Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

29 NOVEMBER, 2012

A Visual History of Nobel Prizes and Notable Laureates, 1901-2012

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Mapping the greatest cultural and scientific advances in modern history with inspiration from John Cage’s music.

After her wonderful visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction last week, I asked Italian information visualization designer Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat to create an exclusive English version of another fantastic visualization designed for La Lettura, the Sunday literary supplement of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera — this time exploring the history of Nobel Prizes and laureates since the dawn of the awards in 1901.

Visualized for each laureate are prize category, year the prize was awarded, and age of the recipient at the time, as well as principal academic affiliations and hometown. Each dot represents a Nobel laureate, and each recipient is positioned according to the year the prize was awarded (x axis) and his or her age at the time of the award (y axis).

(Click image for hi-res version)

Also highlighted are several record-holding laureates — like Marie Curie, for instance, who endures not only as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also as the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics.

What makes the visualization especially interesting is that Lupi, herself a pianist, was inspired by the work of legendary composer John Cage and the fantastic Notations 21 project. She tells me:

I love the way Cage composes the overall visual architecture of his pieces. Of course, they are functional (sheets to be played) but they are also very graceful in terms of visual beauty.

Indeed, she points out that there are a number of parallels between data visualization and Cage’s work, including non-linear storytelling, layering and hierarchies of information, a clear overall structure for each piece, a focus on overall architecture rather than individual elements, words within diagrams, and a convergence of emotive and functional beauty.

See more of Giorgia’s terrific work on her site, then complement it with some visualization lessons from the world’s top information designers and data artists.

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23 NOVEMBER, 2012

Susan Sontag’s List of Beliefs at Age 14 vs. Age 24

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“The only difference between human beings is intelligence.”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us her views on life, death, art and freedom and her list of “rules + duties for being 24″ and her 10 rules for raising a child.

In an entry dated November 23, 1947, 14-year-old Susan lists her core beliefs, many of which — including her cult of the intellect, her pursuit of freedom, and her views on government — remained strikingly consistent, if not exponentially engrained, over the course of her life.

I believe:

(a) That there is no personal god or life after death

(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty

(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy

(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life [Entries ‘f’ and ‘g’ are missing.]

(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides ‘g’) should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age[d]. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

Then, a decade later, in 1957, she revisits the subject, shifting away from a certain absolutism and towards a more balanced, even romantic ethos:

What do I believe?

In the private life
In holding up culture
In music, Shakespeare, old buildings

What do I enjoy?

Music
Being in love
Children
Sleeping
Meat

My faults

Never on time
Lying, talking too much
Laziness
No volition for refusal

Reborn was followed by the excellent As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, which gave us Sontag’s views on love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms

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22 NOVEMBER, 2012

Fiona Apple’s Stirring Handwritten Letter About Her Dying Dog

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“I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.”

The love of dogs has produced its fair share of moving literature and art, but little comes close to the stirring four-page handwritten letter that Fiona Apple sent her fans as she cancelled the South American leg of her tour to be with her dying dog, Janet — a 13-year-old rescue pitbull with Addison’s Disease and a chest tumor.

Apple writes:

I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can’t leave her now, please understand.

[…]

These are the choices we make, which define us. I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.

I am the woman who stays home, baking Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable & comforted & safe & important.

Though profoundly different in nature and sentiment from Christopher Hitchens’s meditation on mortality, Apple’s is a counterpart of unparalleled sincerity and humanity:

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life that keeps us feeling terrified & alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest, to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.

Full transcript below.

It’s 6pm on Friday, and I’m writing to a few thousand friends I have not met yet. I’m writing to ask them to change our plans and meet a little while later.

Here’s the thing.

I have a dog, Janet, and she’s been ill for about 2 years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly. She’s almost 14 years old now. I got her when she was 4 months old. I was 21 then — an adult, officially — and she was my kid.

She is a pitbull, and was found in Echo Park, with a rope around her neck, and bites all over her ears and face.

She was the one the dogfighters use to puff up the confidence of the contenders.

She’s almost 14 and I’ve never seen her start a fight, or bite, or even growl, so I can understand why they chose her for that awful role. She’s a pacifist.

Janet has been the most consistent relationship of my adult life, and that is just a fact. We’ve lived in numerous houses, and joined a few makeshift families, but it’s always really been just the two of us.

She slept in bed with me, her head on the pillow, and she accepted my hysterical, tearful face into her chest, with her paws around me, every time I was heartbroken, or spirit-broken, or just lost, and as years went by, she let me take the role of her child, as I fell asleep, with her chin resting above my head.

She was under the piano when I wrote songs, barked any time I tried to record anything, and she was in the studio with me, all the time we recorded the last album.

The last time I came back from tour, she was spry as ever, and she’s used to me being gone for a few weeks, every 6 or 7 years.

She has Addison’s Disease, which makes it more dangerous for her to travel, since she needs regular injections of Cortisol, because she reacts to stress and excitement without the physiological tools which keep most of us from literally panicking to death.

Despite all this, she’s effortlessly joyful & playful, and only stopped acting like a puppy about 3 years ago. She is my best friend, and my mother, and my daughter, my benefactor, and she’s the one who taught me what love is.

I can’t come to South America. Not now. When I got back from the last leg of the US tour, there was a big, big difference.

She doesn’t even want to go for walks anymore.

I know that she’s not sad about aging or dying. Animals have a survival instinct, but a sense of mortality and vanity, they do not. That’s why they are so much more present than people.

But I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can’t leave her now, please understand. If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.

Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes just to decide what socks to wear to bed.

But this decision is instant.

These are the choices we make, which define us. I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.

I am the woman who stays home, baking Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable & comforted & safe & important.

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life that keeps us feeling terrified & alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest, to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.

When she dies.

So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and I am revelling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel. And I’m asking for your blessing.

I’ll be seeing you.

Love,

Fiona

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs — and what more poignant attestation than this?

Letters of Note

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