Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

15 MARCH, 2012

No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: A Holistic Theory of Love and the Emotional Mind

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Why, in love, “one must balance a respect for proof with a fondness for the unproven and the unprovable.”

I’ve been rereading the excellent A General Theory of Love. From a chapter entitled “The Heart’s Castle,” which opens with Denise Levertov’s beautiful poem “The Secret,” comes this eloquent articulation of the intricate osmosis of intuition and rationality in matters of the heart and mind:

If empiricism is barren and incomplete, while impressionistic guesswork leads anywhere and everywhere, what hope can there be of arriving at a workable understanding of the human heart? In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, there can be no science without fancy and no art without facts. Love emanates from the brain; the brain is physical, and thus as fit a subject for scientific discourse as cucumbers or chemistry. But love unavoidably partakes of the personal and the subjective, and so we cannot place it in the killing jar and pin its wings to cardboard as a lepidopterist might a prismatic butterfly. In spite of what science teaches us, only a delicate admixture of evidence and intuition can yield the truest view of the emotional mind. To slip between the twin dangers of empty reductionism and baseless credulity, one must balance a respect for proof with a fondness for the unproven and the unprovable. Common sense must combine in equal measure imaginative flight and an aversion to orthodoxy.”

A General Theory of Love is one of 5 essential books on the psychology of love and superb in its entirety.

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13 MARCH, 2012

The Lady Anatomist: The Wax Sculptures of 18th-Century Artist-Scientist Anna Morandi Manzolini

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In eighteenth-century Italy, the “medical Venus” becomes the professor.

For 2,000 years of medical history, the human body has been inked out, penciled in, the nervous system mapped, the gut lovingly rendered, and the brain lit up in color. To make these renderings, doctors-in-training would for hundreds of years dissect the corpse of criminals, the insane, or the unknown, sometimes even digging up the body themselves or buying one from the black market.

In the eighteenth century, a less gross form of anatomy marked the beginning of a scientific enlightenment in Italy: the anatomical wax model. The Specola collection of anatomical waxes opened to the public in 1775, and with the blessing of a scientifically-minded Pope, societies and lectures opened up new opportunities for public education across class and gender lines. Wax anatomists had to be both incredibly well-versed in medicine and incredibly skilled at sculpture, and few were as talented as Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714-1774, whose extraordinary life and work have been recently collected in Rebecca Messbarger‘s The Lady Anatomist.

Anna Morandi, mouth and tongue (University of Bologna)

Anna Morandi, a set of wax eyes (University of Bolonga)

When she married at twenty-six, Morandi had been trained as a professional artist and could also read and write Latin, the language of academia. She entered into the world of the university as the wife of a professor of anatomy, and when he died of tuberculosis in 1755, Anna, a widow with two children, stepped into her husband’s former teaching position at the University of Bologna, continuing his studies and establishing an anatomical laboratory that even caught the attention of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

Modern anatomical hall at La Specola

Clemente Susini, anatomical Venus (University of Bologna)

“Medical Venuses” were a popular attraction among the anatomical wax models of the day, life-size figures of reclining, naked women, sometimes wearing pearls, whose stomachs were flayed to reveal the female reproductive system. Instead, Morandi tore away the fig leaf of the opposite sex, mastering the anatomy of the male reproductive system.

Anna Morandi, self-portrait in wax (University of Bologna)

Morandi was bold enough to cast her own wax portrait as “The Lady Anatomist,” a richly dressed lady, fingers hovering over a freshly opened brain like it was a breakfast of hard boiled egg.

Anna Morandi and Giovanni Manzolini, muscles of the forearm (University of Bologna)

The Lady Anatomist reveals the life of Anna Morandi Manzolini as one of influence, intelligence, and rigor; a woman who was born into a circumstance and age that allowed her to take hold of the narrative of her life and define herself as a professional scientist.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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12 MARCH, 2012

The Laws of Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

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What Charles Dickens has to do with equilibrium and entropy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century turns to her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and subtly describes the second law of thermodynamics while examining her breakfast:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Perhaps it is odd for a twelve-year-old girl to consider the state of entropy decades before its invention, but in Stoppard’s play, all of its characters seem to obey some property of physics, bouncing around like molecules in two closed systems, heating up, dissipating, and eventually reaching equilibrium.

That’s not thermophysics, that’s thermopoetics.

Energy is eternal delight.” ~ William Blake

Professor Bari J. Gold takes this very idea, that characters and plots can obey the laws of physics, and extends it into nineteenth-century literature in ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. The result is an extraordinary reconsideration of Victorian novels, plays, and poems pierced by time’s arrow, in which the works of Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde are bound up with energy conservation, the paradox of heat, engines, the grand unified theory, and of course, entropy.

Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system, also commonly used to describe an inevitable decline into social disorder. A closed system, like the worlds of Dickens novels, will develop towards a state of total entropy — disorder will never decrease, unless acted upon by forces from the outside.

What is life but organized energy?” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The most familiar example of this in Victorian literature is Dickens’ Bleak House, where the endless Jarndyce case grinds on steadily, mixing its characters like jam into pudding. To survive the Courts of Chancery one must embrace entropy, and those that were caught up in its system had a “loose way of letting bad things alone take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world could go wrong, it was in some offhand manner, never meant to go right.”

Another Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be recognized as a thermopoetic novel of equilibrium, in which the best of times are balanced by the worst of times, each character has a spiritual double. Or consider that Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray has created in this painting a heat sink, which absorbs the degrading age of its main character, allowing Dorian to remain a youthful constant.

All of this isn’t to say that Charles Dickens had entropy on the brain when be was writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 — the concept wouldn’t be developed thoroughly until five or six years later. Instead, ThermoPoetics creates a new kind of law, one that recognizes that science and art are not two separate systems, but instead that the rules that govern both fiction and physics are borne out of the same world — something beautifully aligned with Jonah Lehrer’s concept of “the fourth culture” of knowledge.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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