Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

23 JUNE, 2014

A Brief History of Glass and How It Planted the Seed for the Innovation Gap Between the East and West


“The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.”

By 1950, Picasso was already an artist world-renowned for his creative products — paintings, sculptures, bronze casts — but only those in his inner circle had a true appreciation of the magic in his process. It wasn’t until a documentary captured him painting on glass, with the camera rolling on the other side of his transparent canvas — a radical proposition at the time — that the world gasped at his breathtaking process. Such was the power of glass.

In Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World (public library), British materials scientist, engineer and educator Mark Miodownik sets out to “decipher the material world we have constructed and find out where these materials came from, how they work, and what they say about us,” stripping them down to the elemental human desire that brought each of them into being and exploring how the material science that produced them affects the broader context of our lives. Miodownik paints the backdrop:

This stuff is important. Take away the concrete, the glass, the textiles, the metal, and the other materials from the scene, and I am left naked, shivering in midair. We may like to think of ourselves as civilized, but that civilization is in large part bestowed by material wealth… The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.

Picasso paints on glass, 1950. Click image for more.

One of the most interesting, and unexpectedly so, materials he examines is glass — a substance so ubiquitous in modern life and yet, at its best, so invisible. Duality and paradox, in fact, seem to be baked into the very nature of glass — quite literally. Before he plunges into the meaty interestingness of this singular material and its cultural history, Miodownik explains the no less interesting basic science of how sand becomes glass — one of the most remarkable transmutations in the observable physical universe:

Sand is a mixture of tiny bits of stone that have fallen off larger bits of rock as a result of the wind and the waves and other wear and tear that stones have to put up with. If you take a close look at a handful of sand you will find that a lot of these bits of stone are made of quartz, a crystal form of silicon dioxide. There is a lot of quartz in the world because the two most abundant chemical elements in the Earth’s crust are oxygen and silicon, which react together to form silicon dioxide molecules (SiO2). A quartz crystal is just a regular arrangement of these SiO2 molecules, in the same way that an ice crystal is a regular arrangement of H2O molecules or iron is a regular arrangement of iron atoms. Heating up quartz gives the SiO2 molecules energy and they vibrate, but until they reach a certain temperature they won’t have enough energy to break the bonds that hold them to their neighbors. This is the essence of being a solid. If you keep heating them, though, their vibrations will eventually reach a critical value — their melting point — at which they have enough energy to break those bonds and jump around quite chaotically, becoming liquid SiO2. H2O molecules do the same thing when ice crystals are melted, becoming liquid water.

But here’s the rub — when you put that liquid water into the freezer, it has no trouble refreezing into ice crystals. And you can do it again and again, melting and freezing into oblivion. Unlike water, however, SiO2 has a hard time forming a crystal once cooled down — it’s almost as if the molecules forget how to assemble into that formation. (There is a fascinating Radiolab episode about this notion.) What’s more, to stay with the anthropomorphism, the molecules grow lethargic — as they lose energy during the cooling, they have an even harder time getting into the appropriate position. Out of this forgetful laziness comes the miracle of glass — “a solid material that has the molecular structure of a chaotic liquid.”

This is where one of glass’s inherent paradoxes arises: If SiO2‘s inability to form a quartz crystal is all it takes to produce glass, one would imagine making it is a piece of cake. Just set a bunch of sand ablaze and watch it glassify. Alas, it’s not nearly as easy — or else Earth’s deserts would have easily turned to glass eons ago. The reason this hasn’t happened is twofold. Miodownik explains:

The first [problem] is that most sand doesn’t contain the right combination of minerals to make good glass: the brown color is a dreaded sign in chemistry, a clue that you have a mixture of impurities. It is the same with paints: random combinations of colors don’t yield pure results; instead you get brownish-gray hues. While some additives, so-called fluxes, such as sodium carbonate, will encourage the formation of glass, most will not. Unfortunately, despite being mainly quartz, sand is also made up of whatever the wind blows in its direction. The second problem is that even if the sand has the right chemical composition, the temperatures needed to melt it are around 1200 ° C, much hotter than any normal fire, which tends to be in the region of 700–800°C.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for 'The Little Prince,' 1943. Click image for more.

What does the trick, however, is a lightning bolt, which can heat the desert to more than 10,000°C — a temperature well capable of melting the sand. When that happens, shafts of glass called fulgurites form — named after fulgur, the Latin for “thunderbolt.” Because the sand is impure, the fulgurites are murky and nearly opaque. Except in certain curious circumstances:

A lightning bolt will do the job, though. When one of these strikes the desert it creates temperatures in excess of 10,000°C which are easily high enough to melt the sand, creating In one part of the Libyan Desert, there is an area of exceptionally pure white sand, comprised almost entirely of quartz. Search this part of the desert and you may find a rare form of glass that looks nothing like a scruffy fulgurite but which has instead the jewel-like clarity of modern glass. A piece of this desert glass forms the centerpiece of a decorative scarab found on the mummified body of Tutankhamun. We know that this desert glass was not made by the ancient Egyptians because it has recently been established that it is twenty-six million years old. The only glass we know like it is Trinitite glass, the glass formed at the site of the Trinity nuclear bomb test in 1945 at White Sands, Nevada. Given that there was no nuclear bomb in the Libyan Desert twenty-six million years ago, the current theory is that the extremely high temperatures that would have been needed to create such optically pure glass must have been produced by the high-energy impact of a meteor.

But rather than a mere curious oddity, fulgurites embody the hidden potentialities in glass not only as a participant in the cultural and natural history of Earth but also as a teller of that story — because ancient fulgurites trap air bubbles as they form, they offer climate scientists an invaluable record of the past.

In fact, Miodownik’s most interesting point about the cultural role of glass has to do with science — but not in the expected direction of the relationship. As is the case with most world-changing innovations, the inventor and the popularizer who ultimately leads to mass adoption of the invention are different individuals, often years apart. The Greeks and the Egyptians had pioneered glass-making, but the Romans were the ones who introduced it into daily life. After discovering the mineral natron — a naturally occurring form of baking soda — they were able to make relatively clear glass at much lower temperatures than what would be needed to melt pure quartz. They built special furnaces for manufacturing glass in bulk, which they then distributed across the Roman Empire — so the glass revolution wasn’t merely one of technology, but also of infrastructure and marketing. Suddenly, glass was a material available to and affordable for the average citizen — an achievement based not on harnessing a novel technology but, essentially, on setting Moore’s Law into motion.

The crowning achievement of the Roman glass age was the invention of the window — Latin for “wind eye” — that filled the gaping, wind-weary openings on building walls. It was, as Miodownik notes, the birth of our modern obsession with architectural glass. The Romans also invented the modern mirror, which prior to the glass revolution consisted of a highly polished metal surface that rendered a much duller and fuzzier image. The glass-covered mirror not only gave a crisper image, but was also far cheaper and easier to produce.

But the most interesting part of the glass story has to do with the Scientific Revolution itself. Fast-forward to a millennium after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and China has cultivated the world’s greatest mastery of materials through extraordinary craftsmanship of wood, paper, ceramics, and metals.

And yet, they largely ignored glass.

Meanwhile in Europe, scientists and inventors were hard at work building the telescope and the microscope — the powerhouse duo of the Scientific Revolution. In what’s perhaps his most intriguing point, Miodownik argues this may have planted the seed for the growing rift in technological advances and corresponding material wealth between the East and the West over the centuries that followed. Miodownik writes:

The disdain for glass in the East lasted all the way up until the nineteenth century. Before then, the Japanese and Chinese relied on paper for the windows of their buildings, a material that worked perfectly well but resulted in a different kind of architecture. The lack of glass technology in the East meant that, despite their technical sophistication, they never invented the telescope nor the microscope, and had access to neither until Western missionaries introduced them. Whether it was the lack of these two crucial optical instruments that prevented the Chinese from capitalizing on their technological superiority and instigating a scientific revolution, as happened in the West in the seventeenth century, is impossible to say. What is certain, though, is that without a telescope you can’t see that Jupiter has moons, or that Pluto exists, or make the astronomical measurements that underpin our modern understanding of the universe. Similarly, without the microscope, it is impossible to see cells such as bacteria and to study systematically the microscopic world, which was essential to the development of medicine and engineering.


Whether the relationship between glass technology and the seventeenth-century scientific revolution really is a simple case of cause and effect is an open question. It seems more likely that glass was a necessary condition rather than the reason for it. However, there is no doubt that glass was largely ignored in the East for a thousand years.

Backtracking from these complex potential sociopolitical effects, the most remarkable property of glass remains its most elemental — its crystalline clarity and tantalizing transparency, the mysterious quality that lets light pass through it and thus sets it apart from other solids. Miodownik digs deeper to extract the real — and appropriately counterintuitive — mystery:

After all, glass contains all of the same atoms that make up a handful of sand. Why in the form of sand should they be opaque and in the form of glass transparent and able to bend light? Glass is made of silicon and oxygen atoms, as well as a few other sorts. Within every atom there is a central nucleus, which contains protons and neutrons, surrounded by varying numbers of electrons. The size of the nucleus and the individual electrons is tiny compared to the overall size of the atom. If an atom were the size of an athletics stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a pea at its center, and the electrons would be the size of grains of sand in the surrounding stands. So within all atoms — and indeed all matter — there is a majority of empty space. This suggests that there should be plenty of room for light to travel through an atom without bumping into either an electron or the nucleus. Which indeed there is. So the real question is not “Why is glass transparent?,” but “Why aren’t all materials transparent?”

Illustration from Disney's 'Our Friend the Atom,' 1956. Click image for more.

Miodownik extends the metaphor to offer an elegant explanation:

Inside an atomic stadium … the electrons are only allowed to inhabit certain parts of the stands. It is as if most of the seats have been removed and there are only certain rows of seats left, with each electron restricted to its allotted row. If an electron wants to upgrade to a better row, it has to pay more—the currency being energy. When light passes through an atom it provides a burst of energy, and if the amount of energy provided is enough, an electron will use that energy to move into a better seat. In doing so, it absorbs the light, preventing it from passing through the material.

But there is a catch. The energy of the light has to match exactly that required for the electron to move from its seat to a seat in the available row. If it’s too small, or to put it another way, if there are no seats available in the row above (i.e., the energy required to get to them is too large), then the electron cannot upgrade and the light will not be absorbed. This idea of electrons not being able to move between rows (or energy states, as they are called) unless the energy exactly matches is the theory that governs the atomic world, called quantum mechanics. The gaps between rows correspond to specific quantities of energy, or quanta. The way these quanta are arranged in glass is such that moving to a free row requires much more energy than is available in visible light. Consequently, visible light does not have enough energy to allow the electrons to upgrade their seats and has no choice but to pass straight through the atoms. This is why glass is transparent. Higher-energy light, on the other hand, such as UV light, can upgrade the electrons in glass to the better seats, and so glass is opaque to UV light. This is why you can’t get a suntan through glass, since the UV light never reaches you. Opaque materials like wood and stone effectively have lots of cheap seats available and so visible light and UV are easily absorbed by them.

This makes one wonder about popular brands of eyewear advertising a “UV filter” — but then again, saying that all glasses filter UV light by definition is a decidedly less marketable message.

The interaction between light and glass brings us full-circle to the heart of the scientific revolution and Sir Isaac Newton, whose genius — at least when it came to glass — was one of reverse-engineering. Miodownik highlights his landmark contribution:

It wasn’t until 1666 that Isaac Newton realized that what was blindingly obvious was blindingly wrong and came up with the real explanation. Newton’s moment of genius was to notice that a glass prism not only turned “white” light into a mixture of colors, but could also reverse the process. From this, he deduced that all of the colors created by a piece of glass were already in the light in the first place. They had traveled all the way from the sun as a ray of mixed light, only to be split up into their constituent colors when they hit the glass. The same thing would happen if they hit a drop of water, too, since this was also transparent. At a stroke, Newton had for the first time in history managed to explain the main features of the rainbow.

Considering these and many other cultural contributions we owe to glass — it gave chemists clear beakers and let them actually observe the reactions taking place; it radically changed how beer is drunk by transforming it from a once-murky brew to be experienced only in the mouth to a golden gift to be beheld with the eyes — Miodownik contemplates rather beautifully what’s perhaps the greatest cultural paradox of glass:

We have no great love for the material that has made this possible. People do not tend to wax lyrical about glass in the way that they do about, say, a wooden floor or a cast-iron railway station. We do not run our hands down the latest double-glazed panel and admire the sensuality of this material. Maybe this is because in its purest form it is a featureless material: smooth, transparent, and cold. These are not human qualities. People tend to relate more to colored, intricate, delicate, or simply misshapen glass, but this is rarely functional. The most effective glass, the stuff we build our modern cities from, is flat, thick, and perfectly transparent, but it is the least likable, the least knowable: the most invisible…

For all its considerable importance in our history and our lives, glass has somehow failed to win our affections [and] has not become part of the treasured fabric of our lives. The very thing that we value it for has also disqualified it from our affections: it is inert and invisible, not just optically, but culturally.

Stuff Matters is an illuminating and addictively absorbing read in its entirety. Complement with Richard Feynman’s spectacular metaphor for the universe, which wouldn’t be possible without glass.

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18 JUNE, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Life and Legacy, in a Vintage Pop-Up Book


The legacy of the great artist, inventor, and scientist in illustrated “interactive” paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

As a lover of pop-up books, a celebrator of the intersection of art and science, and a great admirer of the vintage children’s book illustration of wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly smitten with Leonardo da Vinci (public library) — a glorious 1984 pop-up book that traces the life and legacy of the legendary artist, inventor and scientist in gorgeous illustrations by the Provensens and “interactive” three-dimensional paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

In the spirit of previous efforts to convey the analog magic of vintage paper engineering in animated GIFs — including Bruno Munari’s “interactive” picture-books and this naughty Victorian pop-up book for adults — I’ve animated a couple of the visuals, which is of course no substitute for the hands-on whimsy but at the very least a whetting of the appetite.

Leonardo da Vinci is, sadly, long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found. Complement it with the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful illustrations for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, some classic fairy tales, young James Beards’s cookbook, and a poetic homage to William Blake.

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17 JUNE, 2014

The Poetic Species: Legendary Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in Conversation with Poet Laureate Robert Hass on Science and Poetry


“The social drive shaped the uses of imagination. It made it possible for humans to share their invisible inner worlds with each other.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” William Wordsworth wrote in 1798; “it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” And yet, perhaps short of Diane Ackerman’s gorgeous poems for the planets and a few scientific papers published in stanzaic form as a prank, the interplay of science and poetry in the pursuit of human knowledge is far from obvious, let alone celebrated, in today’s culture.

One of the most beautiful celebrations of this invisible mutuality took place on December 6, 2012, when literary nonprofit Poets House and the American Museum of Natural History hosted an unusual and wonderful event exploring the intersection of science and poetry — a dialogue between legendary Harvard sociobiologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Their wide-ranging conversation is now collected in The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass (public library), titled after Wilson’s famous description of Homo sapiens as “the poetic species” on account of how heavily our cognitive infrastructure relies upon metaphor and associative thinking.

Since the conversation took place shortly after Wilson’s controversial — highly acclaimed and highly criticized — book The Social Conquest of Earth, Hass begins with a tongue-in-cheek question about how Wilson manages to get in so much trouble. The celebrated scientist answers with extraordinary elegance, speaking to the crucial role of science in opposing dogmas — a task never met without resistance:

Good scientists, like good innovators of any kind, are entrepreneurial, and they’re the ones that are most likely to get into trouble. And I’ve always enjoyed being in trouble. In science, trouble means progress.

Indeed, one need only look at Galileo’s troubles to appreciate the poignancy of this observation and to be reminded that ignorance, not knowledge, drives science.

One of the most fascinating and timelessly urgent inquiries the two discuss is one of equal concern to science and the humanities — the question of free will. Hass reflects:

On the literary and the philosophical side of things, this debate is about the question of free will, about the relation between human choice and the idea of fate. So many of the old stories are about fate being fulfilled or frustrated. It has always been an intense human fascination, how much freedom we have and whether we have any at all. I remember at a poetry reading in San Francisco once, during the question and answer period, an earnest young woman — she was quite pregnant, I remember—raised her hand and asked if there was such a thing as free will. The old poet Kenneth Rexroth looked at her as if he were a little ashamed of himself for having given the impression that he could answer such a question, and then said, very kindly, “We can’t know, and we have to act as if there is.” I thought that was a good answer.

Responding to Wilson’s assertion that “the deadly violence … seems to be a hallmark of our species” and “it’s our basic nature to be conflicted” — an assertion Stephen Pinker has famously defied — Hass echoes Alan Shlain’s exploration of how the invention of writing usurped female power in society and shares an observation:

For poets it’s always been interesting to notice that the culture that showed up when humans passed over the event horizon of writing was a male warrior culture.

Reflecting on Wilson’s extensive work on the evolution of culture, Hass adds to history’s greatest definitions of art by considering the creative impulse:

One of the interesting things about this idea is that it has so many echoes in art making. Artists almost always start with a kind of play based on elements that are fixed and variable, things that conventions express, set forms in music, set patterns in comedy, fixed rhythms in poetry, on the one hand, and, on the other, departures from those conventions that lead to new ways of seeing and feeling. In a way, it’s the same oscillation, between sensations that make us feel safe, part of the group, and sensations that make us feel free and on our own. The formal imagination in art — the half-conscious shaping that occurs when an artist is at work — is always working on this problem.

Wilson, who has long advocated for the importance of imaginative thinking in science and has previously argued for the cross-pollination of science and the humanities, speaks to the power of art in shaping the evolutionary history of culture:

The humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens. The descriptions based on them describe the human condition and human nature in exquisite detail, over and over again in countless situations. When verbal descriptions are novel in style and obedient to the most basic principles of human nature, when they connect old memories, create new images, and stir emotions all together, we call that great literature. The important innovator produces a tableau of relationships in a story that describes not just the particularities of a place in time, but something that is true for humanity as a whole for all time.

Hass considers the social wiring of our brains and how the science of the social imperative, which Wilson has spent decades studying, feeds into the creative heart of our humanity:

The social drive shaped the uses of imagination. It made it possible for humans to share their invisible inner worlds with each other. I often think of this in relation to dreams. Once they could speak, humans could tell each other their dreams. They could find out that everybody has dreams, that there is this parallel world of meaning-making or traveling that goes on in the resting mind.

Wilson agrees, building an elegant bridge back to biology to illuminate the human paradox:

We dream together, and as a result the cultural products of human nature are vastly expanded and enriched. And approaching from the other side of the divide, biology progresses and connects with the humanities. What biology seems to be doing at the moment is to reveal the roots of ambiguity that define human nature. We’ve been talking, for example, about the eternal confliction of the human mind, between self-serving behavior for the individual and for its offspring, versus service to the group. This clash of evolutionary forces can never result in an equilibrium. If it goes too far toward individualism, societies would dissolve. If, on the other hand, it goes too far toward obedience to the group, the group would turn into an ant colony. So, we’re creatively conflicted, moving back and forth between sin and virtue, rebellion and loyalty, love and hate.

He then returns to the reconciliatory power of the humanities, but he echoes Rilke’s famous counsel to live the questions as he adds:

The creative arts are the sharing of our inner desires and humanity’s struggle. The humanities are our way of understanding and managing the conflict between the two levels that created Homo sapiens. The conflict can never be resolved. And we shouldn’t try too hard to reach a resolution. It defines our species and is the fountain of our creativity.

Hass makes a beautiful aside — then again, the entire conversation is a string of asides, which is precisely what makes it so enchanting — about the question of animal consciousness and how it first rattled poets’ belief in human exceptionalism, then enabled an embracing of science as a complementary celebration of the existential mystery:

The idea that every creature has its own reality scared poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, made some of them feel we were groping blindly — it in effect kicked us out of a comfortable anthropocentric community — but it also allowed some modern poets this sense of absolute mystery at the core of existence. It came of knowing that we would never know exactly what a bird’s experience is, or what an ant’s experience is. It has been an unhousing of the imagination, and it was brought on by the thrust of science to be at home in the world by understanding it. It said we move among great powers and mysteries and only glimpse their meanings, the meaning of what it’s like to be another creature, and therefore also the meaning of being a self, a person.

(For more on the history of this inquiry, see Joanna Bourke’s excellent What It Means To Be Human.)

Describing the powerful experience of seeing remarkably accurate 3,000-year-old carvings of birds and fish in the tombs of Cairo, Hass considers once again how science and the arts converge in our quest for meaning and sensemaking:

Science, partly by the kind of patient observation that noticed the hump on the Nile crow’s back and partly by leaps of imagination and by shared testing and dialogue, has made enormous progress in understanding certain things about the world, but the skill of those artists made me feel that we have always been pretty much in the same place with the same kind of knowledge and the same pull back and forth between ways of seeing.

But the sameness of these fundamental ways of seeing is being threatened as these seemingly eternal objects of our fascination — the wild creatures that inspired artists and scientists alike to look closer, to gasp, to wonder — are facing a heartbreaking fate. Wilson addresses this with a naturalist’s cool rigor and a moral philosopher’s passionate conviction:

I am an extremist. I believe in wildernesses. I’ve been there. I’ve studied thousands of species living there, in ecosystems much the same as they were millions of years ago. I believe, I think, in reference to the species that we might still save — and a growing number of them are endangered — that we need parks, big ones, lots more of them. I think we should be thinking about giving a large part of the world’s surface to wild land. To do so is not just being a conservationist — not just saving species — we must hold on to the rest of life… I don’t mean to make a political statement. I’m making a moral statement. We have to develop a new and better ethic to save the rest of life.

And therein, perhaps, lies the great power of poetry as an ally to science — the power to mobilize people’s imagination and open up their hearts for “the rest of life,” for our intricate connection not only with one another but also with all of Earth’s creatures. Hass captures this capacity beautifully:

We have to work at it. Wonder is one place to start. I was asked to go to my granddaughter’s kindergarten class and to talk about poetry. And I didn’t know if I would know how to do it, but I brought the book I had with me—which was the collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and there is a poem of hers called “The Fish,” and it begins, “I caught a tremendous fish.” So I opened the book and said to these little kids, “Just say this poem with me, okay? ‘I caught a tremendous fish,’” and this group of kids all on the floor looked up at me and said, “I caught a tremendous fish.” And — I simplified the imagery a bit — I said, “It was very old and its skin,” and they said, “It was very old and its skin,” and I said, “Looked like roses on old wallpaper.” And they said, “Ooh.”

And I thought, this is a cinch.

Indeed, this is the broader power of art. Riffing off pioneering modernist architect Louis Sullivan’s assertion that art doesn’t fulfill desire but creates it, Hass reflects:

The way in which art creates desire, I guess that’s everywhere. Is there anyone who hasn’t come out of a movie or a play or a concert filled with an unnameable hunger? … To stand in front of one of [Louis Sullivan’s] buildings and look up, or in front, say, of the facade of Notre Dame, is both to have a hunger satisfied that you maybe didn’t know you had, and also to have a new hunger awakened in you. I say “unnameable,” but there’s a certain kind of balance achieved in certain works of art that feels like satiety, a place to rest, and there are others that are like a tear in the cosmos, that open up something raw in us, wonder or terror or longing. I suppose that’s why people who write about aesthetics want to distinguish between the beautiful and sublime… Beauty sends out ripples, like a pebble tossed in a pond, and the ripples as they spread seem to evoke among other things a stirring of curiosity. The aesthetic effect of a Vermeer painting is a bit like that. Some paradox of stillness and motion. Desire appeased and awakened.

Wilson sums up with a beautiful — sublime, really — parting thought that captures the heart of the conversation:

Science and art having the same creative wellspring, which I believe can be expressed aphoristically: the ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.

The Poetic Species is a wonderful read in its entirety, short yet infinitely simulating. Complement it with Wilson’s advice to young scientists and Dorion Sagan on why science and philosophy need each other.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

10 JUNE, 2014

Animal Madness: How Deciphering Mental Illness in Our Fellow Beings Helps Us Become Better Versions of Ourselves


“To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus.”

One of the two dogs in my life has a decided fear of the dark and a paralyzing phobia of storms — quite literally: he goes catatonic, except for his uncontrollable trembling, his eyes the wide-gaping opening to a bottomless well of terror. My other canine companion is the most angelic yet most anxious creature I’ve ever encountered, capable of obsessively licking her paws for hours on end, trying to self-soothe against the unbearable weight of the world, her eyebrows permanently moulded into question marks that seem to perpetually ask when the other shoe will drop. Because, in her mind, it’s never a question of whether it will drop — only the anguishing inevitability of when it will.

If this seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library | IndieBound). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.

Braitman with Mac, the Sardinian miniature donkey she raised while growing up

Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:

Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.

Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.

Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:

Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.

She later adds:

We’ve inherited a bias against identifying with other animals that isn’t useful, and it’s high time we discarded it.

It’s worth noting that while Braitman is very much interested in how understanding mental illness in nonhuman animals can help us better treat our own, her approach isn’t one of self-interest but one of genuine compassion for the inner worlds and anguish of our fellow beings. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of the opposite aspiration — an effort to use what we do know about humans, who are, at least linguistically, far better-equipped to articulate their psychoemotional conditions, to understand those of animals and alleviate their anguish. Underlying this is the subtle suggestion that such an osmosis of understanding between species can foster greater understanding among our own species by making us better, more empathetic versions of ourselves and who we are to one another.


To be sure, Braitman’s journey to this insight is far from a smooth and Pollyannaish one. She returns to Oliver, who jumped out of her fourth-floor window one warm May afternoon, after gnawing a hole through the mesh wire of the screen and squeezing his 120-pound body through it. Though he survived the fifty-five-foot fall rather miraculously, it was the beginning — or, rather, the reveal — of his lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Braitman had always dreamt of a Bernese Mountain Dog to call her own, but such purebred pups ran for around $2,000 each — a cost unthinkable to Braitman and her husband, whose respective jobs in an environmental conservation nonprofit and a government geological agency placed them in exactly the income bracket one would imagine. When a local breeder offered them Oliver, an adult dog, for free, along with some tempered story of why his previous owners could no longer keep him, it seemed like a deal too good to be true — but having fallen in love with Oliver at first sight, they did what the lovestruck do and dismissed the warning signs. Braitman writes:

We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon… It wasn’t until a few months into our relationship with Oliver that his truly bizarre behavior started to manifest. But once it did, it spread like spilled molasses: sticky, inexorably expansive, and difficult to contain.

She recounts the first serious red flag, discovered by sheer serendipity one day after she and her husband left for work:

I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling — not feline or human and not from the National Zoo, a few blocks away. It was a bark that sounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.

When I stepped onto the front porch the barking stopped and was replaced by a loud skittering sound. As I climbed the steps to the top floor, the crablike skittering got louder. It was, I realized, the sound of Oliver’s toenails on the wooden floor as he sprinted back and forth along the length of the apartment. When I opened the door he was panting and wild-eyed. He bounded up to me as if I’d just returned from a months-long expedition, not a five-minute trip to the car. I picked up my keys, walked Oliver back to his dog bed, petted him a bit, and then got up to leave. When I reached the sidewalk I sat on the porch and waited. After about ten minutes of quiet, I stood up in relief. Then suddenly, after only a few steps, there it was — the yowlingsqueakbark. Again and again and again. I looked up and saw Oliver’s giant head pressed against our bedroom window, his paws on the sill. He was looking down at me with his tongue lolling. He’d waited to bark until he saw me leave the porch. I was already late for work. As I walked down the sidewalk I kept turning around. Oliver had moved to the living-room window so that he could watch me walk farther down the street. The barking increased when I turned the corner, and the whole drive to my office I could hear it inside my head.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul. Click image for details.

As Oliver’s Rube Goldberg progression of destruction and self-destruction hastened over time, Braitman found herself tangled in the age-old quest to understand what goes on in the minds of animals and the often unpredictable relationship between their thoughts and their actions. Turning to Charles Darwin’s pioneering studies of animal emotion, Braitman points out how radical his proposition in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was, less than two centuries after Descartes had advanced the notion that animals are mere automata — thoughtless, emotionless moving machines, driven by emotion alone. Braitman writes:

Darwin described surliness, contempt, and disgust in chimps, astonishment among Paraguayan monkeys, love among dogs, between dogs and cats, and between dogs and humans. Perhaps most surprisingly he argued that many of these creatures were capable of enacting revenge, behaving courageously, and expressing their impatience or suspicion. A female terrier of Darwin’s, after having her puppies taken away and killed, impressed him so much “with the manner in which she then tried to satisfy her instinctive maternal love by expending it on [Darwin]; and her desire to lick [his] hands rose to an insatiable passion.” He was also convinced dogs experienced disappointment and dejection.


He went on to document grief-stricken elephants, contented house cats, pumas, cheetahs, and ocelots (who expressed their satisfaction with purring), as well as tigers, whom he believed did not purr at all but instead emitted “a peculiar short snuffle, accompanied by the closure of the eyelids” when happy. He wrote about deer at the London Zoo — who approached him because, he believed, they were curious. And he talked about fear and anger in musk-ox, goats, horses, and porcupines. He was also interested in laughter. “Young Orangs, when tickled,” reported Darwin, “. . . grin and make a chuckling sound” and “their eyes grow brighter.”

Next came another scientist, the Scottish physician William Lauder Lindsay, whose experience made him particularly well-suited for the job of understanding emotion in nonhumans. Lindsay, who had been appointed medical officer at an asylum for the insane in an era when mentally ill humans were treated like animals, went on to argue in a seminal scientific paper published in 1871 that “both in its normal and abnormal operations, mind is essentially the same in man and other animals.”

But perhaps the greatest champions of the twentieth century were two women — Jane Goodall, whose work with chimpanzees helped shift public perception of the emotional and cognitive range of nonhumans, and Rachel Carson, whose writing was key in galvanizing the modern environmental movement. Today, one of the leading scientists working to understand — and advocate for — the psychoemotional experience of animals is neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who too began his career at a mental institution for humans. Braitman points to a particularly remarkable video of him tickling a few chubby rats into laughter:

She explains the importance of Panksepp’s research:

After decades of research, Panksepp is convinced that most animal brains, from Oliver’s to a ticklish mouse’s, likely have the capacity for dreaming, for taking pleasure in eating, for feeling anger, fear, love, lust, grief, and acceptance from their mothers, for being playful, and for some conception of selfhood, an argument that might have seemed painfully unscientific just forty years ago. Panksepp believes that emotional capacity evolved in mammals long before the emergence of the human neocortex and its massive powers of cognition. He is careful to say that this doesn’t mean that all animal or even mammalian emotions are the same. And when it comes to complex cognitive skills, he believes that the human brain puts all others to shame. But he is convinced that other animals have many special abilities that we don’t have and this may extend to emotional states. Rats, for example, have richer olfactory lives, eagles have impressive eyesight, and dolphins can sense the world via sight, sound, sonar, and touch. These abilities may translate into more and different feelings associated with their various sensory or cognitive experiences. Panksepp believes that rabbits, for example, may have bigger or different capacities for fear while cats may have larger capacities for aggression and anger.

Citing other scientists’ research on everything from compassion in chimps to altruism and morality in bonobos, Braitman frames the scope of the broader inquiry and its cultural significance:

A number of recent studies have gone far beyond our closest relatives to argue for the possible emotional capacities of honeybees, octopi, chickens, and even fruit flies. The results of these studies are changing debates about animal minds from “Do they have emotions?” to “What sorts of emotions do they have and why?”

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita. Click image for more.

This line of thinking, Braitman points out, is neither surprising nor far-fetched — after all, emotions evolved to help our survival, be it by signaling danger and evoking the proper flight response or by incentivizing us to bond and mate with the appropriate creatures. They most likely co-evolved with consciousness as the two phenomena honed one another, which means the evolutionary chain is strewn with emotional experiences. We, as a culture, are slowly coming around to recognizing this — take, for instance, the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness signed in 2012 by an impressive roster of prominent scientists, seeking to establish definitively that mammals, birds, and even creatures like octopi are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions. Which brings us back to Oliver. Braitman chronicles his descent into the dark night of the soul after his fall:

As I watched Oliver’s disturbing behavior grow more intense, his nightly relentless paw licking, for example, or his frenzied concern over being left by himself, I puzzled over what was going on in his mind. Like so many other animals, he was a furry enigma. And yet discovering the particularities of what he was actually thinking didn’t matter that much when it came to helping him. The reality of Oliver’s raw, self-inflicted sores and my inability to distract him from making them worse was enough to tell me that he was too focused on something that was doing him harm. On one particularly bad evening, he gnawed on the base of his tail until he’d made a hole the size of a tennis ball.


Despite our efforts to help him, Oliver’s anxiety at being left alone only increased in the years he lived with us. His storm phobia reduced him to a shaking, inconsolable mess, and it took him hours, sometimes days to recover. We’d taken him to a veterinary behaviorist, given him first Valium, then Prozac, then both. We practiced behavioral modification and training in an attempt to manage his anxiety. We played him recorded sounds of storms to desensitize him to thunder and jingled our keys even when we weren’t planning on leaving the house. We took him on long walks, then long hikes. We tried to socialize him with other dogs. We gave him toys and treats. We gave him affection. We thought about getting him another animal companion and then decided against it. We tried, and failed, to give him certainty.

Oliver’s story isn’t one with a happy ending — he does eventually manage to stray from the vigilant humans staffed to ensure his safety. After his death, Braitman’s grief — one of the most profound human experiences — only deepens the human-nonhuman similarities she had been exploring. She reflects:

Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me, anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.

Plunging back into the muddy waters of understanding animal consciousness, she turns to another parallel between the human and the nonhuman experience — our history of diagnosing it. Diagnoses, she points out, have a tendency to come and go like fashions. In the Victorian era, for instance, conditions like “mortal heartbreak,” “nostalgia,” and “homesickness” were frequent diagnoses on the spectrum of neuroses — and we’ve applied them just as systematically to animals over the centuries. Braitman cites the particularly common trope of 19th-century newspaper reports on “mad” elephants. She quotes from one such article, published in The New York Times in 1880, recounting the story of an Indian elephant who had begun killing local villagers and demolishing buildings:

[The elephant] was not merely wild — it was “mad,” and as cunning and as cruel as a mad man. But insanity itself is a tribute to the animal’s intelligence, for sudden downright madness presumes strong brain power. Owls never go mad. They may go “silly,” or they may be born idiots; but as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself.

Illustration for the fairy tales of e.e. cummings by John Eaton, 1965. Click image for more.

Braitman illuminates the deeper, more systematic tragedy this story speaks to:

[Most of these elephants] were not physically ill but more likely reacting against poor treatment and abuse. These mad elephants were newsworthy, not simply because they smashed buildings or cars or trampled people but because they expressed themselves in often spectacular ways — choosing particular individuals on whom to vent their anger or exact revenge, biding their time until they found the right, most devastating moment to act. Captive elephants have been known to suddenly explode into violence, going after their handlers, grooms, or trainers. This is so common that, since the nineteenth century, expressions like running amok came to characterize just this type of event. These accounts were commonplace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still appear in the twenty-first.

Citing the story of Tip — the 18-year-old Asian circus elephant sentenced to death in 1894 on account of his explosive temper — Braitman underscores how irresponsible and blind to our own accountability labels like “mad” can be:

He was deemed mad not because he was rabid or demonstrably insane but because he acted violently toward the men who sought to control him, keep him in chains, and diminish his sensory, social, physical, and emotional world to a small barn. His badness caused his madness, and his madness cemented his badness. Tip was a victim of the human tendency to punish what we misunderstand or fear. New York of the 1890s was a world in which elephants killed men out of vengeance and spite, and insanity could leap from animal to human. How Tip was treated for his behavior, his increasingly restrained world, and his eventual execution reflected the anxieties of the people around him who fretted about the causes of madness and just who was susceptible.

One particularly curious 19th-century human diagnosis, eventually applied to animals, was that of “homesickness” — an ailment considered on par with physical illnesses like scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and “thought to weaken, kill, or even inspire suicide.” The Civil War produced five thousand diagnoses of homesickness, with 74 of the afflicted men believed to have died from the condition. At the height of colonialism, when new species from conquered lands were being brought to Europe and America in zoos, circuses, and other forms of human entertainment, many animals soon began exhibiting the same symptoms as humans suffering from homesickness.

John Daniel

Braitman tells one particularly moving story — that of the gorilla John Daniel, who was first separated from his gorilla mother and then from the young woman who had bought him from a department store, with the intention of making him a part of the family and treating him as a human child. He soon became a London celebrity. But as he was reaching adulthood, it became clear to John Daniel’s human mother that she couldn’t provide for him the life that a large, free-roaming silverback gorilla needed. She set out to find him a worthy home. Nothing in her native England seemed suitable, so when a representative from a private park in Florida began courting her to send the now-famous young gorilla there, it seemed like the right fit. But she was swindled — the man turned out to work for a New York circus. It was too late — John Daniel had been sent to America, where he quickly succumbed to unspeakable gloominess. Braitman writes:

The loneliness and isolation John must have felt inside his cage at the Garden was probably crushing. First he’d been separated from his gorilla mother, then he had been raised like a hairy human child and, at four years of age, would have been developmentally like one. What John Daniel felt when he was taken from [his human parents] is likely similar to what a human child of the same age would feel upon being separated from his parents and the only home he knew, to sit in a cold room with only the gaze of strangers to keep him company. John responded to English. He had culture. He knew a gorilla version of love and affection. He also knew a gorilla form of sadness.

Soon both circus-goers and the press reported that the young gorilla was literally dying of loneliness.

Three weeks later, he died. New York Times reporters attributed his death to homesickness and poor care. Others speculated he died of pneumonia. Braitman notes the inextricable link between the physical and the psychological:

Both things may be true, as John’s immune system was likely weakened by his loneliness and isolation. In the weeks before his death he had refused food and would crouch on his iron bed, covering himself with a blanket, facing away from the front of his cage and the crowds who came to see him. By the time the wife of one of the circus performers began to spend time with him, putting warm compresses on his forehead and giving him the attention he craved, it was too late. A [circus] employee who knew John said that he had been treated like any ordinary museum specimen and this was the problem: “I think myself that he might have lived if allowed to stick to his former habits.”

But though John Daniel’s story is a tragic one, Braitman cites it as a cautionary tale that reminds us how vital it is to ensure better, happier alternatives — something only possible if we acknowledge, then seek to understand, then begin to alleviate mental illness in nonhuman animals. In the epilogue, she writes:

One of the most encouraging aspects of animal mental illness is that, against all odds, many creatures thrive, or at the very least, exhibit the kind of behavior that looks a lot like resilience.

'Coney Island Whale' by Sophie Blackall from 'Missed Connections.' Click image for details.

Her ultimate message is one of optimism and thoughtful advocacy. She recounts a visit to Baja, Mexico, where she encounters a mother whale and her calf — a poignant and beautiful antidote to everything our history with whales should point to. Braitman captures the transcendence of the experience beautifully:

Mass killings at the hands of humans were fundamental events in their natural history. Their choice to approach us in what was once a watery killing field is a fundamental event in ours.

We can call the whales’ behavior resilience or recovery, or we can anthropomorphize it as a kind of human-directed forgiveness. At the very least, the whales are doing something that seems a lot like the expression of affectionate and playful curiosity. Watching a free-living calf swim out of the depths with his mother and, on her urging, look into my eyes while I looked into his is one of the most powerful and mystifying encounters of my life. I believe this is because it was born of choice. Unlike an aquarium beluga, a zoo-dwelling panda, or my neighbor’s Chihuahua, who may make eye contact because there is nowhere else to look, because they hope to be fed or because they fear me, the Baja whales looked at me with, I’m convinced, something like the same wonder and curiosity I had for them.


I thought about our encounters with other animals and wondered what we might do to make these interactions more like those between the humans and whales of Baja. Could we affect the mental health of both captive and wild animals for the better, not simply by striving to do no harm but by seeking to rectify our mistakes?

Reflecting on the many stories and multitude of research, Braitman brings the journey full-circle, back to Oliver, her oracle of compassion:

The weight of all these accumulated stories convinced me that we should pay closer attention to the mental health of other creatures — because what is good for them is so often good for us. Many people have already taken on this responsibility, and the resulting observations — of monkey executives, nervous dogs, relaxed rats, demented sea lions, and more — have quietly influenced how we think about our own unraveling minds and what we might do to stitch them back together again.

Trying to understand Oliver also led me to be a bit kinder to myself and the humans and other animals around me. When we feel kinship with a pig or a pigeon, really feel it, we can’t help but share a bit of that affection with our own animal selves… To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus. This is why I never trust an animal rights activist who is misogynistic or thinks that Homo sapiens are, at heart, more rotten than any other species. Human rights activists are animal rights activists by default. The reverse should also be true.

Ultimately, Braitman reminds us that our choices shape the world we live in and the responsibility embedded in them is to be addressed with equal parts self-compassion for our human fallibility and compassion for the beings with whom we share not only a planet, but also an emotional reality:

It’s simply that falling short is the human condition, and some problems cannot be taken care of by hoping.

This should not let us off the hook. There are many structural elements of our lives with other creatures that cause needless suffering and could easily be done away with. We could stop teaching elephants to paint, dance, and play soccer, and casting chimps in commercials and giraffes in feature films. We could close our nation’s zoos, or at the very least stop deluding ourselves that it’s our right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city. We could stop trying to convince ourselves that keeping animals in cages or tanks is the best way to educate and inform one another about them, especially since it often costs the animals their sanity. We could instead turn these zoos and other facilities into places where people might engage with animals, domestic and wild, who often thrive in our presence, creatures like horses, donkeys, llamas, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, and even raccoons, rats, squirrels, pigeons, and possums. We could exchange the polar bear pools for petting zoos and build teaching farms, urban dairies, and wildlife rehabilitation centers where city-dwelling children and adults could volunteer or take classes on cheese making, beekeeping, gardening, veterinary science, wildlife ecology, and animal husbandry.

We could also stop leading the sorts of lives that cause large numbers of our pets to end up on psychopharmaceuticals. We could spend more time walking and playing with them and less time on our phones, checking email and watching television. We could stop bringing animals into our lives that deep down, we know we cannot care for, and we could recognize, in them and their crazy behavior, our own unhealthy habits reflected back to us…

We could also, and most important, make a lasting peace with Darwin’s belief that humans are just another kind of animal, different only by degree. This kind of change will not be easy or fast. It will take the self-transformative power of chameleons, the resolve of mules, the fortitude of migrating whales

Animal Madness is a moving, pause-giving, and ultimately optimistic read in its entirety. Complement it with Jon Mooallem’s magnificent exploration of our complicated relationship with wildlife.

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