Brain Pickings

Happy Birthday, Hubble: Celebrating More than Two Decades of Stunning Space Images


From black holes to star births, or what decades of cosmic awe have to do with the future of space exploration.

It’s a bittersweet time for space exploration. On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery recently rolled into its “new home” — a polite way to say it’s become space taxidermy — but Hubble’s legacy endures, having engendered some of the most spectacular space images humanity has ever glimpsed, and there’s hardly a better way to celebrate it than with National Geographic’s Hubble: Imaging Space and Time, the most glorious collection of space images since Michael Benson’s Far Out. With more than 120 breathtaking photographs that take us to the very edge of known space, contextualized in the Hubble’s history, the lavish tome looks back on two decades of the telescope’s service in orbit and sets the stage for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled launched in 2013.

From black holes to star births to giant galaxies cannibalizing smaller ones, the images capture the thriving ecosystem of the cosmos, with all its magnificent nebulae, dazzling stars, and majestic planets.

Here are some of my favorite Hubble gems of all time.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054.

Taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003, this image captures the red planet some 34,647,420 miles from Earth.

A mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

A ribbon of gas, a very thin section of a supernova remnant caused by a stellar explosion that occurred more than 1,000 years ago, floats in our galaxy. The supernova that created it was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans.

Saturn's dynamic auroras

Section of M51 with Progenitor Star

Saturn's rings in ultraviolet light

The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Star birth in Galaxy M83

New red spot appears on Jupiter

Hubble/Subaru Composite image of star-forming region S106

Face-on Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982

The Egg Nebula

Saturn with rings tilted towards the Earth

At a time when the future of space exploration is hanging by a thread, Hubble: Imaging Space and Time is a magnificent living manifesto for just what’s at stake.

Images courtesy of NASA

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

A Journey to the End of the World: Tracing Polar Explorer Shackleton’s Footsteps a Century Later


What a seal bodyguard and 2,200-year-old moss have to do with a watershed moment in exploration history.

On April 24, 1916, five men led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition, set out on an 870-nautical-mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. Shackleton and his crew were marooned on Elephant Island after losing their ship to the Weddell Sea.

They were coming to their own rescue.

Medusa Kelp in Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.

A small selection of the 300,000 King Penguins in Gold Harbor (a.k.a. 'Penguinpalooza')

Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.

Grytviken Whaling Station Torqued Ellipses (For Richard Serra)

The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.

Elephant seals in Gold Harbor

The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary — just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)

Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I took some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks — the needles in a polar haystack.

2,200-year-old moss bank, growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossilized bank

Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet.

Landscape, South Georgia

View of Elephant Island, looking east

If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.

The Grytviken maritime graveyard, guarded by a giant elephant seal

I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Frank Chimero on the Shape of Design and the Harmonics of Influence


“…we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts.”

This month, my studiomate Frank Chimero — who is one of the most talented designers, most eloquent writers, and most dimensional thinkers I know — is releasing The Shape of Design, an exquisite meditation on what makes great design*.

From the very first line, Frank grabs you by the neurons and the heartstrings, and doesn’t let go until the very last:

What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.


Marshall McLuhan said that, ‘we look at the present through a rear-view mirror,’ and we ‘march backwards into the future.’ Invention becomes our lens to imagine what is possible, and design is the road we follow to reach it. But, there is a snag in McLuhan’s view, because marching is no way to go into the future. It is too methodical and restricted. The world often subverts our best laid plans, so our road calls for a way to move that is messier, bolder, more responsive. The lightness and joy afforded by creating suggests that we instead dance.

But the part that sang to me most comes from Chapter Three, entitled Improvisation and Limitations, and touches on the harmonics of influence — something I think about a great deal and have explored both playfully and seriously:

When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs. Some of those choices are informed by best practices and accrued wisdom; others are guided by the decisions of the work cited as inspiration; while a large number are shaped by the disposition and instincts of the work’s creator. These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others.

Frank goes on to illustrate this with an example from eighteenth-century Japanese haiku master Yosa Buson:

Lighting one candle
with another candle—
spring evening.

Buson is saying that we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts. One candle can light another, and the light may spread without its source being diminished. We must sing in our own way, but with the contributions and influence of others, we need not sing alone.

The Shape of Design is excellent in its entirety, with a wealth of insight spanning everything from the interplay of How and Why to the role of storytelling to the alchemy of creative magic — an indispensable read not only for designers, but for creators in any discipline.

* Always a good time to revisit John Chris Jones’s meditation on the same subject. Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Freud Files: How Freud Engineered His Own Myth


What Copernicus and Darwin have to do with Marie Bonaparte’s diary and Carl Jung’s scathing fury.

In 1916, Freud took the stage in Vienna in front of an audience that had gathered to hear the eighteenth of his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, and proceeded to canonize himself by staking his place in the history of humanity alongside Copernicus and Darwin, the former having solved geocentrism, the latter anthropocentrism, and Freud himself, allegedly, egocentrism. He likened the criticism psychoanalysis, “his” “science,” was receiving to that Copernicus and Darwin faced when their theories first confronted the status quo. Over the century that followed, Freud’s legacy penetrated society and went on to underpin the making of consumer culture. But understanding the story, the complete story, of how Freud became Freud hinges on understanding the story’s very storiness. That’s the premise of The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (public library | IndieBound) from Cambridge University Press, in which prominent contemporary Freud critics Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani set out to reopen the files of Freud’s early critics, reexamining old controversies and restaging defining debates to argue that without the legend Freud himself engineered, the scientific status of psychoanalysis would never have achieved the credibility it actually did.

From how Freud manipulated his patient case histories to conform to his theories to how, even after his death, his daughter Anna worked arduously to maintain the myth, the authors open up previously unpublished documents and letters guarded by the Freud estate for decades, exploring how Freud rewrote his own history as a kind of propagandist storyteller.

‘Scientific’ psychology didn’t emerge as the fruit of a lucky discovery, a fortuitous invention, or by some ill-defined process of natural development. It was desired by its various promoters, and imagined on the model of the natural sciences.

For Freud, however, securing his place in history alongside history’s most seminal scientists was not without resistance. At the dawn of this “new psychology,” pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote to English psychologist James Sully in 1890:

This is no science, it is only the hope of science… But at present psychology is in the condition of physics before Galileo and the laws of motion, of chemistry before Lavoisier and the notion that mass is preserved in all reactions. The Galileo and Lavoisier of psychology will be famous men indeed when they come, as come they some day surely will.

So how, exactly, did Freud rewrite his own history? Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani distill it to five elements of alchemy:

…the peremptory declaration of the revolutionary and epochal character of psychoanalysis, the description of the ferocious hostility and irrational ‘resistances’ which it gave rise to, the insistence on the ‘moral courage’ which was required to overcome them, the obliteration of rival theories, relegated to a prehistory of psychoanalytic science, and a lack of acknowledgement of debts and borrowings.

The latter part strikes a particular nerve around here. In fact, there was nothing original about the method of introspective self-observation, which Freud allegedly invented and which shaped the course of psychoanalysis. From Thomas Hobbes:

Whosoever looketh into himself, and considereth what he doth, and when he does think, opine, reason, hope, feare, &c, and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts, and Passions of all men, upon like occasions.

And from Immanuel Kant:

The wish to play the spy upon one’s self… is to reverse the natural order of cognitive powers… The desire for self-investigation is either already a disease of the mind (hypochondria) or will lead to such a disease and ultimately to the madhouse.

But it wasn’t until the preface to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams that Freud publicly articulated his psychoanalysis of himself:

For this book has a further subjective significance for me personally — a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death — that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.

This erected a kind of “secret ‘science’ of Freud” behind the published public science, which made psychoanalysis into “a riddle, with only Freud possessing the key.” The loop of the riddle solidified when, in 1912, Carl Jung proposed that every prospective analyst be trained by being analyzed by another analyst, raising an obvious question: Who would train Freud, the analyst at the top of the food chain?

When Freud subjected himself to analysis by Jung, the dynamic quickly unraveled into a kind of feud, beginning with Freud’s admission to Jung that he “could not submit to analysis without losing [his] authority.” This triggered what’s easily the juiciest piece of correspondence in the volume, and possibly among the most acrimonious intellectual assaults in history, a scathing letter Jung sent Freud on December 18, 1912:

You go around sniffing out all the symptomatic actions in your vicinity, thus reducing everyone to the level of sons and daughters who blushingly admit the existence of their faults. Meanwhile you remain on top as the father, sitting pretty. For sheer obsequiousness nobody dares to pluck the prophet by the beard and inquire for once what you would say to a patient with a tendency to analyze the analyst instead of himself. You would certainly ask him: ‘Who’s got the neurosis?’… I am namely not in the least neurotic — touch wood! I have namely lege artis et tout humblement let myself be analyzed, which has been very good for me. You know, of course, how far a patient gets with self-analysis: not out of his neurosis — just like you.

The weaving of the Freud legend, the authors argue, was a deliberate architecting of a monoculture, a powerful story that can integrate new elements and theories, but its underlying structure remains unchanged. Freud engineered a kind of filter bubble of and for his followers. In 1908, for instance, he orchestrated the “First Congress of Freudian Psychology” in Salzburg, which was designed as a secret invitation-only event with no criticism allowed. When a critic of Freud’s requested admission to a similar event in 1910, he was denied permission to attend. In a letter to Freud whilst planning the conference, Jung admonished that this “splendid isolation must come to an end one day,” but Freud retorted that “that day is still far off.”

Freud was indeed so adamant about pushing that day as far into the future as possible that when rival Wilhelm Fleiss sold his correspondence with Freud to Marie Bonaparte in 1937 on the express condition that Freud never regain possession of them, Freud pleaded with Bonaparte to destroy them, saying he didn’t want “any of them to become known to the so-called posterity.” She wrote in her diary on November 24, 1937:

But when later, at the end of February or the beginning of March 1937, I saw [Freud] in Vienna and he told me he wanted the letters to be burned, I refused… One day he told me: ‘I hope to convince you to destroy them.’

The formidable filter bubble thickened when Freud formed the International Psychiatric Association, which gave him the perfect vehicle for propagating his ideas. Broch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani write:

Protected from the world by his disciples, Freud could recreate his own reality and his own history, without fear of being contradicted. From this perspective, the legend of the isolated and persecuted scientist is less the expression of Freud’s megalomania or mythomania, than the reflection of the institutional isolation of psychoanalysis. Conversely, the legend maintained the identity of the movement, portraying its mythic independence from and superiority over all other psychological and psychiatric theories. To view the legend simply as a means to satisfy Freud’s ambition and narcissism or simply as a means to promote psychoanalysis in the competing psychological marketplace misses the intimate connections between the legend and psychoanalysis itself.

Ultimately, though The Freud Files may itself bear the ideological biases of its authors, it offers a fascinating look at deliberate construction of one of contemporary culture’s most enduring lenses on the human condition, challenging its most fundamental assumptions and frameworks. Broch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani put it even more forcefully:

Without this excessive dehistoricization, psychoanalysis would never have succeeded in establishing itself as the Holy Scripture of psychotherapy, nor Freud as the Solitary Hero of the unconscious… Psychoanalysis is vulnerable to its history.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.