Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 MARCH, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate on the Spirit of Exploration

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On the heroism of curiosity, or what The Little Prince can teach us about longing for infinity.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently made a chill-giving case for the whimsy of the Universe, is among our era’s most articulate advocates and storytellers of science. On March 7, Tyson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of space exploration — an urgent message at time when space funding is at an all-time law and Carl Sagan’s vision lives on only as a poetic lament.

Tyson opens with a beautiful quote from French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, better-known as the author of The Little Prince — a philosophy treasure chest all its own:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Any nation, any time, has the capacity to create a hero. It just has to have ambitions with goals set.

[…]

If people see NASA as a charity agency for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, they are not understanding the actual growth NASA has played in the growth of this nation — and the economic growth of this nation.

[…]

The pathway from the investment to the return on the dollar takes a little longer than an elevator ride to explain… Innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed, the culture of innovation spills over. Everyone feels like tomorrow is something they want to invent and bring into the present. That’s the culture that so many of us grew up with, and that’s the culture that so many of us who read about it want to resurrect going forward. Without this, we just move back to the caves.”

So what happened between the golden age of space exploration, when the design of the spacesuit was a feat of cross-disciplinary ambition and excitement oozed even from the ad pages of science magazines, and today? When did we forget that infinity beckons? Perhaps Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said that the universe is made of stories, not of atoms, but the stories we tell about those atoms are the fabric of our understanding, our culture, and our society. Without cosmic storytellers like Tyson, the universe would contract into a ball of anthropocentricity — next thing we know, we’re back to believing the Earth is the center of the universe.

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, isn’t merely an eloquent case for space exploration — it’s an intelligent and necessary manifesto for rekindling an infinitely important torch of human curiosity.

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08 MARCH, 2012

Creating a “Fourth Culture” of Knowledge: Jonah Lehrer on Why Science and Art Need Each Other

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From Gertrude Stein to Karl Popper, or how to architect “negative capability” and live with mystery.

One of my favorite books of all time is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which tells the story of how a handful of iconic creators each discovered an essential truth about the mind long before modern science was able to label and pinpoint it — for instance, George Eliot detected neuroplasticity, Gertrude Stein uncovered the deep structure of language, Cézanne fathomed how vision works, and Proust demonstrated the imperfections of memory. I was recently reminded of this powerful passage, in which Lehrer makes a case for the extraordinary importance of the cross-pollination of disciplines, the essence of Brain Pickings’ founding philosophy, particularly of art and science — a convergence Lehrer calls a “fourth culture” that empowers us to “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.”

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”

Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, comes out later this month.

HT Wired

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08 MARCH, 2012

Austin Kleon on 10 Things Every Creative Person Should Remember But We Often Forget

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What T.S. Eliot has to do with genetics and the optimal investment theory for your intellectual life.

Much has been said about the secrets of creativity and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:

So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.

(This piece of truth is available as a print from 20×200, one of the best places for affordable art.)

The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

Kleon writes in the introduction:

It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.

These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.

These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)

On doing what you love, Kleon urges:

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

On engineering creative and intellectual stimulation:

There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.

I think the same thing is true of idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

And on that note, immersing yourself in Steal Like an Artist is as fine an investment in the life of your mind as you can hope to make.

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