Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

08 MAY, 2012

Carl Sagan on Books

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How to reach across the millennia and access magic.

The love of books and the advocacy for reading are running themes around here, as is the love of Carl Sagan. Naturally, this excerpt from the 11th episode of his legendary 1980s Cosmos series, titled “The Persistence of Memory,” is making my heart sing in more ways than the universe can hold:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Complement with Sagan’s own reading list, Kafka on what books do for the human soul, and Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on why we read.

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08 MAY, 2012

A Poetic Definition of Science Circa 1997

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“…science is a human cultural activity, not a purely dispassionate striving after truth.”

Adding to last month’s omnibus of famous definitions of science is John Gribbin’s poetic 1997 meditation from the introduction to Almost Everyone’s Guide to Science: The Universe, Life and Everything — an ambitious survey, reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s iconic tome, A Short History of Nearly Everything, that sets out to explain what we know about everything from the microest of micro to the macroest of macro in a humanized, articulate way, without dumbing down any of the science. Gribbin writes, presaging — and perhaps inspiring — Brian Eno’s “Big Theory of Culture”:

Science is primarily an investigation of our place of the Universe — the place that people occupy in a world which ranges from the tiniest subatomic particles to the furthest reaches of space and time. We do not exist in isolation, and science is a human cultural activity, not a purely dispassionate striving after truth, no matter how hard we might try. It is all about where we came from, and where we are going. And it is the most exciting story ever told.

In other words, as Adam Bly put it in the title of his excellent anthology of interviews, Science is Culture.

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07 MAY, 2012

The Dalai Lama on Science and Technology

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Pain, pleasure, and what sets man apart from machine.

Last month, in response to the impossibly fantastic conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, reader Feña Avila recommended an intriguing collection of conversations between the Dalai Lama and prominent Western scientists across physics, neuroscience, biochemistry, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology. Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind is an extraordinary exchange of ideas in its entirety, but this particular excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s opening remarks articulates an incredibly important point, one C. P. Snow passionately addressed in 1959 and Jonah Lehrer called a “fourth culture” half a century later.

For quite some time I have had a great interest in the close relationship between Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, and Western science. My basic aim as a human being is to speak always for the importance of compassion and kindness in order to build a better, healthier human society, and a brighter future.

[…]

Western civilization’s science and technology bring society tremendous benefit. Yet, due to highly developed technology, we also have more anxiety and more fear. I always feel that mental development and material development must be well-balanced, so that together they may make a more human world. If we lose human values and human beings become part of a machine, there is no freedom from pain and pleasure. Without freedom from pain and pleasure, it is very difficult to demarcate between right and wrong. The subjects of pain and pleasure naturally involve feeling, mind, and consciousness.

(This, of course, brings us to the grand question of what consciousness actually is, which is a whole different can of intellectual worms.)

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