Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

02 FEBRUARY, 2012

Lost in Learning: Celebrating the Art and Spirit of Discovery

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What Galileo has to do with Columbus, The Library of Congress, and rediscovering the great purpose of art.

For four years, Bulgarian-born, Boston-based photographer Eva Koleva Timothy traveled the world, from Oxford’s libraries to Florence’s cathedrals, to pin down the ghosts of the intellectual restlessness that made humanity turn its gaze into the heavens, point its lens across the seas, and channel its fervor onto the canvas. The result is Lost in Learning: The Art of Discovery — a beautiful project-turned-book that breathes new life into historical photographs, manuscripts, and other archival materials to reveal timeless insights on curiosity, creativity, and intellectual inquiry based on the work and legacy of iconic thinkers from the Age of Discover, including Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus, and Galileo Galilei.

Alongside each striking black-and-white image, playing with light and refraction to an incredibly dimensional effect, are Timothy’s poetic meditations on the minds and mindsets responsible for some of our civilization’s most significant feats of discovery, and what they reveal about the nature and future of contemporary creative thought.

Far from a mere lens on nostalgia and the romantic past, at the project makes a passionate case for resuscitating the cult of discovery as a driving force of culture’s future. British poet Ralph Windle writes in the foreword:

For all its rich evocation of history, however, this monograph looks forward more than back… Something much more important is happening here, and it connects in an exciting, novel way with one of the mainstream developments in contemporary literature and art.”

At its heart, Lost in Learning, which Timothy calls “an art book for the Dreamers,” is a beautiful crusade to rediscover discovery and reinstate curiosity as the great purpose of art and the great gift of the artist.

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01 FEBRUARY, 2012

Pasta by Design: Finding Whimsy in the Geometry of Food

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Phylogeny of the pantry, or what architecture has to do with anellini.

In 2010, London chef extraordinaire Jacob Kenedy with award-winning British graphic designer Caz Hildebrand explored the geometry of pasta — a journey into the science, history, and philosophy of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes through a minimalist, design-driven cookbook. Now comes Pasta by Design, an even more ambitious design dissection on the beloved carb staple, exploring the intricate, beautiful, almost whimsical geometrical shapes of more than 90 different types of pasta.

(After all, if geometry is good enough a lens for love, it’s certainly good enough for pasta.)

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. MoMA’s Paola Antonelli () writes in the introduction:

Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat — one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types — and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture — as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”

Given the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification, the book takes an approach inspired by the science of phylogeny — the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature — to pare down 92 different types based on their morphological features, then charts them in a family tree.

Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, and expressive minimalist photographs and drawings zoom in on the hidden genius of the classic pantry mainstay.

Quirky in spirit yet rigorously researched and beautifully produced, Pasta by Design at once humanizes mathematics and exposes the captivating complexity of one of the world’s most beloved foods, revealing the dimensionality of design as a cross-disciplinary cultural lens.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson; photographs via IJP

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01 FEBRUARY, 2012

How Mankind Conquered the Night and Created the 24-Hour Day

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What the world’s oldest profession has to do with light pollution.

Why do we need darkness? The twentieth century has at last triumphed over this frightening, lawless place. Night was once a time for thieves and highwaymen, grave-diggers, ghosts, and masked balls. Now it’s a place of bright lights, illuminating every part of the city. According to one of the characters in Hemingway’s story of the same name: “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.” And Edward Gorey had his own explanation.

The City Dark, a new documentary by King Corn writer Ian Cheney, looks at the light-filled world we have created in the past hundred years or so. Humans of the twenty-first century have grown accustomed to living twenty-four hour lives, and without the night sky above us, it’s easy to forget our own place in the cosmos. (Astronomer Thomas Hockey’s recent book How We See the Sky is a revolutionary call for a return to stargazing.)

Over the past few years, there have been several wonderful books on the history of night, including Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, and Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe. The academic interest in night doesn’t seem incidental: night is now something for the history books, an antique notion of a dark age.

As it turns out, the world’s oldest profession isn’t prostitution, but nightwatching. A night patrol in fifth century Rome was expected to be “the security of those who are sleeping, the protection of houses, guardian of the gates, an unseen examiner and silent judge.”

The Night Watch, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642.

There was quite a bit to be wary of: foreign armies, thieves, and most frightening of all, fire. More destructive than any crime, and cheap to inflict on others, massive fires could be an accident of a headscarf catching on a candle or a unruly stove in a bakehouse, as it was at the beginning of the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed four-fifths of the city in four days.

The gate of western London explodes in the Great Fire, Old St. Paul's is to the right.

In a pre-industrial society, work that wasn’t finished during the day simply had to be finished at night: farmers plowed into darkness, weavers worked by candlelight, shoemakers might stay up until midnight or later to meet demand. The dead were also moved at night, their graves dug; the rag-pickers collected garbage; the dust men collected the day’s ashes.

The Dentist, by Gerrit van Honhorst, 1622.

If light was God, than darkness was surely Satan, and the night was the closest to an early Hell. Demons could come to you in dreams, but also on the road or in the woods. “Never greet a stranger in the night,” says the Talmud, “for he may be a demon.”

But terrors of the night also contained the calm of reason. The moon could be measured and mapped as it traveled through the sky, the constellations named, the planets divided from the stars, all of which was useful for farmers, sailors, scientists, and even poets to understand their place in the universe. When he looked at the night sky, Goethe wrote, he was “overwhelmed by a feeling of infinite space.”

The telescope of Caroline and her brother William Herschel, who was the first astronomer to spot Uranus.

By studying the night sky for centuries, we learned of the other planets and our place in the solar system, and we set out to order the heavens. With enormous telescopes, Enlightenment-era astronomers like Caroline Herschel would sweep the sky nightly for comets, meteors and changes in the constellations. It was this kind of study, explained Carl Sagan in Cosmos, that “has led directly to our modern global civilization.”

Both The City Dark and these histories of night are reminders that for thousands of years humans have lived by a natural rhythm of night and day that has only recently been broken. By banishing the night, we have extended the hours in the day that we can work and play. We’ve given in to the urgent human desire to live more, but also to live more inwardly, turned away from the night sky. It’s a change that promises to be subtle, unseen, and profoundly lasting on the next thousand years of human life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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