Brain Pickings

Everything is a Remix: Creative Influences in The Matrix

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Tracing the line from Doctor Who to Morpheus, or what Neo has to do with Alice in Wonderland.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you know I’m a big believer in combinatorial creativity and proponent remix culture, and I find Kirby Ferguson’s fantastic four-part documentary, Everything is a Remix, to be the most thoughtful and important treatise on the subject to come by in recent years. While Kirby is putting the finishing touches on the fourth and final part of the series, Rob G. Wilson — who previously dissected Kill Bill for the second part of the documentary — did this fascinating analysis of influences in The Matrix. It was written by Cynthia Closkey and most of the parallels in it were crowdsourced from Everything is a Remix fans.

Join me in supporting Kirby’s fantastic project with a donation, and catch up on the first three parts before the final one arrives next month.

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Remembering One of the Greatest Science Writers of All Time

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From Darwin to baseball, or what Nabokov’s butterflies have to do with living the American dream.

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This month marks the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Bonus: The ingenious book cover mosaic was designed by Sam Potts, whose visualization of the best of Brain Pickings 2010 you might recall.

Deeply fascinating and beautifully written, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History isn’t merely a precious time-capsule of one of the most important science writing voices of all time, but also a tender eulogy for the one mind that shaped so many.

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The Innovator’s Cookbook: Great Minds on the Power of Serendipity

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How to win the future, or what 3D printing has to do with Twitter, Brian Eno and Obama.

Steven Johnson is easily my favorite non-fiction author working today, his writing pure mesmerism and his thinking an epitome of the cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe is central to creative and intellectual growth. On the heels of his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From comes The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next — a formidable compendium of essays, interviews, and insights on innovation by big thinkers like Richard Florida, John Seely Brown, Peter Drucker and many more, alongside Johnson’s own ever-enchanting writing and new material by tech darlings like Google’s Marissa Mayer and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, dethroning innovation from its status of buzzword royalty and approaching it instead with a lucid, thoughtful, cross-disciplinary lens refracting across education, art, science, economics, urban design, and more.

Underpinning the anthology is a message about the essential role serendipity plays in innovation — or, as Johnson puts it, “the importance of getting lost.”

But as a lover of fine book trailers, I was particularly taken with this stop-motion gem on the making of the book’s cover, 3D-printed by MakerBot, one of these 7 open-source platforms changing the future of manufacturing.

It may not be possible to ‘win the future,’ in President Obama’s words, but if we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson

The Innovator’s Cookbook is part Follow for Now, part Culture, part An Optimist’s Tour of the Future — but, mostly, something entirely original and wholly potent, the way only Johnson can deliver.

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