Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

03 FEBRUARY, 2012

This Is Your Brain on Comedy

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The laugh track as cultural currency, or what David Letterman has to do with the dopamine circuit.

“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities,” author and philosopher Jean Houston once said, and Walt Disney famously called laughter “America’s most important export.” But what exactly is humor, and why does it have such a profound effect on us? In this talk from TEDxRainier, comedian Chris Bliss — whose writing credits include The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman — explores the sociology and neuroscience of humor, the alchemy of laughter, and why honesty and integrity are at the heart of good comedy, using a handful of Pretty Damn Good jokes to illustrate these insights along the way.

I want to talk [about] the unique power the best comedy and satire has in circumventing our engrained perspectives — comedy as the philosopher’s stone that takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it, through ridicule, into a different way of seeing, and ultimately being, in the world… It is about communication that doesn’t just produce greater understanding within the individual, but leads to real change… communication that manages to speak to and expand our concept of self-interest.”

For more on the psychology and philosophy of comedy, see John Morreall’s Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor and Robert Provine’s Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Thanks, Phil

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01 FEBRUARY, 2012

Pasta by Design: Finding Whimsy in the Geometry of Food

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Phylogeny of the pantry, or what architecture has to do with anellini.

In 2010, London chef extraordinaire Jacob Kenedy with award-winning British graphic designer Caz Hildebrand explored the geometry of pasta — a journey into the science, history, and philosophy of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes through a minimalist, design-driven cookbook. Now comes Pasta by Design, an even more ambitious design dissection on the beloved carb staple, exploring the intricate, beautiful, almost whimsical geometrical shapes of more than 90 different types of pasta.

(After all, if geometry is good enough a lens for love, it’s certainly good enough for pasta.)

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. MoMA’s Paola Antonelli () writes in the introduction:

Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat — one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types — and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture — as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”

Given the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification, the book takes an approach inspired by the science of phylogeny — the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature — to pare down 92 different types based on their morphological features, then charts them in a family tree.

Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, and expressive minimalist photographs and drawings zoom in on the hidden genius of the classic pantry mainstay.

Quirky in spirit yet rigorously researched and beautifully produced, Pasta by Design at once humanizes mathematics and exposes the captivating complexity of one of the world’s most beloved foods, revealing the dimensionality of design as a cross-disciplinary cultural lens.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson; photographs via IJP

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Christopher Sykes, the Filmmaker Behind the Beloved Richard Feynman Documentaries

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Storytelling meets the pleasure of finding things out.

For many years, whenever British filmmaker Christopher Sykes got asked at parties what he did, he would say, “I make films about Richard Feynman.” Which he did — though Sykes has made more than 70 eclectic documentaries, he became best-known for his film on Richard Feynman, including the excellent No Ordinary Genius and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, from which these timeless excerpts on beauty, honors, and curiosity came. Sykes painted a portrait of Feynman that was as fascinating and full of his scientific genius as it was entertaining and brimming with his playful irreverence.

In this talk from TEDxCaltech, Feynman’s daughter, Michelle, introduces Sykes and as he takes the stage to pull the curtain on this extraordinary partnership between a great scientists and a great documentarian.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” ~ Richard Feynman

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