Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

26 AUGUST, 2011

The Ghost Map: Hard Lessons in Epidemiology from Victorian London

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What an ill Victorian infant has to do with the power of maps and the future of modern cities.

At around 6AM on the morning of August 28, 1854, the Lewis infant started vomiting and excreting greenish stools with a pungent smell. Her mother gathered the soils in a bucket of tepid water and tossed them into the cesspool in the family cellar. So began the story of London’s most horrific epidemic, the Broad Street cholera outbreak. In The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson, easily my favorite nonfiction writer working today, unleashes his signature cross-disciplinary thinking to explore the intricate interconnections between the spread of the disease, the rise of cities, the mysteries of medicine, and the very nature of scientific inquiry.

It’s the story of two men, Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, who began to suspect the true cause of the outbreak and were eventually proven right by a rigorous, contested investigation. But Johnson’s genius is in his ability to translate the fascinating but seemingly irrelevant into a highly context of excruciating relevance, exploring what this story means for the liabilities and vulnerabilities of modern cities. (Cue in Monday’s omnibus of 7 essential books on cities)

This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.

This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about: from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself. It’s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.”

I’m a big believer in the power of maps as great sense-making mechanisms, so I find The Ghost Map deeply fascinating and an extraordinary feat of intelligence. It also makes me wonder how an epidemic of this scale would unfold today, at a time when evolved high-tech mapping tools like Ushahidi would not only glean better understanding of how the deadly wave is propagating but also track its progress in real-time and offer a powerful weapon in the arsenal of man’s epic battle against microbe.

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25 AUGUST, 2011

You’re a Wonder: How Your Ear Works

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Why temporary deafness is good for you, or what sound waves have to do with the smallest bone in the body.

Yesterday, mathemagician Vi Hart dazzled us with math of noises and science of sound, frequency and pitch. Today, we turn to a complementary short excerpt from BBC’s fascinating Inside the Human Body series, explaining the marvel of human hearing. Listen and learn.

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24 AUGUST, 2011

Mathemagician Vi Hart Explains the Science of Sound, Frequency and Pitch

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From the cochlea to Coachella, or what mathematical ratios have to do with the enjoyability of melodies.

You may recall mathemagician Vi Hart from her brilliant stop-motion explanation of the Victorian novella Flatland on a Möbius strip. This month, she’s back with another gem, this time exploring the science and mathematics of sound, frequency and pitch. From Pythagoras to the anatomy of the ear, Hart uses her signature playful hand-illustrations to reveal how simple mathematical ratios make pleasing melodies.

For a semi-related treat, see Jad Abumrad’s fantastic PopTech talk on science, sound and mystery.

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19 AUGUST, 2011

How the Science of Attention is Changing Work and Education

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What a woman in a gorilla suit has to do with the future of work and education in the digital age.

Much has been said about how the Internet is changing our brains and what this new culture of learning means for the future of education. While much of the dialogue has been doused in techno-dystopian alarmism, from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, narrated by Orson Welles in the 1970s, to Nicholas Carr’s reductionist claims about attention in today’ digital age. But the truth about attention, as it relates to the intersection of technology and education, seems to be a lot more layered and complex — and, if Cathy Davidson, founder of Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, is right, a lot less worrisome. That’s precisely what Davidson illustrates in her new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn — a fascinating meditation on how “attention blindness,” the peculiar phenomenon illustrated by Harvard’s famous invisible gorilla experiment, has produced one of our culture’s greatest disconnects, the inability to reconcile the remarkable changes induced by the digital age with the conventions of yesteryear’s schools and workplaces.

As long as we focus on the object we know, we will miss the new one we need to see. The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb.” ~ Cathy Davidson

In another famous experiment, Davidson, then provost at Duke, gave the entire 2003 freshman class iPods as part of their academic curriculum. Though the pilot project was at first widely derided, it quickly silenced the critics as students found intelligent and innovative ways to employ their iPods in the classroom and the lab in everything from collaborating on group project to podcasting a conference on Shakespeare around the world.

Davidson uses the insights from these experiments as a lens through which to examine the nature and evolution of attention, noting that the educational system is driven by very rigid expectations of what “attention” is and how it reflects “intelligence,” a system in which students who fail to meet these expectations and pay attention differently are pigeonholed somehow deficient of aberrant, square pegs in round holes. Yet neuroscience is increasingly indicating that our minds pay attention in a myriad different ways, often non-linear and simultaneous, which means that the academy and the workplace will have to evolve in parallel and transcend the 20th-century linear assembly-line model for eduction and work. (The assembly and the factory are in fact a familiar metaphor from Sir Ken Robinson’s insightful thoughts on changing educational paradigms.)

Refreshingly constructive and glimmering with much-needed optimism about the future of education in the digital age, Now You See It makes a fine new addition to these 7 essential books on education and offers a well-argued antidote to the media’s incessant clamor about the deadly erosion of our attention.

Thanks, Jake

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