Brain Pickings

What Is Reality? A BBC Horizon Documentary


What walking through walls has to do with tropical fruit and the search for the God particle.

We’re big fans of Horizon, BBC’s iconic popular science documentary series, whose claims to fame include pitting science against God and illuminating how music works. Their latest installment deals with one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: What Is Reality? — an inquiry so deep and complex it has occupied the seemingly insufficient minds of brilliant scientists and philosophers for eons.

It’s one of the simplest yet most profound questions in science: The search to understand the nature of reality. But on this quest, common sense is no guide.”

The series is available on YouTube in its entirety, and covers a number of fascinating scientific theories about the nature of reality, from theoretical physics to mathematics to quantum mechanics.

From the discovery of quarks, the fundamental building blocks of matter, to the story of the Large Hadron Collider, to the elusive Higgs boson, better-known as the God particle, the series takes an ambitious peer into the depths of intellectual inquiry and the outermost frontiers of human understanding.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, the documentary bridges concepts familiar from science fiction — parallel universes, time travel, teleportation — with areas of rigorous scientific research, brimming with concepts and discoveries so mind-bending yet grounded in present scientific investigation that they leave you questioning the very nature of everything you’ve come to know and accept as real.

For more on this enormous question, on par with our grand inquiry into what makes us human, you won’t go wrong with Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality — an elegant and eloquent read about the most important clash in theoretical physics, which shaped the course of quantum research. And of course — we’re almost embarrassed to mention this, that’s how fundamental a read it is — Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time should be required reading on any academic curriculum and a linchpin on every lifelong learner’s syllabus.

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Lost States: The Stories of Lands that Never Were


Two of our obsessions — quirky history trivia and map books — converge in Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It — a fascinating and beautifully illustrated chronicle of states that almost were, based on the excellent blog of the same name.

From Mormon migrations to a 19th-century plan for relocating Germany to Texas, author Michael Trinklein tells the bizarre, outlandish, alternate-reality stories of epic geopolitical fails, augmented with stunning full-color original maps of the visions for these imaginary states, alongside images of real-life artifacts and ephemera from the time of their conception.

Though not all the states described were seriously considered for statehood, it’s still an engrossing and priceless peek at the strange, though not entirely nonsensical, ideas history’s horsemen entertained.

Lost States is equal parts fascinating and funny, a curiosity-tickler for the history geek and an absolute treat for the design aficionado.

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13 Years of Futurism by Cultural Luminaries


Every year since 1998, EDGE, the quintessential arbiter of all things cool and compelling in the world of science and technology, has been asking some of the brightest thinkers and doers across the cultural spectrum to answer one big question about the future of science, technology and society at large. The answers are then published in an annual edition, which serves as a fascinating and illuminating timecapsule of the intelligencia’s collective conscience that year.

This week marks the release of Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future — the fantastic compendium of responses to last year’s question, featuring greats like Chris Anderson, Esther Dyson, Howard Gardner, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and 167 more.

Here are the past 12 editions, a home library must-have for anyone interested in how technology is changing the way we think, do and live:

This year’s question is perhaps most important of all — because it has to do with improving the very wiring of our existence, human cognition: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?, with the thoughtful disclaimer that “scientific” is used in the broadest sense possible, referring to the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything from spirituality to history to human genome. So important was the question, in fact, that Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioral economics, declared it his favorite question yet. “You will get responses and actually move the culture forward.”

Answers come from a remarkably eclectic roster of thinkers, including our friend and Wired UK Editor In Chief David Rowan (“personal data mining”), BoingBoing co-founder Xeni Jardin (“ambient memory and the myth of neutral observation”), The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal (“the new normal”), Wired founder Kevin Kelly (“the virtues of negative results”) and Clay Shirky (“The Pareto Principle”), among 159 others.

Both I as a citizen and society as a whole would gain if individuals’ personal datastreams could be mined to extract patterns upon which we could act. Such mining would turn my raw data into predictive information that can anticipate my mood and improve my efficiency, make me healthier and more emotionally intuitive, reveal my scholastic weaknesses and my creative strengths. I want to find the hidden meanings, the unexpected correlations that reveal trends and risk factors of which I had been unaware. In an era of oversharing, we need to think more about data-driven self-discovery.” ~ David Rowan

This year’s edition was dedicated to the late, great Denis Dutton (1944-2010), whose provocative theory of beauty we featured mere weeks before he passed away last month.

A handful of the annual questions are available in book form, we couldn’t recommend them more.

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Hezârfen: The Story of the First Human Flight, Animated


What kvetching chickens have to do with the history of aviation and Turkish folk heroes.

One fine day in 1632, legendary Ottoman inventor Ahmed Çelebi took the first sustained unpowered human flight, which earned him the name Hezârfen, meaning “thousand sciences” — an ancient term for “polymath.” His flight was brief, but epic:

The veracity of the incident has been disputed for centuries, but the writing of 17th century Turkish traveler and historian Evliyâ Çelebi describes it as follows:

First he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydani eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind. Then, as Sultan Murad Khan (Murad IV) was watching from the Sinan Pasha mansion at Sarayburnu, he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower and landed in the Do?anc?lar square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: ‘This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people,’ and thus sent him to Algeria on exile. He died there.” ~ Evliyâ Çelebi

This lovely 3D animated short film, the collaborative effort of a team of animators, artists and sound designers, captures the story of Hezârfen with wonderful, poetic romanticism — the kind of rewriting of history we often see in folk hero tales which, inaccurate as it may be, is the fundamental storytelling fabric of human civilizations.

For more on Hezârfen’s story and the human hunger for the azure, Mastering the Sky: A History of Aviation from Ancient Times to the Present is worth a look.

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