Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

26 NOVEMBER, 2013

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? Scientists and Writers Answer Little Kids’ Big Questions about How Life Works

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Why we cry, how we know we aren’t dreaming right now, where the universe ends, what books are for, and more answers to deceptively simple yet profound questions.

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Illusionist Derren Brown, who has previously weighed in on the psychology of gullibility, answers 5-year-old Evie’s question about how we can be sure that life isn’t just a dream, touching on the limits of our perception of “reality”:

Often we have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.

(Meanwhile, it’s been argued elsewhere that the probability that you are dreaming right this moment is 1 in 10.)

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

Nobel-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon makes a beautiful addition to history’s best definitions of science in answering 7-year-old Louise’s question about what “the whole point of science” is:

Science makes continuous advances in the quality of human life.

Brian Cox, who has a penchant for illuminating the mysteries of life and of the universe, articulating the poetics of science and championing its cultural value, answers six-year-old Josh’s question about whether the universe has an edge:

We don’t even know how big the Universe is! We can only see a small part of our Universe – the part that light has had the time to travel across to reach us during the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Anything further away can’t be seen, simply because the light from these distant places hasn’t reached us yet.

The part we can see is pretty large, however. It contains around 350 billion large galaxies, each containing anything up to a trillion suns. This part, which is known as the observable Universe, is just over 90 billion light years across. But we are sure that the Universe extends far beyond this. It may even be infinitely big, which is impossible to imagine!

When Honor, age 11, asks Noam Chomsky whether new technology is always good, he answers:

Technology is usually fairly neutral. It’s like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or to destroy someone’s home. The hammer doesn’t care. It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.

Mary Roach, who has a singular gift for making intensely interesting what mainstream culture considers “gross,” answers two little boys’ collective question about why sweetcorn comes out the other end looking just like it did when we ate it:

A kernel of corn has a tough, fibrous ‘seed coat’ that stands up to the acids and digestive juices in your stomach — much the way a leather jacket protects a motorcycle rider. Corn is famous for its ability to pass through the body intact, or at least in recognizable pieces. For this reason, it can be used as a ‘marker food’ to measure how long it takes food to travel all the way through you.

The next time your family eats corn on the cob, you can do an experiment. Make a note of the date and time when you eat the corn, and then again when you next catch sight of it. The number of hours in between is the ‘transit time’ for your own intestines. (Some people might object to looking into the toilet, but based on your question, you won’t have a problem. You have a healthy curiosity, and that’s great!)

If you chew your corn thoroughly and break open the seed coat, your body should be able to absorb the good nutrients inside. Birds don’t have molars to break open seeds, so they poop them out whole, and then the seeds sprout where they land. Plants don’t have legs or cars, so this is one way they get around. The pooping birds help the plants populate the far corners of the land.

The seeds of the baobab tree, on the African savannah, are so tough that chimps can’t chew them up. So they eat them twice. They pluck the undissolved (but softened) seeds out of their poop and run them through their digesting machinery again. The second time around, the seeds break apart. You’ll be happy to learn that when the chimps are done, they wipe their lips with tree bark.

Phonetics professor John Wells answers 6-year-old Angelina’s question about whether animals like sheep and cows have accents:

Unlike human beings, animals don’t have languages. They do produce “vocalizations” (dogs bark, cats meow, sheep bleat, cows moo, birds chirp), but these are not language, even though they are a means of communicating.

[…]

Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.

Scientists have found that whales in different oceans make different kinds of vocalization, and the calls of some species of birds vary from one location to another. So we could perhaps say that whales and birds can have local “accents” or “dialects.” But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? is absolutely wonderful in its entirety — a curiosity quencher for all ages and an especially enchanting primer bridging science and everyday life for young minds.

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22 NOVEMBER, 2013

Love and Math: Equations as an Equalizer for Humanity

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“Mathematics is the source of timeless profound knowledge, which goes to the heart of all matter and unites us across cultures, continents, and centuries.”

French polymath Henri Poincaré saw in mathematics a metaphor for how creativity works, while autistic savant Daniel Tammet believes that math expands our circle of empathy. So how can a field so diverse in its benefits and so rich in human value remain alienating to so many people who subscribe to the toxic cultural mythology that in order to appreciate its beauty, one needs a special kind of “mathematical mind”? That’s precisely what renowned mathematician Edward Frenkel sets out to debunk in Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (public library) — a quest to unravel the secrets of the “hidden parallel universe of beauty and elegance, intricately intertwined with ours,” premised on the idea that math is just as valuable a part of our cultural heritage as art, music, literature, and the rest of the humanities we so treasure.

Frenkel makes the same case for math that philosopher Judith Butler made for reading and the humanities, arguing for it as a powerful equalizer of humanity:

Mathematical knowledge is unlike any other knowledge. While our perception of the physical world can always be distorted, our perception of mathematical truths can’t be. They are objective, persistent, necessary truths. A mathematical formula or theorem means the same thing to anyone anywhere — no matter what gender, religion, or skin color; it will mean the same thing to anyone a thousand years from now. And what’s also amazing is that we own all of them. No one can patent a mathematical formula, it’s ours to share. There is nothing in this world that is so deep and exquisite and yet so readily available to all. That such a reservoir of knowledge really exists is nearly unbelievable. It’s too precious to be given away to the “initiated few.” It belongs to all of us.

Math also helps lift our blinders and break the shackles of our own prejudices:

Mathematics is a way to break the barriers of the conventional, an expression of unbounded imagination in the search for truth. Georg Cantor, creator of the theory of infinity, wrote: “The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.” Mathematics teaches us to rigorously analyze reality, study the facts, follow them wherever they lead. It liberates us from dogmas and prejudice, nurtures the capacity for innovation.

BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS by Yann Pineill & Nicolas Lefaucheux

To illustrate why our aversion to math is a product of our culture’s bias rather than of math’s intrinsic whimsy, Frenkel offers an analogy:

What if at school you had to take an “art class” in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso? Would that make you appreciate art? Would you want to learn more about it? I doubt it. You would probably say something like this: “Learning art at school was a waste of my time. If I ever need to have my fence painted, I’ll just hire people to do this for me.” Of course, this sounds ridiculous, but this is how math is taught, and so in the eyes of most of us it becomes the equivalent of watching paint dry. While the paintings of the great masters are readily available, the math of the great masters is locked away.

Countering these conventional attitudes toward math, Frenkel argues that it isn’t necessary to immerse yourself in the field for years of rigorous study in order to appreciate its far-reaching power and beauty:

Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.

[…]

There is a common fallacy that one has to study mathematics for years to appreciate it. Some even think that most people have an innate learning disability when it comes to math. I disagree: most of us have heard of and have at least a rudimentary understanding of such concepts as the solar system, atoms and elementary particles, the double helix of DNA, and much more, without taking courses in physics and biology. And nobody is surprised that these sophisticated ideas are part of our culture, our collective consciousness. Likewise, everybody can grasp key mathematical concepts and ideas, if they are explained in the right way. . . .

The problem is: while the world at large is always talking about planets, atoms, and DNA, chances are no one has ever talked to you about the fascinating ideas of modern math, such as symmetry groups, novel numerical systems in which 2 and 2 isn’t always 4, and beautiful geometric shapes like Riemann surfaces. It’s like they keep showing you a little cat and telling you that this is what a tiger looks like. But actually the tiger is an entirely different animal. I’ll show it to you in all of its splendor, and you’ll be able to appreciate its “fearful symmetry,” as William Blake eloquently said.

Drawing from Soviet artist and mathematician Anatolii Fomenko’s 'Mathematical Impressions.' Click image for more.

And as if a mathematician quoting Blake weren’t already an embodiment that boldly counters our cultural stereotypes, Frenkel adds even more compelling evidence from his own journey: Born in Soviet Russia where mathematics had become “an outpost of freedom in the face of an oppressive regime,” discriminatory policies denied him entrance into Moscow State University. But already enamored with math, he secretly snuck into lectures and seminars, read books well into the night, and gave himself the education the system had attempted to bar him from. A young self-taught mathematician, he began publishing provocative papers, one of which was smuggled abroad and gained international acclaim. Soon, he was invited as a visiting professor at Harvard. He was only twenty-one.

The point of this biographical anecdote, of course, isn’t that Frenkel is brilliant, though he certainly is — it’s that the love math ignites in those willing to surrender to its siren call can stir hearts, move minds, and change lives. Frenkel puts it beautifully, returning to math’s equalizing quality:

Mathematics is the source of timeless profound knowledge, which goes to the heart of all matter and unites us across cultures, continents, and centuries. My dream is that all of us will be able to see, appreciate, and marvel at the magic beauty and exquisite harmony of these ideas, formulas, and equations, for this will give so much more meaning to our love for this world and for each other.

Love and Math goes on to explore the alchemy of that magic through its various facets, including one of the biggest ideas that ever came from mathematics — the Langlands Program, launched in the 1960s by Robert Langlands, the mathematician who currently occupies Einstein’s office at Princeton, and considered by many the Grand Unified Theory of mathematics. Complement it with Paul Lockhart’s exploration of the whimsy of math and Daniel Tammet on the poetry of numbers.

Thanks, Kirstin

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20 NOVEMBER, 2013

Fritz Kahn: The Little-Known Godfather of Infographics

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How a German gynecologist transformed science into visual poetry and laid the foundations of modern information graphics.

Around the time when Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath was building his ISOTYPE visual language, which laid the foundation for pictogram-based infographics, another infographic pioneer was doing something even more ambitious: The German polymath Fritz Kahn — amateur astronomer, medical scientist by training, gynecologist by early occupation, artist by inclination, writer, educator and humanist by calling — was developing innovative visual metaphors for understanding science and the human body, seeking to strip scientific ideas of their alienating complexity and engage a popular audience with those essential tenets of how life works. Best-known today for his iconic 1926 poster Man as Industrial Palace, Kahn inspired generations of scientific illustrators, including such legends as Irving Geis and such cultural treasures as the 1959 gem The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works. His influence reverberates through much of our present visual communication and today’s best infographics .

Fritz Kahn (1888–1968)

Now, visual culture powerhouse Taschen has captured the life’s work of this infographic pioneer in the magnificent monograph Fritz Kahn (public library) — a 6-pound tome in English, French and German that collects and contextualizes his most influential images and essays and, above all, celebrates a boundless mind that never settled for limiting itself to a single discipline, to any one area of curiosity, to the onus and hubris of specialization that our culture so vehemently and so toxically fetishizes.

In the introduction, the prolific design historian and writer Steven Heller calls Kahn and Neurath “two sides of the same pie chart,” despite the fact that they likely never met:

Each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace the jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.

Like Neurath, who didn’t actually create the symbols he became known for, Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science. He used his infographics as Carl Sagan did narrative and the moving image, subverting the medium — and subverting it masterfully — to the goals of the message. Heller writes:

His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada and more. The art of analogy was Kahn’s forte (sometimes to the extreme): he might compare an ear with a car or a bird’s feather with railroad tracks, all meant to explain ever more impenetrable phenomena by means which triggered the viewer’s imagination. Kahn employed whatever visual trick he could cobble together for the end result: popular comprehension.

[…]

The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and will continue into the future.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' 1926

But how did Kahn come to shape culture so profoundly? Editors Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz write in the introduction:

In the first decades of the 20th century, Berlin was the center for a huge variety of political, social and cultural energies, which in their explosive interaction unleashed among other things a firework display of new aesthetic forms. Fritz Kahn combined some of these innovative texts and pictorial forms into a popular scientific “overall painting of man in the light of modern science.” The work, entitled The Life of Man (1922–31), contains so many highly expressive verbal and pictorial metaphors that one reviewer said Kahn was inclined “to illustrate every statement within a picture that knocks a hole in the skull of even the most slow-witted reader” — an opening for new insights and options.

It’s rather telling that even that reviewer used such a visceral bodily metaphor to convey a conceptual idea — it was precisely in enlisting the physical to explain the metaphorical that Kahn found his greatest power. As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.

What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say 'car' (1939)

'Daily hair growth: the human body produces 100 feet of hair substance every day. If all this growth were to converge into one single hair, that hair would grow by one inch every minute.' (1929)

Kahn was also keenly aware of the importance of pictures in education. He trawled textbooks and scientific journals for material to use in his famous “man book,” but he enlisted his artists and the design department of his publishing house in infusing the images with more life, more vibrancy, greater calls to the imagination. He developed a style based on architectural and industrial visual metaphors and began depicting the human body as a series of modern workplaces, with each organ and organ-system operated by different machines, control panels, and circuits, as in his famous Man as Industrial Palace, seeking “to depict the most important processes of life, which can never be observed directly, in the form of familiar technical processes.” (Bear in mind, he was working long before some of the most now-fundamental notions in modern science were known, decades before even the discovery of DNA.)

'The speed of thought — overtaken by technology!' (1939)

But Kahn was far from reducing a human being to mere machinery. The von Debschnitz write:

His factories, engine-rooms and laboratories do not work on their own, but are operated and driven by large numbers of workers. These human figures make visible certain activities of individual cells or organs, but they also stand for life itself, which keeps the “man machine” running. In Kahn’s pictorial world there is plenty of room alongside the demonstrable for the unconscious, the unfamiliar and the intangible. He sees metaphysics and science not as opposites but as two sides of the same coin, as the “heaven and earth of the human soul.”

'The five points in common between muscle operation and an electric doorbell circuit: (1) volition — bell button, (2) motor center — battery, (3) nerve — wire, (4) motor end-plate — interpreter, (5) muscle — clapper.' (1924, 1927)

'The cycle of matter and energy' (1926)

Kahn could also be considered a pioneer of interactive storytelling long before the technologies of interaction existed. He transformed the pictorial image from a static object to passively behold to an active invitation to engage, reimagine, and connect:

Kahn’s conceptual illustrations inverted the text-image relationship that had prevailed until then. The picture took prominence and switched from observed object to active agent, opening up new imaginary spaces for the viewer. It challenged the viewer to explore these spaces independently, to find [his or her] place in them, and develop new perspectives from there — a life-saving ability in a crisis-torn age like that of [the world war].

[…]

Apart from instruction and entertainment, edification is another important function of the illustrated factual book. Meaning, comfort, fresh perspectives, and ideally a faith that can move mountains, often form in reaction to a strong aesthetic impulse — for example, in the borderland between science and art. Kahn knew the healing effect of the “imagination” from personal and medical experience, especially in relation to observing the macro- or microcosm. … Verbal and visual images can help man (re)connect with himself, his group, the world and the universe, to find his way or place.

In a twist of tragic irony, Kahn himself followed the fate of many Jewish intellectuals and was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis took power. His books were confiscated, banned and burned, and put on a list of “damaging and undesirable writing.” His images, however, remained in use thanks to blatant plagiarism — worst of all, the science journal editor and self-professed Nazi Gerhard Venzmer ripped off Kahn’s “man book” in a similar edition that featured an extra chapter on “racial studies and racial care,” full of the expected bigoted atrocities. Fortunately, Kahn was able to sue for copyright after the end of WWII and won the case — but the experience demonstrated both the power of his images and the challenging cultural context in which he created them.

'Travel experiences of a wandering cell: the villi currents of the intestinal tract.' (1924)

Above all, however, Kahn was a kind of scientific poet who enlisted the tenets of literature and the arts in making scientific ideas not only accessible but exciting. One of the most beautiful examples of this comes from his 1924 article for the journal Kosmos, titled “Fairy-tale Journey on the Bloodstream.” In it, he extols “the drama which, since its discovery 200 years ago, has repeatedly stirred the ecstasy of all who have seen it: the circulation of the blood” and writes — sings, almost:

“What a drama, but alas, only a drama!” The microscope’s field of vision is narrowly limited and we see the blood cells arriving on one side and disappearing again on the other… where from? where to? — we don’t know […]. The researcher stops at the rigid circle of his microscope’s field of vision, but we, we are poets, and who will forbid the imagination to travel to magical realms over lands and over seas like the child with the seven swans? […] Like the hero of the “last fairy-tale” we become smaller and smaller until at last we stand microscopically tiny, mini-Lilliputians on the bank of the vein-stream, and see the cells drifting past us, as big as the barques [large sailing ships] of men. We climb up one of the cliffs that loom into the stream, and wait. Cell after cell swims past, but quick and in the middle of the stream, unattainable to our desires. At last, however, a cell-boat drifts close to us on the beach, settles askew like a ship run aground, we leap across and into it, now it tilts from side to side, we push off and sail away. We are sailing! In our cell-boat on the red-gold stream of blood! Farewell, realm of man! We are in the land of fairy-tales, the fairy-tale land of truth, above which you rough giants gap blithely away on your great feet, and we sail towards miracles, true miracles!

Fritz Kahn is itself a miracle of human imagination, wholeheartedly recommended.

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