Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

24 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Best Science Books of 2014

By:

The math of soul mates, the psychology of nothing, the physics of faith, and more illuminating insights on the universe and our place in it.

On the heels of the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books come the most stimulating science books published this annum. (Step into the nonfictional time machine by revisiting the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

1. THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo. Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That unanswerable question of where we came from is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — one of the finest essayists writing today and the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — explores from various angles in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound).

At the intersection of science and philosophy, the essays in the book explore the possible existence of multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, more than three dimensions. Lightman writes:

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

[…]

Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.

In one of the most beautiful essays in the book, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman explores that intersection of perspectives in making sense of life:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [scientists who argue] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

[…]

There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

[…]

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Dive deeper with Lightman on science and spirituality, our yearning for immortality in a universe of constant change, and how dark energy explains our accidental origins.

2. THE HUMAN AGE

In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love to the slender threads of hope. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library | IndieBound), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”

With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:

Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”

Dive deeper with Ackerman on what the future of artificial intelligence reveals about the human condition.

3. THE BOOK OF TREES

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[…]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

Dive deeper here.

4. THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE

Just as the fracturing of our inner wholeness ruptures the soul, a similar fissure rips society asunder and has been for centuries — that between science and the humanities. The former explores how we became human and the latter what it means to be human — a difference at once subtle and monumental, polarizing enough to hinder the answering of both questions. That’s what legendary naturalist, sociobiologist, and Pulitzer-winning writer E.O. Wilson explores with great eloquence and intellectual elegance in The Meaning of Human Existence (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades after Carl Sagan asserted that “if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Wilson — a longtime proponent of bridging the artificial divide between science and the humanities — counters that “we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.”

And that elusive answer, he argues, has to do with precisely that notion of meaning:

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advance design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the worldview of science.

Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities.

The idea that we are a cosmic accident is far from new and, to the unexamined existential reflex, far from comforting. And yet, Wilson suggests, there is something enormously gladdening about the notion that out of all possible scenarios, out of the myriad other combinations that would have resulted in not-us, we emerged and made life meaningful. He illustrates this sense of “meaning” with the particular evolutionary miracle of the human brain, the expansion of which was among the most rapid bursts of complex tissue evolution in the known history of the universe:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Premier among the consequences is the capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them. How wisely we use this uniquely human ability depends on the accuracy of our self-understanding. The question of greatest relevant interest is how and why we are the way we are and, from that, the meaning of our many competing visions of the future.

Perched on the precipice of an era when the very question of what it means to be human is continually challenged, we stand to gain that much more from the fruitful cross-pollination of science and the humanities in planting the seeds for the best such possible futures. Like an Emerson of our technoscientific era, Wilson champions the ennobling self-reliance embedded in this proposition:

Humanity … arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Dive deeper here.

5. THE EDGE OF THE SKY

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library | IndieBound) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[…]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[…]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Dive deeper here.

6. THE SCIENCE OF SHAKESPEARE

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library | IndieBound), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.

[…]

If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from 'Ordering the Heavens.' Click image for more.

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Examining a specific passage from the play for evidence, Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

Dive deeper here.

7. A STING IN THE TALE

The great E.O. Wilson is credited with having once said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” But while the one million or so named species of insects make up about 70% of all known species on Earth, one type of insect is more vital to our planet’s survival — as well as our own — than any other: the humble, mighty bee. In A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (public library | IndieBound), British biologist, lifelong wildlife enthusiast and Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Dave Goulson explores how bees gave our cosmic home not only its beauty but also its bounty of nourishment, and what responsibility we have — as Jane Goodall once eloquently urged — in repaying that existential gesture.

Inviting us into his evolutionary time machine, Goulson takes us back to the Cretaceous period, between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, when Earth was covered in lush forests of giant greenery. The dinosaurs had just taken to the air as newly evolved feathers produced the first birds. Our own ancestors at the time were small and unseemly rat-like creatures lurking under the ferns and feeding on insects and fallen fruit. Goulson writes:

If we could travel to this ancient land, we might be too concerned with the dangers posed by the larger wildlife to notice that there were no flowers; no orchids, buttercups or daisies, no cherry blossoms, no foxgloves in the wooded glades. And no matter how hard we listened, we would not hear the distinctive drone of bees. But all that was about to change.

So why did it change? It turns out that sex does indeed rule the world — two hundred million years after the first ejaculation in Earth’s recorded history, bees stepped in to perform a vital function in our planet’s blossoming into maturity:

Sex has always been difficult for plants, because they cannot move. If one cannot move, then finding a suitable partner and exchanging sex cells with them poses something of an obstacle. The plant equivalent of sperm is pollen, and the challenge facing a plant is how to get its pollen to the female reproductive parts of another plant; not easy if one is rooted to the ground. The early solution, and one still used by some plants to this day, is to use the wind. One hundred and thirty-five million years ago almost all plants scattered their pollen on the wind and hoped against hope that a tiny proportion of it would, by chance, land on a female flower. This is, as you might imagine, a very inefficient and wasteful system, with perhaps 99.99 per cent of the pollen going to waste – falling on the ground or blowing out to sea. As a result they had to produce an awful lot.

Nature abhors waste, and it was only a matter of time before the blind stumbling of evolution arrived at a better solution in the form of insects. Pollen is very nutritious. Some winged insects now began to feed upon it and before long some became specialists in eating pollen. Flying from plant to plant in search of their food, these insects accidentally carried pollen grains upon their bodies, trapped amongst hairs or in the joints between their segments. When the occasional pollen grain fell off the insect on to the female parts of a flower, that flower was pollinated, and so insects became the first pollinators, sex facilitators for plants. A mutualistic relationship had begun which was to change the appearance of the earth. Although much of the pollen was consumed by the insects, this was still a vast improvement for the plants compared to scattering their pollen to the wind.

But this system presented our proto-bees with a serious wayfinding problem: Because flowers were as drably brownish-green as the surrounding vegetation, spotting them was no small task. In order to attract insects, they had to get better at standing out over the competition and “advertising” their delicious pollen.

Dive deeper into how that happened here.

8. THE UNIVERSE

“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery,” John Updike once observed in pondering why the universe exists, and yet of equal permanence is the allure this mystery exerts upon the scientists, philosophers, and artists of any given era. The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos (public library | IndieBound) collects twenty-one illuminating, mind-expanding meditations on various aspects of that mystery, from multiple dimensions to quantum monkeys to why the universe looks the way it does, by some of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time. It is the fourth installment in an ongoing series by Edge editor John Brockman, following Thinking (2013), Culture (2011), and The Mind (2011).

In one of the essays, theoretical physicist Leonard Suskind marvels at the unique precipice we’re fortunate to witness:

The beginning of the 21st century is a watershed in modern science, a time that will forever change our understanding of the universe. Something is happening which is far more than the discovery of new facts or new equations. This is one of those rare moments when our entire outlook, our framework for thinking, and the whole epistemology of physics and cosmology are suddenly undergoing real upheaval. The narrow 20th-century view of a unique universe, about 10 billion years old and 10 billion light years across with a unique set of physical laws, is giving way to something far bigger and pregnant with new possibilities.

Gradually physicists and cosmologists are coming to see our ten billion light years as an infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse.

Dive deeper with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall on “branes” and the science of multiple dimensions and some thoughts on gender in science publishing.

9. NEUROCOMIC

Scientists are only just beginning to understand how the brain works — from what transpires in it while we sleep to how to optimize its memory to what love does to it to how music affects it — and the rest of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between fascinated and confused when it comes to the intricate inner workings of our master-controller.

From British indie press Nobrow — who also brought us Freud’s graphic biography and Blexbolex’s magnificent No Man’s Land — comes Neurocomic (public library | IndieBound), a graphic novel about how the brain works. This remarkable collaboration between neuroscientist Dr. Hana Roš and neuroscience-PhD-turned-illustrator Dr. Matteo Farinella, with support from the Wellcome Trust, explains the inner workings of the brain in delightful and illuminating black-and-white illustrations, covering everything from perception and hallucinations to memory and emotional recall to consciousness and the difference between the mind and the brain.

We take a stroll through a forest of neurons, then learn about neuroplasticity. (“This is the great power of the brain, it’s plastic!” they tell us in one of the most heartening and reassuring parts. “Once you learn something it is not set in stone, it’s continuously shaped by experience.”) We meet Pavlov and his famous studies of memory in 1897 Russia. We visit the haunting memory caves and the convoluted castles of deception.

This wonderful trailer for the film about the project, directed by Richard Wyllie, takes us behind the scenes of the duo’s marvelous collaboration and creative process:

See more here.

10. THE TALE OF THE DUELING NEUROSURGEONS

“In both writing and sleeping,” Stephen King wrote in his meditation on “creative sleep” and the art of wakeful dreaming, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.” But while he was exploring the creative process from a metaphorical angle, he was inadvertently describing one of the greatest neurological nightmares that could befall us. Due to the sheer enormity of what happens in the brain while we sleep, there is also a sizable possibility that things would go wrong; when they do, things can get scary. And few sleep-related brain glitches can be scarier than what is known as “sleep paralysis” — the evil twin of lucid dreaming.

Four years after The Disappearing Spoon, his wonderful chronicle of crazy tales from the periodic table, science writer Sam Kean returns with The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (public library | IndieBound) — a mind-bending tour of the mind, which Kean opens with a fascinating example, at once very personal and powerfully illustrative of the brain’s humbling complexity:

I can’t fall asleep on my back — or rather, I don’t dare to. In that position I often slip into a fugue state where my mind wakes up from a dream, but my body remains immobile. In this limbo I can still sense things around me: sunlight trickling through the curtains, passersby on the street below, the blanket tented on my upturned feet. But when I tell my body to yawn and stretch and get on with the day, nothing happens. I’ll recite the command again — Move, you — and the message echoes back, unheeded. I fight, I struggle, I strain to twiddle a toe or flex a nostril, and it does no good. It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It’s the opposite of sleepwalking — it’s sleep paralysis.

The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths — to feel my throat expanding and my sternum rising a good six inches. But my body — still asleep, physiologically — takes mere sips of air. I feel I’m suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smolder in my chest.

Dive deeper with Kean’s explanation of how this Rube Goldberg machine of neurological disaster sheds light on how the healthy brain works.

11. WHAT IF?

For years, NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe has been delighting the world with his popular xkcd webcomic, often answering readers’ questions about various aspects of how the world works with equal parts visual wit and scientific rigor. The best of these, as well as a number of never-before-answered ones, are now collected in What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library | IndieBound) — questions like what would happen if a submarine was hit by lightning to what it would actually take to eradicate the common cold to the physics of trying to hit a baseball pitched at the speed of light.

Munroe writes in the introduction:

I’ve been using math to try to answer weird questions for as long as I can remember. When I was five years old, my mother had a conversation with me that she wrote down and saved in a photo album. When she heard I was writing this book, she found the transcript and sent it to me. Here it is, reproduced verbatim from her 25-year-old sheet of paper:

Randall: Are there more soft things or hard things in our house?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: How about in the world?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: Well, each house has three or four pillows, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: And each house has about 15 magnets, right?

Julie: I guess.

Randall: So 15 plus 3 or 4, let’s say 4, is 19, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: So there are probably about 3 billion soft things, and . . . 5 billion hard things. Well, which one wins?

Julie: I guess hard things.

To this day I have no idea where I got “3 billion” and “5 billion” from. Clearly, I didn’t really get how numbers worked.

My math has gotten a little better over the years, but my reason for doing math is the same as it was when I was five: I want to answer questions.

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

Dive deeper with Munroe exploration of the math of finding your soul mate.

12. NOTHING

In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” — an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion (public library | IndieBound) — a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. Webb writes:

You might think a book about nothing sounds suspiciously like an oxymoron. But fortunately there’s plenty to explore, because nothing has been a topic of discussion for more than 2,000 years: indeed, the ancient Greeks had a lively disagreement about it. And such have been the changing fortunes of nothing that you can pretty much tell where you are in history just by finding out the prevailing views on nothing.

Take zero, for example, the symbol for the absence of things. Part of it came into being in Babylonia around 300 bc. The rest of it emerged 1,000 years later when the Indians fused that idea with an ancient symbol for nothingness. Another 400 years passed before it arrived in Europe where it was initially shunned as a dangerous innovation. By the 17th century it had gained acceptance, and today it is critical to the definition of every number you use.

[…]

Nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.

[…]

Nothings can be difficult to attain: we haven’t reached absolute zero and most likely never will . Nothings can also be messy: what is described as the vacuum of space turns out to be not one, but many. And nothings can be powerful: sick people can get better after talking with a doctor even though nothing material passes between them.

Dive deeper with Jo Marchant’s mind-bending account of the latter power of nothingness — a look at the new science of the placebo effect and how our minds actually affect our bodies.

13. 30 DAYS

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” the influential biologist E.O. Wilson said in his spectacular recent conversation with the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, exploring the shared creative wellspring of poetry and science. A beautiful embodiment of it comes from 30 Days, an unusual and bewitching series of “quantum poetry” by xYz — the pseudonym of British biologist and poet Joanna Tilsley, who began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued, for her own pleasure, until she graduated college with a degree in biology. In April of 2013, while undergoing an emotional breakdown, Tilsley took a friend up on a dare and decided to participate in NaPoWriMo — an annual creative writing project inviting participants to write a poem a day for a month. Immersed in cosmology and quantum physics at the time, she found herself enchanted by the scientific poetics of nature as she strolled around her home in North London. Translating that enchantment in lyrical form, she produced a series of thirty poems on everything from DNA to the exoplanet Keppler-62F, a “super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a star smaller and cooler than the sun,” to holometabolism, the process by which the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to see Earth from space.

Tilsley’s choice of pseudonym is itself remarkably poetic — besides the scientific sensibility, XYZ was the pen name of her grandfather, the late British novelist and war correspondent Frank Tilsley.

Tilsley wrote and illustrated her quantum poems simultaneously, using her vast collection of scanned vintage paper ephemera, old typewriter fonts, and 19th-century artwork (I recognize Benjamin Betts’s “geometrical psychology” illustrations), which she manipulated digitally into beautiful backdrops for her verses. Not unlike the work of William Blake, text and image work together to channel a cohesive atmosphere.

It’s also interesting that Tilsley chose to capitalize nouns and pronouns in the style of religious texts — a poignant juxtaposition with the scientific sensibility of the poems, hinting, consciously or not, at the spiritual element of science.

14. DATACLYSM

In Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (public library | IndieBound), writer, musician, and entrepreneur Christian Rudder takes a remarkable look at how person-to-person interaction from just about every major online data source of our time reveal human truths “deeper and more varied than anything held by any other private individual,” and how the tension “between the continuity of the human condition and the fracture of the database” actually sheds light on some of humanity’s most immutable mysteries.

Rudder is the co-founder of the dating site OKCupid and the data scientist behind its now-legendary trend analyses, but he is also — as it becomes immediately clear from his elegant writing and wildly cross-disciplinary references — a lover of literature, philosophy, anthropology, and all the other humanities that make us human and that, importantly in this case, enhance and ennoble the hard data with dimensional insight into the richness of the human experience. Rudder writes:

I don’t come here with more hype or reportage on the data phenomenon. I come with the thing itself: the data, phenomenon stripped away. I come with a large store of the actual information that’s being collected, which luck, work, wheedling, and more luck have put me in the unique position to possess and analyze.

For the reflexively skeptical, Rudder offers assurance by way of his own self-professed “luddite sympathies”:

I’ve never been on an online date in my life and neither have any of the other founders, and if it’s not for you, believe me, I get that. Tech evangelism is one of my least favorite things, and I’m not here to trade my blinking digital beads for anyone’s precious island. I still subscribe to magazines. I get the Times on the weekend. Tweeting embarrasses me. I can’t convince you to use, respect, or “believe in” the Internet or social media any more than you already do—or don’t. By all means, keep right on thinking what you’ve been thinking about the online universe. But if there’s one thing I sincerely hope this book might get you to reconsider, it’s what you think about yourself. Because that’s what this book is really about. OkCupid is just how I arrived at the story.

Dive deeper with the data on what it really means to be extraordinary.

15. EVOLUTION

We were once amoebae, and here we are today, singing opera and typing on iPhones with opposable thumbs. That alone is enough marvel to put the petty nuisances of everyday life in perspective and fill our human hearts with humility.

As a lover of unusual coloring books and of science-oriented children’s books, especially ones that replace myth with science, I was instantly smitten with Evolution: A Coloring Book (public library | IndieBound) by London-based Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen — the best thing since Darwin’s graphic biography, and also a fine addition to the best children’s books of the year.

This simple yet imaginative primer on science via art explores natural selection, continental drift, what killed the dinosaurs, how birds descended from them, and all the other processes and phenomena that took us to where we are today. Die-cut delights add an element of interactive playfulness to the classic coloring-book experience.

One particularly apt application of the die-cut technique is a series of pages which, through strategically placed cuts, invite an exploration of how human facial features evolved.

Supplement with Bill Nye’s grownup version, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation.

For more stimulating science reads, keep an eye on this evolving virtual bookshelf.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

By:

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became the psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil Gaiman, Albert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library | IndieBound).

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what it lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Artwork from Stefanie Posavec's 'Writing Without Words,' visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

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

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differ, as would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Artist Francis Bacon’s Conflicted and Creative Life, Illustrated

By:

“It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary.”

David Lynch has called legendary British artist Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909–April 28, 1992) “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” Like Lynch’s films, Bacon’s paintings compel the way a scene from a nightmare does — a scream piercing the psyche, at once terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. “An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs,” Bacon once told an interviewer — an ethos he himself very much embodied.

How his passions and despairs fed his art is what British writer Kitty Hauser and artist Christina Christoforou explore in This is Bacon (public library | IndieBound) — another fantastic installment in same series of illustrated artist biographies that gave us This is Dalí and This is Warhol, illuminating Bacon’s influences and infatuations to shed light on his darkly alluring art.

Hauser writes in the introduction:

By all accounts, Francis Bacon had an effect on those he met. He didn’t look like other people, didn’t talk or act like them. “It’s all so meaningless,” he liked to say, “we may as well be extraordinary.” His paintings continue to have an effect on those who see them. They have the capacity to move us, without it being possible to say why. They convey something of how it feels to be human — King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal.”

[But] Bacon realized he walked a tightrope of success and failure with every brushstroke, and with every work. He destroyed a lot of paintings. He was aiming high, after all… “My work will either end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin,” he used to say.

The choice to tell the story of Bacon’s life in illustration is an interesting one: In his legendary conversations with David Sylvester — some of the greatest interviews in the history of creative culture — Bacon frequently asserted that his art shouldn’t be explained, because putting words to it would reduce it to illustration, a medium he saw as vastly inferior. But it is also an implicit homage to the contradictions of which Bacon’s character was woven — brilliant and broken, full of idealism disguised as nihilism, in constant oscillation between the public and the private, a man Allen Ginsberg once described in a letter to Jack Kerouac as having the appearance of an English schoolboy but the soul of a satyr.

Even his relationship to drawing and illustration was a contradictory one — all his life, Bacon vehemently denied that he drew sketches before painting and insisted that he only ever painted straight on the canvas, but a wealth of sketches surfaced after his death. Like the famous grandfather of the subject of his most prized painting — Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, sold for $142,405,000 — Bacon was a master of engineering his own myth. An illustrated biography, then, makes many layers of sense.

Bacon never received a formal education in art, which lent him a kind of beginner’s mind that, as Hauser puts it, rendered him immune to “the usual kinds of distinctions between life and art, or between high culture and low.” Instead, he made an art of the art of looking as he amassed a vast bank of images from a wide range of sources — medical illustration, film, art, everyday life — and let them cross-pollinate in his unconscious as a living testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

I look at everything. And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.

For Bacon, Hauser notes, painting was a struggle that relied in large part on chance — he believed successful paintings “open up the valves of sensation” and bypass the intellect to penetrate “the nervous system” directly, which requires an active surrender to the uncertainty of the painting process.

Bacon was born to a strict and often cruel ex-military father and a steel business heiress mother. As a child, he suffered from severe asthma — a much more serious affliction, Hauser points out, in an era prior to the mass-market availability of proper medication — and grew up in an atmosphere of violence, both at home and amid the cultural context of WWI. When he was sixteen, his father walked in on him dressed in his mother’s underwear and kicked him out — the fate of lamentably many LGBT youth even today. In an effort to straighten out the boy, his father placed him in the uncaring care of a cruel “uncle,” a rough horse-breeder unrelated by blood, who took young Francis to Berlin — a city that had emerged as Europe’s capital of wild abandon, once described by the novelist Stefan Zweig as the “Babylon of the modern world.” Hauser writes:

There were cross-dressing cabarets and transvestite shows whose flamboyance and inventiveness have never been matched.

Eventually, young Bacon made his way to Paris, where he first became exposed to the art of the Old Masters and other cultural influences, ranging from surrealist cinema to postmodernist literary magazines. But it was in the work of Picasso — who famously championed the courage of the creative life — that he first felt the assuring possibility of becoming a professional painter himself.

After a brief bill-paying stint in interior design, Bacon finally got his big break as an artist when his painting Crucifixion — owned today by Damien Hirst, who cites Bacon as a great influence — was included in Herbert Read’s momentous 1933 book Art Now.

'Crucifixion,' 1933

Heartened by the recognition, Bacon mounted a one-man show the following year, but it became his first painful lesson in the fickleness of the art world — a dismissive review in The Times so upset him that he destroyed all the work in the exhibition and abandoned painting for nearly a decade.

Among the perplexities of Bacon’s character is one particularly curious biographical detail: He moved around a great deal, but his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, continued to live with him until her death in 1951; she would vet the many replies to Bacon’s gay personals, which he published on the front page of The Times, and when times got especially rough, she’d go shoplifting for the duo’s dinner.

When Bacon returned to painting, one image from his voraciously amassed visual bank held exceptional mesmerism for him — Diego Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon said triggered “all sorts of feelings” for him. Mashing it up with a visual from another influence that had impacted him greatly — the screaming face from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin — Bacon embarked upon his haunting series of screaming pope paintings.

'Pope Innocent X' by Diego Velásquez, 1650 (left) and 'Study After Velásquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X' by Francis Bacon, 1953 (right)

Despite Bacon’s resistance to any interpretation of his paintings as cultural commentary, it’s hard not to observe the resonance of this particular depiction. Bacon had come of age in an era when homosexuality was not only considered a sin by the Catholic Church but was also illegal in Britain — so illegal that computing pioneer Alan Turing paid for it with is life, as did Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for being gay contributed to his untimely death. Bacon was in his late fifties when the right to love a person of one’s own sex was finally “made legal.”

For Bacon, however, the law was not the greatest source of his misfortune in love — his own self-destructive tendencies were. In 1952, he embarked on a long and toxic love affair with a former war pilot named Peter Lacy — an explosive, often sadistic man, and an alcoholic with no intention of recovery. Even though Lacy had only contempt for Bacon’s paintings and destroyed many of them during their turbulent fights, Bacon later stated that Lacy was the love of his life.

In the late 1950s, when Bacon followed Lacy to the debaucherous city of Tangiers in North Africa — a city frequented by the era’s gay mafia of creative culture, including Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — their relationship continued its cycles of violence and escalated into heavy drinking. The British consul-general in Tangier grew so concerned about the frequency with which Bacon was found beaten up on the city’s streets in the wee hours of the morning that he increased the number of patrolling police officers.

It is unsurprising, then, that the man who so believed in the creative value of suffering and readily subjected himself to it would make his idol the man who articulated that suffering more powerfully than anyone and succumbed to it more tragically than any other major artist. In the late 1950s, Bacon became obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured-artist testament to the link between creativity and mental illness. Bacon studied Van Gogh’s paintings fanatically and devoured his letters to his brother.

'Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI,' 1957

Once Bacon made his way to London in 1961, where he would live until the end of his life, his self-destructive pathology manifested a silver lining — he became what is possibly the world’s first professional drinker: he was paid £10 a week to drink at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s private drinking club, in a campaign to drive business. Among his drinking buddies there was Lucian Freud, from whom Bacon was inseparable for years.

It was around that time that Bacon met George Dyer — a petty criminal from London’s East End, who would become Bacon’s lover and the subject of his best-known paintings. Like Bacon himself, Dyer was a man woven of contradictions — as Hauser puts it, a weak character with a fit physique, combining “vulnerability with a gangsterish demeanor.” Bacon had a number of photographs taken of Dyer, which he used as springboards for his sexually charged paintings. Hauser quotes the artist himself:

Even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer to that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? … So it is with art.

In 1971, the day before Bacon’s landmark exhibit at the Grand Palais was about to open — “To be taken seriously by the French was a rare thing for a British artist,” Hauser writes, “and Bacon was elated.” — Dyer was found dead from an overdose in their hotel room in Paris. In a supreme twist of fate that would become the grandest of Bacon’s contradictions, the show would become his greatest success, but Dyer’s death would come to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Hauser writes:

There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will still exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of the story when considering the use Bacon made of [the] photograph of Dyer’s head in profile, of which he had a number of copies. At one point he made a cut-out of his head and used it as a template, apparently pinning it to his canvas and painting around it.

But in his grief and his obsession with mortality, Bacon found the subject of his final and most memorable paintings, perhaps living up to his famous proclamation.

Complement This is Bacon with the painter on the role of suffering and self-knowledge in creative expression, then revisit the illustrated biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.