Brain Pickings

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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Slavery is one of humanity’s gnarliest, most shameful scars. So uncomfortable is the subject that we rarely glide past the mandatory history class checklists. But understanding the complex mechanisms and historical contexts of slavery is key to grappling with everything from contemporary race dynamics to modern-day slavery like human trafficking and labor exploitation. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade offers a fascinating record of the mass abduction and abuse of an estimated 12.5 million Africans traded with just about every country bordering the Atlantic between 1501 and 1867.

Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900

Volume and direction of the transatlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions

The book, authored by leading historians David Eltis and David Richardson, features nearly 200 original maps from Emory University’s Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an online portal covering a range of unsuspected factors that played a role in the development of the slave trade ranging from the topography of coastal areas to the migration of sugar cultivation.

Migration of sugar cultivation from Asia into the Atlantic

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has been called the Rosetta Stone of slave historiography. But, more than that, it’s a compelling example of something we believe will be of growing importance in the coming years — the cultural value of database-driven storytelling, an increasingly fertile intersection of science and the humanities.

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How Music Works

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What Stanley Kubrick has to do with Medieval harmonies and universal lullabies.

Music. It’s hard to imagine life without it. How flat would a world be where films have no scores, birthdays no ‘Happy Birthday,’ Christmas no carols, gym workouts no playlists? Music is so ubiquitous and affects us so deeply, so powerfully. But how much do we really know about it? How well do we understand its emotional hold on our brains? How Music Works, a fascinating program from BBC4 (the same folks who brought us The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion), explores just that.

Composer Howard Goodall takes us on a journey into music’s underbelly, examining the four basic elements that make it work: Melody, rhythm, harmony and bass.

Melody is music’s most powerful tool when it comes to touching our emotions. Our mothers sing lullabies to us when we’re infants and tests have shown that we can even, as babies, recognize tunes that we heard in he womb.”

Every music system in the world shares these five notes in common. Indeed, they’re so fundamental to every note composed or performed anywhere on the planet that it seems, like our instinct for language, that they were pre-installed in us when we were born. These five notes a human genetic inheritance, like the fingers on our hands.”

Catch the four remaining parts of Melody here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Rhythm is the part of music that interacts most immediately and spontaneously with our bodies. Without it, music would be pleasant enough, but it would be brain food. With rhythm, though, music becomes hypnotic and sensuous.”

The rest of Rhythm here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Unlike rhythm and melody, harmony wasn’t part of music from the beginning. It’s an upstart. It came into life gradually during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But what an upstart!”

Harmony continues here: 2, 4, 5. (Alas, Part 3 has been gobbled up by copyright claims — even though the series is not available on DVD or in any purchasable format. Such is the disposition of copyright Nazis — far from merely ensuring that creators are compensated for their work, they’d rather let a cultural artifact rot in obscurity than reach is wide-eyed audience. UPDATE: Here’s part 3 — thanks, AJ.)

One of [the] most distinguishing features [of the opening theme from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey] — and one that’s been imitated by thousands of science fiction, thriller and horror movie scores — is the long-held bass note that begins it. It’s awesome: Bottom C. It’s big, it’s deep and it’s powerful. And it came to stand in our minds for a sense of menace, or wonder, or infinity. Just this one note. But there are loads of examples of bass lines that give a piece of music its style and its shape.”

The rest of Bass can be found here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

For an even more fascinating look at the DNA of music, we highly recommend Goodall’s Big Bangs, which explores the history of five epic discoveries — notation, equal temperament, opera, the piano and recorded sound — that forever changed the course of Western music.

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PICKED: Poetry Animations

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Just as we thought we’d seen every YouTube meme, every cat falling down a toilet, every famous pop song turned history lesson, we stumble across poetryanimations — a bizarre yet addictive series of famous poets “reading” their classics via quasi-animated archival photographs.

The project is the brainchild of London-based videographer sound recordist Jim Clark, who takes his work as seriously as someone with an endearingly quaint @hotmail email address would.

Bizarre as these audiovisually missynched ghosts may be, the description text on each video offers surprisingly rich information on the author, the specific poem and its historical context.

Whether poetryanimations are a budding meme remains to be seen, but they’re certainly a treat for lit geeks with a penchant for the quirky.

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s main articles, and features short-form interestingness from our PICKED series. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.