Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

03 JANUARY, 2013

The Birth of Our Modern Obsession with Maps

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From Ptolemy to Richard Dawkins, or how customization in Renaissance Venice sparked a cartographic craze.

Throughout history, we’ve used maps as works of art, scientific models of the world, and visual metaphors. But how did cartography come to play such a central role in our daily lives? That’s precisely what Simon Garfield explores in On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (UK; public library) — a fine addition to these favorite books on maps, peering into the roots of modern mapmaking through trivia-like factlets and curious historical anecdotes.

In fact, the story of our infatuation with maps is as much a story of scientific ingenuity as it is of artistic acumen and clever marketing, with a side of evolutionary biology to boot. And it all began with ur-astronomer Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD and spent the majority of his life studying at the Great Library of Alexandria. Garfield writes:

Ptolemy’s Geographia … was a two-part interpretation of the world, the first consisting of his methodology, the second of a huge list of names and cities and other locations, each with a coordinate. If the maps in a modern-day atlas were described rather than drawn they would look something like Ptolemy’s work, a laborious and exhausting undertaking, but one based on what we would now regard as a blindingly simple grid system. In the seventh section of Geographia (there were eight in all), Ptolemy provided detailed descriptions for the construction of not just a world map, but twenty-six smaller areas. No original copies have survived, and the closest we can get to it is a tenth-century Arab description of a colored map — though whether that was an original or merely inspired by his text is unknown, and at any rate, it no longer exists.

The modern winds of change: Ptolemy's classic map of the world, beautifully rendered in 1482 by the German engraver Johannes Schnitzer of Armsheim.

The influence of Ptolemy’s world map, which went on to become one of 100 diagrams that changed the world, was monumental. But, lest we forget that cartography reflects political power structures and propaganda, Ptolemy’s map was full of geopolitical inaccuracies:

As one would expect, Ptolemy had a skewed vision of the world. But while the distortion of Africa and India are extreme, and the Mediterranean is too vast, the placement of cities and countries within the Greco-Roman empire is far more accurate. Ptolemy offered his readers two possible cylindrical projections — the attempt to project the information from a three-dimensional sphere onto a two-dimensional plane — one ‘inferior and easier’ and one ‘superior and more troublesome.’ He gives due credit to a key source, Marinus of Tyre, who had advanced the gazetteer listings system a few decades earlier, assigning his locations not merely a latitude and longitude, but also an estimated distance between them. (Marinus had another claim, too: his map data was the first to include both China and the Antarctic.)

Rather than lamenting his inaccuracies, however, Ptolemy embraced them as an opportunity to exercise his imagination, which introduced an element of opportune serendipity to early explorers’ journeys:

Ptolemy boasted that he had greatly increased the list of cities available to the cartographer (there were about 8,000), and also disparaged the accuracy of Marinus’s measurements. But he had his own flaws. Indeed, the map historian R.V. Tooley suggests that Ptolemy stood apart from his predecessors not just in his brilliance but in his disregard for science. Where earlier cartographers were willing to leave blanks on the map where their knowledge failed, Ptolemy could not resist filling such empty spaces with theoretical conceptions. … [T]his had the uncanny ability to send ambitious sailors, Columbus among them, to places they had no intention of seeing.

But instead of the boon of mapmaking one would expect after Ptolemy’s innovations, the world fell into what Garfield calls “the cartographic dark ages” for about a thousand years. Both the Romans and the Byzantines failed to advance Ptolemy’s work, and it wasn’t until the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s atlas and its translation from Greek into Latin in 1450s Venice that the modern cartographic vision of the world was finally born — and, along with it, our obsession with maps.

Indeed, what sparked that cultural love affair was an unexpected feature we, with our characteristic presentism bias, have come to see as distinctly modern: DIY customization and the personalized map. Half a millennium before Mapalong and Findery, custom atlas books gave rise to the mapping revolution. Garfield writes:

It was in Venice that the atlas became a craze. In the 1560s mapsellers had the idea of allowing customers to build their own atlas from the stock on display. If you didn’t like the Spanish maps on offer, you simply didn’t put them in your book. But if you were intrigued with the emerging face of South America you could choose two or three (perhaps conflicting) impressions. Most buyers would select one single-sheet copy of the latest work of the leading cartographers — Giacomo Gastaldi was strong on Africa and Arabia, whilst you might choose Paolo Forlani for South America and George Lily for the British Isles. These would then be folded and bound between covers of your choice, a unique and discerning collection, the cartographic iPod of its day.

But, Garfield argues, the cultural role of maps extends far beyond Renaissance merchandising tricks and well into our very evolutionary development. He cites the work of Richard Dawkins, who has argued in Unweaving the Rainbow that primitive mapping allowed hunter-gatherers to communicate their tracking plans before the development of language:

A tracker would be ‘fully accustomed to the idea of following a trail, and imagining it laid out on the ground as a life-size map and the temporal graph of the movements of an animal. What could be more natural than for the leader to seize a stick and draw in the dust a scale model of such a temporal picture: a map of movement over a surface?’

This, of course, is also the beginning of cave paintings — humans and animals depicted in their daily round of survival, with representational figures standing for something else, and introducing the concept of scale and directional arrows and spatial difference.

But as for the brain, we may have found the reason for expansion and sophistication. Richard Dawkins concludes with a question: ‘Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?’

The rest of On the Map goes on to explore such fascinating facets of cartographic history as the gender bias in how maps are made, FDR and Churchill’s quest to design the perfect globe, how Lord Byron popularized the term “guidebook,” and what breakthroughs in neuroimaging tell us about the brain’s unique capacity for spatial orientation.

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01 JANUARY, 2013

What Is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History

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“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.”

After those collections of notable definitions of art, science, and philosophy, what better way to start a new year than with a selection of poetic definitions of a peculiar phenomenon that is at once more amorphous than art, more single-minded than science, and more philosophical than philosophy itself? Gathered here are some of the most memorable and timeless insights on love, culled from several hundred years of literary history — enjoy.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was in some ways an extremist about love but also had a healthy dose of irreverence about it, in The Sirens of Titan:

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

Anaïs Nin, whose wisdom on love knew no bounds, in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953:

What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.

Stendhal in his fantastic 1822 treatise on love:

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. … there are no age limits for love.

C. S. Lewis, who was a very wise man, in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Lemony Snicket in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid:

Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.

Susan Sontag, whose illustrated insights on love were among last year’s most read and shared articles, in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

Charles Bukowski, who also famously deemed love “a dog from hell,” in this archival video interview:

Love is kind of like when you see a fog in the morning, when you wake up before the sun comes out. It’s just a little while, and then it burns away… Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality.

Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.

Ambrose Bierce, with the characteristic wryness of The Devil’s Dictionary:

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Katharine Hepburn in Me : Stories of My Life:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, he of great wisdom, in The Conquest of Happiness:

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it even more forcefully in The Brothers Karamazov:

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explaining the importance of evidence in science and in life:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Paulo Coelho in The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession:

Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.

James Baldwin in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction, 1948-1985:

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore:

Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Airman’s Odyssey: Night Flight / Wind Sand & Stars / Flight to Arras:

Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

Honoré de Balzac, who knew a thing or two about all-consuming love, in Physiologie Du Mariage:

The more one judges, the less one loves.

Louis de Bernières in Corelli’s Mandolin:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

E. M. Forster in A Room with a View:

You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.

English novelist Iris Murdoch, cited by the great Milton Glaser in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer:

Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.

But perhaps the truest, if humblest, of them all comes from Agatha Christie, who echoes Anaïs Nin above in her autobiography:

It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.

Archival postcards courtesy the New York Public Library

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31 DECEMBER, 2012

British vs. American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics

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A visual time-capsule of political parallels and contrasts.

This month marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics. After recently coming upon some fantastic mid-century ISOTYPE infographics comparing and contrasting Great Britain and the United States, I embarked upon a quest to hunt down one of the last surviving copies of the book from which they came — America and Britain: Three Volumes in One (UK; public library), originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

With 53 ISOTYPE charts in color created by Neurath himself and 97 black-and-white photographs from various government archives, the book “brings together all the more important aspects of America and Britain” in three different sections: Only an Ocean Between explores “how Britain and America are alike or are different in their climate, their geography, their natural and human resources, their transport facilities, and other basic conditions of life and work”; Our Private Lives contrasts family life in both countries — “domestic habits and customs, how the British and Americans court and get married, build and furnish homes, shop, cook and eat, work and play, go to church and school”; Our Two Democracies at Work examines political structures in Britain and America.

This having been an election year in the U.S. and thus a boon for political design, I was particularly intrigued by the infographics in the third part of the book. More than a mere treasure trove of vintage graphic design, however, these charts present not only a parallel time-capsule of mid-century politics in Britain and the United States, but also a fascinating and rather visceral reminder of how much has changed over the past half-century — and how much has remained nearly the same.

D. W. Brogan writes in the foreword to the section:

Luck has played its part in the history of Britain and of the United States. Much of their success is explicable in terms of geography, natural resources, the happy conjunction of time and place. But there remains an element that it is and was easy to underrate, especially when a bogus realism and a naive materialism led to a depreciation of the traditional importance given to politics.

It is the basic merit of this book that it calls our attention to the role of political institutions and American and British life. It is made plain here that much of the success of the British and American peoples has been made possible because they found or made institutions that not only suited them at the beginning, but continued to suit them — with necessary and sometimes very expensive adaptations. But a consequence of this process of continuous adaptation is that as each system of government has been modified by historical experience — and has affected the historical development of the country concerned — the political habits of the British and American peoples have diverged more and more.

For a nitpicky observation of the era’s characteristic gender bias, note that all the Senators and Representatives are depicted using the male-figure pictogram — a choice that would be particularly anachronistic today, in the year of binders full of political diversity:

As a lover of famous city grids, I was also delighted by these two maps of London and New York’s growth:

Complement these vintage gems with the story of ISOTYPE’s birth.

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