Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

28 FEBRUARY, 2013

Stardust: A Mesmerizing Short Film About the Voyager 1 and the Wonder of the Universe

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The breathtaking beauty and destruction of the cosmos, animated.

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan observed in his timelessly poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic photograph of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 — the spacecraft launched in 1977 that gave us the story of how Sagan fell in love and went on to become as the first man-made object to travel out of the Solar System, an eternal witness to the unimaginable beauty and brutality of the universe.

From Dutch designer and director Mischa Rozema comes Stardust — a breathtaking short film based on a combination of real NASA footage and science fiction imagery, celebrating the legacy of the Voyager 1 and inspired by Dutch graphic designer Arjan Groot, who passed away from cancer at the age of 39. For maximum goosebumps, immerse yourself in full-screen mode:

Rozema tells us:

I wanted to show the universe as a beautiful but also destructive place. It’s somewhere we all have to find our place within. As a director, making Stardust was a very personal experience but it’s not intended to be a personal film and I would want people to attach their own meanings to the film so that they can also find comfort based on their own histories and lives.

The original score by Guy Amitai is available on iTunes, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the Dutch Cancer Society.

Complement with Neil deGrasse Tyson on whether the universe has a purpose.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

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28 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Age of Edison: Radical Invention and the Illuminated World

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A brief history of giving the people what they wanted, or why the lightbulb was a mere cog in the machinery of total illumination.

In 1880, a short segment of Broadway from Madison Square to Union Square was transformed into the “Great White Way” when twenty-three arc lights were switched on at nightfall, burning until sunrise the next day.

The light itself was overwhelming. The New York Times reported:

The great white outlines of the marble stores, the mess of wire overhead, the throng of moving vehicles, were all brought out with an accuracy and exactness that left little to be desired.

Women shielded themselves from the light using umbrellas. One person described the scene in horror:

People looked ghastly — like so many ghosts flitting about.

The harsh brightness of the arc lights required that they be hoisted between 20 and 50 feet in the air, throwing the city into dramatic light and shadow. People appeared gaunt and washed out, and the light exposed every skin imperfection. The experience of the arc lamp was like standing under a watchtower, and the street now had one on every corner. New York had been transformed into a prison, not a playground.

Light had come to the American city. And it was just awful.

In The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (public library), Ernest Freeberg explains that the invention of electric light was not simply the invention of the light bulb — rather, it was the introduction of an entirely new way of life: the experience of illumination.

A night view of the Paris Exposition of 1900

Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Thomas Edison, in fact, wasn’t the first to invent the lightbulb — in one form or another, electric light had been in existence since the turn of the nineteenth century when Sir Humphry Davy — a British scientist who had previously intoxicated himself with nitrous oxide — demonstrated the first arc light to the Royal Society in 1810. The arc light was named for the brilliant white light that appeared when an electrical current jumped the gap between two carbon rods. Davy’s effect was brief but brilliant, and the scientist made no effort to distribute the light on a grand scale.

Sir Humphry Davy experimenting with a voltaic battery

Image courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation

The arc light was powerful and effective; it became the standard application for inventors who wanted to distribute light to small towns and big cities across the U.S. It could blast away the shadows in Grand Central Station and it could light up an area for miles with a single strobe. San Jose and Austin constructed “moonlight towers,” roughly the size of a modern cell phone tower, to cast a white-hot glow over their city streets and combat crime. For the civic-minded, darkness was the criminal and the arc light was the policeman.

The first arc light tower, constructed in San Jose, California in 1881

Image courtesy Wikimedia

The incandescent light bulb was much more fragile an invention, relying on a glowing filament whose lasting power was unreliable. It was, however, the glow that Edison obsessively sought out. Edison didn’t invent incandescence either, but his goal was to make a bulb that glowed steadily, and that could glow in tandem with others.

Edison the man was an emblem for his entire workshop: hundreds of engineers and patents, a mountain of discarded materials, a thousand promises and false starts, millions of dollars in potential profit and market domination.

Edison and his workshop always invented in full view of the public. He would throw open the doors of his laboratory in Menlo Park, ready to reveal another rung in the ladder of human progress, only to shut himself up again when the newspapers questioned the efficiency of his inventions. The news from Menlo Park, much like the news from Cupertino today — and from Bell Labs in the mid-twentieth century — could affect the stock market on a grand scale.

The gas companies had the most to lose from the invention of a successful Edison lighting grid.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

In late 1879, Edison opened the doors to his laboratory to introduce the prototype of his incandescent light, capable of burning for up to three hundred hours. The bulb itself was not particularly special — hundreds of bulbs with varying filaments had been invented and discarded over the years. What made Edison’s light different, however, was a quality that couldn’t be measured in dollars: it was beautiful.

According to one newspaper, the lightbulb was “a little globe of sunshine” which produced “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow glow of an Italian sunset.” It was also the first light that had a single sensory experience. For thousands of years, light had been the product of wood, tallow, gas, or coal — where there was smoke, there was light. A newspaper reported of Edison’s bulb:

There is no flicker… There is nothing between it and darkness. It consumes no air and, of course, does not vitiate any. It has no odor or color.

Cities and towns did not simply crave light — the arc light was the brightest and boldest light a person could experience — they craved the right light. Edison’s incandescent bulb was not the brightest, but it had the glow that the public desired. Edison devised a system of lighting, a string of incandescent bulbs that ran on parallel circuits — ensuring that one outage wouldn’t collapse the system — driven by an enormous dynamo that allowed an even brightness across a vast field. Edison didn’t simply envision a bulb, he envisioned a grid, and he hooked his lighting into the tangle of telegraph wires, phone lines, and police alarms that already ran through the city.

The Edison Electric Tower was a pillar of incandescent light designed to showcase the glow of the Edison bulb. It was a popular feature of the General Electric exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Image courtesy Field Museum

The great shift from darkness into light during the nineteenth century wasn’t due to the invention of the lightbulb, but the invention of illumination and the experience of light on a grand scale. A well-lit room was not a novelty. A well-lit street, a building sprinkled with light, a lighthouse with a brilliant beam — these were the signposts of an illuminated world. Men and women would begin to stay out later into the night. Constant illumination meant a longer workday, for some driven by economic need, while others simply craved it.

The illuminated world transformed the literary sphere, too. With more people outside during the night, there were more stories to cover, more life to unfold. Newspapers began to publish multiple daily editions, both because they could and because the public hungered for it. The factory worker and the newspaper reporter began to intensify their “night work” and the now-familiar 24-hour workday began to take shape.

The Great Search Light and Electric Tower at the Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo in 1901.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

The Age of Edison is the story of invention and experience, in which the race to light America was not for the brightest light, but the best, and the smartest. In the end, Edison’s incandescent bulb prevailed — not simply because it was the most beautiful light, but also because it was the savviest.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2013

10½ Favorite Reads from TED Bookstore 2013

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A full-brain reading list of cross-disciplinary stimulation.

Once again this year, like last, I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore at TED 2013, themed The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered. Below are this year’s picks, along with the original text that appears on the bookstore cards and the introductory blurb about the selection:

‘I feel … as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger and larger, throbbing quicker and quicker with new blood — and there is no more delicious sensation than this,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on the mesmerism of books. Gathered here are books to make both hemispheres throb with boundless delight, stimulation, and deliciousness.

I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library), one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, last May.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Turn to page 352 for a sublime taste.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Originally featured, with several excerpts from the heart-warming, brain-tickling questions and answers, last November.

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Originally featured at length last May.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

Originally featured, with bountiful excerpts and photographs, last July.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

Sample this treasure with Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, education, writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Originally featured, with artwork and answers, in October.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris (public library), one of 2012′s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

Originally featured, with more images, last February.

A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library) is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Try Young’s 5-step technique here.

THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

See it in its full glory here.


BONUS: ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky and Brooklyn independent publisher Enchanted Lion () are bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums that children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

This little gem was a TED Bookstore exclusive — it isn’t publicly available until April, but it’s now out for pre-order.

Complement with other little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, then catch up on last year’s TED Bookstore selections.

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