Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

24 MAY, 2012

Brian Cox on the Heart of Science

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“We explore because we are curious, not because we wish to develop grand views of reality or better widgets.”

The precise purpose of and drive for science has been debated by some of history’s greatest minds. In The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen, physicist Brian Cox offers this beautiful window into the heart of science:

Science, of course, has no brief to be useful, but many of the technological and social changes that have revolutionized our lives have arisen out of fundamental research carried out by modern-day explorers whose only motivation is to better understand the world around them. These curiosity-led voyages of discovery across all scientific disciplines have delivered increased life expectancy, intercontinental air travels, modern telecommunications, freedom from the drudgery of subsistence farming and a sweeping, inspiring and humbling vision of our place within an infinite sea of stars. But these are all in a sense spinoffs. We explore because we are curious, not because we wish to develop grand views of reality or better widgets.

Of course, Richard Feynman knew this. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson knows it. And every successful creator, whether in science or in art, knows that curiosity is the habit of mind most essential to producing ideas. Because science, after all, is fueled by ignorance, by defetishizing the right answers and instead turning a curious eye to the right questions.

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23 MAY, 2012

Carl Sagan on Mastering the Vital Balance of Skepticism & Openness

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Fine-tuning the machinery of distinguishing the valid from the non-valid.

David Foster Wallace famously argued that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Yet in an age of ceaseless sensationalism, pseudoscience, and a relentless race for shortcuts, quick answers, and silver bullets, knowing what to think seems increasingly challenging. We come up with tools like The Baloney Detection Kit and create wonderful animations to teach kids about critical thinking, but the art of thinking critically is a habit that requires careful and consistent cultivation. In his remarkable essay titled “The Burden of Skepticism,” originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Carl Sagan — always the articulate and passionate explainer — captured the duality and osmotic balance of critical thinking beautifully:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Here’s to an exquisite addition to these famous definitions of science.

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16 MAY, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why We’re Wired for Science & How Originality Differs in Science vs. Art

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“Every child is a scientist.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson may well be the Richard Feynman of our day, a “Great Explainer” in his own right, having previously reflected on everything from the urgency of space exploration to the most humbling fact about the universe. In this short video, Tyson contributes a beautiful addition to this omnibus of notable definitions of science and explores subjects as diverse as the nature of originality and the future of artificial intelligence.

Watch and take notes.

I can’t think of any more human activity than conducting science experiments. Think about it — what do kids do? … They’re turning over rocks, they’re plucking petals off a rose — they’re exploring their environment through experimentation. That’s what we do as human beings, and we do that more thoroughly and better than any other species on Earth that we have yet encountered… We explore our environment more than we are compelled to utter poetry when we’re toddlers — we start doing that later. Before that happens, every child is a scientist. And so when I think of science, I think of a truly human activity — something fundamental to our DNA, something that drives curiosity.

One particularly interesting line of thought examines the difference between originality in science and originality in art — a refreshing complement to last week’s tangential musings on the subject by Mark Twain and Henry Miller.

If I discover a scientific idea, surely someone else would’ve discovered the same idea had I not done so. Whereas, look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — if he didn’t paint “Starry Night,” nobody’s gonna paint “Starry Night.” So, in that regard, the arts are more individual to the creative person than a scientific idea is to the one who comes up with it — but, nonetheless, they are both human activities.

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