Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2015

The New Age of Wonder: Freeman Dyson on the Future of Science and Why Biologists Are the New Poets

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“A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote as he contemplated the shared heart of poetry and science in 1798. And yet sometime in the two centuries since, poetry and science seceded from this shared kingdom of knowledge into wholly separate, if not warring, countries.

In one of the twenty-one excellent essays in his Dreams of Earth and Sky (public library), physicist, mathematician, and venerable sage of science Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) argues that bridging this rift between poetry and science holds some of the most thrilling and even life-saving possibilities for the future of our species and our world.

Dyson — one of the most blazing minds of our time, who enters his nineties as a kind of modern-day Bertrand Russell of science, with Buckminster Fuller’s daring genius, Einstein’s firm grip on science, and Goethe’s gift for enchantment — writes in a beautiful piece titled “When Science and Poetry Were Friends”:

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from 'Beastly Verse.' Click image for more.

It was during the Age of Wonder that science and poetry first began communing, perhaps nowhere more so than in Goethe’s poetry inspired by the then-groundbreaking science of clouds. Dyson contemplates the circles of influence during this singular epoch of creative cross-pollination:

The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder.

Among the most substantive differences between that era and ours, Dyson points out, is the stark contrast between the “standing army of many thousands of professional scientists” today and the mere handful back then. But there is also one notable similarity — in both eras, ordinary citizens, or “amateurs,” were welcomed into the scientific world, be it the amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds in the eighteenth century or the DIY genetic test kits available to us today.

Indeed, Dyson suggests that the discovery of DNA and the bioengineering it made possible opened up the most exciting frontier of science — a remarkable opportunity to fully understand life and reimagine it at its highest potential, which ultimately requires an act of the poetic imagination. And because any technology of thought can be used toward both good and evil, this new frontier is one where we urgently need to reengage the poetic spirit with the enterprise of science. Nearly half a century after Ray Bradbury, perched on another major scientific precipice, remarked that “it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Dyson envisions a renaissance of the Romantic spirit in modern science:

One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art.

[…]

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs [with] academic professionals … and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.

Dreams of Earth and Sky is an immensely stimulating read in its entirety. Complement this particular thread of thought with sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and poet laureate Robert Hass’s beautiful conversation about science and poetry.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Tiny Creatures: The Marvelous World of Microbes, in an Illustrated Children’s Book

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A vibrant ode to science inspired by folk art.

“You are mostly not you,” microbial ecologist Rob Knight wrote in his fascinating exploration of the human microbiome, in which he pointed out that only 1% of the genes in our bodies are human and the remaining 99% are microbial. It’s a staggering realization even for grownups, so how are tiny humans to grapple with these tiny organisms and their enormous impact on us and the rest of life? That’s what zoologist and children’s book author Nicola Davies explores in Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (public library), with gorgeous art by English illustrator Emily Sutton — a marvelous addition to the best children’s books celebrating science.

The book is a clever exercise in scale, enlisting our human solipsism in understanding life-forms radically different from us by placing them in a comparative human context — for instance, a single drop of seawater can contain up to twenty million microbes, which Davies points out is about the same as the number of residents of New York State, and a teaspoon of soil can be populated by a billion microbes, comparable to the number of humans populating all of India.

Young readers are invited to explore the astonishing diversity of microbes in both form and function, not only relative to us — some make us sick, and some make us healthy — but relative to one another.

Sutton’s sensibility was greatly influenced by a single visit to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which left her enchanted with the aesthetic of folk art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her vibrant illustrations call to mind beloved mid-century creative duo Alice and Martin Provensen, who honed their craft on countless folk tales and fables.

Complement Tiny Creatures with a grownup tale of how microbes are redefining what it means to be human, then treat yourself and the young human in your life to more stimulating science books for kids, including a coloring book about evolution, the story of how Persian polymath Ibn Sina shaped modern medicine, and an allegory of quantum physics based on Alice in Wonderland.

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26 AUGUST, 2015

Mad About Monkeys: A Loving Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weird and Wonderful Kindred Creatures

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A captivating primer on our fellow primates, from belligerent baboons to brilliant macaques.

We share this planet we call home with an astonishing array of equally astonishing creatures. But, perhaps because we judge everything by our solipsistic human criteria, few elicit our admiring fascination more potently than monkeys — our fellow primates, which evolved some 35 million years ago; we share with them a distant common ancestor, from which we diverged on our separate evolutionary paths. (But, contrary to a common misconception, we did not evolve from monkeys.)

In Mad About Monkeys (public library), a wonderful addition to the best children’s books celebrating science, British illustrator Owen Davey presents a stunning and richly informative primer on these marvelous primates.

However wildly different the 260 known species of monkeys may be from one another and from us, we continue to share surprising commonality with these distant cousins — from our highly networked societies to our capacity for play, that peculiar activity serving no other purpose than providing pleasure and delight.

Davey traces how their evolutionary history set monkeys apart from gibbons, lemurs, and chimpanzees — lest we forget, Jane Goodall has spent a good chunk of her career patiently debunking the popular misconception that chimps are monkeys — and how monkeys migrated from Africa to Asia to North America to develop into the distinctly different Old World and New World classes.

With art that calls to mind Charley Harper and the golden age of mid-century children’s book illustration, Davey explores the glorious diversity of these weird and wonderful creatures, their sophisticated social life, and their elaborate communication style — from West Africa’s Diana monkeys, which send sentence-like messages to each other by combining a variety of call sounds, to Ethiopia’s geladas, which broadcast their reproductive readiness via the brightness of a skin patch on the female’s chest, to South and Central America’s howler monkeys, which are among Earth’s most vocal animals and have the loudest call of any primate.

Davey spotlights a few fascinating record-holders, including a Rhesus Macaque named Albert, who became the first primate to fly in space in June of 1949, more than a decade before the first human primate, and the Bearded Emperor Tamarin, which puts all of Williamsburg to shame and uncontestedly earns the title of Earth’s “best facial hair.”

From mythology to ecology, Davey explores both the role of monkeys in human culture and humanity’s responsibility toward them — the book’s final pages take a sobering look at the detrimental effects of deforestation on monkey habitats and explore what we can do, as individuals and as a civilization, to protect these remarkable but vulnerable kindred creatures.

Mad About Monkeys comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such treasures as the illustrated biography of Shackleton, Emily Hughes’s marvelous The Little Gardener and Wild, the imaginative encyclopedia Monsters & Legends, and the cosmic primer Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For an illustrated love letter to another magnificent mammal, see Jenni Desmond’s The Blue Whale.

Illustrations courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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06 AUGUST, 2015

Diane Ackerman on the Secret Life of the Senses and the Measure of Our Aliveness

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“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop…”

“How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” So marveled William Blake two centuries before we had the tools to confirm that, at the very least, every dog is a world of delight closed to our limited powers of sensorial perception. Out of such seemingly simple discoveries across the animal kingdom sprang the rattling realization that our notion of “reality” is really a plurality of radically divergent impressions, shaped by the singular biases of perception that each of us brings to our experience of the world. The same sliver of “reality” — a table, a flower, a city block — is experienced in a wholly different way by a bird, a dog, Blake, and you.

That plurality is what science historian and poet Diane Ackerman explores with unparalleled elegance in A Natural History of the Senses (public library) — her 1990 masterwork of science and poetics, which gave us the fascinating inner workings of smell.

Ackerman writes:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses… Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality.

Art by William Blake for John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' Click image for more.

Ackerman goes on to explore the biological machinery behind each of our senses as a function of consciousness and although the book is strewn with shimmering prose from cover to cover, it is in the closing pages that her sensibility rises toward Blake’s, folding the physical into the poetic in order to transcend it and enter the realm of the spiritual. Ackerman writes:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

[…]

Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

How wonderfully befitting that Ackerman, a Thoreau of science, should call to mind Thoreau himself and his defiant defense of “useful ignorance” in her closing lines:

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle, and learn by heart, there will still be vast unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. “For my part,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

A Natural History of the Senses, equal parts illuminating and elevating in its entirety, was followed by Ackerman’s equally magnificent A Natural History of Love. Complement this particular segment with Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is central to morality, Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery, and Wendell Berry on the essential role of ignorance in human progress.

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