet of flowers on the table and everything will taste twice as good and the meta When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

From the very first page, starting with Kalman’s introduction, the book is an absolute — and guilt-free — treat:

Everyone eats food. That is the universal connector. Life is fragile. Fleeting. What do we want? To be healthy. To celebrate and to Love and to live Life to the Fullest. So here comes Michael Pollan with this little (monumental) book. A humanistic and smart book that describes a Sane and Happy world of Eating. It asks us, gently, to hit the Reset button on manufactured food and go back in Time.” ~ Maira Kalman


Treat Meats as a Flavoring or Special Occasion Food

Cook

Don't Overlook the Oily Little Fishes

Shop the Peripheries of the Supermarket and Stay Out of the Middle

Eat When You Are Hungry, Not When You Are Bored

Kalman’s illustrations emanate the kind of thoughtful simplicity that underpins the message of Pollan’s classic, which is based on the premise that the wisdom of our grandparents might teach us more about eating well than the overly complicated nutritional scheming purveyed by the popular media.

Pollan has an excellent audio slideshow on his site.

Already a powerful classic in its original edition, the Kalman-illustrated Food Rules is, quite simply, irresistible.

Originally featured in November.

Images courtesy of Maira Kalman / Penguin Press

THE TABLE COMES FIRST

From Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite nonfiction writers working today, comes The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food — a fascinating journey into the roots of today’s obsession with food and culinary culture. From the dawn of our modern tastes in 18th-century France, where the first restaurant was born, to the kitchens of the White House to the Slow Food movement to Barcelona’s bleeding-edge molecular gastronomy scene, Gopnik tours the wild and wonderful world of cuisine, with all its concomitant sociocultural phenomena, to explore the delicate relationship between what goes on the table and what goes on around it as we come together over our food. It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style.

Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When ‘gastronomy’ was on the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything — the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.” ~ Adam Gopnik

The book opens with Charles Darwin’s famous haikuesque meditation:

We have happy days, remember good dinners.”

Gopnik goes on to explore the two pillars of modern eating — the restaurant and the recipe book — both of which are modern developments, mere blips in evolutionary time, and reflects on their cultural history with his characteristically brilliant blend of keen analysis and ever-so-subtle smirk.

The restaurant was once a place for men, a place where men ate, held court, cooked, boasted and swaggered, and wooed women. The recipe book was traditionally ‘feminine': the kitchen was the place where women cooked, supervised, gave orders, made brownies, to steady and domesticate men. In the myth-world of the nineteenth century, the restaurant existed to coax women into having sex; the recipe book to coax men into staying home.” ~ Adam Gopnik

MODERNIST CUISINE

Nathan Myhrvold may be better-known as Microsoft’s former Chief Technology Officer, who studied quantum science alongside legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, but his true passion lies at the intersection of science and food. Myhrvold trained as a chef at LaVarenne in Burgundy, France, and has spent the past three years in a laboratory in Bellevue, Washington, perfecting — with his seven full-time chefs — the elaborate cooking techniques of gastronomy’s recent mega-obsession: molecular cuisine.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, originally featured as one of these 5½ fantastic cross-disciplinary cookbooks, is the pinnacle of his experimentation, a 2,400-page, six-volume behemoth with over 1,000 recipes that transform the kitchen into a lab. Needless to say, expectations for the ambitious undertaking have been gargantuan, which made gastronomers all the more unsettled by the recent announcement that due to packaging concerns, the book — which weighs over 48 pounds — won’t be available until March, nearly four months past the publication date originally promised.

Modernist Cuisine isn’t for everyone — besides the hardcore foray into ingredients like methylcellulose and agar approached with cooking techniques that involve liquid nitrogen and rotary evaporators, the book comes with a hefty $625 price tag. (Amazon has it at 28% off, which clocks in at the non-negligible sum of $175 in savings — but still runs your a good $450.)

Images courtesy of Credit: Ryan Matthew Smith/The Cooking Lab LLC via The New York Times

FARM ANATOMY

From the ever-talented Julia Rothman — she of Drawn In and The Exquisite Book fame, and one of the most original illustrators working today — comes Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life, a charming illustrated guide to the intricate microcosm that underpins your dinner plate. From how to properly milk a cow to a taxonomy of squash varieties and faming tools to a morphology of barn cupolas, Rothman’s warm drawings are bound to entertain, educate (did you know that a one-year-old goat is called a ‘yearling’ and you can use cornflower to dye wool blue?), and instill in you newfound awe and fascination with rural life.

And as if the striking illustrations weren’t enough of a feat, most of the type in the book was handwritten, with the exception of the introduction and metadata font, which Rothman created from her handwriting.

The book was inspired by Rothman’s first visit to the farm on which her husband, Matt, grew up, which left the born-and-bred New Yorker artist wide-eyed and wonderstruck.

Working on this book has given me a chance to learn more about what it’s like to live off the land and to better understand Matt’s roots. In small ways I hope to bring the ideals and traditions he grew up on back into our daily lives.” ~ Julia Rothman

The last pages of the book feature Rothman’s meticulous biography, which not only pleases the attribution crusader in me but also tickles my Rube Goldberg curiosity as a fascinating rabbit hole of a reading list, featuring such esoteric treats as Storey’s Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle, and Pigs, Amish Quilt Patterns, 500 Treasured Country Recipes, and Country Wisdom & Know-How .

Utterly charming and thoroughly researched, Farm Anatomy is one of those rare treats that speak to your eyes and your heart, and in the process manage to expand your mind.

Originally featured here, with more images, last month.

ART OF THE MENU

Menu Design in America: 1850-1985 by design writer extraordinaire Steven Heller (previously), Esquire food columnist John Mariani, cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann, and high-end publisher Taschen (previously) is a delicious history of menu creativity, featuring nearly 800 vibrant illustrated examples of menu ephemera, alongside photographs of restaurants, that together tell the rich and fascinating story of eating out in America. Besides the fascinating design history, the book doubles as a curious tracker of American inflation, both economic (who’s in for a $1.50 fine-dining lunch?) and of culinary claims (how did we go from simple and to-the-point food descriptions to foofy foodie-speak?).

Originally featured, with more images, in August.

Images via Taschen

THE RECIPE PROJECT

This year marked the launch of quirky indie publisher Black Balloon, whose launch email included the word “amazeballs” and whose inaugural release, The Recipe Project: A Delectable Extravaganza of Food and Music, presented a delightful and nerdy treat for the foodie-musicologist, transforming delicious recipes into singable, danceable songs. (We’ve previously seen science, history, tennis, color, civic complaints, and the weather set to music.)

The beautifully illustrated recipes come from a roster of famous chefs — including Mario Batali, John Besh, David Chang, Tom Colicchio, and Andrea Reusing — contextualized amidst chef interviews and essays by acclaimed food writers like Melissa Clark and J. Dixon, pondering such complexities as the culinary connotations of The Beatles’ White Album and what moussaka has to do with Metallica.

Masterminding the project is Brooklyn-based band One Ring Zero, who for the past couple of years have been working their favorite rock-star chefs to each choose the musical genre for his or her song, all included on the CD that comes with the book. One Ring Zero’s Michael Hearst got the kernel of this genre-bender in college, when he composed a choral piece around a recitation of grocery store names.

The book also comes with a delightful free iPhone app that lets you enter up to 5 ingredients you have on hand and dishes out a delicious, speedy singable recipe to make with them.

Originally featured in October.

BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER

Gabrielle Hamilton has spent the past decade as the chef-owner of the beloved Prune restaurant in New York City’s East Village, but hear path to the kitchen was neither straight nor smooth. In Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Hamilton — whose formidable talent as a writer is on par with her culinary mastery — recounts twenty years of seeking purpose in her life, from the idyllic kitchen of her childhood on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, raised by a French mother and an artist-set-designer father, to the difficult and protracted dissolution of her family, to the grit of her grueling and uncompromising work that took her to the peak of New York’s food scene. Anthony Bourdain calls it “absolutely the best food-related memoir, ever.” And, as Bourdain tends to, he might be absolutely right. But Hamilton’s powerful blend of culinary conviction and raw honesty make the book as much a “food-related memoir” as it is a lyrical meditation on being human.

I had no clue that my parents were unhappy with each other until I was sweeping up cornichons and hard salami and radishes off the kitchen floor.”

COOK’S ILLUSTRATED COOKBOOK

Since 1992, America’s Test Kitchen, a 2,500 square foot kitchen outside of Boston, has been publishing its meticulously tested and instructionally detailed recipes in Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. This year, they culled the 2,000 most timeless, essential, delicious recipes from the magazine’s two-decade archive and presented them in The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Cooking Magazine — an epic nearly thousand-page tome full of “test kitchen wisdom,” strategies, and tricks from the culinary trenches.

Founder and editor Christopher Kimball writes in the introduction:

This reminds me…of a story about the old-timer from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, who sat down one night to fill out his taxes. Now, like any thrifty farmer, he hardly found this a pleasant task, and staring him in the face at the head of a box in the top right-hand corner of the printed form where these words in bold type: DO NOT WRITE HERE.

Before going any further, the old gentleman took a firm grip on his pen and wrote in the box, in equally bold letters: I WRITE WHERE I GODDAMN PLEASE.

I guess that pretty much sums up how we go about recipe testing.”

THEY DRAW & COOK

For nearly two years, brother-and-sister duo Nate Padavick and Salli Swindell have been delighting us with their beautifully illustrated visual recipes from around the world. They Draw and Cook: 107 Recipes Illustrated by Artists from Around the World collects the best 107 of these lovely and delicious treats, joining the ranks of our favorite quirky cookbooks with an absolute gem of visual and culinary allure. From the playful and facetious to the elegant and sleek, these illustrated treasures offer everything from Chocolate Haystacks to Starving Artist Goo-lash and, of course, Cooooooookies for good measure.

We hope this book inspires you to cook up something new or maybe even pick up a pencil and doodle out your own favorite recipe and play along by visiting our website.” ~ Nate Padavick & Salli Swindell

Marmalade Flapjacks by Matt Dawson

Beetrooty-Yogurty-Thingummyjig by Corrina Rothwell

Chicken in Love by Irena Inumaru

Toad-in-the-Hole by Admira Pustika

Turn That Frown Upside Down Cake by Claire Murray

COOOOOOOOKIES! by Pietro Duchi

A feast for eyes and mouth, They Draw and Cook is bound to make you smile and drool — quite likely at the same time. And if the muse strikes, you can even submit your own illustrated recipe to the online project, adding your pin to this impressive world map of contributions.

Originally featured here in October.

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16 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best History Books of 2011

By:

What African drum languages have to do with women’s emancipation, radioactivity, and the future of the web.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, and science books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the most fascinating history books featured on Brain Pickings this year, tomes that unearth unknown treasures from the annals of yesteryear or offer an unusual lens on a familiar piece of our cultural past.

THE INFORMATION

The future of information can’t be complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — the book you’d have to read if you only read one book this year. Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

Originally featured here in March.

THE SWERVE

Poggio Bracciolini is the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. […] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.”

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous […] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.”

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.

RADIOACTIVE

Wait, how can a book be among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books? Well, if it’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, it can. In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Redniss tells a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

HEDY’S FOLLY

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World tells the fascinating story of a Hollywood-starlet-turned-inventor whose radio system for remote-controlling torpedoes laid the foundations for technologies like wifi and Bluetooth. But her story is also one of breaking free of society’s expectations for what inventors should be and look like. After our recent review, reader Carmelo “Nino” Amarena, an inventor himself, who interviewed Lamarr in 1997 shortly before her death, captures this friction in an email:

Ever since I found out back in 1989 that Hedy had invented Spread Spectrum (Frequency Hopping type only), I followed her career historically until her death. My interview with her is one of the most notable memories I have of speaking with an inventor, and as luck would have it, she was underestimated for nearly 60 years on the smarts behind her beauty. One of the things she said to me in our 1997 talk was, ‘my beauty was my curse, so-to-speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was’. I believe we all have our own version of Hedy’s curse and trying to overcome it could take a lifetime.”

In 1937, the dinner table of Fritz Mandl — an arms dealer who sold to both sides during the Spanish Civil War and the third richest man in Austria — entertained high-ranking Nazi officials who chatted about the newest munitions technologies. Mandl’s wife, a twenty-four-year-old former movie star, whom he respected but also claimed “didn’t know A from Z,” sat quietly listening. Hedy Kiestler, whose parents were assimilated Jews, and who would be rechristened by Louis B. Meyer as Hedy Lamarr, wanted to escape to Hollywood and return to the screen. From these dinner parties, she knew about about submarines and wire-guided torpedoes, about the multiple frequencies used to guide bombs. She knew that she had present herself as the glamorous wife of an arms dealer. And she knew that in order to leave her husband, she would have to take a good amount of this information with her.

An MGM studio portrait of Hedy Lamarr, 1938

Hedy’s story is intertwined with that of American composer George Antheil, who lived during the 1920s with his wife in Paris above the newly opened Shakespeare and Company, and who could count among his friends Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Louise Bryant, and Igor Stravinsky. When Antheil attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the composer invited him afterward to a player piano factory, where he wished to have his work punched out for posterity. There, Antheil conceived of a grand composition for sixteen player pianos, bells, sirens, and several airplane propellers, which he called his Ballet mecanique. When he premiered the work in the US, the avant-garde composition proved a disaster.

Composer George Antheil during the 1920s in Paris, when he was living above the newly founded Shakespeare & Co with his wife.

Antheil and his wife decamped for Hollywood, where he attempted to write for the screen. When Antheil met Hedy, now bona fide movie star, in the summer of 1940 at a dinner held by costume designer Adrian, they began talking about their interests in the war and their backgrounds in munitions (Antheil had been a young inspector in a Pennsylvania munitions plant during World War I.) Hedy had been horrified by the German torpedoing of two ships carrying British children to Canada to avoid the Blitz, and she had begun to think about a way to control a torpedo remotely, without detection.

Hedy had the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies and Antheil had the idea of achieving this with a coded ribbon, similar to a player piano strip. A year of phone calls, drawings on envelopes, and fiddling with models on Hedy’s living room floor produced a patent for a radio system that was virtually jam-proof, constantly skipping signals.

The patent filed in 1941 by Hedy and Antheil for a 'secret communication system'

Antheil responded to Hedy’s enthusiasm, although he thought her sometimes scatterbrained, and Hedy to Antheil’s mechanical focus as a composer. The two were always just friends and respected one another’s quirks. Antheil wrote to a friend about a new scheme Hedy was planning with Howard Hughes:

Hedy is a quite nice, but mad, girl who besides being very beautiful indeed spends most of her spare time inventing things—she’s just invented a new ‘soda pop’ which she’s patenting—of all things!”

In the center, Heddy Lamarr, with George Antheil to the right and his wife Boski Antheil to the left

Hedy’s Folly isn’t the story of a science prodigy or a movie star with a few hobbies, it’s a star-studded picaresque about two undeniably creative people whose interests and backgrounds unlocked the best in one another — the mark of true inventors.

Adapted from Michelle Legro’s fantastic full review.

IN THE PLEX

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what acclaimed technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

Originally featured, with video, in August.

BOOKS: A LIVING HISTORY

What is an omnibus about history books without a book about the history of books? We’ve previously explored how books have been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented — something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books. Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Lyons offers an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate.” ~ Martyn Lyon

Illustration from 1889 showing three women reading the three successive volumes of a novel, possibly borrowed from a circulating library

Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Yves Gellie / Corbis

Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper — the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book’s conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term ‘book’, then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials.” ~ Martyn Lyons

Calmann-Lèvy’s bookshop on the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens in Paris

Stefano Blanchetti / Corbis

A fresco at Pompeii depicting a woman browsing through a scroll

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today’s ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, revolution.

The library at Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses the Tripitaka Koreana

Leonard de Selva / Corbis

Amman woodcuts showing a compositor with his composing stick and two-page forme, and printers and bookbinders at work

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

A reading scene by George Morland (1763-1804) entitled Domestic Happiness

Christi’s Images / Bridgeman Art Library

In this hand-colored engraving by British humorist Thomas Rowlandson, a writer has some difficulty in persuading a bookseller to accept his manuscript

British Museum, London

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

Images courtesy of Getty Publications

1493

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This year, Mann came back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493 will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Originally featured here in August.

WHEELS OF CHANGE

National Geographic’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), which also happens to be one of the year’s best photography , tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity. (Not to be confused with another excellent tome that came out this year, It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, which offers a more general chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.)

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: © Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: © Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March.

HARK! A VAGRANT

History doesn’t have to always take itself seriously. 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. Scientists and artists, revolutionaries and superheroes, suffragists and presidents — they’re all there, as antique hipsters, and they’re all skewered with equal parts comedic and cerebral prod.

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 Nikola Tesla and 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.

Handsome and hilarious, the six-panel stories in Hark! A Vagrant will undo all the uptightness about history instilled in you by academia, leaving you instead with a hearty laugh and some great lines for dinner party banter.

Images courtesy of Kate Beaton / Drawn and Quarterly

THE MAN OF NUMBERS

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, also one of the year’s best science books, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.

MASTERS OF MYSTERY

As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets any unlikelier than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant, the two even stood in stark physical contrast, once likened by a journalist to Pooh and Piglet.

But when they met in 1920, something extraordinary began. In Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandford tells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

From Queen Victoria to W. B. Yeats to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln, even the era’s political, scientific, and artistic elite engaged in efforts to reach departed loved ones in worlds unseen. By the time Houdini arrived in America in 1878, more than 11 million people admitted to being Spiritualists. Spiritualism, of course, wasn’t a new idea at the time. The notion that the soul survives intact after physical death and lives on on another plane, Sandford reminds us, could be traced back at least as far back as the writings of Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the mid-18th century. His Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”) made an eight-volume case for the supernatural and provoked a published retort from Immanuel Kant, who pronounced Swedenborg’s opinions “nothing but illusions.”

This notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” ~ Harry Houdini

Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed. In 1920, Houdini went on a six-month tour in Europe, attending more than a hundred séances. He wanted, desperately, to believe — but, himself professional skeptic in the business of fooling people, he never quite managed to suspend his disbelief. In fact, he became the Penn & Teller of his day, seeing it as his duty to myth-bust psychics and other prophets of Spiritualism.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was only 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with, as we’ve already seen in this rare footage from 1930, reached a manically obsessive proportion by his old age.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

Originally featured here earlier this month.

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12 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Science Books of 2011

By:

From Infinity to Fibonacci, or what religious mythology has to do with the inner workings of field science.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids, art, design, and creativity books, and photography books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the year’s most compelling science books, spanning everything from medicine to physics to quantum mechanics. (And before you raise an eyebrow at the absence of the social and “soft” sciences, know that an omnibus of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books is coming next week.)

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

Rebecca Skloot is one of the finest science writers working today. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, one of five fantastic books about unsung heroes, she tells the story of a woman who unwittingly shaped contemporary science. (Though the book came out in 2010, the paperback was released in 2011 so, hey, it counts.)

When Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African-American mother of five who migrated from the tobacco farms of Virginia to poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, died at the tragic age of 31 from cervical cancer, she didn’t realize she’d be the donor of cells that would create the HeLa immortal cell line — a line that didn’t die after a few cell divisions — making possible some of the most seminal discoveries in modern medicine. Though the tumor tissue was taken with neither her knowledge nor her consent, the HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. To date, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells.

Skloot weaves a fascinating and tender detective story about HeLa’s legacy through the discovery of Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who didn’t know her mother but who always knew she wanted to be a scientist. As Skloot and Deborah, infinitely different yet united by the shared quest for answers, unravel one of the most absorbing mysteries of modern science, we also get a rich and sensitive tale about family, community, and the dark side of society’s capacity for exploiting its poorest and most vulnerable members. The book, one of the decade’s most excellent and ambitious science-and-so-much-more reads, is currently being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong, and letting everything change while you’re working on it — and I think writing is the same way.” ~ Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.

Deborah Lacks at about age four.

Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at Hopkins, circa 1951.

In an interview with Skloot, David Dobbs offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the book came to life — a must-read for anyone interested in the intricacies of intelligent inquiry and storytelling, in science and in general.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

The Beginning of Infinity comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

Originally reviewed in July.

RADIOACTIVE

In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. Granted, the book was also atop my omnibus of the year’s best art and design books — but that’s because it’s truly extraordinary — a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Redniss tells a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

THE PHYSICS BOOK

Einstein famously noted that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. In The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics, acclaimed science author Clifford Pickover offers a sweeping, lavishly illustrated chronology of comprehension by way of physics, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), through such watershed moments as Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and gravity (1687), the invention of fiber optics (1841), Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1915), the first speculation about parallel universes (1956), the discovery of buckyballs (1985), Stephen Hawking’s Star Trek cameo (1993), and the building of the Large Hadron Collider (2009).

The book, which could well be the best thing since Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything, begins with a beautiful quote about the poetry of science and curiosity:

As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers, and poets thrive at this shoreline.” ~ W. Mark Richardson, ‘A Skeptic’s Sense of Wonder,’ Science

Pickover takes a wide-angle view of what physics actually is, encompassing everything from relativity to quantum mechanics to dark matter and beyond, in a spirit that honors the American Physical Society’s founding mission statement of 1899, which holds physics as “the most basic and fundamental science.” As much as it is about the great ideas of physics, the book is also about the great minds behind them, including Brain Pickings darlings Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Erwin Schrödinger.

From the magnetic monopole to quasicrystals to dark matter, The Physics Book is an invaluable treasure trove of curated knowledge in an age when, as Andrew Zolli put it at the opening of PopTech 2011, “the scale of our knowledge is expanding faster than most of our ability to comprehend.” For once, it’s rather nice to make some of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements feel contained and digestible.

Originally reviewed, with plenty more images, last month.

I HAVE LANDED

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This year marked the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Originally featured in October.

THE MAGIC OF REALITY

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This year, Dawkins released his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, also among the year’s best children’s books — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, an antidote to the creationism mythology teaching young readers how to replace myth with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

FIELD NOTES

Field Notes on Science and Nature, one of five fascinating peeks inside the notebooks of great creators, offers an unprecedented look at the inner workings of scientific inquiry and observation. It’s as much a scientific travelogue as it is a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment, its beautiful reproductions of original journal pages taking us from Baja, California, with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

Michael Canfield, who edited the book and is himself a biologist at Harvard, invites us to “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

E.O. Wilson articulates the book’s voyeuristic magic in its introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Kirstin Butler’s original review here.

FEYNMAN

Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.

CULTURE

This year, Edge.org editor John Brockman launched a new series of anthologies curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. First came The Mind, followed by Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built […] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual […] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture expands both the scope of science and your comfort zone of intellectual inquiry.

THE MAN OF NUMBERS

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.

FUTURE SCIENCE

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? That’s exactly what literary agent Max Brockman explores in Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge — a fantastic anthology of short pieces by 19 first-rate researchers spanning everything from astronomy to virology to computer science, and a wealth in between. The provocative yet digestible essays are intended for the curious layperson, which Brockman reminds us in the introduction doesn’t come without risk: “If you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

As you might have guessed, Brockman is the son of John Brockman, who masterminded Culture above.

Kirstin Butler reviewed this in full in August.

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