Brain Pickings

Richard Feynman on Beauty, Honors, and Curiosity

By:

The art of uncertainty, why awards are the wrong pursuit, and how to find wonder in truth.

On the heels of yesterday’s children’s book on science by Richard Dawkins and Wednesday’s testament to remix culture comes an ingenious intersection of the two — an inspired effort to promote science education and scientific literacy amongst the general public by way of a remix gem. Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower, who has previously delighted us with some Carl Sagan gold, has created a trilogy of magnificent mashups using the words of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, culled from various BBC, NASA, and other notable footage, to convey the power, wonder, and whimsy of science. Dubbed the Feynman Series, it’s a continuation of the brilliant Sagan Series.

Beauty does away with the common myth that scientists are unable to truly appreciate beauty in nature as Feynman explains what a scientist actually is and does.


I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. [...] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.”

Honours peels away at the pretense of awards as false horsemen of gratification.

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”

Curiosity is Feynman’s lament for simplicity, which gets lost in our ceaseless hunger for sensationalism.

[The Big Bang] is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales which other people used to make up, when wondering about the universe we lived in on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. And, so, what’s the wonder in physics to me is that it’s revealed the truth is so remarkable.”

For more on Feynman’s legacy and genius, look no further than Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.

via Open Culture

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.

Apple and the Bananas: A Steve Jobs Personal Remembrance

By:

From Jules Verne to the Iron Curtain, or why ‘bondi blue’ is the defining color of my curiosity.

I grew up in Bulgaria in the 1980s. Before the fall of the communist regime in 1989, scarcity underpinned the status quo — of commodities, of information, of opportunity. So limited were Western imports that once a year, around New Year’s, a handful of grocery stores would make available “exotic” produce like tropical fruit. The supply-demand ratio was so skewed that the store had to ration these exorbitantly priced annual luxuries — one banana and two oranges per person — and people would line up around the block to get them. (Meanwhile, the unworthy apple, Bulgaria’s most ample fruit crop, would sit neglected in the produce aisle at 50 stotinki a kilogram, roughly $0.15 per pound.) The most ambitious parents would camp out in front of the store overnight to make sure they got the bananas and oranges first thing in the morning as they went on sale.

In my lifetime, I’ve only seen such lines twice since — first in front of the Apple Store on June 29, 2007, when the iPhone was released, and then again in April of last year, when the iPad became semi-available. Under Steve Jobs, Apple became the bananas of the West.

In the 1990s, my mother joined Bulgarian Business Systems — Bulgaria’s first and, for over a decade, only official Apple dealer. I had grown up reading Jules Verne, so when we got our first Macintosh, I remember thinking that the man behind it — because, let’s face it, such was the cultural conditioning that I wouldn’t have expected a woman — must be some modern-day Jules Verne, having just handed me a portal for curiosity and exploration that helped me lean into knowledge in a way that has since become the fundamental driving force of my intellectual life.

That iconic 1984 Apple commercial, with its undertones of Big Brother rebellion and escapism, always had special resonance with me.

In the early 90s, about a year after I had started learning English, my mother reminds me of this jingle I wrote for a Macintosh Performa ad in one of the big newspapers:

An Apple a day keeps the doctor away

A Performa a day lets you thrive and play

(Oh come on, cut me some slack. I was nine.)

By the mid-90s, I was spending my school holidays folding Apple brochures and helping my mother set up the big annual Apple Expo, held every December at the Zemyata i Horata (‘Earth and People’) museum.

In 1998, my high school was the only school in the country to have Macs in its library. I vividly remember the day the first candy-colored iMac G3 arrived. It was the bondi blue flavor, the kind of translucent greenish-blue I’d always imagined as the backdrop to Captain Nemo’s world. When I was exploring the budding Internet on it, I felt like it had opened to me to the doors to the library on Nautilus.

When I came to the states for college, I went through a 13-month period I’ve since referred to as “the dark days” — being broke and beguiled by a sweet-talking UPenn senior, I bought his lightly used Dell laptop for the bargain price of $400, rationalizing it as a handy investment in class assignments. It was a foreign land to me, with its confusing navigation menus and counterintuitive interface. The blue screen became a frustrating frequent.

Finally, one fine day in 2004, I bit the bullet and walked into the campus bookstore, which had an official Apple section. I was working three jobs at the time, to pay my way through college, so I ended up eating canned tuna and store-brand oatmeal for a couple of months to offset the expense, but I did walk out with a brand new iBook G4. It was promptly named Francis by my friends, since I was going through my Frank Sinatra period and that’s all that streamed from my iTunes, the same iTunes through which I discovered Sinatra in the first place.

It was like I had undergone a personal Renaissance. I started taking Francis to all my classes and, often, classes I wasn’t actually enrolled in — curious lectures across various departments, from criminology to nutrition to design history, that I would drop in on. I never thought much of my secret hobby, until I heard Steve Jobs’s now-iconic 2005 Stanford graduation address. In it, he recounts the power of a serendipitous visit to a calligraphy class he wasn’t enrolled in, which went on to shape his landmark contributions to design and graphic interfaces:

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” ~ Steve Jobs

Long before I was able to articulate it, he was a living testament to the power of networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity.

The semester I got Francis, I was one of three students to have a Mac in the large Annenberg Center lecture hall, where I had many of my classes. Over the next three years, I watched with wonder as the white lids proliferated, taking over the rows until, by my senior year, you could count on the fingers of one hand the students who hid in the back with their PCs. And it wasn’t because — or, okay, only because — to have a Mac was a status symbol of early hipsterdom. It was because it changed how we did everything, from taking class notes to designing presentations to listening to music. Most importantly, it changed our expectations about taking notes and designing presentations and listening to music.

This is the true legacy of Steve Jobs. He didn’t just transform technology, design, and entertainment — he transformed our expectations about technology, design, and entertainment. He not only made us eager to line up for the bananas of our time, but also made us willing to step into the Nautilus library of fascination and never want to leave.

Thank you, Steve, for shaping my childhood, my curiosity, and my creative and intellectual destiny. May you rest in peace 20,000 leagues under the sea.

* * *

Brilliant top image by Jonathan Mak

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.

Hark! A Vagrant: Witty Comics about Historical & Literary Figures

By:

Training for presidents, Victorian dude-spotting, and what the Brontë Sisters have to do with Jules Verne.

From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant — a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name. Scientists and artists, revolutionaries and superheroes, suffragists and presidents — they’re all there, as antique hipsters, and they’re all skewered with equal parts comedic and cerebral prod.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Nikola Tesla and Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren’t paying attention.

I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you’ve enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you’re just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too.” ~ Kate Beaton

Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what’s already an absolute delight.

Handsome and hilarious, the six-panel stories in Hark! A Vagrant will undo all the uptightness about history instilled in you by academia, leaving you instead with a hearty laugh and some great lines for dinner party conversation.

Images courtesy of Kate Beaton / Drawn and Quarterly

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.