Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space: Imaginative and Illuminating Children’s Book Tickles Our Zest for the Cosmos

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Rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

In reflecting on the story of the Golden Record, Carl Sagan, in his infinite poetic powers, celebrated our destiny as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.” Given how gravely space exploration has plummeted down the hierarchy of cultural priorities in the decades since Sagan’s time, how can we hope to imbue the hearts of the next generation of astronauts, policy makers, and cosmic explorers with the passionate poetics of Sagan’s conviction, with the same exhilarating longing to reach for and embrace the stars?

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (public library), written by quantum computer scientist Dominic Walliman and designed and illustrated by Ben Newman, is a heartening step in the direction of an answer. Both modern in its scientific spirit and with a sensibility modeled after the delightful mid-century children’s books from the Golden Age of space exploration, it tickles young readers — as well as their space-enchanted parents — into precisely that “palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

From clever visualizations of the scale of the universe to an illuminating primer on how stars are born to an illustrated anatomy of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, the book combines solid science (pause for a moment to consider the size of the gaseous giant Jupiter, inside which 1,300 Earths can fit) with curious untrivia (I find poetic symbolism in the fact, previously unknown to me, that Venus spins in the opposite direction to all other planets in the Solar System, and how neat to know that the surface of the moon equals the size of Africa), binding it all together with subtle humor and wholehearted joy in learning.

What makes the book particularly wonderful is that it refuses to do the great disservice to science that textbooks often do, which is to insinuate having all the answers. Instead, it embraces the awareness that science thrives on “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and dedicates a good portion of the story to as-yet unanswered questions, like whether there is other intelligent life in the universe and what the human future in space might look like if we transplanted our civilization on other planets.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space comes from the treasure chest of British indie children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

Complement it with this remarkable vintage children’s book, which envisioned gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration decades before either became a reality, then revisit the wonderful You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in lyrical illustrated dioramas.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Marie Curie on Curiosity, Wonder, and the Spirit of Adventure in Science

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A short manifesto for the vitalizing power of discovery.

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.” So read the obituary for Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences, published the day after her death in 1934. Three years later, her younger daughter, Eve Curie Labouisse, captured her mother’s spirit and enduring legacy in Madame Curie: A Biography (public library).

Among the ample anecdotes of the great scientist’s life and the many direct quotations of her humbly stated yet fiercely upheld convictions is one particularly poignant passage that speaks to the immutable resonance between science and wonder, the inextinguishable causal relationship between childhood’s innate curiosity and humanity’s greatest feats of discovery. Eve Curie quotes her mother, adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.

Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

Complement with this excellent 1964 meditation on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and discovery, then revisit artist Lauren Redniss’s sublime illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2014

How Repetition Enchants the Brain and the Psychology of Why We Love It in Music

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“Music takes place in time, but repetition beguilingly makes it knowable in the way of something outside of time.”

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism,” Haruki Murakami reflected on the power of a daily routine. “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” Mary Oliver wrote about the secret of great poetry, adding: “When it does, it grows sweeter.” But nowhere does rhythmic repetition mesmerize us more powerfully than in music, with its singular way of enchanting the brain.

How and why this happens is precisely what cognitive scientist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, explores in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (public library). This illuminating short animation from TED Ed, based on Margulis’s work, explains the psychology of the “mere exposure effect,” which makes things grow sweeter simply as they become familiar — a parallel manifestation of the same psychological phenomenon that causes us to rate familiar statements as more likely to be true than unfamiliar ones.

Margulis writes:

Music takes place in time, but repetition beguilingly makes it knowable in the way of something outside of time. It enables us to “look” at a passage as a whole, even while it’s progressing moment by moment. But this changed perspective brought by repetition doesn’t feel like holding a score and looking at a passage’s notation as it progresses. Rather, it feels like a different way of inhabiting a passage — a different kind of orientation.

In On Repeat, a fine addition to these essential books on the psychology of music, Margulis goes on to explore how advances in cognitive science have radically changed our understanding of just why repetition is so psychoemotionally enticing.

HT Open Culture

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