Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

26 APRIL, 2012

Free Radicals: How Anarchy and Serendipity Fueled Science, from Newton to Tesla to Steve Jobs

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How Goethe fueled Tesla, why Newton pricked his own eye, and other lessons in breaking the rules of science.

What goes on at the moment of discovery? Is it a flash or a slow burn? Does it come at the end of a long day of work, or upon waking in the morning? Artists might evade explanation and just call it their “muse“, but what about scientists? Science is supposed to come from a rational source, a set of long equations or a series of dogged experiments. But the truth — to which some of history’s greatest scientists can attest — is far more irrational: Discovery is anarchy, inspiration is unexplainable, and getting that Nobel Prize might just be dumb luck.

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks is the story of scientific rule-breakers, the men and women who experimented on themselves, had fantastic visions and unexplainable hunches, and took once-in-a-lifetime risks, all in the name of pursuing curiosity.

A corridor at Allied Chemical in 1967, by Eliot Erwitt

After the second world war, Brooks explains, scientists were suffering from an image problem. They had created the bomb, cracked the enigma machine, developed nerve gas, and performed experiments on prisoners of war. “You scientists,” declared a 1960s TV drama, “you kill half the world, and the other half can’t live without you.”

After the mad-scientist archetype had done its damage, it was time to rebrand the working scientist, clocking in from 9 to 5 in a crisp white lab coat. Indeed, for the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were perceived as subservient, rule-abiding, lab-dwellers. But for the majority of scientific history, this was simply not the case.

The charicature of Humpry Davy's laughing gas experiments, by James Gillray

Much of medical history involved scientists experimenting on themselves. Issac Newton once stuck a blunt needle, or bodkin, in his eye just so he could record what happened: “there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles… I continued to rub my eye [with the] bodkin.” In the eighteenth-century Sir Humpry Davy began a series of notorious experiments with nitrous oxide by delivering himself the first dose:

This evening… I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever — a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Sometimes, as with Davy, self-experimentation led to a moment of inspiration. Kary Mullins, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for gene copy-technology, would often use LSD to create “a mind-opening experience… much more important than any courses I ever took.” Steve Jobs also called LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

'The glow retreats, done is our day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…' Nikola Tesla was reciting his Goethe poem when he saw his vision of alternating current.

Some of these inspirational hallucinations were undrugged and out of the blue. Nikola Tesla famously developed the self-starting alternating current motor after walking in a Budapest park and reading a passage of Goethe, when he was struck with a vision of a rotating magnetic field. While working on the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi had planned to induce radioactivity by shooting a lead target with neutrons, but at the last minute switched out the lead for paraffin for no apparent reason. “It was just like that,” he wrote, “no advanced warning, no conscious, prior reasoning.” For the first time, the experiment worked.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the secret to creativity was knowing how to hide one’s sources. Not because they were necessarily wrong, although fudged numbers were a part of Einstein’s success, but because the sources were often times unexplainable. One Nobel Prize winner described a “feeling of guilt about suppressing the part chance and good fortune played” in the work that earned him the holy grail of scientific acclaim.

Steve Jobs on LSD: 'one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.' The drug was popular among Silicon Valley pioneers.

“Scientific anarchy may not be beautiful,” writes Brooks, “but it gets the job done.” Free Radicals illuminates the role of the irrational in science, the mistakes that make scientists human, and reveals that breakthroughs that change our lives in the most fundamental ways may have the most serendipitous origins.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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24 APRIL, 2012

Happy Birthday, Hubble: Celebrating More than Two Decades of Stunning Space Images

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From black holes to star births, or what decades of cosmic awe have to do with the future of space exploration.

It’s a bittersweet time for space exploration. On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery recently rolled into its “new home” — a polite way to say it’s become space taxidermy — but Hubble’s legacy endures, having engendered some of the most spectacular space images humanity has ever glimpsed, and there’s hardly a better way to celebrate it than with National Geographic’s Hubble: Imaging Space and Time, the most glorious collection of space images since Michael Benson’s Far Out. With more than 120 breathtaking photographs that take us to the very edge of known space, contextualized in the Hubble’s history, the lavish tome looks back on two decades of the telescope’s service in orbit and sets the stage for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled launched in 2013.

From black holes to star births to giant galaxies cannibalizing smaller ones, the images capture the thriving ecosystem of the cosmos, with all its magnificent nebulae, dazzling stars, and majestic planets.

Here are some of my favorite Hubble gems of all time.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054.

Taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003, this image captures the red planet some 34,647,420 miles from Earth.

A mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

A ribbon of gas, a very thin section of a supernova remnant caused by a stellar explosion that occurred more than 1,000 years ago, floats in our galaxy. The supernova that created it was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans.

Saturn's dynamic auroras

Section of M51 with Progenitor Star

Saturn's rings in ultraviolet light

The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Star birth in Galaxy M83

New red spot appears on Jupiter

Hubble/Subaru Composite image of star-forming region S106

Face-on Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982

The Egg Nebula

Saturn with rings tilted towards the Earth

At a time when the future of space exploration is hanging by a thread, Hubble: Imaging Space and Time is a magnificent living manifesto for just what’s at stake.

Images courtesy of NASA

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24 APRIL, 2012

A Journey to the End of the World: Tracing Polar Explorer Shackleton’s Footsteps a Century Later

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What a seal bodyguard and 2,200-year-old moss have to do with a watershed moment in exploration history.

On April 24, 1916, five men led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition, set out on an 870-nautical-mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. Shackleton and his crew were marooned on Elephant Island after losing their ship to the Weddell Sea.

They were coming to their own rescue.

Medusa Kelp in Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.

A small selection of the 300,000 King Penguins in Gold Harbor (a.k.a. 'Penguinpalooza')

Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.

Grytviken Whaling Station Torqued Ellipses (For Richard Serra)

The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.

Elephant seals in Gold Harbor

The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary — just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)

Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I took some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks — the needles in a polar haystack.

2,200-year-old moss bank, growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossilized bank

Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet.

Landscape, South Georgia

View of Elephant Island, looking east

If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.

The Grytviken maritime graveyard, guarded by a giant elephant seal

I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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