Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

12 JULY, 2011

Albertus Seba’s Amazing Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

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Getting a private viewing of the King Bird of Paradise, or how to set the exchange rate for flying squid.

Lying at the intersection of art and science, the practice of natural illustration has long been the recipient of Brain Pickings adoration. So we swooned over the recent release of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a reproduction of the unequalled collection of Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba. Born in the mid-17th century, Seba spent decades gathering a wunderkammer of birds, insects, reptiles, and exotic plants for use in his drug preparations.

One hundred years before the eminent German naturalist Ernst Haeckel was even born, Seba had published two volumes of engravings of his compendia; the last two wouldn’t be finished until after his death in 1736. Seba’s internationally famous cabinet of animals, insects, and plants was coveted by prominent collectors, but eventually purchased by Czar Peter the Great for display in Russia.

Seba’s fantastic assortment no longer exists as a whole — its parts scattered throughout the globe, and some of its individual specimens extinct — but, happily, the images do. The professional pharmacist and amateur zoologist commissioned illustrations of every single item in his collection. In gorgeous reproductions of the original color plates, we get to see detailed drawings of Phasmatodea (or Walking Stick, as the insect is colloquially known), three-banded armadillo, and snakes from Suriname. And while a complete edition of Seba’s visual thesaurus was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars, we can happily enjoy it for far less.

A spectacular exhibition of 18th-century natural history, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities will enchant the curious cross-disciplinarian and bring a bygone era of scientific study back to life.

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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11 JULY, 2011

Space Shuttle’s Legacy: A Carl Sagan Remix

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What Koyaanisqatsi has to do with William Shatner and the future of space exploration.

We’ve seen — and loved — our share of Carl Sagan remixes over the years. This month, as NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle took its final launch, Reid Gower has commemorated the program’s momentous legacy with another fantastic Carl Sagan mashup, remixing voiceover from Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot with classic footage from sources as varied as Baraka, Stephen Hawkins’ Into The Universe, BBC’s The Cell and Sagan’s own Cosmos, among many more.

We had an expansive run in the ’60s and the ’70s. You might have thought, as I did then, that our species would be on Mars before the century was over. But, instead, we’ve pulled inward. Robots aside, we’ve backed off from the planets and the stars. I keep asking myself: is it a failure of nerve, or a sign of maturity?” ~ Carl Sagan

The remix is part of Gower’s excellent ongoing Sagan Series. For more fan-made NASA love, don’t miss these two remarkable tributes, as well as this beautiful NASA-produced documentary about Space Shuttle’s legacy narrated by none other than William Shatner.

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.

08 JULY, 2011

7 Fundamental Meditations on Faith

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What the magician Penn Gillette has to do with a ring of earth 700 miles north of the equator.

Belief lies behind the best and worst of human history. Faith in something larger than the self — or lack thereof — has shaped our societies for millennia, so we thought it about time to take a survey of the topic. (Perhaps you agree, since the BBC4 documentary The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion is one of Brain Pickings‘ most popular posts of all time.) Given the rich and faceted nature of the subject, it’s practically impossible to produce a list that is exhaustive, conclusive and universal, but we’ve narrowed it down to six absorbing and provocative books, plus one documentary, about the human quest for existential meaning.

THE POWER OF MYTH

The Power of Myth is considered a classic of the faith canon, and for good reason. In a 1988 six-part PBS series of the same name, host Bill Moyers and folklore and mythology expert Joseph Campbell place belief within the perspective of human history. The Q&A format makes for a fun read, and allows Campbell to weave a comprehensive picture of faith across cultures and from prehistory to the present moment.

From ritual sacrifice to the symbolism of Star Wars, the transcript of Moyers and Campbell’s sessions articulates fundamentals of our value systems so widely accepted as to be taken for granted.

The source of life — what is it? No one knows. We don’t even know what an atom is, whether it is a wave or a particle — it is both. We don’t have any idea of what these things are. That’s the reason we speak of the divine. There’s a transcendent energy source. When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he’s seeing a trace on the screen. These traces come and go, come and go, and we come and go, and all of life comes and goes. That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Like a fascinating post-dinner conversation with your fabulously erudite uncle, The Power of Myth is a great survey of the spiritual stories humans have held to be self-evident throughout time.

DISCOVERING GOD

Author Rodney Stark set himself an ambitious agenda in Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. From primal belief during the Stone Age, through the so-called “Axial Age” of the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Zoroaster, to modern Christian missionaries and the rise of Islam, Discovering God surveys every major form faith has taken in the last 2.5 million years. Even more remarkably, Stark does so in under 400 pages, including maps of various religions’ births and images illustrating how belief was reified by culture. Ultimately, the book even pushes beyond an anthropological, historical, and sociological study into whether there is, in fact, a there there.

Thus we reach the fundamental question: Does God exist? That is, have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so many similarities among the great religions because God is really the product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or have people in many places, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?”

Leaving no stone unturned in its quest to draw a map of mankind’s belief, Discovering God will satisfy those looking for deep background on pre- and post-modern ideology, and everything in between.

THE BELIEF INSTINCT

Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes a very different tack with The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, posing the salient question:

If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”

Referencing the latest in cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology, this highly engaging exploration of faith touches on the concept of an afterlife, whether animals too have existential needs, and how the movie Being John Malkovich plays on a philosophical puzzle most succinctly formulated by Descartes. Read our full review from earlier this year here.

THE TENTH PARALLEL

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam takes you on a riveting tour across the real-life middle earth, with gorgeous language as a guide. Its author, award-winning investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, spent the last seven years traveling along the eponymous tenth parallel — the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator — where more than 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians and half the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims reside. The Tenth Parallel unfolds across the enormous canvases of Africa and Asia, in deserts and megacities, and shows how completely theology, culture and politics intersect. Griswold places faith into geographical context, or perhaps the other way around — her discovery being how much land influences what we think about how to live.

We pulled into the pastor’s village after true dark — the absolute profundity that occurs only when no city lights bruise the sky plum. He was waiting on the riverbank outside his small house, its windows edged in lace doilies. Heavy-headed marigolds bobed in the gelid breeze the river made. The churning water seemed phosphorescent; the pastor’s white eyebrows and hair seemed to glow against the darkness.”

If you want to understand the present and future of global geopolitics but prefer to read breathtaking prose over AP-style wire reports, The Tenth Parallel won’t disappoint.

GOD IS NOT GREAT

Tailored to those who prefer pugilism to poetry, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by famously devout atheist Christopher Hitchens excoriates every organized religion while also putting a range of historical figures, from Thomas Aquinas to Zen Buddhists, in their place. As an alternative, God Is Not Great proposes a “new enlightenment” with knowledge, reason and science at the center of human pursuits.

Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful — and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding — than any creation or ‘end of days’ story.”

Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with Hitchens’s signature passion and rigor, God Is Not Great makes a clear case for what’s wrong with keeping the faith, historically and today.

THE BUDDHA

We were thrilled to find that the 2010 documentary The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha can now be viewed in its entirety for free online. Narrated by celebrity Buddhist Richard Gere, The Buddha is a biography of Siddharta Gautama, the Indian sage whom the stories say gained Enlightenment more than 500 years before Christ’s birth.

The chronological tale of his life takes us on a visually stunning journey matching Gautama’s travels, from his birthplace in present-day Nepal across the Gangetic Plain and back. Featuring interviews with The Dalai Lama, poet W.S. Merwin, and Uma Thurman’s father and Columbia professor Robert Tenzin Thurman, The Buddha both entertains and enlightens.

Illustrated by beautiful animations,The Buddha is a meditative and thought-provoking tour through one remarkable man’s life.

THIS I BELIEVE

Eighty essays comprise the book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, based on an NPR series of the same name. The anthology spans nearly 60 years and contains incredibly intimate observations from famous figures including Albert Einstein ( ), Temple Grandin (), Martha Graham, and Helen Keller. We get the personal reflections of Kay Redfield Jameson: “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do;” and the searching doubt of Eleanor Roosevelt: “I don’t know whether I believe in a future life. I believe that all that you go through here must have some value; therefore, there must be some reason.”

A rare opportunity to glimpse the innermost thoughts of prominent people, This I Believe constantly reminds the reader of the vast range of belief which inspires our every action.

We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of food. We must believe, without fear, in people.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

And if you enjoy the many ideas on display in This I Believe, there’s also a second volume of 75 more essays.

As society grows increasingly interdependent, understanding each other’s existential positions has never been more important. Whatever your own spiritual orientation, we hope the selections here provide insight into the plurality of faith and provoke deeper thought into your own beliefs.

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.

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.

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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