Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

11 JULY, 2011

Space Shuttle’s Legacy: A Carl Sagan Remix

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What Koyaanisqatsi has to do with William Shatner and the future of space exploration.

We’ve seen — and loved — our share of Carl Sagan remixes over the years. This month, as NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle took its final launch, Reid Gower has commemorated the program’s momentous legacy with another fantastic Carl Sagan mashup, remixing voiceover from Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot with classic footage from sources as varied as Baraka, Stephen Hawkins’ Into The Universe, BBC’s The Cell and Sagan’s own Cosmos, among many more.

We had an expansive run in the ’60s and the ’70s. You might have thought, as I did then, that our species would be on Mars before the century was over. But, instead, we’ve pulled inward. Robots aside, we’ve backed off from the planets and the stars. I keep asking myself: is it a failure of nerve, or a sign of maturity?” ~ Carl Sagan

The remix is part of Gower’s excellent ongoing Sagan Series. For more fan-made NASA love, don’t miss these two remarkable tributes, as well as this beautiful NASA-produced documentary about Space Shuttle’s legacy narrated by none other than William Shatner.

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07 JULY, 2011

Ordering the Heavens: A Visual History of Mapping the Universe

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From Copernicus to Ancient Korea, or what the Chinese concept of change has to do with Aztec astrology.

The love of maps is a running theme here at Brain Pickings, from these 7 must-read books on creative cartography to, most recently, BBC’s fantastic documentary on important medieval maps. Humanity’s long history of visual sensemaking is as much a source of timeless inspiration as a living record of how our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it evolved. It seems like the farther from the known mapmakers’ imaginations traveled, the more fascinating their maps became. And hardly does the unknown glimmer with more alluring sparkle than the cosmos. Explaining and Ordering the Heavens is a fantastic online exhibition from The Library of Congress, examining over 8 centuries of humanity’s evolving views of the universe, from ancient Buddhist cosmological maps to Galileo’s seminal work in astronomy to Persian celestial globes and more. Gathered here is a curated selection of images from the exhibition, alongside the original caption text accompanying them.

The Emperor's Astronomy

Petrus Apianus. Astronomicum Caesareum. (The Emperor's Astronomy). Ingolstadt, Germany: 1540.

The 'Emperor's Astronomy'(dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) elegantly depicts the cosmos and heavens according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. By means of hand-colored maps and moveable paper parts (volvelles), Petrus Apianus (1495-1552) laid out the mechanics of a universe that was earth- and human-centered. Within three years of Apianus's book, this view was challenged by Copernicus's assertion that the earth revolved around the sun, making this elaborate publication outdated.

Popular Sixteenth-Century Scientific Work

Petrus Apianus and Gemma Frisius. Cosmographia, Petri Apiani. additis euisdem argumenti libellis ipsius Gemmaa Frisii. (Cosmographia of Petrus Apianus,carefully corrected and with all errors set to right by Gemma Frisius.) Antwerp: Arnoldi Birckmanni, 1564.

Cosmographia (1524) by German mathematician Petrus Apianus (1492-1552) provides a layman's introduction to subjects such as astronomy, geography, cartography, surveying, navigation, and mathematical instruments. In this popular edition with changes by another noted mathematician, Gemma Frisius (1508-1555), movable paper instruments (volvelles) enabled readers to solve calendar problems and find the positions of the sun, moon, and the planets. Apianus depicted the cosmos according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, a theory challenged by Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) in Apianus's lifetime.

A Heliocentric Cosmos

Nicolaus Copernicus. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI. Nuremberg: Ioh. Petreius, 1543.

This volume is the first edition of the work that set forth evidence that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Written by Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and published just before his death, the work was met by tremendous opposition because it contradicted religious beliefs of the time. The Copernican views provided the basis for the later work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Ancient Chinese Concept of Change

The Astronomical Phenomena. (Tien Yuan Fa Wei). Compiled by Bao Yunlong in the 13th century. Ming Dynasty edition, 1457-1463.

The book is an explanation of the 'Ba Gua' used in the Yi-ching (I Ching or Classic of Changes, also known as the Book of Divination). According to this Chinese world view, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles--yin and yang. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and five associated agents, which affect the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change.

Earth-Centered Universe View

William Cuningham. 'Coelifer Atlas' from The Cosmographical Glasse. London: John Day, 1559.

This illustration from William Cuningham's The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) represents Ptolemy's conception of the universe. Atlas, dressed like an ancient king, bears on his shoulders an armillary sphere representing the universe. In the center of the sphere is earth, made up of the elements of earth and water. Surrounding the earth are two more elemental spheres, for air and for fire. Other bands represent the spheres of the planets, the firmament of fixed stars, the crystalline sphere, the primum mobile, and the signs of the zodiac. Below Atlas are lines on cosmological themes from Virgil's Aeneid.

Descartes's Mechanical Philosophy

René Descartes. Principia philosophiae. Amsterdam: Apud L. Elzevirium, 1644.

According to French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the universe operated as a continuously running machine which God had set in motion. Since he rejected Newton's theory of gravity and idea of a vacuum in space, Descartes argued that instead the universe was composed of a 'subtle matter' he named 'plenum,' which swirled in vortices like whirlpools and actually moved the planets by contact. Here, these vortices carry the planets around the Sun.

First Atlas of the Moon

Johannes Hevelius. Selenographia sive lunae descriptio, atque accurata tum macularum eius, quam motuum diversorum. Danzig: Hunefeldianis, 1647.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Picturing the Universe

Konrad von Megenberg, Buch der Natur (Book of Nature). Augsberg: Johannes Bämler, 1481.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Buddhist Cosmological Map

Sekai dais no zu (Buddhist Cosmological Map). Japan: 1830

This map represents the Buddhist mythological and real worlds. The upper half of the map depicts the seven great forests interwoven with seven rivers, the Sun God Palace, and the 'Great Jambu Tree.' The tree is described as 10,000 miles high and bearing the most delicious fruits. Only those who cultivated the divine power can visit the tree. The central section is the Sun God Palace in heaven.

Traditional Korean Maps

Chonhado (World Map) from Chonha Chido (Map of the World).Hand-copied manuscript map. Korea: mid-eighteenth century.

From the oldest known examples (perhaps from the sixteenth century) to almost the end of the tradition in the nineteenth century, the content and structure of traditional Korean maps such as these examples changed very little. The map of the world (or Chonhado) presents Korea, China, and their East Asian neighbors surrounded by rings of exotic, mythical lands and peoples and reflects the traditional Korean view that the world was flat. Being a peninsula, Korea stood out on the map and was close to China, the classical center of Asian civilization.

Tibetan Astrological Thangka

Srid pa ho (Divination Chart). Tibet, late twentieth century. Paint on cloth.

Tibetan astrology depicts the signs and symbols of the universe in this traditional format, possibly introduced from China as early as the seventh century and popular in Tibet since the seventeenth century. The central figure is a large golden tortoise, representing the Bodhisattva of Knowledge, upon whom are drawn various geomantic diagrams, such as the nine magic squares and symbols of the eight planets. This type of Thangka is often hung in homes for protection and displayed for special occasions.

Constellations from Classical Antiquity

Reiner Ottens. Atlas maior cvm generales omnivm totius orbis regnorvm. Amsterdam: 1729. Hand-colored engraving.

The star charts of Reiner Ottens (1698-1750) were intended first and foremost as a feast for the eye and had no pretensions to scientific precision or the presentation of the most recent cartographic information. The constellations on this chart are elaborately represented by figures from classical antiquity. In the corners of the chart are illustrations of four European observatories, including that of the noted sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). This atlas is a seven-volume compendium of assembled-to-order star charts and geographical maps.

Aztec Calendar Stone

Antonio de León y Gama. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras. Mexico City: F. Zuniga y Ontiveros, 1792.

In 1790 workers repaving near the Cathedral in Mexico City discovered a stone eleven and one-half feet in diameter inscribed with the Aztec calendar. When in use, the stone would have had bright polychrome colors and would have held sacrificed human hearts that the Aztecs believed were needed to feed the sun and keep civilization alive. This first study (pictured to the left) of the stone explained its 260-day divinatory cycle. The stone's colossal size, elaborate patterning, and symbolic imagery have made it an unofficial emblem of Mexico.

Omens in the Sun

Burmese astronomical-astrological manuscript, mid-nineteenth century. Accordion-style paper manuscript.

This manuscript of the mid-nineteenth century, possibly of Sgau Karen origin (the Karen are a minority people in the mountainous parts of Burma), shows various appearances in the sun, the moon, clouds, etc., and indicates the primarily bad omens these appearances foretell. Explanations in English were added to this manuscript by a nineteenth-century American missionary.

Astronomy Cards

Jehoshaphat Aspin. A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy. London, 1825.

An unidentified lady, referred to by her nom-de-plume, Jehoshaphat Aspin, designed these whimsical astronomy cards. Most of the names of the zodiacal constellations date from the early Babylonian period, possibly from the Sumerians. The zodiac itself is a mathematical concept, which does not appear to be in use prior to 400 B.C. It provides a frame of reference in which the positions of the sun, moon, and planets could be expressed by their angular distance from the beginning of the sign in which they were located.

See more gems in the Library of Congress online exhibition. You can read more about how the exhibition was envisioned, curated and brought to life here.

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05 JULY, 2011

Spomenik: Eerie Retrofuturistic Monuments of the Eastern Bloc

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The ghosts of communism, or what alien architecture has to do with societal memory and Serbia’s mountains.

Having grown up in the former Eastern Bloc, I vividly remember the bizarre and beautiful monuments commissioned by the communist leaders of the 1960s and 70s, which remained as retrofuturistic remnants after the fall of communism, like the undying ghosts of an era most sought to forget but would always remember. These are the subject of Spomenik — a peculiar book by contemporary Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers, who took a laborious trek across former Yugoslavia and The Balkans to photograph the strikingly beautiful yet odd structures tucked away in the region’s mountains. The results are haunting and eerily powerful, evoking a felt sense of a fold in the space-time fabric of sociopolitical reality.

Kempenaers did not set out as a documentary photographer, but first and foremost as an artist seeking to create a new image. An image so powerful that it engulfs the viewer. He allows the viewer to enjoy the melancholy beauty of the Spomeniks, but in so doing, forces us to take a position on a social issue.” ~ Willem Jan Neutelings

Podgaric

Kruševo

Kozara

Petrova Gora

Kosmaj

Kadinjaca

Niš

Tjentište

Korenica

Jasenovac

Ilirska Bistrica

Tjentište

What’s most fascinating about the structures in Spomenik is that, up until the 1980s, they attracted millions of visitors, yet today they stand unknown by the younger generations and neglected by the older, their symbolism a fading flashbulb memory in the collective mind of their host cultures.

via MetaFilter | Images via Crack Two

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05 JULY, 2011

Before Walt Disney: 5 Animations by Early Cinema Pioneers

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What a shape-shifting egg has to do with racehorses and the science of facial expressions.

Animation is one of the most ubiquitous and all-permeating forms of visual communication today, seen everywhere from the multitude of TV channels dedicated solely to cartoons to the title sequences of our favorite movies to the reactive graphic interfaces our smartphones. And while most of us have a vague idea of how, when and where it all began, we tend to take for granted the incredible visual wizardry possible today. With that in mind, here’s a brief history of the beloved medium’s beginnings through the seminal work of five early animation pioneers.

COHL: FANTASMAGORIE (1908)

French cartoonist and animator Émile Cohl is often referred to as “the father of the animated cartoon.” The legend goes that in in 1907, when motion pictures were reaching critical mass, the 50-year-old Cohl was walking down the street and spotted a poster for a movie clearly stolen from one of his comic strips. He confronted the manager of the offending studio, Gaumont, in outrage and was hired on the spot as a scenarist — the person generating one-page story ideas for movies. Between February and May 1908, Cohl created Fantasmagorie, considered the first fully animated film ever made.

To create the animation, Cohl placed each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and traced the next drawing, reflecting the variations necessary to show movement, over it until he had some 700 drawings. Since chalkboard caricaturists were common vaudeville attractions in the era, the characters in the film look as though they’ve been drawn on a chalkboard, but it’s an illusion — Cohl filmed black lines on paper and printed them in negative to make his animations appear to be chalk drawings.

Fantasmagorie and dozens of other influential early films can be found on Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2: 1908-1916, with over ten hours of glorious raw material.

MÉLIÈS: THE PROLIFIC EGG (1902)

French filmmaker Georges Méliès is known as the first cinemagician for his early use of special effects in cinema. Between 1896 and 1914, he directed some 531 films, ranging from one to forty minutes in length, usually featuring single in-camera effects throughout each entire film. In 1902, he appeared in one of his own films, l’oeuf du sorcier (The Prolific Egg) — a groundbreaking exploration of scale, multiplication and transitions that truly sealed his reputation as a “cinemagician” and the father of special effects in film.

Méliès’ seminal work can be found in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), an outstanding 5-disc collection of 173 rare and rediscovered Méliès gems alongside a beautifully illustrated booklet featuring essays by acclaimed National Film Board of Canada animator Norman McLaren, and its sequel, Méliès Encore: 26 Additional Rare and Original Films by the First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1911).

MCCAY: LITTLE NEMO (1911)

Cartoonist and artist Winsor McCay (1869-1964) is often considered one of the fathers of “true” animation.

His 1911 film, Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, also referred to simply as Little Nemo and featured here last week, contains two minutes of pure animation at around 8:11, using sequential hand-illustration in a novel way not seen in previous films.

For more on McCay’s work and legacy, look no further than the stunning and illuminating Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. There’s also a wonderful Kickstarter project out to resurrect McCay’s last film, The Flying House — join us in supporting it.

BLACKTON: THE ENCHANTED DRAWING (1900)

British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton is credited with creating the first animation in America and was among the first in the world to use stop-motion as a storytelling technique. In 1896, Blackton, a reporter for the New York Evening World, was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his brand new Vitascope invention. In an age where wooing reporters was critical to success, Edison took Blackton to Black Maria, his studio-cabin, and created an impromptu film of Blackton doing a lightning sketch of Edison himself. Blackton became so infatuated with the technology that he soon founded the American Vitagraph Company and began producing films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900.

In the film, previously featured here, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine, then “removes” these last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react. Although the stop-motion sequence isn’t considered “true” animation in technical terms the way Little Nemo, which Blackman co-directed with McCay, is, the technique offered an early glimpse of what animation could become.

Blackton’s films are included in The Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921 — a fantastic collection of the work that sparked what became one of the most powerful and permeating movements in visual creativity.

MUYBRIDGE: WALTZING COUPLE (1893)

Though the work of English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge isn’t animation, his animal locomotion studies are among the earliest visual experiments with moving images, laying the foundations for later forms of videography.

In 1872, the Governor of California took a public position on a commonly debated question of the era: When a horse gallops, are all four of its hooves off the ground simultaneously. Most paintings of galloping horses at the time showed the front legs extended forwards and the rear legs extended backwards, so Governor Stanford sided with the “unsupported transit” theory and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. He hired Muybridge to settle the question, who enlisted a series of large cameras using glass plates placed in a line, each triggered by a thread as the horse passed. He paired that with a clockwork device. The images were then copied as silhouettes onto a disc, later viewed on a zoopraxiscope. In 1877, Muybridge finally settled Stanford’s question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford’s racehorse, Occident, fully airborne in the midst of a gallop.

In 1893, Muybridge used the phenakistoscope — an early animation device that harnessed the “persistence of vision” principle to create an illusion of motion — to extend his visual studies to animation.

Hans-Christian Adams offers an excellent account of Muybridge’s work and legacy in Eadweard Muybridge: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs, best examined in parallel with the work of Muybridge’s equally influential French contemporary, Étienne-Jules Marey.

For more on early animation, you won’t go wrong with Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey — the most ambitious history of animation from 1898-1928 ever published.

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