Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

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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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

7 Nonfiction Children’s Books Blending Whimsy and Education

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From typography to tsunamis by way of quantum physics, or what Langston Hughes has to do with LEGO.

Artful and fanciful children’s books make frequent cameos around here. Part of what makes them so great is their ability to whisk the young reader away into an alternate reality full of whimsy and possibility. But the present reality is often full of so much fascination we need not escape it to have our curiosity and imagination tickled. We’ve previously seen how comic books can be a medium for nonfiction, and today we turn to 7 wonderful kind-of-children’s books that bring imaginative storytelling to real, and in many cases serious, issues for young minds to ponder.

GRAPHIC DESIGN FOR KIDS

Graphic Design for Kids, part of the excellent Design Dossier series by Pamela Pease, introduces kids to the wonderful world of graphic design, from its history to its problem-solving and critical thinking methods, spanning a wide spectrum of visual elements and design mediums — shape, color, size and typography; posters, books and websites — to demonstrate design’s role in everyday life, exploring how people use words, pictures, and symbols to deliver and digest messages. The interactive, spiral-bound volume includes profiles of iconic designers, with flash cards featuring pithy insights on their craft, brimming with die-cuts, pull-outs and other treats that only analog books can offer.

Images via Imprint

THE FIRST BOOK OF JAZZ

Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, he set out to educate young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz, which you might recall as one of our favorite children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, became the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best.

Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Even his discussion of the technical aspects of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation, blue notes, harmony — is so eloquent and engaging that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, it embodies the genuine joy of playing.

Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can here them here.

THE SERIF FAIRY

From our friends at Mark Batty comes The Serif Fairy — a charming book for type geeks and their progeny, which follows The Serif Fairy as she hunts for her lost wing across and airy, meticulously designed typographic landscape. She wanders through Garamond Forest, the Zentenar Gate, the Futura City, and Shelley Lake, where she falling into the water to find her lost wing, then rises to the air revived and full of magic again.

It’s an archetypal story of quest and belonging, told through a unique vehicle that educates and entertains at the same time, letting children learn about typography without realizing they are. Originally conceived in German by writer and graphic designer Rene Siegfried, the story’s sensitively English translation by Joel Mann takes nothing away from its poetic fable-like quality.

The book won the 2007 Type Director’s Club award for best children’s book.

HT @Lissa Rhys; images courtesy of Mark Batty Publisher

SEASONS

Seasons by French artist Blexbolex, which you might recall, is a more meditative and abstract than the other books in this omnibus, but no less profound and stimulating for the young reader. With his signature retro-inspired minimalism, Blexbolex uses the metaphor of seasonality to reflect on a number of life’s big themes and the subtle dualities of being human. Four spreads depict the same landscape during each season, with a single word or phrase in bold block-letters on each page. But don’t breeze by the seeming simplicity of the concept — many of the thoughtful pairings on the beautiful double-page spreads give you pause and make you wonder why and how the two words go together, gently nudging you towards a philosophical meditation on the seasons, change and impermanence.

With its rich, textured colors, the creamy matte paper, and the tactile fabric on its spine, Seasons is as much a window of curiosity for kids as it is a beautiful art possession for grown-ups.

VOYAGE TO THE HEART OF MATTER

Since 1954, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, has been pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Voyage to the Heart of Matter: The ATLAS Experiment at CERN is an extraordinary collaboration between CERN and acclaimed paper engineer Anton Radevsky, bringing to life CERN’s proudest creation: The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.

The meticulously engineered pop-up book captures CERN’s quest to understand the universe by bringing to life the astounding activities of the LHC, from protons colliding at nearly the speed of light at the heart of the ATLAS detector to reenactments of the conditions that existed millionths of a second after the Big Bang.

I LEGO N.Y.

I LEGO N.Y. by the brilliant Christoph Niemann (), which topped our selection of the best children’s books of 2010, takes an imaginative look at New York rendered entirely in LEGO — a manifestation of Niemann’s incredible gift for taking something ordinary and transforming it into pure whimsy. From the city’s iconic architecture to the peculiarities of its day-to-day, this pocket-sized treasure offers both a guide to and a wink at The Big Apple, full of Niemann’s characteristic subtle humor and charming aesthetic.

Images courtesy of Christoph Niemann / The New York Times

TSUNAMI

On Boxing Day 2004, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. To commemorate the victims, West Bengali scroll painters Joydeb and Moyna Chitrakar created a ballad and a stunning picture scroll in the tradition of Patua, a form of narrative graphic art, transforming the tragic news into an artful and poetic fable. The fine folks at Tara Books, who brought us such handmade gems as The Night Life of Trees and I Like Cats, turned the Patua scroll into a book — but it’s no ordinary book. Tsunami is made entirely by hand and silkscreened onto handmade paper. It unfolds like a scroll and even features a hole from which to be hung on your wall. Its thick pages exude the rich smell of the authentic Indian dyes used in the screen-printing process, breathing even more mesmerism into the project’s extraordinary feat of bridging the fodder of newsrooms with the ancient art of Patua storytelling.

Some images courtesy of Tara Books

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: A Neuropsychology Reading

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Unpacking the lyrics of the iconic happiness anthem to find surprising science-tested insights on well-being.

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin wrote one of the most beloved anthems to happiness of all time. On September 24 that year, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. But more than a mere feel-good tune, the iconic song is brimming with neuroscience and psychology insights on happiness that McFerrin — whose fascinating musings on music and the brain you might recall from World Science Festival’s Notes & Neurons — embedded in its lyrics, whether consciously or not.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” I unpack the verses to explore the neuropsychology wisdom they contain in the context of several studies that offer lab-tested validation for McFerrin’s intuitive insight.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double

Our tendency to add more stress to our stress by dwelling on it is known in Buddhism as the second arrow and its eradication is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. But now scientists are confirming that worrying about our worries is rather worrisome. Recent research has found prolonged negative cardiac effects of worry episodes, following a 2006 study that linked worrying to heart disease.

Here, I give you my phone number
When you worry call me
I make you happy

Multiple studies have confirmed the positive correlation between social support and well-being, and some have examined the “buffering model,” which holds that social support protects people from the adverse effects of stressful events.

Harvard physician Nicholas Christakis has studied the surprising power of our social networks, finding profound and long-term correlation between the well-being, both physical and mental, of those with whom we choose to surround ourselves and our own.

Cause when you worry
Your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down

Mirror neurons are one of the most important and fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience — neurons that fire not only when we perform a behavior, but also when we observe that behavior in others. In other words, neural circuitry that serves as social mimicry allowing the expressed emotions of others to trigger a reflection of these emotions in us. Frowns, it turns out, are indeed contagious.

Put a smile on your face

Pop-culture wisdom calls it “fake it ’till you make it”; psychotherapy calls it “cognitive behavioral therapy“; social psychology call it story editing. Evidence abounds that consciously changing our thoughts and behaviors to emulate the emotions we’d like to feel helps us internalize and embody those emotions in a genuine felt sense. Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of facial expressions, found that voluntarily producing a smile may help deliberately generate the psychological change that takes place during spontaneous positive affect — something corroborated in the recently explored science of smiles.

Don’t worry, it will soon pass
Whatever it is

In 1983, UCLA psychologist Shelley E. Taylor published a seminal paper [PDF] in the journal American Psychologist proposing a theory of cognitive adaptation for how we adjust to threatening events, based on evidence from a number of clinical and empirical studies indicating that we grossly overestimate the negative impact of the events that befall us, from cancer to divorce to paralysis, and return to our previous levels of happiness shortly after these negative events take place.

As Daniel Gilbert puts it in Stumbling on Happiness, one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness, “The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.”

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So there you have it: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” timeless oracle of mental health science. For more on the profound and fascinating intersection of music and mind, see our omnibus of 7 essential books on music, emotion, and the brain.

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