Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 JULY, 2011

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery & Thermogeddon: Lexicographer Erin McKean’s TEDBook on New Words


How to spot wordishness when you see it, or what serendipity has to do with digital publishing.

As a hopeless language lover with a soft spot for words, I was thrilled by this week’s release of a new book by lexicographer Erin McKean of Wordnik fame. Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook comes from TEDBooks, the ambitious low-cost imprint we featured as one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing, and, for just $2.99, offers a wonderfully fascinating look at a slew of a new words and phrases across science, politics, technology, social life and other facets of our ever-changing cultural landscape.

And, in the year when neo-words like “lifehack” and “unfollow” were officially inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s safe to say the techno-tangle of formal language is so pervasive it might necessitate professional untangling. McKean does this with equal parts wit and rigor, making the understanding of emergent language as exciting as it is necessary.

Why these words? I haven’t picked the newest words (or the older), the funniest words, or the most scientifically advanced words. Instead, these are all words that have struck me with their ‘wordishness’ — that quality a word or phrase has of packing up an idea into a handy carrying case, making it portable, accessible, and (most important) transmissible — among speakers of English. Wordishness doesn’t imply elegance, grace or even clarity, but we know it when we see it.” Erin McKean

Sample McKean’s linguistic genius and charisma with her excellent 2007 TED talk, in which she redefined the dictionary:

Online dictionaries replicate almost all the problems of print, except for searchability. And when you improve searchability, you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.” ~ Erin McKean

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon is an absolute treat of insight at the intersection of linguistic timeliness and timelessness, served with the kind of passion that makes TED TED.

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 an example. Like? Sign up.

21 JULY, 2011

The Man of Numbers: How Fibonacci Changed the World


What Medieval mathematics have to do with remix culture, publishing entrepreneurship, and gamification.

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. They’re so fundamental to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was mostly accessible to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, Leonardo’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

NPR has an excerpt, or you can sample The Man of Numbers on your Kindle:

UPDATE: Per Devlin’s comment below, there’s a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a compelling parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs. If that isn’t already irresistible, the title goes for just $2.99 — now could one resist?

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 an example. Like? Sign up.

20 JULY, 2011

Life in the Abyss: Behind the Scenes of the Census of Marine Life


How to name a new species after your exwife, or what bioluminescent fish have to do with world peace.

Last week, we highlighted the discoveries of the Census of Marine Life — a global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, constituting the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. Life in the Abyss is a fascinating short documentary about the ambitious endeavor, inviting you aboard an Arctic Ocean research vessel as scientists scoop up organisms from the ocean floor to see new species being discovered before your very eyes. From bioluminescence to deep-sea life, the short film offers a glimpse of an astounding and otherworldly microcosm — a precious final frontier of humanity’s exploration of Earth.

For more on the remarkable and important project, dive into Paul Snelgrove’s Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count.

via @remarkableape

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 an example. Like? Sign up.

20 JULY, 2011

Brain Bugs: The Glorious Imperfections of Our Brains


What our memory lapses have to do with optical illusions, advertising, and the bliss of ignorance.

In 1876, Thomas Edison coined a term we use to this day to describe those pesky glitches, malfunctions and other deviations from the intended paths of technology:

It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition — and come with a burst, then difficulties arise. This thing gives out and then that — ‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called.” ~ Thomas Edison

So opens Dean Buonomano’s excellent new book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, which borrows the technological term to explore “the full range of limitations, flaws, foibles, and biases of the human brain.” From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind and a number of other disciplines — though, it’s worth nothing, not at all in the fluffy, formulaic fashion of “Big Idea books” — to reveal the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe and, perhaps most fascinatingly, the trade-offs between the two: the balance of fear and curiosity, of altruism and jealousy, of the rational and the irrational.

Who we are as individuals and as a society is defined not only by the astonishing capabilities of the brain, but also by its flaws and limitations.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Buonomano pinpoints three central sources of “brain bugs” — our brains’ evolutionary bias towards survival and reproduction; the cognitive quirks that have resulted from an imperfect and clumsy evolution process, such as optical illusions and impulsivity; and our constantly evolving environment, which forces us to adapt rapidly, in the scale of evolution, and often not in the best ways possible.

Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.” ~ Dean Buonomano

(This phenomenon is actually called anosognosia and Errol Morris wrote a fantastic five-part series on it for The New York Times last year, one of 2010’s best longreads.)

What makes the book all the more compelling is the lucidity with which Buonomano recognizes, amidst its weaknesses, the brain’s insurmountable strengths, feats artificial intelligence is ages from reaching — most notably, its remarkable penchant for pattern-recognition and what Buonomano calls “the inherent and irrepressible ability of the brain to build connections and make associations.” And whatever we may say of the future of the Internet and technology, even our most optimistic predictions pale in comparison to the remarkable information processes taking place, quite literally, under our very roofs. (And, if we’re really keeping score, Buonomano points out that the brain’s 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses far surpass the web’s 20 billion web pages connected by a trillion links.)

The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Ultimately, Brain Bugs drives home the point that exploring our cognitive limitations and mental blind spots doesn’t merely tickle our curiosity and fuel or fascination, but is also a fundamental part of our human quest for self-knowledge, for better understanding what makes us human.

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 an example. Like? Sign up.