Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

06 MARCH, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Space, Politics, and the Most Important Thing to Know About the Universe

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What our sense connectedness has to do with NASA’s budget and the osmosis of rationality and intuition.

Neil deGrasse Tyson might be one of today’s most prominent astrophysicists, but he’s also a kind of existential philosopher, bringing his insights from science into the broader realm of the human condition — a kind of modern-day Carl Sagan with a rare gift for blending science and storytelling to both rub neurons with his fellow scientists and engage a popular-interest audience.

Nowhere does this gift shine more brilliantly than this chill-giving mashup by Max Schlickenmeyer, remixing images of nature at its most inspiring with the narration of Tyson’s answer to a TIME magazine reader, who asked, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?”

When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.”

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, explores the future of space travel in the wake of NASA’s decision to put human space flight essentially on hold, using his signature wit and scientific prowess to lay out an urgent manifesto for the economic, social, moral, and cultural importance of space exploration. This excerpt from the introduction captures Tyson’s underlying ethos and echoes other great thinkers’ ideas about intuition and rationality, blending the psychosocial with the political:

Some of the most creative leaps ever taken by the human mind are decidedly irrational, even primal. Emotive forces are what drive the greatest artistic and inventive expressions of our species. How else could the sentence ‘He’s either a madman or a genius’ be understood?

It’s okay to be entirely rational, provided everybody else is too. But apparently this state of existence has been achieved only in fiction [where] societal decisions get made with efficiency and dispatch, devoid of pomp, passion, and pretense.

To govern a society shared by people of emotion, people of reason, and everybody in between — as well as people who think their actions are shaped by logic but in fact are shaped by feelings and nonempirical philosophies — you need politics. At its best, politics navigates all the minds-states for the sake of the greater good, alert to the rocky shoals of community, identity, and the economy. At its worst, politics thrives on the incomplete disclosure or misrepresentation of data required by an electorate to make informed decisions, whether arrived at logically or emotionally.”

Video via It’s Okay to be Smart

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05 MARCH, 2012

At the End of the Rainbow: Vintage Film about Ultraviolet Light, 1946

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In the beginning, there was ultraviolet light.

In 1946, the Sun-Kraft Corporation commissioned the Handy (Jam) Organization — whom we’ve previously enjoyed in an homage to makers and hands-on creativity, an animated explanation of how radio broadcasting works, a visual tour of mid-century design, and the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer animation — to produce a film promoting the history, physics, and health-giving properties of ultraviolet radiation. The result was At the End of the Rainbow — an odd blend of science education and corporate agenda that, nonetheless, far exceeds today’s questionable corporate tie-ins in both public service value and cultural merit.

Part Two explores how an American inventor set out to create an ultraviolet ray generator that would make the sun’s health-giving qualities available at low cost, and what happened next:

For more on the fascinating science of light, see Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind.

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01 MARCH, 2012

Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering

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Debunking the myth that memory is about “reliving” a permanent record stored in a filing cabinet.

Last year, Joshua Foer set out to hack his memory. Last week, Jonah Lehrer examined the promise and peril of memory erasure. But what, exactly, is memory — and how does it work? A new book by Alison Winter tackles precisely that — Memory: Fragments of a Modern History explores how the science and understanding of memory evolved over the past century, from early metaphors that likened it to a filing cabinet to the quasi-science of the prewar era’s “truth serums” to the psychology of false confessions and the latest neuroscience breakthroughs on how remembering works.

One particularly fascinating aspect Winter examines is the entwining of technology, media, and cultural accounts of memory. The book, Winter points out, “may tell us as much about how to approach the history of information media as as it does about human memory.”

The modern sciences of memory emerged when newly developed sciences of mind coincided with the proliferation of new media: technologies for recording, transmitting, and recreating sounds and images. Photography, the phonograph, and the moving image all developed between 1850 and 1900. They became identified with memory process in a series of associations that shaped both how those processes were understood and how the technologies themselves would be used. Throughout the twentieth century, memory researchers continued to look to the most recent, cutting-edge recording technologies for insights into the nature of remembering.

[…]

There was never just one way to use recording technologies to think about memory. At one extreme, researchers suggested that they were models for memory itself. Perhaps, they reflected, memory was an internal recording that could be replayed at will… But on the other extreme, researchers also used recording devices to define precisely what memory was not. For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence. Instead of practices that facilitated ‘reliving’ a permanent record, they sought out ways to reveal an ineradicable role of interpretation… in the construction of knowledge and memory.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of knowledge in the age of Information Overload, and “memory” has always been a centerpiece of “knowledge.” But at a time when the rift between accessibility and access to information is gaping wider than ever, memory as a foundation for knowledge is shifting from retentional to relational, elevating the importance of the ability to retrieve and connect information over that of the ability to retain it.

As we move from storing units of data — books, music, images, footage — to saving pathways to and among them, our frameworks for thoughtful interpretation, which include the curation and contextualization of information, will become of crucial importance.

Winter, of course, goes in much more depth in Memory — well worth a read.

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