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Posts Tagged ‘science’

17 OCTOBER, 2011

7 Must-Read Books on Time

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What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with Saint Augustine, landscape art, and graphic novels.

Time is the most fundamental common denominator between our existence and that of everything else, it’s the yardstick by which we measure nearly every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, yet its nature remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. Last year, we devoured BBC’s excellent What Is Time? and today we turn to seven essential books that explore the grand question on a deeper, more multidimensional level, spanning everything from quantum physics to philosophy to art.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

It comes as no surprise to start with A Brief History of Time — legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s 1988 masterpiece, which is commonly considered the most important book in popular science ever published and one of our 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. In it, Hawking attempted to answer one of humanity’s most fundamental questions — where did the universe come from? — and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, blending the rigor of a brilliant scientist with the eloquent ease of a masterful storyteller to invite even the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.)

With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there, and where we might be going.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking’s ending:

If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God.”

FROM ETERNITY TO HERE

In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, CalTech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose. From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, at the intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, tied together by the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning of the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytelling with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech.

Full review here.

TIME

Our experience and understanding of time need not be confined to science. Time chronicles the extraordinary work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who for the past three decades has been defying the Western art tradition of creating work that outlasts the artist’s lifetime by instead creating exquisite temporal sculptures out of leaves, twigs, petals, ice, sand, feathers, water, stone, and other fragments of nature. These ephemeral, lyrical miracles, spanning Canada, Mexico, Japan, Scotland, and Holland, are left open to the forces of time and change, and are captured here in 500 magnificent photographs, most taken by Goldsworthy himself, alongside thoughtful meditations on the vision for and mutation of each piece.

Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.

[…]

My approach to the photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was the subject of the excellent 2001 Scottish-German documentary Rivers & Tides: Working with Time — here’s a short excerpt for a taste:

CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, also one of these 7 favorite books on maps, traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present. The gorgeous, lavishly illustrated collection of timelines features everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

Cartographies of Time is easily one of the most beautiful books to come by in the past year, both a treasure trove of antique artwork and a priceless cultural timecapsule containing humanity’s understanding of time and place in the larger context of existence.

Full review here.

INTRODUCING TIME: A GRAPHIC GUIDE

We’ve previously explored 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction and just last week swooned over this graphic novel biography of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, so it’s only fitting we explored time from within the genre. Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science.

THE TIME PARADOX

Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo is best known as the mastermind of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which revealed one of the most gruesome glimpses of human nature in the history of social science. (Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project in an effort to use what psychology knows about good and evil to harness the human potential for good.) In The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, Zimbardo brings his social psychologist’s lens to the phenomenon of time to explore its importance in our lives, why we systematically devalue it, and how to enlist insights from psychology and behavioral science to optimize our relationship with time. He segments people into past-, present-, and future-oriented based on our time-perspectives, and offers insights into how each type experiences the four central paradoxes of time he identifies.

Sample the book with this charmingly so-bad-it’s-good trailer:

Our ability to reconstruct the past, to interpret the present, and to construct the future gives us the power to be happy.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

THE THIEF OF TIME

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, originally featured in our 5 cross-disciplinary perspectives on procrastination, is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.

Procrastination is familiar and interesting but also puzzling. Although it is generally perceived as harmful and irrational, recent studies suggest that most of us procrastinate occasionally and many of us procrastinate persistently. Not even saints are immune. Saint Augustine records in his Confessions how, after years of sexual hedonism, he vowed to return to Christianity and prayed for chastity and continence — ‘only not yet.’ Although he ‘abhorred’ his current way of living and ‘earnestly’ wanted to change his course, he kept deferring any change until ‘tomorrow.'” ~ Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White

From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.

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14 OCTOBER, 2011

BBC’s Volatile History of Chemistry

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How the elements came to be, or what alchemy and urine have to do with the God particle.

Chemistry is the science of matter, of everything we touch and, existential philosophy aside, of everything we are. And even though we brush up against it with every molecule of our bodies in every instant of our lives, most of us haven’t dedicated formal thought to it since high school. Now, thanks to the fine folks at BBC Four — who previously pondered such captivating issues as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is — you can refresh and enrich your understanding of this complex world with Chemistry: A Volatile History, a fascinating three-part series by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, exploring everything from the history of the elements to the rivalries and controversies that bedeviled scientific progress to the latest bleeding-edge attempts to split matter.

In Part 1, Discovering the Elements, Al-Khalili tackles one of the greatest detective stories in the history of science, tracing the steps of the chemists who risked their lives to find and fight for the building blocks of our entire world.

Part 2, The Order of the Elements, explores the 19th century chemists who set out to make sense of the elements, from working out their exact number to plotting them in one of the most intricate and brilliant intellectual organizational systems of all time: the periodic table. All throughout, bitter disputes and explosive experiments inflict fascinating chaos on this ultimate quest for order.

Part 3, The Power of the Elements, uncovers the incredible passion and, often, heartache that went into chemists’ efforts to command the extreme forces of nature and combine elements to build the modern world. From last century’s dramatic breakthroughs to a riveting tour of modern-day alchemy across some of the world’s best chemistry labs, Al-Khalili’s story not only offers an illuminating history of this fundamental science, but also reinstills a profound awe for the complexity and whimsy of our world.

For more on the wonderful and fascinating world of chemistry, don’t forget The Elements, Theodore Grey’s impressive book and app, They Might Be Giants’ lovely Here Comes Science educational album for kids, and Lauren Redniss’s stunning cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s science and romance.

via MetaFilter

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14 OCTOBER, 2011

A Graphic Novel Biography of Richard Feynman

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Safe-cracking the quantum physics way, or what the Challenger disaster has to do with bongo drums.

Last week, we swooned over a brilliant mashup of words on beauty, honor, and curiosity by legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman. Today, we turn to Feynman — a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

HT reader @DarSolo

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10 OCTOBER, 2011

7 Essential Collections of Conversations with Cultural Icons

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Inside our era’s greatest minds, or what Nelson Mandela has to do with the fringes of the art world.

Whatever we might say of the future of the written word, a book remains a remarkable curated package of ideas that matter, one that lives on as a precious time-capsule of the era defined by those ideas. Nowhere is this property of the book more concentrated than in anthologies that gather the first-hand insights and cultural observations of an era’s greatest thinkers. Today, we turn to seven such treasure troves of ideas by some of our time’s most influential writers, artists, scientists, creators, and philosophers.

WISDOM

If you aren’t yet familiar with the work of photographer Andrew Zuckerman, you’re missing some of the most compelling visual philosophy of our day. In Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another, Zuckerman went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. (Though Zuckerman himself is just over 30.) He posed 7 questions, recording his subjects’ candid responses in a way that unearths a landslide of intelligence, inspiration, and invaluable insight. From Nelson Mandela to Jane Goodall to Desmond Tutu, the list of modern-day shamans reads like an all-star pickup game between TED and the Nobel Prize.

You don’t stop doing things because you get old. You get old because you stop doing things.” ~ Rosamunde Pilcher, writer

Against the plain white backdrop and in the signature crispness of Zuckerman’s shot, the subjects are stripped down to their core essence, decontextualized and thus democratized in a way that truly captures a cross-cultural cross-section of our era, with all its burdens and triumphs.

Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.

See more, including a behind-the-scenes peek, here.

SCIENCE IS CULTURE

In 2001, Adam Bly founded Seed Magazine with the vision of exploring the social, creative, intellectual, economic, and political transformations underpinned by science. One of the magazine’s most beloved features has been the Seed Salon, pairing a scientist and artist, humanist, or other non-scientist in a conversation about issues of common interest and shared significance. In 2010, Bly collected 12 of these conversations in Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society — a who’s who of contemporary art, science, literature, and philosophy, methodically and thoughtfully bridging the age-old yet, as these conversations prove, artificial divide between science and culture. These tête-à-têtes include momentous pairings like David Byrne + Daniel Levitin, Benoit Mandelbrot + Paola Antonelli, E.O Wilson + Daniel Dennett, and Jonathan Lethem + Janna Levin. (It’s also worth nothing that of the seven books in this omnibus, this one is by far the most gender-balanced in perspectives and representation — something that would be commendable were it not for the tragic admission of male-centricity still being the norm implicit to such commendation.)

Here’s a taste from the salon conversation between author Alan Lightman and choreographer Richard Colton, who discuss the relationship between art and time:

Alan Lightman: If I had a few hours or longer, I could work on a writing project. If I had half an hour, I could do errands or pay bills. If I only had two or three minutes, I could answer telephone messages. I realized that I had carved up the entire day into five-minute units of efficiency, andd I was appalled. I was very upset to think that i was becoming a robot — and I’m wondering, how do you use time in your life?

Richard Colton: One of the things that came to mind when you told this story is something I remember reading during the Gertrude Stein phase, which is that Stein believed the first ingredient for creativity was boredom. You must trust that the mundane will lead to something interesting.

John Cage also taught that if you let the duration of a movement or musical phrase just keep going, it will almost always become more interesting, which is the exact opposite of carving something up into small increments. You will go through a period where the music seems boring, but if you let it keep going it can become quite interesting.”

HANS ULRICH OBRIST INTERVIEWS

Since 1993, curator, critic and art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whom you might remember from the 2010 documentary The Future of Art, has been interviewing hundreds of noteworthy characters who have piqued his curiosity, from renowned luminaries to emerging artists, including writers, scientists, designers, composers, architects, and other thinkers and doers. The project was inspired by two long conversations HUO, as Obrist is often referred to, read when he was a student — one was between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp, and the other between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon.

Throughout The Interview Project, HUO has amassed thousands of hours of tapes and more than 300 interviews to date. The first batch of 75 were released in 2003 in Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, currently out-of-print and a collector’s item. In 2010, HUO released the highly anticipated sequel, Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, Volume 2 — an epic 950-page tome featuring 70 fascinating interviews with great minds from inside and outside the art world born between 1900 and 1989, organized by date of birth. Though you might recognize some of the bigger names, like Ai Weiwei and Miranda July, the beauty of the project is that many of its “endless conversations” live in the fringes of culture, where the most provocative art and thought take place.

A meditation on the art of the interview by the exceptional Douglas Coupland captures HUO’s unique gift:

Hans is one of the few people who know what a true interview out to accomplish, and he has an amazing knack for getting to the essence of a person. He’s the press equivalent of laser eye surgery. With HUO you never get to the twenty-first minute, and with HUO you feel like you’ve had a conversation. He does it the old fashioned way, in person, with a microphone, transcribing the results. This second volume of HUO’s interviews is more diverse than his first, and reflects a broader span of voices and points of view. Each person is a person, and each person is unique. This is a difficult feat to accomplish.”

Amen.

Thanks, Bettina

THE INNOVATOR’S COOKBOOK

Speaking of Steven Johnson, the freshest of these anthologies comes precisely from him. On the heels of his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From comes The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next — a formidable compendium of essays, interviews, and insights on innovation featuring big thinkers like Richard Florida, John Seely Brown, Peter Drucker and many more, alongside Johnson’s own narrative mesmerism. The book does away with everything that makes the innovation space a minefield of fluff-lined buzz and offers instead a lucid, thoughtful, cross-disciplinary lens refracting across education, art, science, economics, urban design, and more.

Underpinning the anthology is a message about the essential role serendipity plays in innovation — or, as Johnson puts it, “the importance of getting lost.” And for the ultimate treat, the trailer for it is a stop-motion gem 3D-printed by MakerBot, one of the 7 open-source platforms changing the future of manufacturing:

It may not be possible to ‘win the future,’ in President Obama’s words, but if we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson

CULTURE

For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) In Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology, Brockman gathers invaluable essays and interviews by and with icons like Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.” ~ Brian Eno, “A Big Theory of Culture” (1997)

See the full review, with more excerpts, here.

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

By now, you’re no doubt familiar with An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”, one of our 7 favorite books on optimism and required reading from our summer reading list for cognitive sunshine. To recap: After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, hoping to find an optimistic antidote to all the dystopian futurism that constantly bombards us. He synthesized these fascinating insights in an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to synthetic biology, these cutting-edge ideas, gathered from all over the world and featuring (alas, mostly male) minds like Chris Anderson, John Seely Brown, and Tim Berners Lee, span a wide spectrum of science and technology, revealing above all the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of disciplines and modes of thinking — a centerpiece of the Brain Pickings ethos.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS

Last year, the excellent Paris Review opened up its archive, containing a half-century worth of fascinating interviews with some of the greatest literary figures in modern history. The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4 is a priceless box-set of these extraordinary interviews and revelatory self-portraits captured between the 1950s and today. From Ernest Hemingway to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, the archive isn’t merely a reflection of literary history, it’s also a goldmine of meditations on culture and creativity by some of our greatest literary icons.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?” ~ Woody Allen

Here are 10 favorite quotes from the interviews, to give you a taste.

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