Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

07 NOVEMBER, 2011

A Painting of Cancer Cells Inspired by Carl Sagan

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What supernovas have to do with cancer cells.

When she lost her friend Cathy to cancer, artist Michele Banks (whose stunning biological watercolors you might recall) set out to tell her friend’s story in the language she speaks most fluently and eloquently: painting. But she didn’t want it to be another “cancer painting.” Instead, she found unlikely inspiration at the intersection of the deadly disease and Carl Sagan’s iconic, life-affirming idea that we’re all made of “star stuff” — she saw a striking parallel between supernovas and dividing cancer cells. The result is simply breathtaking.

I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff”. That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. Um. This is difficult, because you can’t see them. If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells.” ~ Michele Banks

Curiously, Sagan himself also had myelodysplastic syndrome, or “preleukemia,” and underwent three bone marrow transplants before losing the long and difficult fight in 1996. Banks reflects:

This painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.”

You can find Banks on Twitter and her beautiful prints on Etsy.

In a similar vein, don’t forget composer Alexandra Pajak’s Sounds of HIV, which “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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04 NOVEMBER, 2011

Science Ink: Carl Zimmer Catalogs the Tattoos of Science Nerds

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An anthropology of the geek-rebel, or what astrophysics has to do with the delicacies of the dermis.

Brain Pickings is all about cross-disciplinary curiosity and the unexpected pollination of ideas across different fields. Nowhere does that cross-pollination get more unexpected than between popular science and tattoo culture. That’s exactly what celebrated curiosity monger Carl Zimmer explores in Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed — a weird and wonderful almanac of the lovable geek who immortalized passion for science on their living flesh. Zimmer divides the book into sections around each of the major sciences — math , chemistry, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, astronomy, and even an entire chapter on DNA — and uses each tattoo as a meditation pillow from whence to reflect on the science in question with his unmistakeable essay style of intelligent wit.

A foreword by Mary Roach adds the ultimate cherry on top.

The concept for the project was born in 2007, when Zimmer asked his blog readers whether scientists were hiding tattoos of their science. A surprising number stepped up, and Zimmer began posting images of their ink on his blog for Discover Magazine. The rest was history.

Without intending it, I became a curator of tattoos, a scholar of science ink. I began giving people advice about how to best photograph a tattoo. Rule one: don’t take a picture right after you get the tattoo. Shiny, puffy skin does not please the eye. Tattoo enthusiast magazines called to interview me. All in all, it was a strange experience; I have no tattoos of my own and no intention of getting any. But the open question I posed brought a river of pleasures.” ~ Carl Zimmer

Images courtesy of Sterling Publishing

Tasteful, thoughtful, and tantalizing, Science Ink will make you reconcile your inner geek and rebel, then dust off your old science textbooks for mischievous inspiration.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2011

You Are Not So Smart: A Field Guide to the Brain’s Guile

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The science of why 600 Facebook “friends” are an illusion, or why brand loyalty is a product of the ego.

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.

You Are Not So Smart is positively one of the smartest books to come by this year — no illusion there.

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