Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Horizon’

20 APRIL, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond: BBC Untangles the Most Exponential Mystery

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‘There are infinitely many infinities, each one infinitely bigger than the last.’

From BBC’s fantastic Horizon series — which previously explored such intriguing topics as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, the volatile history of chemistry, Richard Feynman’s legacy, quantum mechanics, and the nature of time — comes To Infinity and Beyond, which teases apart the seemingly benign idea of infinity to pull you into a world of perplexing paradoxes.

What is the biggest number? Is the universe infinite? How did the universe begin? Might every event repeat again and again and again and again… Is the Earth just one of uncountable copies, tumbling through an unending void? Your intuition is no use here. Faith alone can’t save you.

Mathematicians have discovered there are infinitely many infinities, each one infinitely bigger than the last. And if the universe goes on forever, the consequences are even more bizarre. In an infinite universe, there are infinitely many copies of the Earth and infinitely many copies of you. Older than time, bigger than the universe and stranger than fiction. This is the story of infinity.

For complementary mind-bending reading, treat yourself to physicist Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing and David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, one of the 11 best science books of 2011.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375869832/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0375869832&adid=02YXM5MD2VFTBCC5WMM6&Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

09 APRIL, 2012

How Long Is a Piece of String? BBC and Comedian Alan Davies Explore Quantum Mechanics

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Making sense of 319.44 millimeters of infinity.

The fine folks at BBC’s Horizon series have previously explored such intriguing topics as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, the volatile history of chemistry, and what time really is.

In How Long is a Piece of String?, they enlist standup-comic-turned-physics-enthusiast Alan Davies in answering the seemingly simple question of the film’s title, only to find in it a lens — a very blurry lens — on the very fabric of reality. Along the way, Davies asks some of the world’s top scientists to measure his piece of string, gets repeatedly discombobulated by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (he of The Number Mysteries fame), and turns to quantum mechanics to try to work out where the individual atoms and particles that make up the string actually are. The result is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Your string does not actually possess a length. Somehow, by measuring it, we create a length for the string.

The matter of everybody in the world, the whole of the human race, amounts to a sugar cube. The rest is just space.

Reality, in some sense, does not exist unless we’re actually observing it. And it’s our act of observation that makes things real.

For a deeper dive into these most fascinating frontiers of human thought, you won’t go wrong with Brian Cox’s The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen.

@kirstinbutler

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14 DECEMBER, 2011

No Ordinary Genius: BBC Captures Richard Feynman’s Legacy

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Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.

As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle”, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.

When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT

At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:

In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.

HT @matthiasrascher

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 OCTOBER, 2011

BBC’s Volatile History of Chemistry

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How the elements came to be, or what alchemy and urine have to do with the God particle.

Chemistry is the science of matter, of everything we touch and, existential philosophy aside, of everything we are. And even though we brush up against it with every molecule of our bodies in every instant of our lives, most of us haven’t dedicated formal thought to it since high school. Now, thanks to the fine folks at BBC Four — who previously pondered such captivating issues as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is — you can refresh and enrich your understanding of this complex world with Chemistry: A Volatile History, a fascinating three-part series by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, exploring everything from the history of the elements to the rivalries and controversies that bedeviled scientific progress to the latest bleeding-edge attempts to split matter.

In Part 1, Discovering the Elements, Al-Khalili tackles one of the greatest detective stories in the history of science, tracing the steps of the chemists who risked their lives to find and fight for the building blocks of our entire world.

Part 2, The Order of the Elements, explores the 19th century chemists who set out to make sense of the elements, from working out their exact number to plotting them in one of the most intricate and brilliant intellectual organizational systems of all time: the periodic table. All throughout, bitter disputes and explosive experiments inflict fascinating chaos on this ultimate quest for order.

Part 3, The Power of the Elements, uncovers the incredible passion and, often, heartache that went into chemists’ efforts to command the extreme forces of nature and combine elements to build the modern world. From last century’s dramatic breakthroughs to a riveting tour of modern-day alchemy across some of the world’s best chemistry labs, Al-Khalili’s story not only offers an illuminating history of this fundamental science, but also reinstills a profound awe for the complexity and whimsy of our world.

For more on the wonderful and fascinating world of chemistry, don’t forget The Elements, Theodore Grey’s impressive book and app, They Might Be Giants’ lovely Here Comes Science educational album for kids, and Lauren Redniss’s stunning cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s science and romance.

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