Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

15 MARCH, 2012

The Three Astronauts: A Vintage Semiotic Children’s Book about Tolerance by Umberto Eco

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An American, a Russian, and a Chinese walk into a semiotic space rocket.

Last month, we explored The Bomb and the General, a little-known 1966 children’s book by celebrated novelist, list-lover, and philosopher Umberto Eco, which offered a conceptual introduction to semiotics — the study of signs and symbols. The book was part of a trilogy, the second installment of which, titled The Three Astronauts (I tre cosmonauti), came out later that year and featured the same beautiful, abstract illustrations of Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, full of recurring symbols teaching the child to draw connections between text and image.

It tells the inspired and irreverent story of space exploration and world peace as a Martian shows concern for a frightened bird and teaches three astronauts — an American, a Russian, and a Chinese — a lesson in tolerance despite difference.

One fine morning three rockets took off from three different places on Earth.

In the first there was an American, happily whistling a bit of jazz.
In the second there was a Russian, singing ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman.’
In the third there was a Chinese, singing a beautiful song — though the other two thought he was all out of tune.”

Like The Bomb and the General, The Three Astronauts is a fine addition to these little-known but fantastic children’s books by famous authors of adult literature.

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09 MARCH, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate on the Spirit of Exploration

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On the heroism of curiosity, or what The Little Prince can teach us about longing for infinity.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently made a chill-giving case for the whimsy of the Universe, is among our era’s most articulate advocates and storytellers of science. On March 7, Tyson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of space exploration — an urgent message at time when space funding is at an all-time law and Carl Sagan’s vision lives on only as a poetic lament.

Tyson opens with a beautiful quote from French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, better-known as the author of The Little Prince — a philosophy treasure chest all its own:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Any nation, any time, has the capacity to create a hero. It just has to have ambitions with goals set.

[…]

If people see NASA as a charity agency for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, they are not understanding the actual growth NASA has played in the growth of this nation — and the economic growth of this nation.

[…]

The pathway from the investment to the return on the dollar takes a little longer than an elevator ride to explain… Innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed, the culture of innovation spills over. Everyone feels like tomorrow is something they want to invent and bring into the present. That’s the culture that so many of us grew up with, and that’s the culture that so many of us who read about it want to resurrect going forward. Without this, we just move back to the caves.”

So what happened between the golden age of space exploration, when the design of the spacesuit was a feat of cross-disciplinary ambition and excitement oozed even from the ad pages of science magazines, and today? When did we forget that infinity beckons? Perhaps Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said that the universe is made of stories, not of atoms, but the stories we tell about those atoms are the fabric of our understanding, our culture, and our society. Without cosmic storytellers like Tyson, the universe would contract into a ball of anthropocentricity — next thing we know, we’re back to believing the Earth is the center of the universe.

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, isn’t merely an eloquent case for space exploration — it’s an intelligent and necessary manifesto for rekindling an infinitely important torch of human curiosity.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 2005

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What evolution has to do with unsent letters and everything that’s wrong with war.

It’s hard to define the essence of the great Kurt Vonnegut‘s gift, but it might have a lot to do with the precision of his humor’s arrow, which pierces the very heart of the human condition and contemporary culture. In 2005, shortly after the release of his final* book, A Man Without a Country — a collection of short personal reflections on everything from the differences between men and women to the double-edged swords of technology to the importance of humor — an 82-year-old Vonnegut appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Steward, proving his wit every bit as sharp and his social commentary every bit as astute as it ever was, tackling everything from creationism to the Bush administration to overpopulation to the Iraq war.

Underpinning his sharp satire, however, is a certain kind of sadness, perhaps one only palpable to those who have devoured Vonnegut’s revealing recent biography, one of the 11 best biographies and memoirs of 2011.

Jon Stewart: I always felt in your writing that you were both admiring of man but disappointed in him.

Kurt Vonnegut: Yes, well, I think we are terrible animals. And I think our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us and should.

For more Vonnegut gold, see the author’s fictional interviews with luminaries and his NPR interview in Second Life mere months before his death.

* In 2009, the excellent posthumous anthology Armageddon in Retrospect was released, collecting 12 never-before-published essays.

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