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Posts Tagged ‘Galileo’

02 JUNE, 2014

William Shakespeare, Astronomer: How Galileo Influenced the Bard


A stanzaic vision for Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

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), 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.

'A Comet Lands in Brooklyn,’ an installation designed by StudioKCA and David Delgado of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the 2014 World Science Festival

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?

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). Falk finds more evidence in an earlier scene, where Jachimo meets the married Imogen, having been introduced by her husband, Posthumus, who has dared Jachimo in a wager to try seducing Imogen — a feat Posthumus deems unattainable. Mesmerized by her beauty, Jachimo decides to win the wager by convincing Imogen that Posthumus had been unfaithful to her on his travels, implying that her best recourse of revenge would be to be unfaithful in turn — of course, by sleeping with Jachimo himself. Lo and behold, his ploy backfires — Imogen is infuriated. To salvage the situation, Jachimo makes a U-turn, claiming to have made everything up as a way of testing her and extolling Posthumus’s virtues. And yet, even though Imogen forgives him, Jachimo is struck by the sketchiness of his own story. Falk cites the following passage spoken by Jachimo:

Thanks, fairest lady.
What, are men mad? Hath Nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ’twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
’Twixt fair and foul?

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

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?

In the remainder of The Science of Shakespeare, a wonderfully dimensional read in its entirety, Falk goes on to explore a number of other allusions to astronomy throughout the play, from Imogen’s oblique wink at the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges to Shakespeare’s potential reference to the structure of Saturn’s rings. At the heart of his argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with.

How right pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was when, two and a half centuries later, she marveled at the shared sensibility of science and poetry:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

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17 JANUARY, 2014

From Galileo to Google: How Big Data Illuminates Human Culture


“Through our scopes, we see ourselves. Every new lens is also a new mirror.”

Given my longtime fascination with the so-termed digital humanities and with data visualization, and my occasional dabbles in the intersection of the two, I’ve followed the work of data scholars Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel with intense interest since its public beginnings. Now, they have collected and contextualized their findings in the compelling Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture (public library) — a stimulating record of their seven-year quest to quantify cultural change through the dual lens of history and digital data by analyzing the contents of the 30,000 books digitized by Google, using Google’s Ngram viewer tool to explore how the usage frequency of specific words changes over time and what that might reveal about corresponding shifts in our cultural values and beliefs about economics, politics, health, science, the arts, and more.

Aiden and Michel, who met at Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and dubbed their field of research “culturomics,” contextualize the premise:

At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.

And big data is indeed big — humongous, even. Each of us, on average, has an annual data footprint of nearly one terabyte, and together we amount to a staggering five zettabytes per year. Since each byte consists of eight bits — short for “binary digits,” with each bit representing a binary yes-no question answered either by a 1 (“yes”) or a 0 (“no”) — humanity’s aggregate annual data footprint is equivalent to a gobsmacking forty sextillion (40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) bits. Aiden and Michel humanize these numbers, so challenging for the human brain to grasp, with a pause-giving analog analogy:

If you wrote out the information contained in one megabyte by hand, the resulting line of 1s and 0s would be more than five times as tall as Mount Everest. If you wrote out one gigabyte by hand, it would circumnavigate the globe at the equator. If you wrote out one terabyte by hand, it would extend to Saturn and back twenty-five times. If you wrote out one petabyte by hand, you could make a round trip to the Voyager 1 probe, the most distant man-made object in the universe. If you wrote out one exabyte by hand, you would reach the star Alpha Centauri. If you wrote out all five zettabytes that humans produce each year by hand, you would reach the galactic core of the Milky Way. If instead of sending e-mails and streaming movies, you used your five zettabytes as an ancient shepherd might have—to count sheep—you could easily count a flock that filled the entire universe, leaving no empty space at all.

But what makes our age unlike any preceding era is precisely that this information exists not as handwritten documents but as digital data, which opens up wholly new frontiers of making sense of the meaning embedded in these seemingly meaningless strings of 1’s and 0’s. Aiden and Michel put it beautifully:

Like an optic lens, which makes it possible to reliably transform and manipulate light, digital media make it possible to reliably transform and manipulate information. Given enough digital records and enough computing power, a new vantage point on human culture becomes possible, one that has the potential to make awe-inspiring contributions to how we understand the world and our place in it.

Aiden and Michel have focused their efforts on one particular, and particularly important, aspect of the big-data universe: books. More specifically, the more than 30 million books digitized by Google, or roughly a quarter of humanity’s existing books. They call this digital library “one of the most fascinating datasets in the history of history,” and it certainly is — not only due to its scale, which exceeds the collections of any university library, from Oxford’s 11 million volumes to Harvard’s 17 million, as well as the National Library of Russia with its 15 million and the National Library of China with its 26 million. At the outset of Aiden and Michel’s project, the only analog library still greater than the Google Books collection was the Library of Congress, which contains 33 million — but Google may well have surpassed that number by now.

Still, big data presents a number of problems. For one, it’s messy — something that doesn’t sit well with scientists’ preference for “carefully constructed questions using elegant experiments that produce consistently accurate results,” Aiden and Michel point out. By contrast, a big dataset tends to be “a miscellany of facts and measurements, collected for no scientific purpose, using an ad hoc procedure … riddled with errors, and marred by numerous, frustrating gaps.”

To further complicate things, big data doesn’t comply with the basic premise of the scientific method — rather than eventuating causal relationships borne out of pre-existing hypotheses, it presents a seemingly bottomless pit of correlations awaiting discovery, often through the combination of doggedness and serendipity, an approach diametrically opposed to hypothesis-driven research. But that, arguably, is exactly what makes big data so alluring — as Stuart Firestein has argued in his fantastic case for why ignorance rather than certitude drives science, modern science could use what the scientific establishment so readily dismisses as “curiosity-driven research” — exploratory, hypothesis-free investigations of processes, relationships, and phenomena.

Michel and Aiden address these biases of science:

As we continue to stockpile unexplained and underexplained patterns, some have argued that correlation is threatening to unseat causation as the bedrock of scientific storytelling. Or even that the emergence of big data will lead to the end of theory. But that view is a little hard to swallow. Among the greatest triumphs of modern science are theories, like Einstein’s general relativity or Darwin’s evolution by natural selection, that explain the cause of a complex phenomenon in terms of a small set of first principles. If we stop striving for such theories, we risk losing sight of what science has always been about. What does it mean when we can make millions of discoveries, but can’t explain a single one? It doesn’t mean that we should give up on explaining things. It just means that we have our work cut out for us.

Such curiosity-driven inquiries speak to the heart of science — the eternal question of what science actually is — which Michel and Aiden capture elegantly:

What makes a problem fascinating? No one really agrees. It seemed to us that a fascinating question was something that a young child might ask, that no one knew how to answer, and for which a few person-years of scientific exploration — the kind of effort we could muster ourselves — might result in meaningful progress. Children are a great source of ideas for scientists, because the questions they ask, though superficially simple and easy to understand, are so often profound.

Indeed, indeed.

The promise of big data, it seems, is at once to return us to the roots of our childlike curiosity and to advance science to new frontiers of understanding the world. Much like the invention of the telescope transformed modern science and empowered thinkers like Galileo to spark a new understanding of the world, the rise of big data, Aiden and Michel argue, offers to “create a kind of scope that, instead of observing physical objects, would observe historical change” — and, in the process, to catapult us into unprecedented heights of knowledge:

The great promise of a new scope is that it can take us to uncharted worlds. But the great danger of a new scope is that, in our enthusiasm, we too quickly pass from what our eyes see to what our mind’s eye hopes to see. Even the most powerful data yields to the sovereignty of its interpreter. … Through our scopes, we see ourselves. Every new lens is also a new mirror.

They illustrate this with an example by way of Galileo himself, who began a series of observations of Mars in the fall of 1610 and soon noticed something remarkably curious: Mars seemed to be getting smaller and smaller as the months progressed, shrinking down to a third of its September size by December. This, of course, indicated that the planet was drifting farther and farther from Earth, which went on to become that essential piece of evidence demonstrating that the Ptolemic idea of the geocentric universe was wrong: Earth wasn’t at the center of the cosmos, and the planets were moving according to their own orbits.

But Galileo, with this primitive telescope, couldn’t see any detail of red planet’s surface — that didn’t happen until centuries later when an astronomer by the name of Giovanni Schiaparelli aimed his far more powerful telescope at Mars. Suddenly, before his eyes were mammoth ridges that covered the planet’s surface like painted lines. These findings made their way to a man named Percival Lowell and impressed him so that in 1894, he built an entire observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, equipped with a yet more powerful telescope, so that he could observe those mysterious lines. Lowell and his team went on to painstakingly record and map Mars’s mesh of nearly 700 criss-crossing “canals,” all the while wondering how they might have been created.

One of Lowell's drawings of the Martian canals.

Turning to the previous century’s theory that Mars’s scarce water reserves were contained in the planet’s frozen poles, Lowell assumed that the lines were a meticulous network of canals made by the inhabitants of a perishing planet in an effort to rehydrate it back to life. Based solely on his telescopic observations and the hypotheses of yore, Lowell concluded that Mars was populated by intelligent life — a “discovery” that at once excited and riled the scientific community, and even permeated popular culture. Even Henry Norris Russell, the unofficial “dean of American astronomers,” called Lowell’s ideas “perhaps the best of the existing theories, and certainly the most stimulating to the imagination.” And so they were — by 1898, H.G. Wells had penned The War of the Worlds.

While Lowell’s ideas dwindled in the centuries that followed, they still held their appeal. It wasn’t until NASA’s landmark Mariner mission beamed back close-up photos of Mars — the significance of which Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke famously debated — that the anticlimactic reality set in: There were no fanciful irrigation canals, and no little green men who built them.

The moral, as Aiden and Michel point out, is that “Martians didn’t come from Mars: They came from the mind of [Lowell].”

What big data offers, then, is hope for unbridling some of our cultural ideas and ideologies from the realm of myth and anchoring them instead to the spirit of science — which brings us to the crux of the issue:

Digital historical records are making it possible to quantify our human collective as never before.


Human history is much more than words can tell. History is also found in the maps we drew and the sculptures we crafted. It’s in the houses we built, the fields we kept, and the clothes we wore. It’s in the food we ate, the music we played, and the gods we believed in. It’s in the caves we painted and the fossils of the creatures that came before us. Inevitably, most of this material will be lost: Our creativity far outstrips our record keeping. But today, more of it can be preserved than ever before.

What makes Aiden and Michel’s efforts particularly noteworthy, however, is that they are as much a work of scrupulous scholarship as of passionate advocacy. They are doing for big data in the humanities what Neil deGrasse Tyson has been doing for space exploration, instigating both cultural interest and government support. They remind us that in today’s era of big science, where the Human Genome Project’s price tag was $3 billion and the Large Hadron Collider’s quest for the Higgs boson cost $9 billion, there is an enormous disconnect between the cultural value of the humanities and the actual price we put on better understanding human history — by contrast to such big science enterprises, the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities is a mere $150 million. Michel and Aiden remind us just what’s at stake:

The problem of digitizing the historical record represents an unprecedented opportunity for big-science-style work in the humanities. If we can justify multibillion-dollar projects in the sciences, we should also consider the potential impact of a multibillion-dollar project aimed at recording, preserving, and sharing the most important and fragile tranches of our history to make them widely available for ourselves and our children. By working together, teams of scientists, humanists, and engineers can create shared resources of extraordinary power. These efforts could easily seed the Googles and Facebooks of tomorrow. After all, both these companies started as efforts to digitize aspects of our society. Big humanities is waiting to happen.

And yet the idea is nothing new. Count on the great Isaac Asimov to have presaged it, much like he did online education, the fate of space exploration, and even Carl Sagan’s rise to stardom. In his legendary Foundation trilogy, Asimov conceives his hero, Hari Seldon, as a masterful mathematician who can predict the future through complex mathematical equations rooted in aggregate measurements about the state of society at any given point in time. Like Seldon, who can’t anticipate what any individual person will do but can foreshadow larger cultural outcomes, big data, Aiden and Michel argue, is the real-life equivalent of Asimov’s idea, which he termed “psychohistory” — an invaluable tool for big-picture insight into our collective future.

Perhaps more than anything, however, big data holds the promise of righting the balance of quality over quantity in our culture of information overabundance, helping us to extract meaning from (digital) matter. In a society that tweets more words every hour than all of the surviving ancient Greek texts combined, we certainly could use that.

Uncharted is an excellent and timely read in its entirety, both as a curious window into the secret life of language and as an important piece of advocacy for the value of the digital humanities in the age of data. Sample the project with Aiden and Michel’s entertaining and illuminating TED talk:

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15 FEBRUARY, 2013

Galileo vs. God: The Father of Modern Science on Religion, Truth, and Human Nature


“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

“As I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame,” Richard Feynman famously wrote in lamenting the “actively, intensely unscientific” state of mainstream culture. But true and tragic as that might be to a degree, we owe much of the enormous scientific progress we’ve made in the past millennium to Galileo himself, father of modern science. It seems fitting, in light of the recent historic papal resignation, to revisit Galileo’s monumental impact on the rift between science and religion as he dethroned Earth from the center of the heavens with his discovery of heliocentrism, sparking the Scientific Revolution.

In 1615, as the Roman Inquisition was beginning to investigate his heretical heliocentric model of the universe, Galileo — who knew how to flatter his way to support — wrote to Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. The lengthy letter, found in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (public library), explores the relationship between science and scripture. Galileo bemoans his critics who “remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer” and follows the three rules to refuting any argument that Susan Sontag would outline half a millennium later, making an eloquent case for why blind adherence to sacred texts shouldn’t be used to disarm the validity of scientific truth.

He begins:

To the Most Serene Grand Duchess Mother:

Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction.

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill-suited to their purposes.


These men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply with little judgement to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.

Galileo laments a tendency of the human spirit to more easily rally around bullying than around celebrating, something we’ve seen compounded by the anonymity of the web today. He writes:

It is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement.

Condemning the practice of taking biblical passages at face value without critical thinking and deeper semantic reflection — something that persists even today in matters of creationism vs. evolution and marriage equality — Galileo argues, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did five centuries later, that abandoning reason and evidence is a sign of both spiritual and intellectual laziness:

Now as to the false aspersions which they so unjustly seek to cast upon me, I have thought it necessary to justify myself in the eyes of all men, whose judgment in matters of religion and of reputation I must hold in great esteem. I shall therefore discourse of the particulars which these men produce to make this opinion detested and to have it condemned not merely as false but as heretical. To this end they make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters — where faith is not involved — they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense.


Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.

He stresses the importance of interpreters and sense-makers in extracting truth from scripture, admonishing against the tendency to form an opinion because it is popular and thus easy, rather than because it is wise:

People who are unable to understand perfectly both the Bible and the science far outnumber those who do understand them. The former, glancing superficially through the Bible, would arrogate to themselves the authority to decree upon every question of physics on the strength of some word which they have misunderstood, and which was employed by the sacred authors for some different purpose. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

Speaking to the same friction between “the Truth of the Universe” and “human truth” that Einstein and Tagore debated centuries later, Galileo points out that rather than an antidote to the divine, nature itself is a manifestation of divinity:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.

At the heart of Galileo’s argument is a reminder that it is ignorance that drives knowledge; he writes:

Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that ‘Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know.’


Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: “That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

Of those who tend to conflate opinion with fact, Galileo admonishes:

Let them freely admit that although they may argue that a position is false, it is not in their power to censure a position as erroneous.

Sharing in the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s famous words“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Galileo calls for standing by personal convictions even when they prove unpopular amongst the masses:

In my opinion no one … should close the road to free philosophizing about mundane and physical things, as if everything had already been discovered and revealed with certainty. Nor should it be considered rash not to be satisfied with those opinions which have become common. No one should be scorned in physical disputes for not holding to the opinions which happen to please other people best…

In the concluding paragraphs, Galileo admonishes against confirmation bias and the filter bubble of information that causes an echo chamber of opinion for those who would rather be self-righteous than fully understand:

Those who believe an argument to be false may much more easily find the fallacies in it than men who consider it to be true and conclusive. … The more the adherents of an opinion turn over their pages, examine the arguments, repeat the observations, and compare the experiences, the more they will be confirmed in that belief.

Complement this with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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