Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

25 APRIL, 2012

Dreamers and Storytellers: E. O. Wilson on Art and Reconciling Science and the Humanities

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“In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.”

This month, the celebrated Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson — who once famously said that “the elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain” — penned a terrific Harvard Magazine piece on the origin of the arts. One of Wilson’s most urgent points is something we’ve already seen articulated by C. P. Snow, who in 1959 lamented a dangerous cultural dichotomy, and Jonah Lehrer, who spoke of a “fourth culture of knowledge” — the need for bridging the sciences and the humanities. Wilson writes:

Since the fading of the original Enlightenment during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stubborn impasse has existed in the consilience of the humanities and natural sciences. One way to break it is to collate the creative process and writing styles of literature and scientific research. This might not prove so difficult as it first seems. Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.

Wilson’s great talent is perhaps the gift of bridging the poetic with the scientific:

If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.

But the most expansive beauty of Wilson’s essay lies in his articulation of art, at the heart of which is a sentiment common to the greatest definitions of science and of philosophy:

A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes.

Image by Desert Stars

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24 APRIL, 2012

Happy Birthday, Hubble: Celebrating More than Two Decades of Stunning Space Images

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From black holes to star births, or what decades of cosmic awe have to do with the future of space exploration.

It’s a bittersweet time for space exploration. On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery recently rolled into its “new home” — a polite way to say it’s become space taxidermy — but Hubble’s legacy endures, having engendered some of the most spectacular space images humanity has ever glimpsed, and there’s hardly a better way to celebrate it than with National Geographic’s Hubble: Imaging Space and Time, the most glorious collection of space images since Michael Benson’s Far Out. With more than 120 breathtaking photographs that take us to the very edge of known space, contextualized in the Hubble’s history, the lavish tome looks back on two decades of the telescope’s service in orbit and sets the stage for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled launched in 2013.

From black holes to star births to giant galaxies cannibalizing smaller ones, the images capture the thriving ecosystem of the cosmos, with all its magnificent nebulae, dazzling stars, and majestic planets.

Here are some of my favorite Hubble gems of all time.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054.

Taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003, this image captures the red planet some 34,647,420 miles from Earth.

A mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

A ribbon of gas, a very thin section of a supernova remnant caused by a stellar explosion that occurred more than 1,000 years ago, floats in our galaxy. The supernova that created it was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans.

Saturn's dynamic auroras

Section of M51 with Progenitor Star

Saturn's rings in ultraviolet light

The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Star birth in Galaxy M83

New red spot appears on Jupiter

Hubble/Subaru Composite image of star-forming region S106

Face-on Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982

The Egg Nebula

Saturn with rings tilted towards the Earth

At a time when the future of space exploration is hanging by a thread, Hubble: Imaging Space and Time is a magnificent living manifesto for just what’s at stake.

Images courtesy of NASA

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24 APRIL, 2012

A Journey to the End of the World: Tracing Polar Explorer Shackleton’s Footsteps a Century Later

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What a seal bodyguard and 2,200-year-old moss have to do with a watershed moment in exploration history.

On April 24, 1916, five men led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition, set out on an 870-nautical-mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. Shackleton and his crew were marooned on Elephant Island after losing their ship to the Weddell Sea.

They were coming to their own rescue.

Medusa Kelp in Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.

A small selection of the 300,000 King Penguins in Gold Harbor (a.k.a. 'Penguinpalooza')

Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.

Grytviken Whaling Station Torqued Ellipses (For Richard Serra)

The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.

Elephant seals in Gold Harbor

The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary — just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)

Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I took some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks — the needles in a polar haystack.

2,200-year-old moss bank, growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossilized bank

Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet.

Landscape, South Georgia

View of Elephant Island, looking east

If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.

The Grytviken maritime graveyard, guarded by a giant elephant seal

I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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