Brain Pickings

Turtle Anatomy, in Stunning Images from 1820

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Beautiful public domain images of your favorite shell-shielded reptile.

Somewhere between Ernst Haeckel’s biological lithographs and The Wellcome Collection’s archive of anatomical illustrations falls Anatome Testudinis Europaeae by the German physician and naturalist Ludwig Heinrich Bojanus (1776–1827). The two-volume tome in Latin, featuring some stunning images of turtle anatomy, was published in 1820 and is now in public domain, digitized by Harvard for your viewing pleasure.

Public Domain Review

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We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve

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“You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects … already constructed … and make bigger mental objects out of them.”

In 2004, Noam Chomsky — pioneering MIT linguist, cognitive scientist, education guru, Occupy pamphleteer — sat down with McGill University professor James McGilvray to talk about the origin and purpose of language. In 2009, the two reconvened to discuss how half a decade of scientific progress, including developments like “biolinguistics” and computational linguistics, has altered our understanding of the subject. Their fascinating conversations have now been gathered in The Science of Language (public library) — a fine addition to these essential books on language.

Rather than a gradual evolutionary progression, language, says Chomsky, developed incredibly rapidly somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago — an occurrence he calls “just an outburst of creative energy that somehow takes place in an instant of evolutionary time.” And even though we now know that there is no such thing as a first human being, this cognitive growth spurt could only be explained by some genetic modification that resulted from a small mutation that happened in a single person.

It looks as if — given the time involved — there was a sudden ‘great leap forward.’ Some small genetic modification somehow that rewired the brain slightly [and] made this human capacity available. And with it came an entire range of creative options that are available to humans within a theory of mind — a second-order theory of mind, so you know that somebody is trying to make you think what somebody else wants you to think.

[…]

Well, mutations take place in a person, not in a a group. We know, incidentally, that this was a very small breeding group — some little group of hominids in some corner of Africa, apparently. Somewhere in that group, some small mutation took place, leading to the great leap forward. It had to have happened in a single person.

But what, exactly, happened in our great linguistic grandmother or grandfather? Chomsky calls it Merge — a basic cognitive function that, in its simplest form, enables you to take two things and construct a thing that is the set of the two things.

You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects [or concepts of some sort], already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. That’s Merge. As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.

Sound familiar? The origin of language appears to have much in common with the origin of creativity, both operating as combinatorial forces that hinge on synthesizing existing ideas into new combinations. There is a reason, perhaps, that we speak of “creative expression” — how we express ourselves creatively is just another form of language, driven by the same Merge function that sparked language itself.

Photo by Brendan Lynch

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Woodcut: A Meditation on Time Through the Inked Cross-Sections of Fallen Trees

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Bryan Nash Gill’s visual record of the passage of time.

Trees have a way of witnessing the world that stirs our deepest sense of permanence and impermanence. Somewhere between Cedric Pollet’s Bark and Romeyn Houghs’s cross-section plates comes Bryan Nash Gill’s Woodcut (public library) — a magnificent collection of the artist’s large-scale relief prints from the cross-sections of fallen and damaged trees.

Gills’ ink prints — sometimes stark, sometimes nuanced, always exquisitely beautiful — provide another, at once more abstract and more organic, way to visualize time, his labor-intensive printmaking process mirroring the patience imprinted on the trees’ arboreal rings. Looking at the cross-sections from above, inverting one’s usual orientation relative to a tree, kindles a kind of transcendental awe at these radial life records.

Ash, 2003

82 years printed

Red Ash, 2007

82 years printed

Double Crescent, 2009

Norway spruce

45 years printed

Black Locust with Bark, 2009

87 years printed

Honey Locust, 2010

31 years printed

Eastern Red Cedar, 2011

77 years printed

Glue Lam, 2003

One of Gill's first prints created from dimensional lumber. Glued laminated timber is known for its superior structural strength and used in columns and beams. This print, revealing the grain patterns of glued lumber, is made from two boards stacked and rotated.

Gill at work, inking the block and printing (pressing the rings) of Eastern Red Cedar

Nature writer Verlyn Klinkenborg observes in the foreword:

Something [happens] as you peer into these boles. They confound time, simultaneously offering diachrony and synchrony, to use those nearly antiquated words. You look across all of the tree’s living years, exposed at one. And yet, as you move from the center to the periphery — to the final present of that individual tree — you’re also looking along time, along the succession of growth cycles that end in what is, after all, the death mask of a plant, the sustained rigor mortis of a maple, ash, spruce, locust, and other species.

Beautiful and quietly poetic, Woodcut is an absolute treat both aesthetically and conceptually, pulling you into a deeper contemplation of the passage of time as it sweeps you up in a meditation on beauty.

Captioned images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press / Bryan Nash Gill

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