Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

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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27 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Elvish, Klingon, and Dothraki Reveal about Real Language & the Essence of Human Communication

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Why a good language, like a good life, requires both rules and messiness.

Language, Darwin believed, was not a conscious invention but a phenomenon “slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” But what makes a language a language? In this short animation from TED Ed, linguist John McWhorter, author of the indispensable The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (public library), explores the fascinating world of fantasy constructed languages — known as conlangs — from Game of Thrones’ Dothraki to Avatar’s Na’vi to Star Trek’s Klingon to Lord of the Rings’ Elvish. Though fictional, these conlangs reveal a great deal about the fundamentals of real human communication and help us understand the essential components of a successful language — extensive vocabulary, consistent grammar rules but peppered with exceptions, and just the right amount of room for messiness and evolution.

We can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousand words. After all, you can memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence — a 4-year-old would talk rings around you. That’s because you have to know how to put the words together — that is, a real language has grammar; Elvish does. … Real languages also change over time — there’s no such thing as a language that’s the same today as it was 1,000 years ago: As people speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get creative. … Real languages are messy — that’s because they change, and change has a way of working against order. … Real languages are never perfectly logical — that’s why Tolkien made sure Elvish had plenty of exceptions.

Complement with this illustrated vintage guide to the science of language and the fascinating story of how Darwin shaped our understanding of why language exists.

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