Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

19 MARCH, 2014

Happy Birthday, Standard Time: How the Railroads Gave Us Time Zones

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How the quest to prevent train collisions forever changed the global clock.

Our internal time, distorted as it is, may dictate a great deal of our lives, but it is external time — the scientific and cultural conventions of timekeeping — that anchors the rhythms of society. One of those most central timekeeping anchors was born on March 19, 1918, when the United States government passed the Standard Time Act — a federal law formalizing the concept of time zones. In this short animation from TED Ed, historian William Heuisler tells the fascinating story of how the railroad revolution led to the establishment of Standard Time, a seemingly simple development the impact of which profoundly shaped our everyday lives:

Complement with the curious psychology of time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped when we’re on vacation, then revisit these 7 excellent books about time.

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12 DECEMBER, 2013

A Miraculous “Accident of Physics”: Carl Zimmer Explains How Feathers Evolved, Animated

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“Feathers are some of the most remarkable things ever made by an animal. They’re gorgeous in their complexity, delicate in their construction, and yet strong enough to hold a bird thousands of feet in the air.”

Charles Darwin devoted nearly three chapters of his famed treatise Descent of Man to feathers — one of the most miraculous products of evolution. In his book Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (public library), conservation biologist Thor Hanson marvels that “nothing competes with feathers for sheer diversity of form and function” — they can be soft or barbed, can store water or repel it, can conceal or attract, and are “a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered.” But how did feathers actually come about?

In this lovely short film from TED Ed, animated by Armella Leung, the inimitable Carl Zimmer — one of the finest science writers working today, and the author of the delightful Science Ink — explains how feathers evolved, a case of “an accident of physics” that took fifty million years to unfold:

Myriad more such fascinating stories can be found in Zimmer’s Evolution: Making Sense of Life (public library), a collaboration with evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen. Pair this particular marvel of evolution with this great explanation of how bird wings work and an illustrated anatomy of the unfeathered bird.

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03 DECEMBER, 2013

Thoroughly Conscious Ignorance: How the Power of Not-Knowing Drives Progress and Why Certainty Stymies the Evolution of Knowledge

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“It’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance.”

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I reflected in the first of my 7 life lessons from 7 years of Brain Pickings — a notion hardly original and largely essential in life, yet one oh so difficult to adopt and embody. This concept lies at the heart of Stuart Firestein’s excellent book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, one of the best science reads of 2012. In this fantastic TED talk, Firestein, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and head of the neuroscience lab there, challenges our common attitudes towards knowledge, points out the brokenness of much formal education, and explores what Richard Feynman so poetically advocated — the growth-value of remaining uncertain — in science, and, by extension, in life:

Ignorance has a lot of bad connotations [but] I mean a different kind of ignorance. I mean a kind of ignorance that’s less pejorative, a kind of ignorance that comes from a communal gap in our knowledge, something that’s just not there to be known or isn’t known well enough yet or we can’t make predictions from, the kind of ignorance that’s maybe best summed up in a statement by James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, who said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” I think it’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance.

[…]

So I’d say the model we want to take is not that we start out kind of ignorant and we get some facts together and then we gain knowledge. It’s rather kind of the other way around, really. What do we use this knowledge for? What are we using this collection of facts for? We’re using it to make better ignorance, to come up with, if you will, higher-quality ignorance.

Ignorance remains a must-read. Complement it with Richard Feynman on the universal responsibility of scientists, then see how this mindset manifests in other domains of culture, from poetry to psychology to film.

HT The Dish

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