Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

27 APRIL, 2012

The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works, in Vibrant Vintage Illustrations circa 1959

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“Two hearts could provide enough energy to drive a truck around the world in two years.”

Much of our inquiry into what makes us human focuses on understanding consciousness, yet we spend the whole of our lives in our physical bodies. As a lover of anatomical art and vintage science illustration, I was instantly enamored with The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works — a stunning vintage anatomy book, depicting and explaining in more than 200 vibrant mid-century illustrations the inner workings of the body. Originally published in 1959, this colorful gem was inspired by German artist and researcher Fritz Kahn, who in his 1926 classic Man as Industrial Palace described the human body as “the highest performance machine in the world” and used industrial metaphors to illustrate its remarkable capacities.

From the nine systems of the body — skeletal, muscle, nervous, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic, endocrine, and reproductive — to the intricacies of the different organs and senses, the tantalizing tome demonstrates, in delightfully illustrated detail, just how magnificent our physical complexity is.

A gorgeous four-page centerfold illustrates full-body views of the various systems — muscles, blood vessels, nerves, digestive organs, and the gastrointestinal tract.

The introduction traces the history of our modern understanding of the body:

Almost nothing, it seems, could be more important to man than the human body. It is the solid part of “I”; it is with us as long as we live. Yet thousands and thousands of years passed before man really learned about this physical part of himself.

Among the ancients, health was something given by the gods. If you had an accident or got sick, it was because you had displeased the gods, or a demon had entered your body. The demon had to be eliminated, the gods made happy, before you could get well. Breathing and digestion, the circulation of blood, the working of the brain — these functions that kept a human being alive and active were not understood. The few real facts that were known were badly mixed up with superstition.

For more on the pictorial history of how we understand the body, see The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination from the Wellcome Collection and Hidden Treasure from The National Library of Medicine.

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26 APRIL, 2012

Philosopher John Searle Defines Consciousness

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‘Consciousness is real and irreducible — you can’t get rid of it.’

Understanding what it means to be human and, more specifically, the nature of consciousness, has long occupied scientists and philosophers alike. We’ve seen consciousness explained as a connectome, a rainbow, and a kind of meaningful whole composed of meaningless parts. In this short video, philosopher John Searle defines consciousness by its four features — it’s real and irreducible, caused by brain processes, exists in the brain, and functions causably — and argues for a biological understanding that counters many of the philosophical conceptions. Perhaps a reductionist take — does the whole of our existence and purpose really amount to a set of biological processes? — but a fascinating one nonetheless.

We have to think of consciousness as a biological phenomenon. It’s as much a part of human and animal biology as digestion, or photosynthesis, or the secretion of bile, or mitosis… The main difference, at least in our present state of knowledge, is that we have a better understanding of digestion than we do of consciousness. The brain is a tough nut to crack.

For a deeper dive, see Searle’s fascinating Mind: A Brief Introduction.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375869832/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0375869832&adid=02YXM5MD2VFTBCC5WMM6&Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 APRIL, 2012

Free Radicals: How Anarchy and Serendipity Fueled Science, from Newton to Tesla to Steve Jobs

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How Goethe fueled Tesla, why Newton pricked his own eye, and other lessons in breaking the rules of science.

What goes on at the moment of discovery? Is it a flash or a slow burn? Does it come at the end of a long day of work, or upon waking in the morning? Artists might evade explanation and just call it their “muse“, but what about scientists? Science is supposed to come from a rational source, a set of long equations or a series of dogged experiments. But the truth — to which some of history’s greatest scientists can attest — is far more irrational: Discovery is anarchy, inspiration is unexplainable, and getting that Nobel Prize might just be dumb luck.

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks is the story of scientific rule-breakers, the men and women who experimented on themselves, had fantastic visions and unexplainable hunches, and took once-in-a-lifetime risks, all in the name of pursuing curiosity.

A corridor at Allied Chemical in 1967, by Eliot Erwitt

After the second world war, Brooks explains, scientists were suffering from an image problem. They had created the bomb, cracked the enigma machine, developed nerve gas, and performed experiments on prisoners of war. “You scientists,” declared a 1960s TV drama, “you kill half the world, and the other half can’t live without you.”

After the mad-scientist archetype had done its damage, it was time to rebrand the working scientist, clocking in from 9 to 5 in a crisp white lab coat. Indeed, for the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were perceived as subservient, rule-abiding, lab-dwellers. But for the majority of scientific history, this was simply not the case.

The charicature of Humpry Davy's laughing gas experiments, by James Gillray

Much of medical history involved scientists experimenting on themselves. Issac Newton once stuck a blunt needle, or bodkin, in his eye just so he could record what happened: “there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles… I continued to rub my eye [with the] bodkin.” In the eighteenth-century Sir Humpry Davy began a series of notorious experiments with nitrous oxide by delivering himself the first dose:

This evening… I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever — a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Sometimes, as with Davy, self-experimentation led to a moment of inspiration. Kary Mullins, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for gene copy-technology, would often use LSD to create “a mind-opening experience… much more important than any courses I ever took.” Steve Jobs also called LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

'The glow retreats, done is our day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…' Nikola Tesla was reciting his Goethe poem when he saw his vision of alternating current.

Some of these inspirational hallucinations were undrugged and out of the blue. Nikola Tesla famously developed the self-starting alternating current motor after walking in a Budapest park and reading a passage of Goethe, when he was struck with a vision of a rotating magnetic field. While working on the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi had planned to induce radioactivity by shooting a lead target with neutrons, but at the last minute switched out the lead for paraffin for no apparent reason. “It was just like that,” he wrote, “no advanced warning, no conscious, prior reasoning.” For the first time, the experiment worked.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the secret to creativity was knowing how to hide one’s sources. Not because they were necessarily wrong, although fudged numbers were a part of Einstein’s success, but because the sources were often times unexplainable. One Nobel Prize winner described a “feeling of guilt about suppressing the part chance and good fortune played” in the work that earned him the holy grail of scientific acclaim.

Steve Jobs on LSD: 'one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.' The drug was popular among Silicon Valley pioneers.

“Scientific anarchy may not be beautiful,” writes Brooks, “but it gets the job done.” Free Radicals illuminates the role of the irrational in science, the mistakes that make scientists human, and reveals that breakthroughs that change our lives in the most fundamental ways may have the most serendipitous origins.

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

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