Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

18 APRIL, 2012

The Rainbow as a Metaphor for Understanding Consciousness

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‘The viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.’

The question of what makes us human has long occupied scientists and philosophers alike, and holding the promise of an answer is an understanding of consciousness.

Over at The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks talks to Riccardo Manzotti, who holds degrees in engineering and philosophy and teaches in the psychology department at Milan’s IULM University. Manzotti, a “radical externalist,” offers a model of consciousness he calls Spread Mind, proposing that consciousness is an intermediary between various distinct processes. The rainbow, he says, is the perfect example. Parks explains:

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them… But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the ‘internalists’ who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

(So even though Brian Cox’s explanation of why everything is connected to everything else may have been proven less than scientifically wholesome as it applies to quantum mechanics, the message at its heart might just be true of human consciousness.)

Manzotti is the author of Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin, which synthesizes the results of a workshop taking an externalist approach to art and examines the intersection of cognitive science and art.

The Dish

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16 APRIL, 2012

How 17 Equations Changed the World

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What Descartes has to do with C. P. Snow and the second law of thermodynamics.

When legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was setting out to release A Brief History of Time, one of the most influential science books in modern history, his publishers admonished him that every equation included would halve the book’s sales. Undeterred, he dared include E = mc², even though cutting it out would have allegedly sold another 10 million copies. The anecdote captures the extent of our culture’s distaste for, if not fear of, equations. And yet, argues mathematician Ian Stewart in In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, equations have held remarkable power in facilitating humanity’s progress and, as such, call for rudimentary understanding as a form of our most basic literacy.

Stewart writes:

The power of equations lies in the philosophically difficult correspondence between mathematics, a collective creation of human minds, and an external physical reality. Equations model deep patterns in the outside world. By learning to value equations, and to read the stories they tell, we can uncover vital features of the world around us… This is the story of the ascent of humanity, told in 17 equations.

From how the Pythagorean theorem, which linked geometry and algebra, laid the groundwork of the best current theories of space, time, and gravity to how the Navier-Stokes equation applies to modeling climate change, Stewart delivers a scientist’s gift in a storyteller’s package to reveal how these seemingly esoteric equations are really the foundation for nearly everything we know and use today.

Greek stamp showing Pythagoras's theorem

But the case for why we should even care about equations — and mathematics, and science in general — goes back much further. In 1959, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow lamented — as Jonah Lehrer did half a century later — the tragic divergence of the sciences and humanities in his iconic lecture, The Two Cultures:

A good many times I have been presented at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you ever read a work of Shakespeare’s?’

Snow later added:

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.

It is no coincidence, then, that some of the most revolutionary of the breakthroughs Stewart outlines came from thinkers actively interested in both the sciences and the humanities. Take René Descartes, for instance, who is best remembered for his timeless soundbite, Cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am. But Descartes’ interests, Stewart points out, extended beyond philosophy and into science and mathematics. In 1639, he observed a curious numerical pattern in regular solids — what was true of a cube was also true of a dodecahedron or an icosahedron, for all of which subtracting from the number of faces the number of edges and then adding the number of vertices equaled 2. (Try it: A cube has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 vertices, so 6 – 12 + 8 = 2.) But Descartes, perhaps enchanted by philosophy’s grander questions, saw the equation as a minor curiosity and never published it. Only centuries later mathematicians recognized it as monumentally important. It eventually resulted in Euler’s formula, which helps explain everything from how enzymes act on cellular DNA to why the motion of the celestial bodies can be chaotic.

So how did equations begin, anyway? Stewart explains:

An equation derives its power from a simple source. It tells us that two calculations, which appear different, have the same answer. The key symbol is the equals sign, =. The origins of most mathematical symbols are either lost in the mists of antiquity, or are so recent that there is no doubt where they came from. The equals sign is unusual because it dates back more than 450 years, yet we not only know who invented it, we even know why. The inventor was Robert Recorde, in 1557, in The Whetstone of Witte. He used two parallel lines (he used an obsolete word gemowe, meaning ‘twin’) to avoid tedious repetition of the words ‘is equal to’. He chose that symbol because ‘no two things can be more equal’. Recorde chose well. His symbol has remained in use for 450 years.

The original coinage appeared as follows:

To avoide the deiouse repetition of these woordes: is equalle to: I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or gemowe lines of one lengthe: =, bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle.

Far from being a mere math primer or trivia aid, In Pursuit of the Unknown is an essential piece of modern literacy, wrapped in an articulate argument for why this kind of knowledge should be precisely that.

Stewart concludes by turning his gaze towards the future, offering a kind of counter-vision to algo-utopians like Stephen Wolfram and making, instead, a case for the reliable humanity of the equation:

It is still entirely credible that we might soon find new laws of nature based on discrete, digital structures and systems. The future may consist of algorithms, not equations. But until that day dawns, if ever, our greatest insights into nature’s laws take the form of equations, and we should learn to understand them and appreciate them. Equations have a track record. They really have changed the world — and they will change it again.

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13 APRIL, 2012

From Jell-O to Ballet, 7 Ordinary Things is Extraordinary Slow-Motion

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What German ballet has to do with tea parties, eagleowls, and the hidden beauty of pollination.

When Proust observed that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” he was, of course, being most metaphorical. But, had he lived on to see today, he might have marveled at the way in which our literal “new eyes,” in the form of bleeding-edge camera technology, have enabled us to explore new horizons of perception. Gathered here are seven short films of everyday objects seen in ultra-slow-motion to a striking effect that fascinates, inspires awe, and challenges our most basic assumptions about objects, materials, time, and the fabric of reality.

JELL-O

Pure mesmerism: Jell-O bouncing at 6200 frames per second, a teaser for Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, one of the 11 best food books of 2011.

CYMBAL

Vibration materializes in this footage filmed on a Phantom HD Gold camera at 1000 frames per second.

The Kid Should See This

BALLET

To take your breath away, Marina Kanno and Giacomo Bevilaqua of Staatsballett Berlin perform several exquisite jumps captured at 1000 frames per second.

Swiss Miss

TEA PARTY DEMOLITION

Exploding eggs, shattering porcelain, and other tea party destruction delights shot with a Phantom Flex camera at a frame rate between 3,200 to 6,900 frames per second.

EAGLEOWL

What buildup, what visceral crescendo in the last five seconds. Show on Photron Full HD High Speed Camera SA2 at 1000 frames per second.

WATER DROP

A spellbinding, sculptural water drop shot at 5000 frames per second with the Phantom Flex camera.

Explore

POLLINATION

Originally featured here in January, alongside Louie Schwartzberg’s chill-inducing TEDxSF talk, this mesmerizing montage of high-speed images reveals the intricate beauty of pollination in a teaser for Schwartzberg’s film, Wings of Life.

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.