Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

03 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Age of Power and Wonder: Vintage Science Infographics from 1930s Cigarette Cards


What metal diver suits have to do with electricity generation and the sound spectrum.

Vintage visions of the future of technology abound, and while some futurists’ predictions have been strikingly right, most of them remain delightfully ludicrous. Indeed, any trip in the time machine of science and technology is inevitably accompanied by equal measures of amusement at our past misguidedness, marvel at how far we’ve come, and anxiety about how misguided we ourselves may seem in the future. In the first half of the 20th century, such predictions were a form of popular entertainment and even appeared as collectible cards that came with food and tobacco products.

The New York Public Library has digitized a large collection of such cigarette cards, including a Max Cigarettes series from 1935-1938 titled Age of Power and Wonder — a set of 250 cards predicting advances in science and technology and exploring curious aspects of the era’s existing inventions. Also included in the series were a number of scientific and quasi-scientific infographics, gathered here for your viewing pleasure.


Ordinary white light is made up of a number of colours which, put together, produce 'white'. The picture shows the first position occupied by infra-red light which has a wave length too long to be visible by the human eye. Immediately above the infra-red comes visible red, and then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Above the violet is the ultra-violet, the health-giving , invisible, high-frequency rays which have been proven so vital to life. Very much higher up come X-rays and Gamma-rays.

(Complement this with Goethe’s theory of the color spectrum and human emotion.)


The source of sound is always a body in a state of more or less rapid vibration. The number of vibrations (cycles) per second can be measured and so sounds classified according to their cycle values. Thus, like light, sound is arranged in a kind of 'spectrum'; each sound having a wave-length. Thus, if the frequency of a note be 200 to a second, its wavelength is 1-200 units.


All movement is relative, not absolute. Two cars moving side by side along a road at 60 miles per hour, relative to the road, are stationary in relation to each other. A car is traveling on the road at 60 m.p.h., beside it on the rail a train is traveling at 100 m.p.h. In the air above them a plane is traveling at 200 m.p.h. All the speeds quoted are relative to the surface of the earth. In relation to the train, the aircraft is only doing 100 m.p.h., just as the train is only doing 40 m.p.h. in relation to the car*.


Divers not equipped with any kind of apparatus at all become uncomfortable and run considerable danger if they go beyond 50 feet. Diving to such depths for a living is extremely trying. It shortens life, causes various diseases of the heart and blood, and may result in sudden and painful death. In an ordinary diving suit depths of 150 feet may be reached, but beyond that there is a danger that pressure upon the body would result in injury and death. In the 'Tritonia' all-metal suit, twenty times this depth is quite feasible.


Fluid fuel has many advantages over solid fuel; it is easier to handle, can be fed to the fire or furnace without the need for stokers, and it is far cleaner. Moreover, you cannot use coal in the engines of motor cars or aircraft. The supplies of mineral oil which yield petrol are rapidly becoming exhausted. Petrol is being extracted from coal by the hydro-generation process -- five tons of coal yielding one ton of petrol. The other four tons are not wasted but produce valuable raw materials and by-products.


The imperfect conductivity of available materials results in great loss of power of current during transit over long distances. The loss occurs even in the cable, which puts up a slight resistance to current. Metals at temperature near -273ºC. have almost perfect conductivity. A method of reproducing this condition of frozen metals might save millions sterling every year.


The importance of the work done in forecasting tidal levels by the 'Brass Brain' in Washington is demonstrated in a simple fashion in this picture. Note how a deep draught ocean-going ship can safely pass at high tide and can still do so if low tide levels were a quarter again as high above the sea-bank. Knowing the exact time and level of ebb is vital.

For a bout of excruciating irony, card number 6 in the series examined advances in cancer treatment:


When scientists first began to create synthetic radio-activity, to make substitutes for radium, by bombarding certain atoms with millions of electron-volts, someone suggested, 'Why make radium to cure cancer? Use the bombarding atoms direct'. This suggestion was adopted by the use of very high voltage X-rays. Many successful experiments have been made.

* Raise your hand if the math here makes you raise an eyebrow.

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable


“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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22 AUGUST, 2012

Story of a Writer: Ray Bradbury on Storytelling and Human Nature in 1963 Documentary


“Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”

Beloved science fiction author Ray Bradbury, a passionate advocate of doing what you love and writing with joy, was the subject David L. Wolper’s 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer, in which he shares a wealth of insight on writing, some advice on perseverance, and his singular lens on the storyteller’s task. Enjoy.

Speaking to a group of students, Bradbury offers some priceless, timeless advice on the life of purpose:

The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000 …

Just get a part-time job! Anything that’s half way decent! An usher in a theater … unless you’re a mad man, you can’t make do in the art fields! You’ve gotta be inspired and mad and excited and love it more than anything else in the world!

It has to be this kind of, ‘By God, I’ve gotta do it! I’ve simply gotta do it!’ If you’re not this excited, you can’t win!

On the vital role of subconscious processing in creativity:

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle — [these] are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.

I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations. Electricity. The sea. Life started in the sea. Could the miracle occur again? Could life take hold in another environment? An electro-mechanical environment?

On significant objects as a storytelling device:

A writer’s past is the most important thing he has. Sometimes an object, a mask, a ticket stub — anything at all — helps me remember a whole experience, and out of that may come an idea for a story. So I’m a packrat — I’ve kept everything I’ve ever cared about since childhood.

On the practicalities of making a living with writing:

A story sells itself — but not when it’s sitting in the files. A writer needs an agent to go out into the marketplace and sell his wares.

On driving — which I, as a sworn lifelong non-driver, particularly enjoyed, and which Bradbury revisited four decades later in a rare 2003 audio interview:

I never learned to drive. As a kid, I saw too many fatal accidents and I grew up hating the idea. Automobiles slaughter 40,000 people a year, maim a hundred thousand more, and bring out the worst in men. Any society where a natural man — the pedestrian — becomes the intruder, and an unnatural men encased in a steel shell becomes his molester, is a science fiction nightmare.

On storytelling:

A story should be like a river, flowing and never stopping, your readers passengers on a boat, whirling downstream through constantly refreshing and changing scenery.

On the necessity of shifting mental tasks, taking creative breaks, and making “no effort of a direct nature” on the creative problem at hand:

Painting fulfills a need to be non-intellectual. There are times when we have to get our brains out in our fingers.

On motive, an alternative perspective on George Orwell’s four universal motives for creation:

I’m a storyteller — that’s all I’ve never tried to be. I guess in ancient times, I would’ve been somewhere in the marketplace, alongside the magician, delighting the people. I’d rather delight and entertain than anything else.

On the perils and promise of space exploration and our the relationship between technological progress and human nature in general:

We live in a time of paradox — man is confronted with a terrifying, magnificent choice: destroying himself utterly to the atom, or survive utterly with the same means. Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer. The very real fear is that now he’ll destroy himself just as he’s about to attain his dreams. Today we stand on the rim of space — man is about to flow outwards, to spread his seed to far new worlds — if he can conquer the seed of his own self-destruction. But man, at his best, is a mortal, and from his beginnings, he has dreamed of reaching the stars. I’m convinced he will.

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