Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘video’

22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[...]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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04 JUNE, 2014

Maira Kalman at TEDxMet

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What teenage Vladimir Nabokov has to do with the spiritual power of shoes.

There are few artists today whom I admire more wholeheartedly than Maira Kalman. In addition to her magnificent books and projects — including the especially glorious The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World) — she is also a bottomless well of wisdom on life, with a penchant for the endearingly quirky and a special gift for children’s books.

In this wonderful short talk from TEDxMet, Kalman traces the timeline of her life as an artist, delivered with a hearty helping of her immeasurably gladdening sense of humor.

Walking is the antidote to a lot of misery and boredom. Whatever you do, you should always try to walk somewhere before you do it.

Complement with Kalman on the power of not thinking and the two keys to a full life, then revisit her recent collaboration with Daniel Handler and MoMA, the charming Girls Standing on Lawns.

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24 APRIL, 2014

The Dark Side of Certainty: Jacob Bronowski on the Spirit of Science and What Auschwitz Teaches Us About Our Compulsion for Control

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“Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Richard Feynman memorably argued that the chief responsibility of a great scientist is to remain uncertain. “It’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance,” Stuart Firestein asserted in his wonderfully poetic TED talk on why ignorance rather than knowledge drives science. And yet the toxic belief persists that science is about our insatiable appetite for knowledge, power and, ultimately, control over the world.

In 1973, a year before his death, Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, and science historian Jacob Bronowski captivated the world with his pioneering BBC series and companion book of the same title, The Ascent of Man (public library), tracing the development of human civilization through science, from flint tools to alchemy to quantum physics. Celebrated as one of the first works of “popular science,” it bears Carl Sagan’s succinct and perfectly descriptive one-word blurb: “Superb!”

In this excerpt from the eleventh episode of the series, titled “Knowledge and Certainty,” Bronowski addresses with goosebump-giving poignancy the most dangerous extremes of our counterproductive compulsion for control and our quintessential discomfort with uncertainty:

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false.

Look for yourself.

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible…

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

In the preface to The Ascent of Man, which is a magnificent and incredibly important read in its totality, Richard Dawkins captures Bronowski’s singular gift for weaving science and culture together:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science? And does it lightly, effortlessly, never sinking to pretension? Bronowski uses the English language — not his first language, which makes it all the more remarkable — as a painter uses his brush, with mastery all the way from broad canvas to exquisite miniature.

The full documentary is well worth watching as well. Complement it with Richard Feynman on the universal responsibility of scientists.

Thanks, Scott

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