Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 MAY, 2015

Spineless: Susan Middleton’s Mesmerizing Photographs of Marine Invertebrates

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Visual verses celebrating the glorious grandeur of life on our pale blue dot.

The mystery of marine life has compelled humanity for millennia, from ancient Indian mythology to Aristotle, who was the first to outline the distinction between invertebrates and vertebrates in his Historia Animalium. Perhaps because we ourselves sprang from the oceans, these creatures and their habitats have long lent themselves to our tendency toward thinking with animals. Even David Foster Wallace turned to the primordial seas of metaphor in his legendary Kenyon College commencement address, which came to be known as This Is Water after its central clarion call for “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

In Spineless (public library), visual artist, educator, and explorer Susan Middleton turns her luminous lens to one particularly underappreciated aspect of these real and essential invisibilia: the exquisite and enigmatic world of marine invertebrates, which represent 98% of the known animal species in the oceans and are thus the backbone of life on our blue planet, which is itself 97% water. Indeed, this is water.

Red-eye medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus)

© Susan Middleton

Using a special photographic technique she developed, Middleton captures an astounding diversity of creatures, ranging from giant squid to tiny translucent jellyfish to two species so new to science — the Kanola squat lobster and the Wanawana crab — that they have been formally named based on the very individuals in the book. Her photographs are at once austere and deeply alive — against the plain black or white background, these creatures fill the frame with striking intimacy of presence.

Opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis)

© Susan Middleton

Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica)

© Susan Middleton

Middleton’s fascination with marine invertebrates began more than a quarter century earlier, while working on a project to photograph one hundred endangered species. One of them was the shrimp tadpole — a tiny, unassuming, yet utterly remarkable creature that lived on Earth long before fish evolved and has remained practically unchanged for 250 million years, developing clever strategies for survival despite its defenseless body. Middleton writes:

That was the beginning of my obsession with the world of invertebrates.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the bizarre beauty and inherent mystery of this realm of life. The photographs herein are intended to reveal the exceptional shapes, patterns, textures, and colors of these remarkable creatures. Colorful, quirky, quivery, spindly, spiky, sticky, stretchy, squishy, slithery, squirmy, prickly, bumpy, bubbly, and fluttery, the invertebrates appear almost surreal, even alien.

Gold-banded hermit crab (Dardanus brachyops)

© Susan Middleton

Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of Middleton’s project extends far beyond its undeniable aesthetic mesmerism and into a more profound appreciation of not only the incredible diversity of these life forms but also the incredible diversity among them — each animal is revealed as an individual, with palpably distinctive likeness and behavior, even within a species. We are suddenly reminded that if we are to heed Jane Goodall and truly live our lives in Rilke’s widening circles by continuing to expand our circles of compassion to nonhuman animals, we cannot exclude these weird and wonderful beings.

Pink brittle star

© Susan Middleton

Orange-rimmed flatworm (Mayazoon orsaki)

© Susan Middleton

For Middleton herself, who has dedicated her life to capturing and conveying the realities of creatures quite different from ourselves — often ones gravely endangered by our human solipsism and the destructive entitlement it engenders — this has been a centerpiece of the project. To gaze at life forms with powers of perception so vastly different from — and often superior to — our own is to invariably ask what it’s like to experience the world in this alien way, what life is like for that being. Middleton puts this awareness beautifully:

This recognition has opened me to a larger world and a profound assemblage of energies beyond the human.

White phantom crab

© Susan Middleton

Hanging stomach jellyfish (Stomotoca atra)

© Susan Middleton

Pacific giant octopus

© Susan Middleton

It is almost inconceivable that a photograph could sing to the soul the way a Mary Oliver poem does, and yet embraced by Middleton’s compassionate curiosity, these marvelous creatures join together in a chorus exhorting us to begin belonging to this world immediately, because “There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about.” Middleton emerges as a poet of photography, each image in Spineless a visual verse that renders us a little more awake to the glorious grandeur of this world we share with so many other beings, a little more reluctant to contribute to its destruction with our small everyday choices, which are the building blocks of our civilizational acts.

Complement this treasure of a book, which features a foreword by oceanic patron saint Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle, with Jane Goodall on our human responsibility.

Photographs courtesy of Abrams

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18 MAY, 2015

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

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A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches if City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks's official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

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18 MAY, 2015

Nine Podcasts for a Fuller Life

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A short playlist of intellectual, creative, and spiritual invigoration.

We are storytelling animals and the actual telling of stories — that ancient aural mesmerism of the human voice — continues to bewitch us somehow more thoroughly than any other medium of tale-transmission. This, perhaps, is why podcasts have emerged as a storytelling modality capable of particular enchantment — a marriage of the primeval and the present.

Here are nine favorite exemplars of the medium, each showcased via one particularly spectacular episode and a sampler-playlist of three more treats from the show’s archives.

On Being with Krista Tippett (iTunes): Mary Oliver // Listening to the World

The Pulitzer-winning poet and shaman of paying attention, beloved and oft-quoted but rarely interviewed, cracks open her inner world at the age of 79 — and what gushes forth is nothing short of magic.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Other episodes of note: Margaret Wertheim // The Grandeur and the Limits of Science :: Joanna Macy // A Wild Love for the World :: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin // The Inner Life of Rebellion



Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (iTunes): Translation

From poetry to 911 calls, WNYC’s Jad and Robert embark upon a characteristically mind-bending exploration of how close words can get us “to the truth and feel and force of life” and how far they can lead us stray from the actual meaning of things.

Any person is kind of a universe — they’re too big to comprehend in their entirety, and so any translation [of a person’s work] is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny fraction.

Other episodes of note: Super Cool :: Things :: Speedy Beet



Design Matters with Debbie Millman (iTunes): Dani Shapiro

The celebrated novelist, memoirist, and author of the superb Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life discusses the experience of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, her ongoing quest to master the art of presence, and the interplay of courage and vulnerability necessary for being an artist.

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

Other episodes of note: Chris Ware :: Morley :: Seth Godin



The Tim Ferriss Show (iTunes): Amanda Palmer on How to Fight, Meditate, and Make Good Art

In a wide-ranging and wildly inspiring conversation, Amanda Palmer expands on her ideas from the indispensable The Art of Asking as she contemplates creativity, sanity, integrity, and what it means to be an artist.

Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success — which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day.

[…]

Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid — swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.

Other episodes of note: Matt Mullenweg on Polyphasic Sleep, Tequila, and Building Billion-Dollar Companies :: Tony Robbins on Morning Routines, Peak Performance, and Mastering Money :: Rolf Potts on Travel Tactics, Creating Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking



Invisibilia with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel (iTunes): The Secret History of Thoughts

From psychologists’ multiple theories about why a young man found his mind suddenly flooded with horribly violent images to how someone trapped in his body for thirteen years found true love, co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the seemingly simple yet life-shaping question: “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?”

The world of therapists and how they think about thoughts … is in the middle of a huge revolution. And it’s one I don’t know if most people know about.

Other episodes of note: The Power of Categories :: Entanglement :: Fearless



TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz (iTunes): The Source of Creativity

In another stimulating installment of this ongoing collaboration between TED and NPR, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, musician Sting, brain researcher Charles Limb, and education reform champion Sir Ken Robinson explore the origin of creativity from multiple perspectives.

I had a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated.

She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing?

And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God.

And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… They’re not frightened of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

Other episodes of note: Success :: Framing the Story :: The Money Paradox



The One You Feed with Eric Zimmer (iTunes): Edward Slingerland

The eminent scholar of Chinese thought, author of the excellent Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, discusses the paradoxical nature of conscious intention.

There are a lot of goals that we cannot pursue directly: relaxation, happiness, attractiveness [and] creativity — when you pursue them directly, they flee from you… If you think about the two-system nature of the human mind, when you’re trying to relax, or you’re trying to be happy and not think about things, the part of the brain you’re trying to shut down is the part you’re using to do the shutting down. It’s like trying to dissemble a bicycle while you’re riding on it — it’s directly paradoxical.

Other episodes of note: Carol Dweck :: Andrew Solomon :: Oliver Burkeman



Stylus by WBUR’s Conor Gillies and Zack Ezor (iTunes): Songs of the Earth

A formidable roster of voices — from bioacoustician Bernie Krause to conductor Benjamin Zander to ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour — explores the siren songs of our planet, from the Golden Record that carried Earth’s sounds into space aboard the Voyager in 1977 to how humanity’s impulse for music was born.

The human ear is alert, like that of an animal. From the nearest details to the most distant horizon, the ears operate with seismographic delicacy.

Other episodes of note: Silence :: Ru Paul on Fantasy and Identity :: Seeing and Illustrating Music



The New York Public Library Podcast (iTunes): Mark Strand on Artistic Imagination

The Pulitzer-winning poet, MacArthur genius, and sage of creativity on the artistic imagination, shortly before his death. That Strand’s final interview should be a conversation with his daughter, the New York Public Library’s own Jessica Strand, only adds to the beauty and poignancy of that conversation.

I can’t imagine a life without books — without reading. I don’t know how people get through a day without reading!

Other episodes of note: Cheryl Strayed on Wild Success :: Ru Paul on Fantasy and Identity :: Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on Inspiring Failures

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





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13 MAY, 2015

The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales

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“Life [exists] only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver observed in her magnificent memoir of love and loss, “is only a report.” In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — an extraordinary celebration of smallness and the grandeur of life, as humble yet surprisingly magical as its subject — botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer extends an uncommon and infectious invitation to drink in the vibrancy of life at all scales and attend to our world with befitting vibrancy of feeling.

One of the world’s foremost bryologists, Kimmerer is a scientist blessed with the rare privilege of belonging to a long lineage of storytellers — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. There is a special commonality between her heritage and her scientific training — a profound respect for all life forms, whatever their size — coupled with a special talent for rendering that respect contagious, which places her prose in the same taxon as Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard and Thoreau. Indeed, if Thoreau was a poet and philosopher who became a de facto naturalist by the sheer force of poetic observation, despite having no formal training in science, Kimmerer is a formally trained scientist whose powers of poetic observation and contemplative reflection render her a de facto poet and philosopher. (So bewitching is her book, in fact, that it inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s beautiful novel The Signature of All Things, which is how I first became aware of Kimmerer’s mossy masterwork.)

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

Mosses, to be sure, are scientifically impressive beyond measure — the amphibians of vegetation, they were the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land; they number some 22,000 species, whose tremendous range of size parallels the height disparity between a blueberry bush and a redwood; they inhabit nearly every ecosystem on earth and grow in places as diverse as the branch of an oak and the back of a beetle. But beyond their scientific notoriety, mosses possess a kind of lyrical splendor that Kimmerer unravels with enchanting elegance — splendor that has to do with what these tiny organisms teach us about the art of seeing.

She uses the experience of flying — an experience so common we’ve come to take its miraculousness for granted — to illustrate our all too human solipsism:

Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun’s glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun; a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway; a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own.

Illustration by Peter Sís from 'The Pilot and the Little Prince.' Click image for details.

We, of course, need not rise to the skies in order to fall into the chronic patterns of our myopia and miss most of what is going on around us — we do this even in the familiar microcosm of a city block. Kimmerer considers how our growing powers of technologically aided observation have contributed to our diminished attentiveness:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

5,500-year-old Antarctic moss. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But the rewards of attentiveness can’t be forced into manifesting — rather, they are surrendered to. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s spectacular essay on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Kimmerer writes:

A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.

[…]

Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.

[…]

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Kimmerer adds:

Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

This knowing, at its most intimate, is a function of naming — for words are how we come to know meanings. Kimmerer considers this delicate dialogue between a thing’s essence and its name:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

[…]

Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

[…]

Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.

The remarkable diversity of moss varieties known and named only adds to the potentiality for intimacy with the world at all scales. But among this vast multiplicity of mosses is one particular species inhabiting the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, which alone embodies immense wisdom about the mystery and meaning of life. Kimmerer writes:

Schistostega pennata, the Goblins’ Gold, is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds’ silver lining alone.

Goblins' Gold (Photograph: Matt Goff)

This singular species subsists solely on the light reflections emanating from the lake’s surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a most miraculous jewel of life:

The shimmering presence of Schistostega is created entirely by the weft of nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the surface of the moist soil. It glows in the dark, or rather it glitters in the half light of places which scarcely feel the sun.

Each filament is a strand of individual cells strung together like beads shimmering on a string. The walls of each cell are angled, forming interior facets like a cut diamond. It is these facets which cause Schistostega to sparkle like the tiny lights of a far-away city. These beautifully angled walls capture traces of light and focus it inward, where a single large chloroplast awaits the gathering beam of light. Packed with chlorophyll ad membranes of exquisite complexity, the chloroplast converts the light energy into a stream of flowing electrons. This is the electricity of photosynthesis, turning sun into sugar, spinning straw into gold.

But more than a biological marvel, Schistostega presents a parable of patience and its bountiful rewards — an allegory for meeting the world not with grandiose entitlement but with boundless generosity of spirit; for taking whatever it has to offer and giving back an infinity more. Kimmerer writes:

Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response.

[…]

Timing is everything. Just for a moment, in the pause before the earth rotates again into night, the cave is flooded with light. The near-nothingness of Schistostega erupts in a shower of sparkles, like green glitter spilled on the rug at Christmas… And then, within minutes, it’s gone. All its needs are met in an ephemeral moment at the end of the day when the sun aligns with the mouth of the cave… Each shoot is shaped like a feather, flat and delicate. The soft blue green fronds stand up like a glad of translucent ferns, tracking the path of the sun. It is so little. And yet it is enough.

This tiny moss is a master of “the patient gleaming of light” — and what is the greatest feat of the human spirit, the measure of a life well lived, if not a “patient gleaming of light”? Annie Dillard knew this when she wrote: “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” And Carl Jung knew it when we insisted that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” The humble, generous Schistostega illuminates the darkness of mere being into blazing awe at the miracle of life itself — a reminder that our existence on this unremarkable rock orbiting an unremarkable star is a glorious cosmic accident, the acute awareness of which calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable words: “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

To pay attention, indeed, is the ultimate celebration of this accidental miracle of life. Kimmerer captures this with exuberant elegance:

The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins’ or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave’s angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave… Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.

Gathering Moss is a glittering read in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.

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12 MAY, 2015

Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers

By:

A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

Donating = Loving

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