Brain Pickings

The Subjectivity of Science, Crowdsourced


What scientific rationale has to do with Buddhist philosophy and mapping the Internet.

Compared to art, scientific rationale is a string of clear-cut, well-defined arguments and concepts. So why is it, then, that it’s so difficult to define and describe science itself, our understanding of it and the place we see for it in the world?

Science communicator Tim Jones decided to explore the wide spectrum of subjective and diverse interpretations by asking scientists, journalists, students, and other thinkers what science means to them. The result is The Exquisite Corpse of Science, a fascinating worldwide art mosaic that illustrates just how rich, broad and wildly intricate our understanding of the seemingly rigid is.

Daniel Mietchen, Post-doc, University of Jena, Germany

'This magnetic resonance matrix illustrates the convergence of evolutionary and developmental biology. A frog tadpole gradually develops in the top nine rows, while the last row takes us back 150 million years to ancient squid fossils called belemnites. The single green slice echoes Mietchen’s displeasure with the failure of the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, as well as the Twitter practice of adjusting avatars to reflect one’s interests and allegiance.'

From a Kenyan pharmacologist to a British silversmith to a nanotechnology expert, the drawings range from the meticulously detailed to the artistically abstract, from wide-eyed wonder to grim apocalypticism.

Erin Conel, Silversmith, UK

'We are but a speck in the vastness of a galaxy whirl, upon which a tool-wielding raven and a cuttlefish nestle with Huxley’s chalky cocoliths. The plane, sphere, and hyperbolic shapes symbolize Euclidian elliptic and hyperbolic geometries. Euler’s Identity represents the beauty of simple statements, while the coffee and donut equation signifies this former finance analyst’s favorite branch of math—topology. The native California bee represents concerns around invasive species. Conel’s new profession gets nods with the phase diagram and the periodic table. At the core is a six-point guide to the scientific method.'

Nyokabi Musila, Pharmacologist, Kenya and UK

'Science is about understanding our inner selves, the external environment, and the systems that affect us. The amoeba and atomic swirl represent microscopic systems too small to study with the naked eye, while electrons remind us of planets orbiting in the solar system. The multi-dimensional eye moves, flexes, and experiments to test new ideas—ideas that force us to recognize we are part of something greater.'

The project reminds us of Kevin Kelly’s effort to crowdsource something equally widespread yet equally subjectively understood in The Internet Mapping Project. And it bespeaks the seemingly obvious but surprisingly poorly honored idea, not far from Buddhist philosophy, that our experience of the world amounts not to the facts and tangibles of our circumstances but to our highly subjective and personal interpretation of them.

Jörg Heber, Nature Materials Senior Editor, UK

'Less is more in Joerg Heber’s sketch of two people sharing the same thought bubble. Heber, a senior editor at the journal Nature Materials, emailed his picture within five minutes of the project’s launch on Twitter—making it entry number one. Given the speed of production, it’s probably also the closest to the spontaneity of the original Exquisite Corpse. Echoing some other artists’ thoughts about interdisciplinary work, Heber says his drawing represents collaboration.'

Our favorite — not necessarily aesthetically, but rather conceptually — is the one by Jones himself, which stresses the crucial role of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-cultural empathy not only in our definition of science itself, but also in resolving difficult issues like reconciling human activity with environmental preservation.

Tim Jones, Science Communicator, UK

'As someone whose purpose is to understand and influence the world, it makes sense that Tim Jones’ avatar would carry the tools to counter famine and disease. Science, cross-cultural empathy, and interdisciplinary collaboration can help resolve conflicts such as those between wildlife preservation and human activity (symbolized by the gibbon framed against the palm oil plant), evidence-based knowledge and policymaking (the glass-enclosed leaf), and religion and science education (the split half-circle containing symbols). Feynman’s illustration of quantum electrodynamics reminds us of discoveries ahead.'

See the full slideshow over at the always-wonderful SEED Magazine as you contemplate the strokes and smudges of your own subjective conception.

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The Story of Cap & Trade


What lurks beneath the buzzwords and how to digest the hard-to-swallow.

You may recall The Story of Stuff — Annie Leonard’s brilliant 20-minute animated film, dissecting the “materials economy” and dispelling a number of sustainability myths.

This month, Leonard and her team release The Story of Cap & Trade, an equally cunning, captivating and fact-rich look at COP15’s favorite sustainability solution. The engaging, fast-paced film probes into the hidden dangers of the proposed (non-)solution, from how the biggest polluters are exploiting the system’s loopholes to why climate Band-Aids like fake offsets don’t work, and exposes the dysfunctional reverse logic at the core of the concept.

A growing number of scientists, students, farmers and forward-thinking business people are all saying, ‘Wait a minute…’ In fact, even the economists who invented the cap-and-trade system to deal with simpler problems […] say cap-and-trade can never work for climate change.

Though in this day and age, climate conspiracy theorists abound, Leonard’s film delivers a punchy yet sober account of an incredibly complex, multifaceted and little-understood issue — all in just under 10 minutes.

We like the idea of illuminating a political buzzword, allowing us common folk to digest the hype-coated serving of headline-worthy fluff. (We also like that the film puts its money where its mouth is and “recycles” some of the Story of Stuff footage, whether or not the wink is intentional.) Because without an open social conversation, there can’t be widespread understanding, which means there can’t be widespread action. And without that, COP15 is just a bunch of suits burning up jet fuel to spend a week in a Scandinavian hotspot.

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The Pink and Blue Projects: Exploring the Genderization of Color


How political correctness resulted in enforcing a universal, cross-cultural gender stereotype.

When cultural anthropology, psychology and photographic ingenuity converge, it’s a fascinating thing. And that’s exactly what South Korean visual artist JeongMee Yoon has been doing since 2005 in her thesis work, The Pink and Blue Projects.

Inspired by her own daughter’s obsession with the color pink, Yoon’s project explores the color preferences of children and their parents across different cultures and ethnic groups, probing into gender identity as a socialized construct.

Yoon found that girls’ preference for pink and boys’ for blue was universal and widespread, powered by pervasive advertising and media messaging intentionally targeting each gender of children with the respective color.

Yoon’s historical research, however, unearthed some curious findings indicating this wasn’t always the case:

Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to ‘use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.’ The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after World War II.

The switch happened as twentieth-century political correctness took root and, in an effort to promote gender equality, the colors began being used with the opposite genders. This trend was so purposeful and explicit that it ended up overcompensating for the superficial connections attached to the symbolism of each color, not eradicating them but merely reversing their direction on the gender spectrum.

To illustrate these excessive and culturally manipulated expressions of femininity and masculinity, Yoon photographs children in their rooms, surrounded by their belongings in pink of blue on a background of the respective color.

The photographic style reminds us of Andrzej Kramarz’s Things series, inspired by the horror vacui style of Eastern European folk art, with a hint of fellow South Korean photographer Yeondoo Jung’s Wonderland series, also dealing with the whimsical and colorful world of children.

Explore The Pink and Blue Projects for a fascinating look inside the cross-cultural gender identity incubator of socially enforced symbolism.

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Moving Minimalism: Solitary Confinement


What Iraqi oil and Swiss filmmaking have to do with the nature of creativity.

From May 1980 to May 1990, nuclear scientist Hussain Al-Shahristani — Iraq’s current oil minister — was thrown in solitary confinement and subjected to torture. Last month, in a revelational and deeply personal interview, Al-Shahristani spoke to The BBC about the experience.

Inspired by the moving story, Swiss filmmaker and animator Mato Atom created a brilliant new campaign for BBC World Service, capturing in abstract form and minimal narration the devastating reality of solitary confinement.

Produced in collaboration with Fallon London, the animation stirs the deepest corners of intuitive understanding and empathy with its subtle yet powerful imagery. What makes the piece so rich, we think, is that Atom turned to disciplines beyond the arts for inspiration — from philosophy to science — embodying the very cross-pollination of ideas that we preach so zealously around here.

A testament to the power of quietly making a powerful point through minimalism and meticulously thought out symbolic narrative.

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