Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

26 OCTOBER, 2011

National Geographic: Inside the Milky Way


From super-massive black holes to Carl Sagan, or how to center yourself in the universe the CGI way.

Since time immemorial, humanity has been transfixed by the celeste, trying to order the heavens, read the sky, and understand our place in the universe — a place nested within the Milky Way galaxy, which contains our Solar System. But what exactly is the Milky Way, how did it come to be, and where is it going? That’s exactly what the fascinating National Geographic documentary Inside the Milky Way explores, using bleeding-edge technology to construct a 3D CGI model of our galaxy and simulate everything from the formation of super-massive black holes to how stars are born and die. The documentary is now available on YouTube in seven parts, gathered here conveniently for your edutainment.

Astronomers believe that the massive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way has been there from the very start.”

For more celestial glory, don’t forget Michael Benson’s breathtaking Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle and, of course, Carl Sagan’s timeless, tireless Cosmos.

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26 OCTOBER, 2011

How the Difference Between Your Experiencing Self and Your Remembering Self Shapes Your Happiness


Beneath the biases of intuition, or how your experiencing self and your remembering self shape your life.

Legendary Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. A Nobel laureate and founding father of modern behavioral economics, his work has shaped how we think about human error, risk, judgement, decision-making, happiness, and more. For the past half-century, he has profoundly impacted the academy and the C-suite, but it wasn’t until this month’s highly anticipated release of his “intellectual memoir,” Thinking, Fast and Slow (public library), that Kahneman’s extraordinary contribution to humanity’s cerebral growth reached the mainstream — in the best way possible.

Absorbingly articulate and infinitely intelligent, Kahneman examines what he calls the machinery of the mind — the dual processor of the brain, divided into two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive, reactive, and emotional. (If you’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Happiness Hypothesis, as you should have, this system maps roughly to the metaphor of the elephant.) The other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. (That’s Haidt’s rider.)

The mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate, sometimes difficult osmotic balance between the two systems, a push and pull responsible for both our most remarkable capabilities and our enduring flaws. From the role of optimism in entrepreneurship to the heuristics of happiness to our propensity for error, Kahneman covers an extraordinary scope of cognitive phenomena to reveal a complex and fallible yet, somehow comfortingly so, understandable machine we call consciousness. He paints the backdrop for his inquiry:

Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition. However, the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health… [My aim is to] improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them.

Among the book’s most fascinating facets are the notions of the experiencing self and the remembering self, underpinning the fundamental duality of the human condition — one voiceless and immersed in the moment, the other occupied with keeping score and learning from experience. Kahneman writes:

I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.

Kahneman spoke of these two selves and the cognitive traps around them in his fantastic 2010 TED talk:

There are several cognitive traps that … make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness… The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word “happiness” is just not a useful word anymore, because we apply it to too many different things…

The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory… between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they’re both lumped in the notion of happiness.

And the third is the focusing illusion, and it’s the unfortunate fact that we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.

What’s most enjoyable and compelling about Thinking, Fast and Slow is that it’s so utterly, refreshingly anti-Gladwellian. There is nothing pop about Kahneman’s psychology, no formulaic story arc, no beating you over the head with an artificial, buzzword-encrusted Big Idea. It’s just the wisdom that comes from five decades of honest, rigorous scientific work, delivered humbly yet brilliantly, in a way that will forever change the way you think about thinking.

Thanks, Sean

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24 OCTOBER, 2011

5 Unsung Heroes Who Shaped Modern Life


What 1920s rope-skipping has to do with the birth of paleontology, restaurant entrepreneurship, and Oprah.

One of history’s greatest downfalls is its asymmetry of acclaim, catapulting some figures into legend status while leaving others, even those of great cultural contribution, behind as mere footnotes. Today, we turn to five such unsung heroes whose work and legacy shaped fundamental aspects of modern life.


When Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African-American mother of five who migrated from the tobacco farms of Virginia to poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, died at the tragic age of 31 from cervical cancer, she didn’t realize she’d be the donor of cells that would create the HeLa immortal cell line — a line that didn’t die after a few cell divisions — making possible some of the most seminal discoveries in modern medicine. Though the tumor tissue was taken with neither her knowledge nor her consent, the HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. To date, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the ever-brilliant Rebecca Skloot weaves a fascinating and tender detective story about HeLa’s legacy through the discovery of Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who didn’t know her mother but who always knew she wanted to be a scientist. As Skloot and Deborah, infinitely different yet united by the shared quest for answers, unravel one of the most absorbing mysteries of modern science, we also get a rich and sensitive tale about family, community, and the dark side of society’s capacity for exploiting its poorest and most vulnerable members. The book, one of the decade’s most excellent and ambitious science-and-so-much-more reads, is currently being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong, and letting everything change while you’re working on it — and I think writing is the same way.” ~ Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.

Deborah Lacks at about age four.

Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at Hopkins, circa 1951.


“Master Birdman.” “The man who owned the sky.” “The world’s greatest aviator.” Lincoln Beachey (1887-1915) was known by many names and recognized by sight by hundreds of thousands around the world in his heyday — yet, despite having invented aerobatics, pioneered aviation stunts, and set a number of records, he remains practically unknown today. His story is one of optimism, bravery, entrepreneurship and, ultimately, deadly obsession.

Beachey was early to the mechanics game — he opened his own bicycle shop at the age of 13, graduated to repairing motorcycle by 15, and eventually made his way to the emerging and glamorous world of aviation as a dirigible pilot. When he was 17, he set out on a publicity stunt, building his own dirigible and flying it around the Washington Monument, eventually landing it on the White House. His remarkable flying stunts and clever personal branding soon catapulted both Beachey and aviation itself into mainstream, international fame — but his relentless ambition was also the demon of his demise. On March 14, 1915, Beachey set out to impress a crowd of nearly 250,000 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with a stunt he had never performed in public before — inverted flight. As he intently dove to make a loop and turn the plane onto its back, he failed to notice he was only 2,000 feet above San Francisco Bay. Startled, he pulled on the controls to flip the plane back, but strain ripped both wings off, causing the plane to plunge directly into the bay. By the time Navy officers recovered Beachy’s body 1 hour and 45 minutes later, Beachey was long dead — from drowning, not the crash, as an autopsy determined — but rescuers spent nearly 3 hours trying to revive the era’s beloved folk hero. He was 28.

Actually, Beachey is hardly unsung in the literal sense — his final flight became the subject of a popular rope-skipping rhyme from the 1920s, uncovered by the fine folks at Radiolab in their fantastic recent episode on loops. (The same episode that inspired last week’s beautiful and poetic animated short film about the afterlife of a whale and that, in fact, in part inspired this very article on unsung heroes.)


Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) is the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. […] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.”


Without Fred Harvey (1835-1901), modern life would be devoid of such staples as Starbucks, Yelp, Top Chef, and even dating — for Harvey pioneered the restaurant chain in North America and thus elevated the restaurant itself from a small-town business to a formidable industry. From his first eating houses along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to his eventual Harvey House empire of restaurants, lunch rooms, dining cars, hotels, and souvenir shops, the cunning entrepreneur and marketer inspired the iconic Judy Garland musical The Harvey Girls (which might, in fact, disqualify him from the “unsung” game) and embodied the spirit that makes America America.

I spent the better portion of my college years sifting through countless rolls of 19th-century newspaper microfilm, calling small public libraries across the American Southwest, and scouring eBay for Harvey ephemera as I helped author Stephen Fried with his research for Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West, One Meal at a Time — a fascinating and lively more-than-biography of Harvey that traces his incredible journey of entrepreneurship, the little-known family drama that surrounded his quest, and his lasting legacy.


British fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning (1799-1847) was only twelve years old and the child of a poor family when she made her first seminal discovery. While fossil-hunting on the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England, she found what was, at the time, believed to be the first dinosaur skeleton — the remains of an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric reptile. Until her landmark discovery, animal extinction was believed to be impossible. Though her gender and social class made it difficult for her to fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, she read as much scientific literature as she could get her hands on and went on to become a renowned fossil-hunter and dealer, often risking her life in the face of landslides and daunting cliffs. The great Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the most beloved popular science writer of all time, famously called Anning “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology” — indeed, her work ignited a fundamental shift in scientific thinking about prehistoric life in the early 19th century.

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World tells Anning’s extraordinary story of curiosity, rigor, self-education, and passionate perseverance in the face of stifling social norms and circumstances. Anning is also the protagonist of a delightful children’s book, Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning.

Like Beachey, Anning too inspired a popular piece of folk poetry, the tongue-twister “She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore.”

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21 OCTOBER, 2011

The Divided Brain, Animated


A hemispheric history of the making of the Western world, or why abstraction is necessary for empathy.

The metaphor of the “left-brain”/”right-brain” divide has permeated pop culture as one of the defining dichotomies of how we think about and describe ourselves. But this metaphor is rooted in a number of neuropsychological realities of how our brains operate — the right hemisphere (the “master”), with its flexibility and capacity for empathy and abstraction but lack of certainty, and the detail-oriented left (the “emissary”), with its preference for mechanisms over living things, its inability to see past the literal, and its propensity for self-interest.

In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the product of 20 years of research, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist delves into the world of difference between our two hemispheres and argues that the formal structures of modern society significantly — and dangerously — prioritize the left brain, resulting in a culture shackled by rigidity and bureaucracy, driven by self-interest, and ultimately incapacitated by its own imbalance.

This book tells a story about ourselves and our world, and about how we got to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human brain — the place where mind meets matter — ultimately it is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.” ~ Iain McGilchrist

In this lovely sketchnote animation by The RSA (whose previous animated gems you might recall), McGilchrist talks about the science and philosophy of his work, and makes a passionate case for reprioritizing the right hemisphere.

This organ, which is all about making connections, is profoundly divided… and it’s gotten more divided over the course of human evolution.”

Provocative and fascinating, The Master and His Emissary will give you pause — 600 pages worth of it — about the origin and making of today’s dominant worldviews, both ours as individuals as those of our collective cultural narrative.

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