Brain Pickings

The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession

By:

What vintage bomb survival suits have to do with Dr. Stragelove and Richard Nixon.

The recent tragedy in Japan has triggered a tsunami of terror, founded and unfounded, about the potential risks of nuclear reactors. While there are people better equipped than us to explain the precise implications of the situation, we thought we’d put things in perspective by examining the flipside of these dystopian fears: The exuberant optimism about nuclear power in mid-century America.

The Atomic Cafe (1982) offers clever satire of America’s atomic culture through a mashup of old newsreels and archival footage from military training films, government propaganda, presidential speeches and pop songs — remix culture long before it became a buzzword. From congressmen pushing for nuclear attacks on China to mind-boggling inventions like the “bomb survival suit,” the darkly humorous film revolves around the newly built atomic bomb and pokes fun at the false optimism of the 1950s, showing how nuclear warfare made its way into American homes and seeped into the collective conscience from the inside out.

Though the collector’s edition DVD is a winner, the film — which became a cult classic often referred to as the “nuclear Reefer Madness” and compared to Kubrick’s Dr. Stragelove — is also available for free online in its entirety:

The Atomic Cafe is a poignant reminder that all social reactions, whatever their polarity, are always a complex function of the era’s cultural concerns, political propaganda and media mongering, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual risks and opportunities at hand.

Please note that none of this is meant as commentary on or an effort to invalidate the debilitating human tragedy in Japan. In fact, we’re diverting Brain Pickings donations this month to the American Red Cross in support of the relief efforts there. Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan as they piece their lives back together.

Brain 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 an example. Like? Sign up.

Hans Rosling: How the Washing Machine Sparked the Reading Revolution

By:

It’s hard not to love statistical stuntman Hans Rosling. Last year, he mesmerized us with a phenomenal augmented reality run through 200 years that changed the world in 4 minutes, as a part of BBC’s excellent The Joy of Stats series. (If you haven’t seen it, do — it’s free online and absolutely fantastic.)

Now, he’s back with another blockbuster TED talk, demonstrating — with his characteristic blend of statistical rigor and delightful wit — that the washing machine was indeed the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution, enabling everything from economic development through electrical efficiency to intellectual growth by reallocating free time for reading.

An interesting parallel emerges in examining Rosling’s talk in alongside Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: The washing machine is the antithesis of television, freeing up the same kind of “cognitive surplus” — excess human creative and intellectual energy — that, according to Shirky’s central argument, TV absorbed, a parallel that bespeaks the universal duality of innovation and the incredible potential of technology as a force of social change the polarity of which we get to choose.

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.

The Longevity Project: Insights on Life from an 80-Year Study

By:

Immortality has long been humanity’s existential pipe dream, but its holy grail has evaded us scientists and philosophers alike since time immemorial. But as modern science continues to strive for eternal youth, the true secrets of longevity may lie where we least expect to find them. In The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, social psychologists Leslie Martin and Howard Friedman dissect one of the most famous studies in the history of psychology to reveal the character traits, habits and mindsets that make some people live longer than others. And the findings are guaranteed to surprise you.

The project is based on an 80-year longitudinal study of that began in 1921, when researchers started following 1,500 then-kids to investigate the habits and behaviors that made them thrive and perish. Its revealing conclusions, rather than didactically overwhelming you with long to-do lists of thing to keep you forever young, help you develop simple patterns that lay the foundation for a healthier, longer life.

The most surprising thing to me in The Longevity Project was the differences that we found for men versus women when they encounter divorce. Divorce certainly is stressful and a bad things for anyone, but men were really able to improve their odds and ameliorating their risks by getting remarried after a divorce. That wasn’t really so much the case for women.” ~ Leslie Martin

Both deeply fascinating and remarkably readable, The Longevity Project is essentially a pop culture mythbuster that offers compelling and counter-intuitive insight into the art and science of being our best selves for the longest possible time.

Brain 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 an example. Like? Sign up.

YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011

By:

What 101 classical musicians have to do with honoring the past while appreciating the present.

Nearly two years ago, Google initiated the world’s first online collaborative orchestra, which we featured as one of three fantastic examples of orchestra innovation. They invited the world’s best amateur classical musicians to audition for 90 spots on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

Last year, the YouTube community, with the help of leading orchestras around the world, selected 101 musicians from 33 countries to perform in an extraordinary concert at Sydney Opera House, streamed live on YouTube. The complete concert, running close to three glorious hours, is now available online and is an absolute force of collaborative magnificence.

On the project page, you can explore the global winners by instrument and location, and play with Experiment — an innovative augmented-reality musical instrument. (Get the marker here.)

Combined with Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir, the YouTube Symphony bespeaks the incredible potential of technology-enabled collaborative creation, one of those things that make us thrilled to live in the era we’re living in.

We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.