Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

16 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation

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“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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15 APRIL, 2014

Why There Was No First Human

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“It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old.”

We live in a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. And yet how can an intelligent being hold such beliefs when faced with a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree or an 80,000-year-old aspen? But even when we embrace science completely, one of the most baffling aspects of the timeline of evolution — for creatures as dependent on categories as we are to make sense of the world — is its incremental progress largely devoid of clear markers denoting when one primitive species ends and its evolved successor begins.

Inspired by The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — Richard Dawkins’s children’s book seeking to replace myth with science — PBS’s Joe Hanson offers a concise and elegant explanation of why there was no “first human.” Tracing any one person’s family tree — yes, yours, as well as mine — back 185 million generations takes us not to another human but to a fish, which begs the question of where the human species “began”:

You can never pinpoint the exact moment when a species came to be — because it never did. It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old… Evolution happens like a movie, with frames moving by both quickly and gradually, and we often can’t see the change while it’s occurring. Every time we find a fossil, it’s a snapshot back in time, often with thousands of frames missing in between, and we’re forced to reconstruct the whole film. Life is what happens in between the snapshots.

For a closer look at The Magic of Reality, go here, then see more of Henson’s terrific science illuminators, like the science of why we kiss, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, and why we can consider the avocado a curious ghost of evolution.

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14 APRIL, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

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What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a complacency in my return to the Senator.

The charred remains of the Senator Tree, February 8, 2012

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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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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