Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 JULY, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Academics on God

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Decoding divinity, or what the great intellectuals of our time have to say about science and spirituality.

The dialogue between science and religion is among humanity’s oldest and most controversial, drawing each era’s greatest thinkers into some of history’s most heated debates. We’ve previously looked at a BBC documentary on the complex relationship between the two and 7 essential books on the psychology of faith. Today, we turn to a fantastic mashup of 50 famous academics — including Brain Pickings favorites Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett — talking about spirituality and science, created by Jonathan Pararajasingham.

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large, because they seem to be too simple, to connected, too local, too provincial. The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth, mind you. And look at what’s out there! How can… It isn’t in proportion.” ~ Richard Feynman

My favorite has to be Brian Cox, at around 18:30, who echoes my own belief that curiosity is more important than knowledge — an alternative route to intellectual inquiry that offers an antidote to the fundamental human discomfort with the unknown.

The speakers, in order of appearance:

1. Lawrence Krauss, World-Renowned Physicist
2. Robert Coleman Richardson, Nobel Laureate in Physics
3. Richard Feynman, World-Renowned Physicist, Nobel Laureate in Physics
4. Simon Blackburn, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy
5. Colin Blakemore, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Neuroscience
6. Steven Pinker, World-Renowned Harvard Professor of Psychology
7. Alan Guth, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Physics
8. Noam Chomsky, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Linguistics
9. Nicolaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate in Physics
10. Peter Atkins, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Chemistry
11. Oliver Sacks, World-Renowned Neurologist, Columbia University
12. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
13. Sir John Gurdon, Pioneering Developmental Biologist, Cambridge
14. Sir Bertrand Russell, World-Renowned Philosopher, Nobel Laureate
15. Stephen Hawking, World-Renowned Cambridge Theoretical Physicist
16. Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics
17. Ned Block, NYU Professor of Philosophy
18. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Nobel Laureate in Physics
19. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of Mathematics
20. James Watson, Co-discoverer of DNA, Nobel Laureate
21. Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy, Miami University
22. Sir Patrick Bateson, Cambridge Professor of Ethology
23. Sir David Attenborough, World-Renowned Broadcaster and Naturalist
24. Martinus Veltman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
25. Pascal Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
26. Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge Professor of Economics
27. AC Grayling, Birkbeck Professor of Philosophy
28. Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate in Physics
29. John Searle, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
30. Brian Cox, Particle Physicist (Large Hadron Collider, CERN)
31. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate in Physics
32. Rebecca Goldstein, Professor of Philosophy
33. Michael Tooley, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado
34. Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
35. Leonard Susskind, Stanford Professor of Theoretical Physics
36. Quentin Skinner, Professor of History (Cambridge)
37. Theodor W. Hänsch, Nobel Laureate in Physics
38. Mark Balaguer, CSU Professor of Philosophy
39. Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
40. Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
41. Professor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princeton Research Scientist
42. Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Laureate in Physics
43. Hubert Dreyfus, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
44. Lord Colin Renfrew, World-Renowned Archaeologist, Cambridge
45. Carl Sagan, World-Renowned Astronomer
46. Peter Singer, World-Renowned Bioethicist, Princeton
47. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
48. Robert Foley, Cambridge Professor of Human Evolution
49. Daniel Dennett, Tufts Professor of Philosophy
50. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

(One also has to wonder why there’s only one woman on this list — are there really this few female voices in academia weighing in on the science vs. religion debate, or is this mashup simply reflective of whose opinions Pararajasingham has chosen to hear?)

via @kirstinbutler

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26 JULY, 2011

Book of Ice: DJ Spooky’s Cross-Disciplinary Antarctica Project

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What emancipated penguins have to do with digital archives, propaganda art and the future of remix culture.

Antarctica is a strange kind of no man’s land — a territory owned by no single country, with no government, formally uninhabited and hardy inhabitable, and yet of endless allure to researchers, explorers, artists and curious minds from all over the world. It’s also the closest thing we have to a geological clock, its ice sheath reflecting the transformation of our atmosphere and climate with striking precision. In 2007, fascinated by the enigmatic continent’s peculiarities, artist, thinker and musician Paul D. Miller — whose investigation of remix culture and collaborative creation you might recall — traveled to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. That was the start of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica — a larger multimedia project aiming to capture a dynamic portrait of this rapidly changing microcosm. The project’s latest incarnation, The Book of Ice, arrives this month — a poignant reflection on humanity’s relationship with the frozen neverland and climate change at large, by way of poetic visual and textual meditations ranging from archival images of historic exploration on the continent (including these rare photos of the first Australian expedition in 1911) to maps to timelines to hypothetical propaganda art for an imaginary Antarctica liberation movement.

Perhaps most compellingly, the project is a living testament to cross-disciplinary creativity, touching on disciplines as diverse as history, information visualization, music composition, propaganda art, media theory and more, with influences as varied as Emory Douglas, Rodchenko, Mirko Illic and Alex Steinweiss.

Today, I sit down with DJ Spooky to chat about the creative impetus behind the project, its most compelling insights, and the longer-term vision for Antarctica’s future.

q1

How did the idea for The Book of Ice, and the larger project to which it belongs, first emerge?

The Book of Ice started as graphic design music scores taken from my Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project. I wanted to fine-tune the book as an extension of some of my obsessions with climate change. The first soundtrack and symphony written about Antarctica was by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1948, but other composers — Handel’s 1717 AD composition entitled simply “Water Music” or John Luther Adams Arctic compositions, or even more close to home John Cage’s 1936 first composition for turntables “Imaginary Landscape,” Charles Ives “Central Park in The Dark,” or Cornelius Cardew’s graphic design scores — are all influences.

I guess you could say The Book of Ice is an inter-connected, hyper-expandable/scalable museum/gallery show, book, and symphony. Simple!

q2

Antarctica – a place that no one owns, with no government or law, yet belonging to everyone – seems to be a beautiful metaphor for remix culture. Given your background, was this in any way part of the allure? How did you incorporate your work on and beliefs about remix culture into the Antarctica project?

I wanted to show the Utopian/Dystopian aspects of how graphic design interacts with geopolitics and propaganda. Me, Shep Fairey (an old friend) and Steve Heller spoke at Phaidon books a little while ago about this, from the beginnings of “The War on Terror” you can go back to stuff like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and other texts that give people a feigned sense of oppression. My Antarctica remix project would have to include how people despoil the planet, our “commons” and what if people started to say everyone has a right to clean air and water, to having food untainted by mercury or nuclear isotopes?

q3

What has been the most startling, unexpected insight that emerged for the creative process on the project?

I guess I always naively think that if you put information in front of people, they’ll get it. They don’t. This project is Utopian in that it seems like the bleedingly obvious fact that our species might not get out of this century in too good condition is being ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Water is scarce. Global weather patterns are the most complex phenomena we’ve encountered.

Adam Smith wrote, ‘all money is a matter of belief.’ The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real. I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.

q4

Can, and should, Antarctica liberate itself from the rest of the world? If so, how?

The title for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica comes from a science fiction book of the same title by John Calvin Batchelor. OK: nation state rises from the ruins of world geopolitics. Check. Environmental collapse, even though we know we can do better and avoid it. Check. Dumb politicians run all major nation states into the ground. Check. It’s great material for propaganda prints, but it could just as easily be a video game like Vice City or Halo. People like to have ‘narrative,’ so I thought, let’s give them something different. It would be cool to have Antarctica as strictly a “commons.”

q5

What’s next for the project, and for you as an artist and explorer?

Part 2 to the The Book of Ice / Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica goes in two different directions. I’m setting up a contemporary art center in the South Pacific in the island nation of Vanuatu.

And I’m writing a group of compositions about the North Pole. Both are in development now. One of the first media spoofs of the 20th century was when Frederick A. Cook, a Brooklyn milkman who, made a film that claimed he was the first person to discover the North Pole and a fake story got put on the front of every major newspaper. There’s something very Orson Welles to that idea. I found the film, remixed it as a component of the Antarctica project DVD. You can see all of this and the material used to generate the compositions as extensions of my obsession with sampling. It’s just taken me a little further into the realm of info-aesthetics.

After all, I can basically just say music for me isn’t just music. It’s information.

The Book of Ice comes from Mark Batty Publisher and is the kind of cross-disciplinary gem we love to love.

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26 JULY, 2011

Visualize This: How to Tell Stories with Data

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How to turn numbers into stories, or what pattern-recognition has to do with the evolution of journalism.

Data visualization is a frequent fixation around here and, just recently, we looked at 7 essential books that explore the discipline’s capacity for creative storytelling. Today, a highly anticipated new book joins their ranks — Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics, penned by Nathan Yau of the fantastic FlowingData blog. (Which also makes this a fine addition to our running list of blog-turned-book success stories.) Yu offers a practical guide to creating data graphics that mean something, that captivate and illuminate and tell stories of what matters — a pinnacle of the discipline’s sensemaking potential in a world of ever-increasing information overload.

And in a culture of equally increasing infographics overload, where we are constantly bombarded with mediocre graphics that lack context and provide little actionable insight, Yau makes a special point of separating the signal from the noise and equipping you with the tools to not only create better data graphics but also be a more educated consumer and critic of the discipline.

From asking the right questions to exploring data through the visual metaphors that make the most sense to seeing data in new ways and gleaning from it the stories that beg to be told, the book offers a brilliant blueprint to practical eloquence in this emerging visual language.

On the book’s companion site, you can find downloadable data files, interactive examples of how visualization works and, if you’re technically inclined, even code samples to use as the basis for your own visual experimentation.

Visually stimulating, intellectually illuminating and creatively compelling, Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics is equal parts practical vocabulary for an essential modern language and conceptual testament to the power of data visualization as a new form of journalism and a powerful storytelling medium.

For a historical perspective on infographics, be sure to see the story of Otto Neurath’s Isotype.

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25 JULY, 2011

7 (More) Obscure Children’s Books by Famous “Adult” Lit Authors

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What a magical car engine has to do with social justice, a parrot named Arturo and the history of jazz.

After the first installment of 7 little-known children’s books by famous authors of “grown-up” literature, on the trails of some favorite children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, here come seven more, based on reader suggestions and belated findings from the rabbit hole of research surrounding the first installment.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley may be best known for his iconic 1932 novel Brave New World, one of the most important meditations on futurism and how technology is changing society ever published, but he was also deeply fascinated by children’s fiction. In 1967, three years after Huxley’s death, Random House released a posthumous volume of the only children’s book he ever wrote, some 23 years earlier. The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

The original volume was illustrated by the late Barbara Cooney, but a new edition published this spring features artwork by Sophie Blackall, one of my favorite artists, whose utterly lovely illustrations of Craigslist missed connections you might recall.

GERTRUDE STEIN

Writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein is one of the most beloved — and quoted — luminaries of the early 20th century. In 1938, author Margaret Wise Brown of the freshly founded Young Scott Books became obsessed with convincing leading adult authors to try their hands at a children’s book. She sent letters to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck expressed no interest, but Stein surprised Brown by saying she already had a near-complete children’s manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be happy to have Young Scott bring it to life. Which they did, though not without drama. Stein demanded that the pages be pink, the ink blue, and the artwork by illustrator Francis Rose. Young Scott were able to meet the first two demands despite the technical difficulties, but they didn’t want Rose to illustrate the book and asked Stein to instead choose from several Young Scott illustrators. Reluctantly, she settle don Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year. The World Is Round was eventually published, featuring a mix of unpunctuated prose and poetry, with a single illustration for each chapter. The original release included a special edition of 350 slipcase copies autographed by Stein and Hurd.

The wonderful We Too Were Children has the backstory.

JAMES THURBER

In the 1940s and 1950s, celebrated American author and cartoonist James Thurber, best-known for his contributions to The New Yorker, penned a number of book-length fairy tales, some illustrated by acclaimed Catalan-American artist and political cartoonist Marc Simont. The most famous of them was The 13 Clocks — a fantasy tale Thurber wrote in Bermuda in 1950, telling the story of a mysterious prince who must complete a seemingly impossible challenge to free a maiden, Princess Saralinda, from the grip of the evil Duke of Coffin Castle. The eccentric book is riddled with Thurber’s famous wordplay and written in a unique cadenced style, making it a fascinating object of linguistic appreciation and a structural treat for language-lovers of all ages.

For a cherry on top, the current edition features an introduction by none other than Neil Gaiman.

Thanks, stormagnet

CARL SANDBURG

In 1922, nearly two decades before the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, poet Carl Sandburg wrote a children’s book titled Rootabaga Stories for his three daughters, Margaret, Janet and Helga, nicknamed “Spink”, “Skabootch” and “Swipes,” respectively. Their nicknames occur repeatedly in some of the volume’s whimsical interrelated short stories.

The book arose from Sandburg’s desire to create the then-nonexistent “American fairy tales,” which he saw as integral to American childhood, so he set out to replace the incongruous imagery of European fairy tales with the fictionalized world of the American Midwest, which he called “the Rootabaga country,” substituting farms, trains, and corn fairies for castles, knights and royatly. Equal parts fantastical and thoughtful, the stories captured Sandburg’s romantic, hopeful vision of childhood.

In 1923, Sandburg followed up with a sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, telling tales of “Big People Now” and “Little People Long Ago.”

Thanks, Rachel

SALMAN RUSHDIE

Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie has had his share of acclaim and controversy, but one thing that has remained constant over his prolific career is his penchant for the written word. In 1990, he turned his talents to children’s literature with the release of Haroun and the Sea of Stories — a phantasmagorical allegory for a handful of timely social and social justice problems, particularly in India, explored through the young protagonist, Haroun, and his father’s storytelling. The book received a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Children’s Book that year.

One of the book’s unexpected treats is breakdown of the meanings and symbolism of the ample cast of characters’ names, an intriguing linguistic and semantic bridge to Indian culture.

Twenty years later, just last winter, Rushdie followed up with his highly anticipated second children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel.

Thanks, SaVen

IAN FLEMING

Ian Fleming is best-known as the creator of one of the best-selling literary works of all time: the James Bond series. A few years after the birth of his son Caspar in 1952, Fleming decided to write a children’s book for him, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang didn’t see light of day until 1964, the year Fleming died. It tells the story of the Potts family and the father figure, Caractacus, who uses money from the invention of a special candy to buy and repair a unique, magical former race car, which the family affectionately names Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming’s inspiration came from a series of aero engines built by racing driver and engineer Count Louis Zborowski in the early 1920s, whose first six-cylinder Maybach aero engine was called Chitty Bang Bang.

The original book was beautifully illustrated in black-and-white by John Burningham and was soon adapted into the 1968 classic film of the same name starring Dick Van Dyke.

LANGSTON HUGHES

Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, the 42-year-old Hughes decided to channel his love of jazz into a sort-of-children’s book that educated young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz was born, taking on the ambitious task of being the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best. Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Hughes even covered the technicalities of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation,blue notes, harmony — with remarkable eloquence that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, exudes the genuine joy of playing.

Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can hear them here.

For more on rare and out-of-print children’s books by famous 20th-century “adult” authors, I really can’t recommend Ariel S. Winter’s beautifully written, rigorously researched We Too Were Children enough.

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