Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

11 JULY, 2014

Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.

Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.

Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.

In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.

Steadman writes in the introduction:

In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.

[…]

Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.

Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:

The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.

The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.

Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?

All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.

Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.

If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.

O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.

Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.

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10 JULY, 2014

30 Days of “Quantum Poetry” Celebrating the Glory of Science

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From black holes to DNA to butterfly metamorphosis, bewitching verses on the magic of nature.

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” the influential biologist E.O. Wilson said in his spectacular recent conversation with the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, exploring the shared creative wellspring of poetry and science. A beautiful embodiment of it comes from 30 Days, an unusual and bewitching series of “quantum poetry” by xYz — the pseudonym of British biologist and poet Joanna Tilsley, who began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued, for her own pleasure, until she graduated college with a degree in biology. In April of 2013, while undergoing an emotional breakdown, Tilsley took a friend up on a dare and decided to participate in NaPoWriMo — an annual creative writing project inviting participants to write a poem a day for a month. Immersed in cosmology and quantum physics at the time, she found herself enchanted by the scientific poetics of nature as she strolled around her home in North London. Translating that enchantment in lyrical form, she produced a series of thirty poems on everything from DNA to the exoplanet Keppler-62F, a “super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a star smaller and cooler than the sun,” to holometabolism, the process by which the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to see Earth from space.

Tilsley’s choice of pseudonym is itself remarkably poetic — besides the scientific sensibility, XYZ was the pen name of her grandfather, the late British novelist and war correspondent Frank Tilsley.

Tilsley wrote and illustrated her quantum poems simultaneously, using her vast collection of scanned vintage paper ephemera, old typewriter fonts, and 19th-century artwork (I recognize Benjamin Betts’s “geometrical psychology” illustrations), which she manipulated digitally into beautiful backdrops for her verses. Not unlike the work of William Blake, text and image work together to channel a cohesive atmosphere.

It’s also interesting that Tilsley chose to capitalize nouns and pronouns in the style of religious texts — a poignant juxtaposition with the scientific sensibility of the poems, hinting, consciously or not, at the spiritual element of science.

This beautiful self-published book is available on Etsy, along with prints of the individual poems, as well as on Amazon UK. Complement it with E.O Wilson and Robert Hass on why poetry and science belong together, then revisit Diane Ackerman’s breathtaking poems for the planets.

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09 JULY, 2014

Visionary Neurologist Oliver Sacks on What Hallucinations Reveal about How the Mind Works

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“We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well.”

While our delusions may keep us sane, hallucinations — defined as perceptions that arise independently of external reality, as when we see, hear, or sense things that aren’t really there — are an entirely different beast, a cognitive phenomenon that mimics mysticism and has no doubt inspired mystical tales over the millennia. In the 18th century, Swiss lawyer-turned-naturalist Charles Bonnet, the first scientist to use the term evolution in a biological context, turned to philosophy after deteriorating vision rendered him unable to perform the necessary observations of science. Blindness eventually gave him a special form of complex visual hallucinations, known today as Charles Bonnet syndrome, but he was otherwise fully lucid and marveled, as a cognitive scientist might, at “how the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain.”

Some 250 years later, pioneering neurologist Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933) — who has previously explored the necessary forgettings of creativity and how music impacts the mind — picked up Bonnet’s inquiry in his immeasurably fascinating book Hallucinations (public library). In this TED talk based on the book, Sacks draws on his extensive clinical experience of working with patients, illuminating that astounding “theater of the mind” to shed light on what hallucinations reveal about how the mind works.

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination. And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

In the book, Sacks offers a detailed definition of hallucinations, contrasting them with regular perception and peering into their promise for better understanding the brain and the human mind:

When the word “hallucination” first came into use, in the early sixteenth century, it denoted only “a wandering mind.” It was not until the 1830s that Jean-Étienne Esquirol, a French psychiatrist, gave the term its present meaning — prior to that, what we now call hallucinations were referred to simply as “apparitions.” Precise definitions of the word “hallucination” still vary considerably, considerably, chiefly because it is not always easy to discern where the boundary lies between hallucination, misperception, and illusion. But generally, hallucinations are defined as percepts arising in the absence of any external reality— seeing things or hearing things that are not there.

Perceptions are, to some extent, shareable — you and I can agree that there is a tree; but if I say, “I see a tree there,” and you see nothing of the sort, you will regard my “tree” as a hallucination, something concocted by my brain or mind, and imperceptible to you or anyone else. To the hallucinator, though, hallucinations seem very real; they can mimic perception in every respect, starting with the way they are projected into the external world.

[…]

When you conjure up ordinary images— of a rectangle, or a friend’s face, or the Eiffel Tower —the images stay in your head. They are not projected into external space like a hallucination, and they lack the detailed quality of a percept or a hallucination. You actively create such voluntary images and can revise them as you please. In contrast, you are passive and helpless in the face of hallucinations: they happen to you, autonomously — they appear and disappear when they please, not when you please.

[…]

Hallucinations are “positive” phenomena, as opposed to the negative symptoms, the deficits or losses caused by accident or disease, which neurology is classically based on. The phenomenology of hallucinations often points to the brain structures and mechanisms involved and can therefore, potentially, provide more direct insight into the workings of the brain.

Hallucinations, which goes on to explore how advances in neuroimagining in the last few decades have greatly enhanced our understanding of hallucinations and the brain, is a mind-bending read in its entirety. Complement it with Sacks on the psychology of plagiarism.

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