Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

25 APRIL, 2012

The Sky Is Calling Us: A Cinematic Love Letter to Space Exploration

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“…if we ignore the calls of the sky, who then will draw the maps of the universe?”

Our voyage into space, propelled by equal parts curiosity and awe, is among humanity’s bravest quests and most rewarding leaps of the imagination. Carl Sagan knew it. Neil deGrasse Tyson knows it. We believe it. And yet the future of space exploration is more precarious than ever. From University of Oregon copywriter Nickolaus Sugai and interaction designer Lauren Geschke comes this poignant, poetic piece of video poetry, a kind of love letter to NASA posing a difficult question that we as a culture and a society must answer.

…because if we ignore the calls of the sky, who then will draw the maps of the universe?

Visit theskyiscalling.us to tell Congress you want more of your taxpayer money diverted to space exploration. For a deeper look at the politics of the issue and just what’s at stake, see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles.

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25 APRIL, 2012

Dreamers and Storytellers: E. O. Wilson on Art and Reconciling Science and the Humanities

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“In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.”

This month, the celebrated Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson — who once famously said that “the elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain” — penned a terrific Harvard Magazine piece on the origin of the arts. One of Wilson’s most urgent points is something we’ve already seen articulated by C. P. Snow, who in 1959 lamented a dangerous cultural dichotomy, and Jonah Lehrer, who spoke of a “fourth culture of knowledge” — the need for bridging the sciences and the humanities. Wilson writes:

Since the fading of the original Enlightenment during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stubborn impasse has existed in the consilience of the humanities and natural sciences. One way to break it is to collate the creative process and writing styles of literature and scientific research. This might not prove so difficult as it first seems. Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.

Wilson’s great talent is perhaps the gift of bridging the poetic with the scientific:

If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.

But the most expansive beauty of Wilson’s essay lies in his articulation of art, at the heart of which is a sentiment common to the greatest definitions of science and of philosophy:

A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes.

Image by Desert Stars

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24 APRIL, 2012

Happy Birthday, Hubble: Celebrating More than Two Decades of Stunning Space Images

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From black holes to star births, or what decades of cosmic awe have to do with the future of space exploration.

It’s a bittersweet time for space exploration. On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery recently rolled into its “new home” — a polite way to say it’s become space taxidermy — but Hubble’s legacy endures, having engendered some of the most spectacular space images humanity has ever glimpsed, and there’s hardly a better way to celebrate it than with National Geographic’s Hubble: Imaging Space and Time, the most glorious collection of space images since Michael Benson’s Far Out. With more than 120 breathtaking photographs that take us to the very edge of known space, contextualized in the Hubble’s history, the lavish tome looks back on two decades of the telescope’s service in orbit and sets the stage for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled launched in 2013.

From black holes to star births to giant galaxies cannibalizing smaller ones, the images capture the thriving ecosystem of the cosmos, with all its magnificent nebulae, dazzling stars, and majestic planets.

Here are some of my favorite Hubble gems of all time.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054.

Taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003, this image captures the red planet some 34,647,420 miles from Earth.

A mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

A ribbon of gas, a very thin section of a supernova remnant caused by a stellar explosion that occurred more than 1,000 years ago, floats in our galaxy. The supernova that created it was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans.

Saturn's dynamic auroras

Section of M51 with Progenitor Star

Saturn's rings in ultraviolet light

The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Star birth in Galaxy M83

New red spot appears on Jupiter

Hubble/Subaru Composite image of star-forming region S106

Face-on Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982

The Egg Nebula

Saturn with rings tilted towards the Earth

At a time when the future of space exploration is hanging by a thread, Hubble: Imaging Space and Time is a magnificent living manifesto for just what’s at stake.

Images courtesy of NASA

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