Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

07 OCTOBER, 2011

Richard Feynman on Beauty, Honors, and Curiosity

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The art of uncertainty, why awards are the wrong pursuit, and how to find wonder in truth.

On the heels of yesterday’s children’s book on science by Richard Dawkins and Wednesday’s testament to remix culture comes an ingenious intersection of the two — an inspired effort to promote science education and scientific literacy amongst the general public by way of a remix gem. Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower, who has previously delighted us with some Carl Sagan gold, has created a trilogy of magnificent mashups using the words of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, culled from various BBC, NASA, and other notable footage, to convey the power, wonder, and whimsy of science. Dubbed the Feynman Series, it’s a continuation of the brilliant Sagan Series.

Beauty does away with the common myth that scientists are unable to truly appreciate beauty in nature as Feynman explains what a scientist actually is and does.


I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. [...] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.”

Honours peels away at the pretense of awards as false horsemen of gratification.

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”

Curiosity is Feynman’s lament for simplicity, which gets lost in our ceaseless hunger for sensationalism.

[The Big Bang] is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales which other people used to make up, when wondering about the universe we lived in on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. And, so, what’s the wonder in physics to me is that it’s revealed the truth is so remarkable.”

For more on Feynman’s legacy and genius, look no further than Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.

via Open Culture

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06 OCTOBER, 2011

The Magic of Reality: Richard Dawkins Teaches Children to Fight Myth with Science

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What Scandinavian folklore has to do with DNA, or how to myth-bust creationism with the poetry of science.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This week, Dawkins brings us his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, an antidote to the creationism mythology teaching young readers how to replace myth with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

The Guardian’s Tim Radford sums it up nicely:

I cannot think of a better, or simpler, introduction to science as a good idea: simpler, because the starting point is the world’s palpable, experienced reality rather than say formal subjects such as genetics, wave mechanics or astrophysics; better, because it could hardly be more up-to-date.”

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

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05 OCTOBER, 2011

Remembering One of the Greatest Science Writers of All Time

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From Darwin to baseball, or what Nabokov’s butterflies have to do with living the American dream.

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This month marks the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Bonus: The ingenious book cover mosaic was designed by Sam Potts, whose visualization of the best of Brain Pickings 2010 you might recall.

Deeply fascinating and beautifully written, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History isn’t merely a precious time-capsule of one of the most important science writing voices of all time, but also a tender eulogy for the one mind that shaped so many.

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