Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

11 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Richard Feynman On The One Sentence To Be Passed On To The Next Generation

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“In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

The great Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science — may have earned himself the moniker “the Great Explainer,” but when Caltech invited him to take over the introductory course in physics in 1961, they took an enormous chance on a theoretical physicist with no particular interest in students. What resulted, however, was nothing short of magic — his lectures went on to become a cultural classic, blending remarkably articulate explanations of science with poignant meditations on life’s most profound questions, and were eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics (public library).

From the very beginning of his first-ever lecture comes this timeless gem (mentioned in Daniel Bor’s excellent The Ravenous Brain) that set the tone for both Feynman’s academic contribution and his broader cultural legacy:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Why We Cry: The Science of Sobbing and Emotional Tearing

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Why it’s easier to prevent a crying spell than to stop one already underway.

The human body is an extraordinary machine, and our behavior an incessant source of fascination. In Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (public library), psychology and neuroscience professor Robert R. Provine undertakes an “analysis and celebration of undervalued, informative, and sometimes disreputable human behavior” by applying the lens of anthropologically-inspired, observational “Small Science” — “small because it does not require fancy equipment and a big budget, not because it’s trivial” — to a wealth of clinical research into the biology, physiology, and neuropsychology of our bodily behaviors.

Take, for instance, the science of what we call “crying,” a uniquely human capacity — a grab-bag term that consists of “vocal crying,” or sobbing, and “emotional tearing,” our quiet waterworks. Provine explains:

As an adult, you cry much less than when young, and your crying is more often subdued, teary weeping than the demonstrative, vocal sobbing of childhood. . . [T]he trauma that causes your crying is now more often emotional than physical. However, whether intentional or not, as adult or child, you cry to solicit assistance, whether physical aid or emotional solace. Paradoxically, your adult cry for help is more private than the noisy, promiscuous pronouncement of childhood, often occurring at home, where it finds a select audience. The developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing favors the face-to-face encounters of an intimate setting. The maturation of inhibitory control gives adults the ability to select where and when crying occurs, or to inhibit it altogether, options less available to children.

To better illustrate the physiology of crying, Provine contrasts it with that of laughing, pointing out that the two are complementary behaviors and understanding one helps understand the other.

Specialists may argue whether there is a typical cry or laugh, but enough is known about these vocalizations to provide vivid contrasts. A cry is a sustained, voiced utterance, usually of around one second or more (reports vary), the duration of an outward breath. Think of a baby’s ‘waaa.’ . . . Cries repeat at intervals of about one second, roughly the duration of one respiratory cycle . . . A laugh, in contrast, is a chopped (not sustained), usually voiced exhalation, as in ‘ha-ha-ha,’ in which each syllable (‘ha’) lasts about 1/15 second and repeats every 1/5 second.

One curious feature crying and laughing have in common, which any human being with a beating heart can attest to:

Crying and laughing both show strong perseveration, the tendency to maintain a behavior once it has started. These acts don’t have an on-off switch, a trait responsible for some quirks of human behavior. Whether baby or adult, it’s easier to prevent a bout of crying than to stop it once under way. Crying causes more crying. Likewise, laughter causes more laughter, a reason why headliners at comedy clubs want other performers to warm up the audience, and why you may be immobilized by a laughing fit that can’t be quelled by heroic attempts at self-control. In fact, voluntary control has little to do with starting or stopping most crying or laughing.

So, if vocal crying evolved to attract help, what’s the evolutionary purpose of quiet tears? For one, they contain lysozyme, the body’s own antiseptic, which sanitizes and lubricates the eye. But, Provine argues, there might be something much more interesting and neurobiologically profound at work:

Several lines of evidence suggest that the NGF [nerve growth factor] in tears has medicinal functions. The NGF concentration in tears, cornea, and lacrimal glands increases after corneal wounding, suggesting that NGF plays a part in healing. More directly, the topical application of NGF promotes the healing of corneal ulcers and may increase tear production in dry eye . . . Although more of a scientific long shot, I suggest that tears bearing NGF have an anti-depressive effect that may modulate as well as signal mood.

Non-emotional, healing tears may have originally signaled trauma to the eyes, eliciting caregiving by tribe members or inhibiting physical aggression by adversaries. This primal signal may have later evolved through ritualization to become a sign of emotional as well as physical distress. In this evolutionary scenario, the visual and possibly chemical signals of emotional tears may be secondary consequences of lacrimal secretions that originally evolved in the service of ocular maintenance and healing.

If anything, Provine points to this as a direction of curiosity for future research:

Emotional tearing is a uniquely human and relatively modern evolutionary innovation that may have left fresh biological tracks of its genesis. The contrast of the human lacrimal system with that of our tearless primate relatives may reveal a path to emotional tearfulness that involves NGF. NGF may be both a healing agent found in tears and a neurotrophin that plays a central role in shaping the neurologic circuitry essential for emotional tearing during development and evolution. A lesson of NGF research is that pursuit of the scientific trail can lead to serendipitous discoveries both broad and deep. Emotional tears may provide an exciting new chapter in the NGF saga, and vice versa.

The rest of Curious Behavior goes on to explore such seemingly mundane but, in fact, utterly fascinating phenomena as yawning, sneezing, coughing, tickling, nausea, and, yes, farting and belching.

Photograph via Flickr Commons

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Pioneers! O Space Pioneers! A Walt Whitman + NASA Mashup

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“Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways, Pioneers! O pioneers!”

On the heels of yesterday’s animated adaptation of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and Ray Bradbury’s passionate case for space exploration earlier this week comes a dynamic mashup of Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and awe-inspiring footage of mankind’s cosmic triumphs. Conceived before Neil Armstrong’s passing but released this past Labor Day, the video pays homage to the beloved pioneer and casts a hopeful eye towards the future of space exploration. Creator JankAround writes:

On this Labor Day, let’s all remember that regardless of policies, regardless of methods, and regardless of destinations, our journey into outer space will take an immense amount of work.

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?

did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?

not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Complement with the fantastic Sagan Series remixes and the goosebump-giving The Sky Is Calling Us.

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