Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

01 JULY, 2011

Nabokov’s Legacy: Bequeathing Butterfly Theory

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Getting schooled in the arts and sciences, or what literature has to do with lepidoptery.

Tomorrow, the 34th anniversary of Vladamir Nabokov‘s death, isn’t just a chance to observe the author’s contributions to the literary canon; it’s an opportunity for triumph. Nabokov admirers have long known of his double life as a lepidopterist — a scholar of butterflies — and master of prose (in multiple languages, no less), but it’s taken the scientific community time to catch up with his achievements in the former pursuit.

In January of this year, Nabokov’s 1945 hypothesis was finally recognized as scientific fact, putting the lie to that tired adage, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Since Brain Pickings exists to celebrate cross-disciplinary creativity, we’ve long been enamored of the multi-talented linguist and lepidopterist. A true combinatorial force, Nabokov brought the precision of entomological study to his writing, and the playfulness of his words to the hunt for new butterfly species. (And as if that weren’t enough, he was also a synesthete.)

As an artist and a scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

It wasn’t until this year, however, that the author-scientist’s thesis on a particular blue butterfly was proven true. While Nabokov served, initially on a unpaid volunteer basis, as the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, he speculated that the American Polyommatus had evolved over millions of years of emigration from Asia. And we now know that he was right.

During his 20 years in the U.S., Nabokov spent almost every summer traveling west both to work on his writing and search for new specimens. In fact, for proof of the cross-fertilization of his efforts, one need look no further than his masterpiece Lolita, a road-trip novel that mirrored the author’s own criss-crossing the country.

I spent what remained of the summer exploring the incredibly lyrical Rocky Mountain states, getting drunk on whiffs of Oriental Russia in the sagebrush zone… And yet–was that all? What form of mysterious pursuit caused me to get my feet wet like a child, to pant up a talus, to stare every dandelion in the face, to start at every colored mote passing just beyond my field of vision? ~ the fictional character Vadim Vadimych, in Nabokov’s final novel Look at the Harlequins!

So in celebration of his equally impressive contributions to two disciplines, we’ve gathered some of Nabokov’s entries in a third, the field of visual arts. Allowing his creativity free rein, Nabokov’s beautiful butterfly drawings–often penciled on the title and endpages of his many books–were actually pure products of his imagination. Like his work, these hybrid creatures combined existing species in new ways that only he could have conceived.

The author on a hunting expedition with his son Dmitri, near Gstaad, August 1971.

Image via Glenn Horowitz Bookseller.

Unlabeled butterflies on a copy of the first American edition of Lolita from 1958

Kurt Johnson, author of Nabokov's Blues, identifies the four overlapping butterflies as North American species, reflecting the journey across the U.S. of Lolita and Humbert during the novel, and also the author while writing it.

Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Unnamed butterfly from a copy of King, Queen, Knave

The author created a fantastical hybrid of the Hairstreak and Australian Lacewing butterflies.

Image via Christie's.

The invented Morpho sylvia, for Nabokov's Wellesley College colleague, short-story writer Sylvia Berkman.

Morpho is a genus of bright, large, metallic-blue South American butterflies.

Image via the Wellesley College Library.

Eugenia oengini from the endpaper of Conclusive Evidence, the first version of the author's autobiography.

Named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated.

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Brenthis dozenita Nab.

On receiving the 1971 American edition of the 1958 short-story collectionNabokov's Dozen, the author drew this invented species -- calling it 'Dozenita Fritillary' -- and presented it to his wife as a gift on January 19, 1971. The drawing resembles an actual northern bog species which Nabokov describes in the opening of Speak, Memory.

Image via Nabokov Museum.

Arlequinus arlequinus male, drawn for the author's wife in a copy of Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov's last completed novel published in August 1974.

At Nabokov and Véra's first encounter in 1923 she was wearing a harlequin mask.

Image via the Cornell University Library.

Charaxes verae Nabokov male, an imagined species drawn on the endpaper of the first English edition of The Gift, for the Nabokovs' forty-third wedding anniversary in 1968.

The Russian inscription reads, 'Here is the tenderest of butterflies, worth of our anniversary.'

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

The captions above draw on an excellent, but sadly out-of-print volume called Nabokov’s Butterflies. For more on his fluttering finds, however, read the brilliant Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius; or visit the fantastic online galleries of the Nabokov Museum. And if it’s more gorgeous scientific sketches you want, check out our review of Field Notes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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27 JUNE, 2011

Happy 5th Birthday, TED Talks: 5 All-Time Favorite Talks

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Democratizing knowledge, the meaning of life, and why everything we know about creativity is wrong.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of TED talks becoming available to the world. As of this week, there are 1000 TED talks online in 81 languages, and they’ve been seen a cumulative half billion times.

I can’t overstate how much TED has changed my life personally, and what a tour de force it has been culturally. I’ve previously said that my first month of watching TED talks in 2006 gave me more — more insight, more knowledge, more inspiration, more creative restlessness to do something with my life — than four years of “Ivy League education” combined, and I’ll say it again. In more ways than I can count, TED has changed my outlook on the world, vastly expanded my scope of curiosity, and infinitely enriched my life with the tremendously interesting, generous and kind people I’ve been fortunate to meet in the TED community, online and off.

Some time ago, I channeled my love for TED in a remix project called TEDify, collaging and animating soundbites from TED talks into narratives along different themes. Here’s one, exploring the evolution of storytelling:

Today, to celebrate the big occasion, I’ve tried to curate my five favorite TED talks of all time — operative word being “tried,” since it felt a bit like asking a parent to pick out her favorite child.

ELIZABETH GILBERT ON GENIUS

When Elizabeth Gilbert took the TED stage in 2009, it didn’t take long to realize her talk would be among TED’s finest. Unlike other author talks, hers followed what I consider to be the perfect formula for a stellar TED talk: Take the experience or craft you are best known for and draw from it a universal metaphor for some great truth about the human condition. Gilbert’s assertion that we use concepts like “genius” and “muse” to shield ourselves from the results of our own work hits home for just about anyone in a “creative” field, bringing into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about creativity.

Above all, Gilbert makes a powerful case for the tremendous importance of showing up — of good old-fashioned hard work — in the creative process, something we all intuitively understand but often roll our eyes at because it isn’t as exciting and glamorous and alluring as the prospect of a Eureka moment or a single flash of insight that magically transforms our mediocrity into genius.

Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless,just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert is the author Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, which, despite the awful Hollywood adaptation, remains an excellent read.

MATTHIEU RICARD ON HAPPINESS

In 2004, French neuroscientist-turned-Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard delivered a layered, thoughtful and thought-provoking talk on happiness and its cultural conceits, much of which I used in the TEDify remix on happiness.

The whole point of that is not, sort of, to make, like, a circus thing of showing exceptional beings who can jump, or whatever. It’s more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury.This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul; this is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most: the way our mind functions.” ~ Matthieu Ricard

Besides his fantastic Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, one of the 7 most essential books on the art and science of happiness, Ricard is also the author of The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life — a remarkable record of a 10-day conversation between Ricard and his father, renowned French intellectual and philosopher Jean-Francois Revel.

PHILIPPE STARCK ON DESIGN

Eccentric and brilliant and French as ever, Philippe Starck weaves a remarkable story of design, existentialism and moral philosophy in his 2007 talk, injecting an oh-so-needed shot of humility into the buttocks of our generational and civilizational arrogance.

That is our poetry. That is our beautiful story. It’s our romanticism. Mu-ta-tion. We are mutants. And if we don’t deeply understand, if we don’t integrate that we are mutants, we completely miss the story. Because every generation thinks we are the final one. We have a way to look at Earth like that, you know, ‘I am the man. The final man. You know, we mutate during four billion years before, but now, because it’s me, we stop. Fin. For the end, for the eternity, it is one with a red jacket.'” ~ Philippe Starck

For more of Starck’s design genius, don’t miss the equally provocative Starck, capturing over three decades of his work, eccentricity and cultural insight.

JANINE BENYUS ON BIOMIMICRY

Biomimicry is one of the most promising frontiers of innovation at the intersection of design, engineering and sustainability. In 2009, Kirstin Butler wrote about AskNature — an ambitious biomimicry portal by Janine Benyus connecting designers, engineers and scientists to collaborate on biomimetic innovation. Benyus set the stage for the project in 2005 with a showcase of 12 brilliant, sustainable designs inspired by nature, then followed up in 2009 by showing these concept in action, implemented in real-life design and engineering products — concepts so simple yet so brilliant it makes one wonder why we aren’t implementing nature’s age-old, time-tested systems in every aspect of modern life.

If I could reveal anything that is hidden from us, at least in modern cultures, it would be to reveal something that we’ve forgotten, that we used to know as well as we knew our own names. And that is that we live in a competent universe, that we are part of a brilliant planet. And that we are surrounded by genius. Biomimicry is a new discipline that tries to learn from those geniuses, and take advice from them, design advice. ” ~ Janine Benyus

Find even more in Benyus’s excellent Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

STEVEN JOHNSON ON INNOVATION

Steven Johnson is easily my favorite nonfiction writer. Last year, he delivered a fantastic talk at TED Global, based on his book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, exploring the cross-pollination essential to ideation and revealing the combinatorial nature of creativity. The talk was later animated by the RSA for an even more delicious treat.

That is how innovation happens. Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

Where Good Ideas Come From topped my list of 2010’s 10 best books in business, life and mind.

BONUS

The TEDx program, a series of self-organized TED-like events around the world, has been one of TED’s great successes, with some 2,000 events to date in more than 80 countries worldwide. Many of them are produced and curated with a formidable level of quality, delivering talks that could’ve easily been given on main-stage TED. My favorite TEDx gem has to be Brené Brown’s moving TEDxHouston talk on wholeheartedness and vulnerability, sitting at the intersection of science, storytelling and philosophy:

In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.” ~ Brené Brown

Brown is the author of the fantastic The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

What TED talks changed your worldview, your priorities or your life, in ways big or small?

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24 JUNE, 2011

The Exultant Ark: The Secret Emotional Lives of Animals

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What dolphins at play have to do the mating rituals of butterflies and our capacity for kindness.

Hundreds of books are published, research studies conducted and lectures given on human psychology and emotion every year, yet the question of animal emotion remains a hotpoint of scientific debate and contention. But why should our inability to measure these phenomena mean that they don’t exist at all? That’s exactly what scientist and animal advocate Jonathan Balcombe explores in The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure — an absolutely remarkable and fascinating journey into the rich, tender and complex emotional lives of animals.

Balcombe examines a new generation of research on animal feelings, especially animal pleasure, illustrated with joyful images of the animal kingdom by some of the world’s leading wildlife photographers. The story unfolds with equal parts affectionate enthusiasm and scientific rigor, extending a gentle invitation to reexamine our relationship with living beings, reaching for more kindness, more empathy and more wholeheartedness in how we think of and treat other animals.

Nobody denies that other humans are sentient, though it’s no more possible to prove another human being is sentient than it is to prove an animal’s sentience. We don’t accept such solipsism. It would be far-fetched. So let’s stop drawing this line between humans and all other animals.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Elk

'A young bull elk engages in an act of playful curiosity commonly performed by young children — sticking out a tongue to catch snowflakes.'

Image by Mark Peters via Wired

Barbary Macaque

Says Balcombe: 'Some macaques show an intense fascination with water — its appearance, its movements, and its feel ... The attention of this Barbary macaque was held completely for several minutes as she repeatedly splashed, apparently enchanted with the feel of the water and the consequence of the action.'

Image by Andrew Forsyth via Wired

Norway Rats

Norway rats can emit two telltale chirps, at 22 kHz and at 50 kHz. The higher-pitched chirp is emitted while wrestling, playing and having sex, and they also make the chirps when being tickled, a response akin to human laughter.

Image by Brandy Saxton via Wired

Chimpanzees

For chimps, mutual grooming plays a key role in communication and conflict resolution. These two, named Teresa and Sheila, live in the Chimp Haven sanctuary, a lifelong care facility for chimps abandoned as pets or rescued from medical research.

Image by Amy Fultz/Chimp Haven via Wired

Pleasure is a private experience, well nigh impossible to prove, though of course scientists don’t like the word “prove.” And there are good reasons for being skeptical of making assumptions that are difficult to prove. But what I’m getting at is everyday experience: the capacity to be empathic in viewing other animals’ experiences and comparing them to our own.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Common Blue Butterflies

Mating among common blue butterflies involves surprisingly complex displays of courtship. Although it's commonly assumed that these rituals are unaccompanied by feelings, Balcombe gives insects 'the benefit of the doubt,' pointing out that it's easier to be cruel to insects when we assume they aren't sentient than when we suspect they might be.

Image by Arthur Sevestre via Wired

Beluga Whale

Dolphins and beluga whales blow bubble rings and swimming through them, and tend to do this more in captivity, indicating the behavior might be a boredom-buster for them. A parallel theory is that it's a form of play and Balcombe suspects that, whatever the answer, they find the activity stimulating.

Image by Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures via Wired

Swift Fox

Says Balcombe: 'I did not choose this photo because it expresses pleasure. Indeed, how are we to know what this fox is feeling as he bounds across a field? I chose it because it expresses a fundamental value: freedom.'

Image by Thomas D. Mangelsen via Wired

Wired has an exclusive excerpt from the book, as well as an interview with Balcombe.

The Exultant Ark is the follow-up to Balcombe’s equally excellent Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals.

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22 JUNE, 2011

The Beekepers: Artful Documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder

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What Aristotle’s hobby has to do with the future of agriculture and our best defense against disaster.

I love bees. My grandmother, who essentially raised me, is a beekeeper and instilled in me a deep respect for these gentle and amazing creatures, so it breaks my heart every time I hear of new evidence for colony collapse disorder and the vanishing of the honeybee.

The Beekepers is a fascinating experimental documentary by filmmaker Richard Robinson, exploring the cultural history of beekeeping, from Aristotle to medieval monasteries to Darwin to the U.S. Army, and looking for answers to the CCD crisis through a near-expressionist blend of black-and-white archival footage and voice over narration. Equal parts artful and thoughtful, the film is a genre-bender with an uncommon creative angle, offering an illuminating glimpse of the intricate mechanisms driving a complex and all-permeating ecosystem.

Now that the environment is changing, the beekeeper has taken on another role: that of the environmental monitor. It turns out that bees are better at telling us what’s going on in the environment than just about anything else. They’re better than NASA’s satellites at tracking global warming and they’re the most efficient way we know of testing toxic waste sites. The government has even studied them as a way to alert us to environmental disasters. So when colony collapse disorder started killing bees mysteriously, it wasn’t just the food supply that concerned scinetists — it was the environment itself.”

For more on colony collapse disorder and what it means for the future of our civilization, I highly recommend Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

via @Jake_Barton; image via Wikimedia Commons

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