Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘video’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

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“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Art of the Soundbite

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“A few words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite.”

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the American Museum of Natural History on the topic of popularizing science online, alongside such humbling science communicators as Elise Andrew of I Fucking Love Science, the delightful duo behind AsapSCIENCE (), Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, and Annalee Newitz of io9. As if to draw an audience of 900 science enthusiasts wasn’t enough of a treat, at the end of our talk none other than modern-day cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson made a surprise cameo.

Left to right: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maria Popova, Elise Andrew, Emily Graslie, Mitchell Moffit, Gregory Brown, Annalee Newitz, and AMNH curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low (Photograph © AMNH/R. Mickens)

After the talk, I got to ask Dr. Tyson — the living antidote to Susan Sontag’s concerns about aphorisms — the following question:

We live in a sort of soundbite culture, where soundbites very frequently become reductionism. And yet you seem so eloquent and articulate, especially on Twitter — a form that does not lend itself to eloquence especially well. How do you balance being very quotable with not being reductionistic?

Apart from the misunderstanding that I’m criticizing his short-form eloquence, when in fact I was complimenting his mastery of the soundbite form, Tyson’s answer is expectedly brilliant, packed with essential media literacy and wisdom for anyone engaged in the art of communication, which is practically everyone with a beating heart and firing neurons. Particularly fantastic is his anecdote of how he learned about the value of the soundbite and taught himself its craft:

Reductionism is one of the words I swore I would never use in my entire life. … I don’t have a problem with soundbites.

[A few] words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite. And don’t think that soundbites aren’t useful if they don’t contain a curriculum. A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. … Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty — why do you think we call them bites?

And it’s kind of what Twitter is — it’s almost like haiku, actually. … When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.” … You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way. And that does not mean using big words. So I don’t have a problem with that.

Is it possible to love the man even more? Oh yes, yes it is — I couldn’t resist whipping this wisdom all up into an animated GIF:

For more of Tyson’s wisdom, see his meditations on the secret of genius and the most important fact about the universe.

Should you choose to treat yourself to a mental stimulation break of the longer kind, watch the entire two-hour talk below, then complement it with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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27 AUGUST, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman on the Secret of Genius

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“You don’t even know what the word ‘vacation’ means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation FROM that is anything BUT a vacation.”

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul,” Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson observed in his superb 1990 Kenyon College commencement address, “is a rare achievement.” Indeed, the search for meaning, the life of purpose, the quest to do what makes you come alive — those are the greatest human aspirations. And who better to weigh in on the essence of this grand pursuit than Neil deGrasse Tyson, modern-day philosopher and eloquent cosmic sage, and Neil Gaiman, dedicated writer and champion of answering the daunting call of the creative life? In this short excerpt from the 2012 Connecticut Forum, the Neils answer the question “What makes someone visionary and brilliant?” and remind us that the most important component of genius is, in fact, love and unrelenting cultivation.

Tyson knows that truly fulfilling work never feels like “work”:

If everyone had the luxury to pursue a life of exactly what they love, we would all be ranked as visionary and brilliant. … If you got to spend every day of your life doing what you love, you can’t help but be the best in the world at that. And you get to smile every day for doing so. And you’ll be working at it almost to the exclusion of personal hygiene, and your friends are knocking on your door, saying, “Don’t you need a vacation?!,” and you don’t even know what the word “vacation” means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation from that is anything but a vacation — that’s the state of mind of somebody who’s doing what others might call visionary and brilliant.

'Do what you love' by Andy J. Miller for the 'Advice to Sink in Slowly' project. Click image for details.

Gaiman echoes the sentiment with laconic self-awareness:

We get to look good because we get to do what we want.

Complement with this timeless anchor for how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on living the creative life.

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