Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

11 MAY, 2012

Richard Feynman Reveals the Key to Science in 63 Seconds

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“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

Richard Feynman — Nobel-winning physics icon, curiosity champion, graphic novel hero, bongo drummer, wager-maker, no ordinary genius — was born on May 11, 1918. To celebrate, here is one of Feynman’s most beloved classics, a 1964 lecture in which he distills with equal parts wit and wisdom the essence of the scientific method:

In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First we guess it; then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right; then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.

Here, Feynman corroborates beautifully what Stuart Firestein pinpointed nearly six decades later as the most important driver of science — ignorance, or the capacity to be wrong.

The excerpt comes from the 1993 PBS Feynman biography, The Best Mind Since Einstein, available below in its fascinating entirety.

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10 MAY, 2012

Graphing Jane Austen: Using Science to Extrapolate the Human Condition from Classical Literature

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What literary Darwinism reveals about universal values.

In 1959, C. P. Snow lamented the tragic disconnect between science and the humanities in his famed “two cultures” lecture. In Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, researchers Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, Daniel Kruger, and Jonathan Gottschall — who gave us the fascinating The Storytelling Animal earlier this week — embody Snow’s vision and bridge the gap between science and literary scholarship by borrowing from the evolutionary biology and modern data analytics to construct a model of human nature that explains the evolved psychology of character dynamics in nineteenth-century British novels.

Using the framework of the model, they asked a sample of several hundred readers to give numerical ratings on 2,000 characters from 202 British novels, including all of Jane Austen’s.

This exercise in literary Darwinism produced three key findings: (1) these novels have determinate “agonistic” structures of meaning — centered on protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters — that can be captured using the model’s framework; (2) the perceived differences between protagonists and antagonists are much more structurally pronounced than the differences between male and female characters; and (3) the agonistic structure of these novels fulfills an adaptive social function, wherein literature articulates and cultivates specific social values.

A few of the findings (PDF) follow, in unnecessarily ugly academic graphics. (Please, oh, please, would some talented literature-loving information designer care to spruce them up?)

The researchers examined the positive and negative emotional responses readers have to characters based on a number of character qualities, including sex, age, attractiveness, personality, motives, and mate selection criteria. Five key motive factors emerged — dominance, constructive effort, romance, subsistence, and nurture — which varied greatly across the male and female protagonists and antagonists, and which played a key role in readers’ emotional responses.

Personality was also broken down to five factors: extraversion (assertiveness and sociability), agreeableness (warmth and affiliative behavior), conscientiousness (organization and reliability), emotional stability (calmness and evenness of temper), and openness to experience (curiosity or mental life).

The authors sum up the findings in a conclusion that seems as true of literature as it is of real life:

Standing as a protagonist — a good major character — typically depends on a combination of prosociality and an active mental life.

Also found were normative differences in personality based on gender:

In personality factors and mate-selection criteria, female protagonists most fully exemplify the normative tendencies of good major characters. The norms of the novels are thus gynocentric or feminized.

Though some may argue that bringing the rigorous lens of scientific research to world of literature is a barbaric way to rob the latter of its whimsy, if we subscribe to the view that fiction illuminates reality, Graphing Jane Austen shines a spotlight that not only would make C. P. Snow proud but also helps better understand our culture’s relationship with constructs like personality, gender, and introversion.

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09 MAY, 2012

Maurice Sendak’s Unreleased Drawings and Intaglio Prints

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What an American printmaker has to do with Mozart.

After this morning’s bittersweetly funny Sendak remembrance, a trip to his more serious and obscure past: In 2003, Sendak collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on Brundibar — a WWII children’s opera, originally written by Czech composer Hans Krása, which the duo adapted into a book illustrated by Sendak and an opera for which Sendak designed the sets and costumes. But Sendak’s fascination with the opera dated back some three decades, to the 1970s, when he began collaborating with printmaker Kenneth Tyler while working on sets and costumes for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

As Marabeth Cohen-Tyler notes, these operas inspired him to create a wealth of sketches, drawings, and watercolors. Some of them appeared in his beloved book Nutcracker and others were printed at Tyler Graphics between 1977 and 1984, and again in 2002, employing lithography and intaglio processes. But circumstances prevented any of these editions from being published. The inventory of rare proofs, collected here as the project’s intaglio ghosts, was signed in 2002, and the prints divided three-ways between Sendak, to the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection, and to Tyler’s own personal collection. Sendak went on to hand-watercolor some of the black-and-white intaglios, including Wild Thing and Ida.

Wild thing, state

© Maurice Sendak

Wild thing, state II

© Maurice Sendak

Queen of the night

© Maurice Sendak

Study for the magic flute

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state VI

© Maurice Sendak

Nutcracker 1984

© Maurice Sendak

Jen Bekman Printeresting

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection

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