Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘video’

15 APRIL, 2014

Why There Was No First Human

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“It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old.”

We live in a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. And yet how can an intelligent being hold such beliefs when faced with a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree or an 80,000-year-old aspen? But even when we embrace science completely, one of the most baffling aspects of the timeline of evolution — for creatures as dependent on categories as we are to make sense of the world — is its incremental progress largely devoid of clear markers denoting when one primitive species ends and its evolved successor begins.

Inspired by The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — Richard Dawkins’s children’s book seeking to replace myth with science — PBS’s Joe Hanson offers a concise and elegant explanation of why there was no “first human.” Tracing any one person’s family tree — yes, yours, as well as mine — back 185 million generations takes us not to another human but to a fish, which begs the question of where the human species “began”:

You can never pinpoint the exact moment when a species came to be — because it never did. It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old… Evolution happens like a movie, with frames moving by both quickly and gradually, and we often can’t see the change while it’s occurring. Every time we find a fossil, it’s a snapshot back in time, often with thousands of frames missing in between, and we’re forced to reconstruct the whole film. Life is what happens in between the snapshots.

For a closer look at The Magic of Reality, go here, then see more of Henson’s terrific science illuminators, like the science of why we kiss, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, and why we can consider the avocado a curious ghost of evolution.

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24 MARCH, 2014

The Timekeeper: Behind the Scenes of Humanity’s Most Accurate Atomic Clocks, Which Dictate Our Daily Lives

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“Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.”

Since the beginning of human existence, we have sought to understand time, to map it, to hack it, to standardize it, and to perfect our bodily experience of it. We have turned it into our civilization’s greatest meme and have probed it with our most unrelenting scientific rigor. Today, time not only dictates the rhythms of our daily lives but is also at the center of our digital universe — and yet it remains largely misunderstood by us lay people.

In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.

Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.

[…]

In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.

Complement it with Dan Falk’s excellent In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, a fine addition to these 7 excellent books about time, then revisit the curious psychology of why we experience time as elastic.

via The Dish

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07 MARCH, 2014

The Miraculous in the Mundane: Richard Feynman Explains How Rubber Bands Work

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“The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right.”

When you see an ordinary rubber band stretched around and holding together a stack of stuff over a long period of time, you’re actually witnessing a miraculous force of physics at work — a perpetual pounding of the atoms as they struggle to hold these chains together against the outward push of the stack, vibrating with extraordinary vigor just to accomplish this seemingly mundane task. That peeling away of the mundane to reveal the magnificent is the greatest gift and most lasting legacy of Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, secret artist. Indeed, it was this very talent that earned Feynman the moniker “the Great Explainer” and his lectures, eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics (public library), went on to become a cultural classic, brimming with his signature fusion of accessible, enthralling explanations of complex scientific phenomena and poignant meditations on the broader meaning of life.

In this short clip from the 1983 BBC series Fun to Imagine, Feynman unleashes his singular gift on the humble rubber band to illuminate its surprisingly awe-worthy embodiment of the laws of physics:

The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right.

Complement with Feynman on the key to science in 63 seconds, the one sentence to be passed on to the next generation and his little-known sketches, collected by his daughter.

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