Brain Pickings

BBC’s Volatile History of Chemistry

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How the elements came to be, or what alchemy and urine have to do with the God particle.

Chemistry is the science of matter, of everything we touch and, existential philosophy aside, of everything we are. And even though we brush up against it with every molecule of our bodies in every instant of our lives, most of us haven’t dedicated formal thought to it since high school. Now, thanks to the fine folks at BBC Four — who previously pondered such captivating issues as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is — you can refresh and enrich your understanding of this complex world with Chemistry: A Volatile History, a fascinating three-part series by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, exploring everything from the history of the elements to the rivalries and controversies that bedeviled scientific progress to the latest bleeding-edge attempts to split matter.

In Part 1, Discovering the Elements, Al-Khalili tackles one of the greatest detective stories in the history of science, tracing the steps of the chemists who risked their lives to find and fight for the building blocks of our entire world.

Part 2, The Order of the Elements, explores the 19th century chemists who set out to make sense of the elements, from working out their exact number to plotting them in one of the most intricate and brilliant intellectual organizational systems of all time: the periodic table. All throughout, bitter disputes and explosive experiments inflict fascinating chaos on this ultimate quest for order.

Part 3, The Power of the Elements, uncovers the incredible passion and, often, heartache that went into chemists’ efforts to command the extreme forces of nature and combine elements to build the modern world. From last century’s dramatic breakthroughs to a riveting tour of modern-day alchemy across some of the world’s best chemistry labs, Al-Khalili’s story not only offers an illuminating history of this fundamental science, but also reinstills a profound awe for the complexity and whimsy of our world.

For more on the wonderful and fascinating world of chemistry, don’t forget The Elements, Theodore Grey’s impressive book and app, They Might Be Giants’ lovely Here Comes Science educational album for kids, and Lauren Redniss’s stunning cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s science and romance.

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A Graphic Novel Biography of Richard Feynman

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Safe-cracking the quantum physics way, or what the Challenger disaster has to do with bongo drums.

Last week, we swooned over a brilliant mashup of words on beauty, honor, and curiosity by legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman. Today, we turn to Feynman — a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

HT reader @DarSolo

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Rare Images from the Golden Age of Circus, 1870-1950

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From Ancient Egypt to Lady Gaga, or what P. T. Barnum has to do with Stanley Kubrick.

Since ancient times, spectacles and public performances have transfixed, entertained, and socialized audiences. Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, the American circus swelled into the largest show-biz industry in the world and Circus Day became the year’s biggest event, captivating imaginations with its marvelous minstrel shows, audacious acrobats, and crazy clowns. What made the circus extraordinary isn’t merely that it was the birth of American pop culture, the Super Bowl, Macy’s Parade, and the Olympics all rolled up into one, it’s that it created a place for outsiders to become the superheroes of their day, for women to showcase their physical strength in ways that would be socially unacceptable elsewhere, and for audiences to experience cultures from around the world long before the age of global citizenship.

The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is a magnificent volume from Taschen () exploring the circus as a living organism and a way of life, from its history and sociology to its glamor and discipline, through 650 stunning images, culled from a collection of 30,000 spanning 40 different sources, including many of the earliest photographs ever taken of the circus, as well as rare images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. More than 80% of the images have never been published, and most have never even been seen before.

The images in this book capture the entrepreneurial audacity for which the circus became famous, and also the remarkable personality and energy of its performers.” ~ Noah Daniel

Alongside the images are fascinating micro-essays that frame the photos, illustrations, and other visual ephemera in a sociocultural context, exploring everything from the ancient origins of public spectacles to how the circus paved the way for film and television.

A time-capsule of a bygone era and priceless artifact of cultural anthropology, The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is both a visual treasure for design- and photography-lovers alike, and an essential primer on understanding the evolution of contemporary pop culture.

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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.





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