Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

24 APRIL, 2009

Truth, Beauty, Math and Crocheting

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Why your grandmother’s favorite pastime proves mathematicians are a bunch of clueless hacks.

Science writer Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine are on a crusade to correct the longest-running errors of science through art. Their weapon? Crocheting.

They are the founders of the Institute For Figuring — an exploration of the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics. It’s part mathematics, part feminine handicraft, part marine biology and part environmental activism. And it also happens to be a defining pillar of our mathematical understanding of nature.

So why crocheting?

For a very scientific reason, actually: The peculiar structure typical of corals and sponges is a special form of geometry known as hyperbolic geometry, which just so happens to be the bane of mathematicians’ existence — it’s near-impossible to model on a computer, and the most accurate way mathematicians have of modeling it is through crocheting.

And even that took scientists nearly 2 centuries to figure out — until the discovery of hyperbolic geometry in the 19th century, there were only two kids of space conceivable:  Euclidean, or flat space, and spherical. But it wasn’t until 1997 that the crochet modeling method was discovered by  a mathematician at Cornell, disproving the most fundamental axiom of mathematics — Euclid’s Parallel Postulate.

So here in wool, through domestic feminine art, is the proof that the most famous postulate of mathematics is wrong.

In fact, species like sea slugs have existed for millions of years, happily violating the very principle Euclid claimed was impossible to violate — something mathematicians had previously chosen to conveniently overlook. Crocheting these structures offered not only a new model of geometric representation, but also a whole new model of thinking: This sort of non-euclidean geometry is actually the very foundation of the theory of relativity, thus the closest thing we have to an understanding of the shape of the universe.

The project began in 2005, the first year that global warming really became an issue of global concern for both the science community and the enlightened general public. Coral reefs, which are incredibly delicate organisms, are among the species most severely affected by global warming — any rise in sea temperatures causes vast bleaching events, which inevitably kill entire coral colonies.

But perhaps most fascinatingly, the project serves as a brilliant allegory for the evolution of life on earth. Originally a centralized effort by the Wertheim sisters, the IFF began to attract outside contributions from people all over the world. Today, it has evolved into a global collaboration of science-minded craft-masters, who have contributed tens of thousands of hours worth of human labor totaling thousands of coral models — a truly grassroots exploration of our collective understanding of marine biology and mathematics.

Algebraic representations, equations, codes… We live in a society that’s obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this form of modeling, people can be engaged with the most abstract, high-power, theoretical ideas.

Werheim is particularly passionate about the play-based explorations of concepts, stressing the importance of creating “play tanks” in a society dominated by think tanks — great minds who think about the world and write grand symbolic treaties about it, but don’t engage with great ideas on the highest abstract level.

Watch Wertheim’s fantastic TED talk, where she reveals a glorious intersection of beauty and math.

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22 APRIL, 2009

Earth Day The Reel Way

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Just how stupid we really are, or what James Earl Jones and a giant humpback whale have in common.

It’s Earth Day, and instead of engaging in questionable eco initiatives, like watching Philly’s fountains turn green, why not call a few friends over for some essential viewing that will disturb, move, outrage and inspire you in that bitter-sweet way that An Inconvenient Truth did in 2006.

Here’s some help, with our selection of 5 new must-see films that explore our environmental sensibility.

THE COVE

2009 Sundance Audience Award Winner The Cove is a mixture of action, adventure, mystery and, as the tagline goes, “oh, and it’s a documentary”. The movie tells the story of a group of filmmakers, activists and free-divers, led by director Louie Psihoyos, who penetrate a hidden cove in Japan uncovering a terrible secret.

No spoilers here  – you’ll only know the secret after seeing the movie, but let’s just say that given the filmmakers are wanted by the Japanese authorities,  it’s going to be be good.

THE AGE OF STUPID

Director Franny Armstrong takes the scare approach to instill in us some eco sensibility. Half-fiction, half-documentary, The Age of Stupid shows Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite living alone on a devastated Earth in 2055. In this barren habitat, the only type of entertainment available to the poor guy is “old” documentary footage of us trashing the planet in the present day.

Troubled by questions like why we didn’t stop climate change when we had the chance, Pete suggests that the answer might simply be that we were really, really stupid. And he may have a point.

FUEL

Fuel is last year’s Sundance Best Documentary Award Winner, and covers a topic painfully familiar by now — America’s addiction to oil.

Director Josh Tickell drills the history behind the rising domination of the petrochemical industry — which may seem like a regurgitated discussion to some, but we believe these things simply need to be said until there is no longer a need for them to be.

Plus, there’s a cameo by one of our heroes — Sir Richard Branson — as well as other fascinating instigators like Josh Tickell himself and Robert Kennedy Jr.

EARTH

Sure, it may be unoriginally titled. But earth, out in the U.S. today, is a piece of remarkable visual storytelling about three animal families and their amazing journeys across the planet we all call home.

The film comes from directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the acclaimed creative team behind the Emmy-Award-winning Planet Earth. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s narrated by the one and only James Earl Jones.

It’s a story told through incredible action taking place on unimaginable scale at impossible locations. Full of mystery and intimacy and magic as we glimpse inside the worlds of our planet’s most elusive creatures, the film is an epic call for appreciation of the fragile world we inhabit, a moving plea for a new self-conception as actors in an intricate and brilliantly orchestrated system beyond our own existence.

You can catch the filmmakers hosting a special episode over at Current for a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at their phenomenal adventure and creative process.

FOOD, INC.

By now, you know we’re big proponents of sustainable agriculture and permaculture. So it comes as no surprise that we find Robert Kenner‘s FOOD, INC. to be a compelling must-see. A merciless exposé on America’s food industry, it reveals all the hidden workings and often shocking truths of the government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA, lurking behind the consumer’s scope of vision.

The film features social entrepreneurs and sustainability visionaries like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg and Polyface FarmsJoel Salatin, who together paint a grim picture of what we eat and how it ended up on our plates, brimming with an urgency to change what we eat in order to change where we end up.

For 13 more Earth-conscious must-sees, we highly recommend the selections in Yale’s Environmental Film Festival, as well as the two incredible forthcoming films presented at this year’s TED Conference and TEDPrize winner Sylvia Earle’s compelling talk on why blue is the real green.

03 APRIL, 2009

Sustainable Agriculture: Top 5 Innovation Efforts

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What sheep have to do with high-rises and Obama first oversight.

We’re big on sustainability. The real, policy-changing, culture-redefining kind, not the I-Heart-Recycling graphic tee kind. Which is why we think agriculture, the literal lifeline to our vitality, is a tremendously potent tool for ensuring a sustainable future. Here are 5 innovative projects that propagate progress through smart, sustainable food initiatives.

HERDSHARE

The days of making small talk with the milkman may be long gone, but the relationship doesn’t have to be.

herdshare Australian startup Herdshare is building a platform that enables farmers and their shareholders to form and manage their herd share arrangements, essentially cutting out the middleman and making the relationship delightfully personal.

For the un-initiated, a heardshare is coop of people who buy a small herd and pay a farmer to take care of their animals, milk them, and deliver the goods. Herdshare is founded on principles of fair pricing, food quality, landcare, better animal husbandry and, above all, simplicity.

The site itself is still being built, but we have high hopes for the project. In the meantime, you can read their brochure to find out more.

FOODZIE

Farmers markets have long been the scene of the grassroots eco-eating movement, especially with the recent emphasis on local over organic as the more sustainable consumer choice. (Ideally, of course, we take ours local AND organic.)

foodzie Unfortunately, not every city is as lucky as Philly, with its legendary Reading Terminal Market, North America’s first and largest indoor farmers market. Enter startup Foodzie — an online farmers market where small growers and artisan producers can get their foodstuffs to the hungry and socially conscious masses.

An Etsy for food, Foodzie features anything from bakery to herbs and spices to meat and seafood. You can find such delicious divinities as the hazelnut truffle cookie, the Vindaloo curry sauce or the hickory-smoked buffalo jerky strips. You can even shop by location, if you subscribe to Google’s 100-mile-radius philosophy.

sugar Foodzie also carries occasion-specific treats, like the curret selection of editorially-curated Easter products — so grab yourself a sheepie-shaped sugar cookie and tell your favorite local farmer about the site. It’s a grassroots movement, after all, so your individual word-of-mouth may have more power than you suspect.

via The New York Times

LOCAL HARVEST

You know we’re talking grassroots when there’s a hideously designed yet brilliantly conceived site in question.

Which is exactly what LocalHarvest is — an online tool for finding local, organic food across nearby CSA (community-supported agriculture) initiatives, farmers markets and family farms.

We’ve mentioned the project before, but it’s worth a revisit since it’s constantly adding new farmers markets as well as new site features – you can do anything from finding a CSA subscription to reading the blogs of the actual farmers whose food is on your table.

Food really doesn’t get more personal than that, and we love how LocalHarvest marries the old-timey relationship between the spinach-eater and his spinach-growing neighbor with the tools of today’s web-centric culture.

POLYFACE FARMS

We’ve sung the praises of Polyface Farms before — extensively — so we won’t over-elaborate. But we will say that when agricultural activist Michael Pollan puts his seal of approval on something, there’s good reason. (Which is a shame, since Obama recently shot down The Sustainable Dozen, Pollan’s recommendation for head of the Department of Agriculture — a big mistake by Obama, in our generally Obama-loving opinion.)

Polyface founder Joel Salatin has a vision far broader than the food itself:

We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.

What’s unique about Polyface Farms is the uniquely designed permaculture system that the six different animal species inhabit. They’re all engaged in a fascinating ecological dance, brilliantly orchestrated by the farm to maximize the symbiotic relationship the animals have with one another and with the land.

Polyface is a hopeful exemplar in sustainable agriculture, a model we hope will be replicated on a scale large enough to truly impact the entire industry’s business model and thus its cultural and ethical footprint.

VERTICAL FARMING PROJECT

We had the fortune of seeing TED 2009 live, where urban farming pioneer Dickson Despommier presented his brilliant Vertical Farm Project, an urban agriculture initiative that takes indoor farming to a new level — literally.

The project aims to increase our ecosystem’s food efficiency by using urban space — high-rises in particular — to start a new movement of city farming for today’s urbanites. Vertical Farming offers so many rationally indisputable benefits we have to wonder why it hasn’t been considered seriously until now — you get year-round crop production, maximize space (1 acre indoor is equivalent to 4-30 acres outdoors, depending on the crop), it’s weather-controlled, so no crop loss due to droughts, floods or pests (unless you count your roommate in the latter), and you can grow fully organically, without pesticides or herbicides.

These are just a few of the multitude of benefits — and now it’s over to the design side, with a number of architectural plans already proposed.

To find out more about the brilliant rationale of vertical farming, take a look at the library of concept presentations. And stay tuned for when the Despommier talk becomes available on TED — this is an idea worth spreading, if we ever saw one.