Brain Pickings

Our Luminous Humanity: What Earth’s Nocturnal Selfie from Space Reveals About Who We Are

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Shimmering assurance of our destiny as imaginative makers and tenacious tinkerers.

“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves,” Henry Beston wrote in his breathtaking 1928 love letter to darkness, “and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.” And yet it is as much our relationship with darkness as our relationship with light that helps us view ourselves through the cosmic eye, orbiting an unremarkable star on an unremarkable rock besparkled with our remarkably luminous humanity.

That’s what Diane Ackerman — one of the most bewitching science writers of our time — explores in a particularly enchanting portion of The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), one of the best science books of 2014.

While much of the book takes a lucid look at our civilization’s very real and very alarming impact on this Pale Blue Dot we call home, Ackerman — who reasons like a scientist, reflects like a philosopher, and rhapsodizes like a poet (so much so that Carl Sagan sent her scientifically accurate poems for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison) — succumbs neither to our era’s blind techno-utopian optimism nor to dismal techno-dystopian dogmas. Instead, her prose emanates Rilke’s poetic incantation: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” Nowhere does the beauty shine more brilliantly than in the passages about our shimmering world seen from space at night.

NASA's 'Black Marble,' 2012

Ackerman writes:

We don’t intend our cities to be so beautiful from space. They’re humanity’s electric fingerprints on the planet, the chrome-yellow energy that flows through city veins. Dwarfed by the infinite dome of space with its majestic coliseum of stars, we’ve created our own constellations on the ground and named them after our triumphs, enterprises, myths, and leaders… We play out our lives amid a festival of lights. The story the lights tell would be unmistakable to any space traveler: some bold life form has crisscrossed the planet with an exuberance of cities, favoring settlements along the coast and beside flowing water, and connecting them all with a labyrinth of brilliantly lit roads, so that even without a map the outlines of the continents loom and you can spot the meandering rivers.

The silent message of this spectacle is timely, strange, and wonderful. We’ve tattooed the planet with our doings.

And yet for all the perils of excessive illumination and light pollution, these glowing tattoos bespeak something profound and heartening about who we are — as a species, as a civilization, as brothers and sisters united by what Isaac Asimov so memorably called “the soft bonds of love” amid this vast unfeeling universe.

With an eye to NASA’s iconic “Black Marble” photograph from December of 2012 — the nocturnal counterpart to the even more iconic “Blue Marble” taken by Apollo 17 astronauts at the peak of the golden age of space exploration forty years earlier — Ackerman considers how this cosmic selfie of our civilization precipitates a sudden visceral awareness of our connected humanity, much as the “Blue Marble” did nearly half a century ago:

This was the one picture from the Apollo missions that dramatically expanded our way of thinking. It showed us how small the planet is in the vast sprawl of space, how entwined and spontaneous its habitats are. Despite all the wars and hostilities, when viewed from space Earth had no national borders, no military zones, no visible fences… Released during a time of growing environmental concern, it became an emblem of global consciousness, the most widely distributed photo in human history.

NASA's 'Blue Marble,' 1972

She returns to the singular story our shimmering planet tells about our species:

Ours is the only planet in our solar system that glitters at night. Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and for eons the nighttime planet was dark. In a little over two hundred years we’ve wired up the world and turned on the lights, as if we signed the planet in luminous ink.

[…]

Our shimmering cities tell all (including us) that Earth’s inhabitants are thinkers, builders and rearrangers who like to bunch together in hivelike settlements, and for some reason — bad night vision, primal fear, sheer vanity, to scare predators, or as a form of group adornment — we bedeck them all with garlands of light.

Complement The Human Age with Ackerman on how our miraculous sense of smell works, the natural history of love, and what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit, then consider an equally beautiful counterpoint in the 1933 Japanese gem In Praise of Shadows.

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Legendary Designer Charles Eames on Creativity, the Value of the Arts in Education, and His Advice to Students

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“There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly.”

“If you examine this furniture,” observed a 1946 profile of legendary design duo Charles and Ray Eames, “you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor.” Alongside this exuberant emotional dimensionality you will also find a dimensional approach to design itself — a fusion of science, technology, art, and philosophy, evident in everything from their iconic furniture to their clever educational films to, even, the handwritten love letter with which Charles proposed to Ray. Long before the acronym STEM came into popular use in contemporary education to connote the academic quartet of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and even longer before advocates of the indelible value of the arts motioned to revise the acronym to STEAM, the Eames ethos implicitly embodied these very values. Nowhere do they come to life more vibrantly than in An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches (public library) — a rigorously researched, lovingly compiled treasure by Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff in collaboration with the Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames

(Copyright Eames Office)

In the introduction, Ostroff notes the duo’s singular approach to design and its wider cultural ripples:

In addition to all of the “good goods” that they produced, the Eameses were prolific as educators, making many important contributions to the world of ideas.

Underlying all of their work is the principle that design should not be an act of creative self-expression but rather a process of problem solving.

Although the Eameses were — and continue to be — educators primarily by example, they occasionally addressed the question of education explicitly. In a 1957 interview for the National Art Education Association Convention, Charles (June 17, 1907–August 21, 1978) makes a passionate case for the importance of the arts in education — a sentiment of growing urgency today, when funding for the arts in public education continues to dwindle:

It would never occur to me to consider art as a subject apart from any other in the curriculum. Art education increases in value to the degree that it is related to the whole academic picture. I see art education as a kind of thing that threads its way through every facet of academic work.

When asked about what he thinks would improve the state of art education, Eames responds:

First, better teachers. This involves better teacher training, better teacher preparation, higher salaries, better professional standing resulting in greater community respect. Secondly, a genuine rapport between all areas of learning.

Two years later, he revisits the responsibility of art education and educators in his correspondence with Richard Hoptner, a poet
and sculptor who taught industrial arts in Philadelphia’s public schools and who had written to Eames lamenting the insufficient understanding of the importance of design in secondary school. Eames responds in a letter from September of 1959:

I have a strong feeling that in the secondary school the role of the Fine Arts Department, and the Industrial Arts Department, is not to produce painters or designers, but rather to act in the role of a conscience with discipline to counteract the general tendencies to specialize, point up, develop, and capitalize the relationships of the various disciplines, and to be the constant watchdog of quality at all levels.

Addressing Hopster’s specific concern about “the incubation of self-propelled copycats,” Eames echoes the notion that all creative work builds on what came before and extols the larger significance of mastering the problem-solving process as the true conduit of creativity:

Much can be said for and against copycatting, but one thing certain — it is not bad to become familiar with the circumstances surrounding the creation of good things in the past — recent and distant.

[…]

Creative inventiveness I would put quite low on my list of ambitions for the student. I would be more than happy if he only ended up being able to distinguish the prime or basic objectives of a problem from the superficial or apparent objectives. If he knows the real objective and a few possible landmarks, then inventiveness will take care of itself, and he need never hear the word “creativity.”

Charles in his studio at the Eames House

(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

But concerned as he was with the responsibilities of the education system in nurturing the creative spirit, Eames was even more invested in the responsibilities of students. Under the heading “Advice to students,” his notes for a 1949 talk at UCLA read:

Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the “pat” answer — the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological
and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need — physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your work
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude toward it

Design is a full time job
It is the way you look at politics, funny papers, listen to music, raise children
Art is not a thing in a vacuum —
  No personal signature
  Economy of material
  Avoid the contrived

Apprentice system and why it is impractical for them
No office wants to add another prima donna to its staff
No office is looking for a great creative genius
No office — or at least very few — can train employees from scratch

There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly

There are things you can do to prepare yourself — to be desirable
  orderly work habits
  ability to bring any job to a conclusion
  drawing feasibility
  lettering
  a presentation that “reads” well
  willingness to do outside work and study on a problem…

Primitive spear is not the work of an individual nor is a good tool or utensil.

To be a good designer you must be a good engineer in every sense: curious, inquisitive.

I am interested in course because I have great faith in the engineer, but to those who are serious (avoid putting on art hat) Boulder Dam all’s great not due engineer
By the nature of his problems the engineer has high percentage of known factors relatively little left to intuition
(the chemical engineer asking if he should call in Sulphur)

Charles and Ray in the Eames House living room, 1960

(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

Twelve years later, he set down his advice to students in a less fragmentary form when the mother of an aspiring furniture designer wrote to Eames hoping for some words of wisdom to her son. Responding to this stranger — the very act bespeaking Eames’s enormous generosity of spirit — he writes in a letter from March of 1961:

Dear Mrs. Tornheim:

I wish I could answer your questions by suggesting a design school so perfect that it would take care of everything. It is not as simple as that, but here are a few suggestions. If he is really interested in design, there is no particular need in rushing into specialized design education. Looking, reading, drawing, and drawing, and drawing, and working in the summer if he can.

There are certain things, however, that he can only get in school. Physics is perhaps on the top of the list, then mathematics — especially the geometries. English literature and composition, then at least one foreign language — French, German, or Russian. If he does take any art courses, they should be in history and appreciation. He can paint if he wants to, but there is no point in wasting good school time doing it. Parallel to this education, he can develop the tools of his craft if he wants to. After this education, he can go to a design school and learn something about the specialties.

There are a thousand different ways to prepare oneself for a career in design. This may or may not be the one best suited to your son, but I hope it is of some little help.

Charles Eames

An Eames Anthology is a trove of timeless treasures in its entirety, exploring the influential duo’s trailblazing ideas on design, the deeper philosophies behind their iconic chairs, and the countless everyday credos, articulated in their letters and interviews and public talks, which converged in the making of their enduring genius. Complement it with Charles Eames’s most memorable aphorisms and this rare vintage Q&A the legendary designer, then revisit Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and Cheryl Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers.

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A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity

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“The more you know, the more you want to know… the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge… the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.”

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown,” wrote pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in reflecting on the feat that nearly took his life, adding: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” This vitalizing power of exploration applies as much to the exterior world we inhabit as it does to the interior. Upon turning eighty and looking back on his extraordinary life, Henry Miller observed: “Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me.” And yet in the century since Shackleton and the decades since Miller, despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.

That vital force of self-transcendence is what Arts University Bournemouth student and self-taught animator Georgina Venning explores in her immeasurably delightful stop-motion animation of an excerpt from Ian Leslie’s RSA talk, based on his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (public library).

The piece is one of the winners in the Moving Pictures category of the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards, which invite emerging designers and artists to examine social, environmental, and economic issues through compelling visual communication driven by design thinking. The category itself is an offshoot of RSA’s existing series of animated shorts, which has previously given us such gems as Susan Cain on the power of introverts and Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Venning’s film is impressively meticulous beyond the beautiful papercraft — in order to create consistent natural light throughout the animation, she filmed one frame per day, at the exact same time of day.

Curiosity is a muscle — use it or lose it. It’s something that we consciously have to nurture in ourselves, in our families, in classrooms, at work.

Sometimes I hear that curiosity and creativity are killed by too many facts — but, actually, the opposite is true: The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.

Technology is replacing routine work — and that’s what technology replaces first and has done throughout history. So intellectually curious people — people who are capable of learning throughout their career, of asking questions (good questions), of adapting and collaborating with others from different disciplines; people who are capable of really thriving in this world of non-routine work, in other words — are the people who are going to do better.

In the introduction to the book, Leslie considers humanity’s historically contentious relationship with curiosity and writes:

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind — especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state — was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.

In the remainder of Curious, Leslie goes on to explore our best strategies for jolting ourselves out of that lull by cultivating more diverse modes of curiosity that ensure our flourishing in an increasingly complex world. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on curiosity and risk-taking and Marie Curie on curiosity, wonder, and the spirit of adventure in science.

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Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

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“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you — good stories should change you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

On how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC’s Note to Self):

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

[…]

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked — we do not even know which plants will kill us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years — a method that would transmit information for at least as long:

Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.

But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

On how the internet is changing storytelling:

A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.

I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.

[…]

The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potter slash.

On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:

Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…

The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.

[…]

One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:

You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses… Functionally, they are symbiotic — they give and give back…

The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.

Complement with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, his superb commencement address on the creative life, his advice to aspiring writers, and his eight rules of writing, then join me in supporting the Long Now Foundation’s vital and vitalizing work.

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.





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