Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

01 JUNE, 2010

What Everyday Objects Tell Us About the Universe


Why your reflection is a matter of chance, or how to fit everything that ever existed on a USB stick.

We recently raved about an excellent article about the early history of the universe, quantum reality and the origins of information. Turns out its author, California Institute of Technology astronomer and New Scientist cosmology consultant Marcus Chown, didn’t stop there.

His new book, The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, offers a fascinating anthology of wisdom bites about the universe gleaned from everyday objects.

Today, we sit down with Marcus to probe into some of the book’s peculiar contentions and quench our curiosity about just how one comes to see quantum theory in bananas.

If the Sun were made of bananas it wouldn't make much difference


How did the inspiration for the book come? Was it a single “a-ha!” moment, an encounter with a particular mundane object that gleaned surprising revelation about something much larger, or was it more of a buildup of insights?

Marcus Chown: While doing publicity, I tend to latch onto everyday observations and relate them to deep physics. Recently, I wanted to highlight the paradox that spawned quantum theory. So I drew people’s attention to a light bulb and pointed out the light waves coming out are about 5000 times bigger than the atoms. “Say, I opened this matchbox”, I said, “and out drove a 40-tonne truck. That’s what it’s like for light streaming out of that light bulb.” And one day, a light bulb did go on in my head. I thought, why don’t I write a book about what everyday things tell us about the Universe?

Tea cups break rather than unbreak because the universe is expanding in the aftermath of the big bang


What’s your favorite mundane-object-turned-quantum-oracle?

MC: It still amazes me that something as mundane and everyday as your face reflected in a window tells you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science — that the universe is founded on random chance, the roll of a quantum dice, that ultimately things happen for no reason at all. Einstein was so appalled by this that he famously declared “God does not play dice with the Universe”.

The irony is that not only does God play dice but, if He did not, there would be no universe of the beauty and complexity we find ourselves in.

Reflection in a window shows that universe based on random chance

Marcus Chown, Serpentine, London, January 2007. Image by Jorn Tomter


Historically, humanity’s beliefs about the universe have regularly turned out to be tragicomically misguided. With what degree of certainty do you foresee the ideas outlined in your book surviving the test of time and scientific evolution?

MC: Well, of course, science is provisional. It is the best description we have of the world at this moment in time. Scientists are always looking for observations that will falsify their theories in their quest to lay bare ever deeper layers of reality. But, even though we know Einstein’s theory of gravity, for instance, is not the last word – because it breaks down inside black holes and in the big bang — we know it contains profound truth. And that’s what I think about the ideas in my book. Most are likely to be modified and extended in the fullness of time but they nevertheless contain a large amount of truth.

You could fit the information for a million universes on a 1Gb flash memory


Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is a favorite here at Brain Pickings, and a recent New York Times article outlined a similar theory of differences in creative capacity. Do you think this associative ability to look at the mundane and extrapolate the omnipotent is a unique kind of mental wiring, a mark of scientific genius shared necessary for groundbreaking discovery and shared by history’s most iconic scientists? Or is it something we can learn to do?

MC: Of course, this is what scientists do. They try to tease out the general, unifying principles which underlie as wide a range of phenomena as possible. Darwin, for instance, in one of the greatest strokes of genius in history, saw the driving principle — evolution by natural selection – that was generating the bewildering complexity of the natural world. This kind of thing – extrapolating from the specific to the general — is very hard. But I don’t believe it is special to geniuses (I don’t think much is special to geniuses!). Anyone can learn. It’s just that most of us don’t practice much!

The iron in your blood was created in stellar explosions like this one, NASA

To test yourself against some of the surprising factoids and curiosities in The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, take a stab at this quiz, answers below. For more about the how’s and why’s of the answers, do grab a copy of the book — we guarnatee you won’t be disappointed.

1. If all the empty space were squeezed out of matter, the human race could fit in:

  1. Wembley Stadium?
  2. The area of the Isle of Wight?
  3. The volume of a sugar cube?

2. Einstein famously said:

  1. God does not play roulette with the Universe
  2. God does not play dice with the Universe
  3. God does not play poker with the Universe

3. The faster you travel:

  1. The taller you get
  2. The slimmer you get
  3. The lighter you get

4. The best place to look for evidence of the big bang in which the Universe was born is:

  1. On your TV
  2. In your washing machine
  3. At the Greenwich Meridian

5. Most of the Universe gives is currently invisible to our telescopes – but how much?

  1. 1%
  2. 50%
  3. 98%

6. The scientists who won the Nobel prize for detecting the faint “afterglow” of the big bang thought they had found:

  1. the glow of pigeon droppings
  2. the glow of street lights
  3. the glow of glow worms

7. Einstein’s mathematics professor called him a:

  1. lazy possum
  2. lazy dingo
  3. lazy dog

8. Today’s sunlight was made:

  1. 30,000 years ago
  2. 300 minutes ago
  3. 3 seconds ago

9. Aged 16, Einstein came up with the idea of relativity after wondering what it might be like to travel on a:

  1. sound wave
  2. light wave
  3. steam train

9. The first time anyone eve saw an atom was in:

  1. 1980
  2. 1880
  3. 5 BC

Answers: 1C, 2B, 3B, 4A, 5C, 6A, 7C, 8A, 9B, 10A

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19 MARCH, 2010

Infoviz Education: Animated Visualizations for Kids


Helium, carbon, and what Little Red Riding Hood has to do with malnutrition in Africa.

We love infographics. We love animation. And we’re all for engaging kids in creative education. So today we’re looking at three educational infoviz animations that shed light on complex or important issues in beautifully art-directed ways that make little eyes widen and little brains broaden.


Directed by Denis van Waerebeke, How To Feed The World is a brilliant animated short film made for the Bon appétit exhibition in Paris science museum. Though aimed at helping kids ages 9 to 14 understand the science behind eating and why nutrition is important, the film’s slick animation style and seamless visual narrative make it as educational for kids as it is for budding designers, looking to master the art of using design as a storytelling medium.

Bonus points for the obligatory British voiceover, always a delightful upgrade.


Though not necessarily aimed at kids alone, Annie Leonard’s brilliant The Story of Stuff — which we reviewed extensively some time ago — condenses the entire materials economy into 20 minutes of wonderfully illustrated and engagingly narrated storytelling that makes you never look at stuff the same way again.

The Story of Stuff recently got a book deal, further attesting to its all-around excellence. We highly recommend it.


A few months ago, we reviewed They Might Be Giants’ fantastic Here Comes Science 2-disc CD/DVD album aimed at the K-5 set, a brilliant intersection of entertainment and creative education. One of the highlights on it is this wonderful animated journey across the periodic table, a true exercise in art-meets-science.

The entire album is well worth the two Starbucks lattes that it costs, both as a tool of inspired education for kids and a timeless music treat for indie rock fans of all ages.


Though certainly not educational, and likely not aimed at kids, this fantastic animation — which we featured exactly a year ago today — offers a brilliant infographic reinterpretation of the Brothers Grimm children’s classic The Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by Röyksopp’s Remind Me.

We’d love to see this as a series, celebrating the cross-pollination of some of our favorite facets of creative culture — animation, data visualization, and classic children’s literature — with quirk, humor and superb art direction.

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08 MARCH, 2010

Popular Science, Digitized


137 years of human curiosity, or what lawnmowers have to do with nuclear detectives in China.

Thousands of magazines have stuffed our mailboxes and collected dust on our coffee tables over the years, but very few have captivated the attention of geeks and dreamers as long as Popular Science.

A hundred and thirty-seven years ago, Edward L. Youmans founded the publication to help bring scientific knowledge to the educated layman. Topics ranged the scientific gamut from the birth of electricity to the mystery of the brain. In addition to staff writers, our modern world of science has been covered by the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, T.H. Huxley, and Louis Pasteur.

Luckily for historians and the ever-curious, Popular Science has teamed up with Google to archive all 137 years of the magazine. (You may remember Google’s groundbreaking similar partnership with LIFE Magazine in late 2008.) Not only is this spectacular treasure of information free, but it’s available in original format — which means that besides enjoying antique articles about human-powered flying machines, you can also enjoy the advertisements of eras past. (Cigarettes, whiskey and riding lawnmowers seem to populate the 60’s.)

The archives aren’t indexed by volume. Instead, a fairly accurate search function brings up all the relevant articles from the past century for you to wade through. This time machine of science is beautiful to navigate, and even looks fantastic on the iPhone.

For those of you who are new to the archives, we’ve taken the liberty of finding a few nuggets of nostalgia to get you started:

The Moon — So Far (May, 1958): “Look hard, next full moon (April 3, May 3). Our oldest-established permanent satellite looms over the trees, familiar and close, yet mysterious and distant…We are ready to stretch across 240,000 miles to touch it…”

A nuclear detective looks at China’s atom bomb (Feb, 1965): “To an atomic scientist, what are the implications of China’s atomic bomb? We asked Dr. Ralph E. Lapp, a physicist who participated in the World War II Manhattan Project…”

Traveling telephones — new technology expands mobile service (Feb, 1978): “There’s a button labeled SND on Motorola’s futuristic –looking Pulsar II radiotelephone. I pushed it, and a number stored in its microcomputer memory began stepping, digit by digit, across the red LED handset display.

Go ahead, dive in.

Len Kendall is the cofounder of the3six5 project. (Featured on Brain Pickings here.) He enjoys being clever, quippy, and constructively grumpy.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2010

Duelity: Earth’s Story, Split Down the Middle


Darwin vs. the General Organization of Development labs, or why truth comes in pairs.

Science and religion may be odd bedfellows, but they’ve always had a shared mechanism of propagation — both are simply the product of the stories we tell ourselves and each other to explain the world, be it rationally or emotionally or mystically. So what happens when these conflicting stories are pitted against each other? That’s exactly what Duelity does in a brilliant split-screen animation telling both sides of Earth’s story, winking at the evolution of human thought and language along the way.

Directed by filmmaker Ryan Uhrich and animator Marcos Ceravolo, Duelity is a curious hybrid of humor and philosophy, mythology and ideology, capturing the tensions and frictions inherent to our cultural storytelling.

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15 FEBRUARY, 2010

Brain-picking CurrentTV’s Max Lugavere & Jason Silva


The art of wow, transcendent interconnectedness, and why science is a creative lubricant.

Last week, we reported from TED, where the world’s intelligencia gathered once again to dispense cerebral stimulation and creative urgency. But the best part about this magical gathering is always the incredible wealth of human interestingness in attendance. Among these exceptional minds were Max Lugavere and Jason Silva, founding hosts of CurrentTV, the Emmy-award-winning network launched by Al Gore in 2005. At the intersection of film, philosophy and smartertainment, Max and Jason’s flagship show, Max & Jason: Still Up, curates a late-night hour of short-form documentaries from around the world.

Besides their pivotal role at Current, the duo have also hosted Pangea Day and appeared in GAP’s 2008 ICONS campaign. Oh, and they’re great fun — tremendously intelligent, but with just the right amount of healthy goof to prevent them from taking themselves too seriously.

We caught up with Max and Jason over delicious Thai food to chat about curation, scientific progress and the cross-pollination of disciplines — passion points we seem to share. Here’s a peek inside their fascinating brains.


Tell us a bit about your background and your brand of creative curiosity.

Jason: I have always had a relentless curiosity and passion for big ideas.

In fact, I am so enthralled by moments of insight that I have felt compelled to film such moments as a way to immortalize them. Big ideas wash over me, they inspire me… but they are fleeting… and so filming them or writing about them, or even socially broadcasting them on Facebook, is way of imprinting permanence on these ideas themselves and also how they made me feel.

Max: I have an informal background in computer science, graphic design, filmmaking, and music.

I’m naturally extremely creatively curious and my methods for expression have transitioned in the past couple of years from the digital — I taught myself to program in 3 languages, and have always loved doing web-based design — to the analog: filmmaking, songwriting, etc.

I’m obsessed with the euphoric rush that comes with the creation of something entirely new.

I also love the challenge of figuring out how to make abstract ideas become reality that other people can relate to or feel — whether the idea is a performance or a design or a piece of code. It has been my lifeblood.


How will science better humanity in the age of the social web? How will social science and science-science intersect more meaningfully?

Max: Science will more effectively enhance humanity because information will be free and ubiquitous, and the truths of our own existence will no longer be esoteric abstractions but instead packaged in cool ways with interfaces and context that make sense.

The future of science will basically be a lovechild of great design and fascinating information.

Jason: Science and technology are really the only things that have helped humans overcome problems, obstacles and limitations. Science extends our understanding and our reach.

Science and technology interconnect us, allow us to comprehend each other better and enrich our experience by virtue of knowing how things are tied together. On occasion, science can lack a good narrative — this is where we need to tell better stories. Art-direction, aesthetics, design and framing — all key things to make science and technology meaningful and visceral.

Today, we are all plugged in to an all-encompassing techno-sphere. One billion minds interconnected, surely setting up the conditions for the emergence of a super-organism. It certainly makes me excited to connect with so many minds, time and space no longer limitations. The result is transcendence — something greater than the sum of its parts.


User-generated content can be of questionable quality – how do curators work as quality-control to deliver something truly compelling?

Max: Curators are essential because our world is becoming increasingly more digitized and information is everywhere. Content is being consumed faster and with greater voracity than ever before. However, not all of this information is deserving of our valuable attention spans and it’s up to us to share what is worth taking note of — be it a noble cause, a perspective, a gorgeous song, a beautiful film, the latest research, etc. Since everyone basically becomes a curator, or has the power to curate because of the way social networks are designed, it’s up to the individual to decide how best to use that platform — or whether to use it at all.

Jason: The job of the curator is to act as a barometer of wow.

Good curators have an innate “aha” ability to be easily moved, enthralled and inspired by content that is magnificently curious. They have their eyes unusually peeled and the best of them never fail to find spine-tingling content. Curation of wow is key to having meaningful experiences when consuming information.


Where do you see the cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines going in the next decade?

Jason: More interconnection… more curation, more framing….

Each of us has the responsibility to act as a lens and lend focus to the content and the ideas that will enrich the world and elicit our sense of wonder.

I think technology will continue to extend our capabilities exponentially and our right-brain fantasies will be easily manifest in the digital realm — so much so, that I predict a blurring between the digital and the real. I see augmented reality contextualizing and interfacing our experiences with content and knowledge in a way that the only constant will be a mental state of extreme lucidity. We will learn so much and it will be so meaningful and magical. I am so excited!

Max: I think science, design, and wellness will be the most stand-out themes of the next couple of years. I also think that we have yet to figure out proper monetization models for our content creators themselves.

We want there to always be incentives in the marketplace for artists to create. However, there’s never been a time like today for sharing and getting your work out there.

I’m pretty psyched for the future.

Find Max and Jason online, catch their show weeknights at 12/11c, and follow them on Twitter for more curatorial, cross-disciplinary, cerebrally indulgent goodness.

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