Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

01 FEBRUARY, 2012

Pasta by Design: Finding Whimsy in the Geometry of Food


Phylogeny of the pantry, or what architecture has to do with anellini.

In 2010, London chef extraordinaire Jacob Kenedy with award-winning British graphic designer Caz Hildebrand explored the geometry of pasta — a journey into the science, history, and philosophy of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes through a minimalist, design-driven cookbook. Now comes Pasta by Design, an even more ambitious design dissection on the beloved carb staple, exploring the intricate, beautiful, almost whimsical geometrical shapes of more than 90 different types of pasta.

(After all, if geometry is good enough a lens for love, it’s certainly good enough for pasta.)

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. MoMA’s Paola Antonelli () writes in the introduction:

Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat — one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types — and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture — as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”

Given the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification, the book takes an approach inspired by the science of phylogeny — the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature — to pare down 92 different types based on their morphological features, then charts them in a family tree.

Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, and expressive minimalist photographs and drawings zoom in on the hidden genius of the classic pantry mainstay.

Quirky in spirit yet rigorously researched and beautifully produced, Pasta by Design at once humanizes mathematics and exposes the captivating complexity of one of the world’s most beloved foods, revealing the dimensionality of design as a cross-disciplinary cultural lens.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson; photographs via IJP

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Christopher Sykes, the Filmmaker Behind the Beloved Richard Feynman Documentaries


Storytelling meets the pleasure of finding things out.

For many years, whenever British filmmaker Christopher Sykes got asked at parties what he did, he would say, “I make films about Richard Feynman.” Which he did — though Sykes has made more than 70 eclectic documentaries, he became best-known for his film on Richard Feynman, including the excellent No Ordinary Genius and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, from which these timeless excerpts on beauty, honors, and curiosity came. Sykes painted a portrait of Feynman that was as fascinating and full of his scientific genius as it was entertaining and brimming with his playful irreverence.

In this talk from TEDxCaltech, Feynman’s daughter, Michelle, introduces Sykes and as he takes the stage to pull the curtain on this extraordinary partnership between a great scientists and a great documentarian.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” ~ Richard Feynman

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25 JANUARY, 2012

The Ice Balloon: The Story of the Disastrous 1897 Expedition to the North Pole by Air


A summertime jaunt to the Arctic Circle, spoiled.

The most famous missing person of the late nineteenth century was surely Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 with over a hundred crewmen while navigating a section of the Northwest Passage. Over the next thirty years, forty-one expeditions set off to find him, or some relic of his trip, and at the insistence of Lady Franklin, more men had died searching for Lord Franklin than on the original expedition. Eventually, word trickled back that the ships had been caught in the shifting Arctic ice and the men had starved and some had been cannibalized.

It’s been speculated that of the nearly one thousand explorers and crew who have traveled to the Arctic, only a quarter have returned. In an 1895 address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, S.A. Andrée proposed an expedition to the North Pole that would risk only three lives, avoiding the crushing ice floes by using a mode of transportation that promised to be safe, quick, and relatively comfortable.

He would travel by balloon.

The Ice Balloon by New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson is a chronicle of that trip, and of the last generation of romantic explorers who would make the pole their life’s work.

Andrée's balloon after three days of travel north. It crashed largely intact.(Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Arctic is a sea of ice, unlike its southern counterpart, the solid, windswept land of Antarctica, and the North Pole has many changing faces: the Geographic North Pole (Andrée’s destination), the Magnetic North Pole, and the Geomagnetic North Pole.

The pole travels like a ghost over the Arctic plain, having more in common with a balloon than an ice breaker. It could be on the tip of Greenland, or surrounded by islands, or in open water. It’s slippery to get a hold of, and just as slippery to prove that you’ve held it. Many close calls and many claims plagued explorers for the first part of the twentieth century, when a bad calculation by frost-bitten fingers could mean the difference between glory and obscurity. (The first scientifically-proven expedition to the pole wasn’t achieved until 1926, more than 15 years after the first expeditions to Antarctica.)

The balloon house on Dane's Island in Svalbard, where Andrée constructed his launch.

In 1896, during Andrée’s first attempt at the trip, there was a festive atmosphere at the launch site in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Scandinavian north. Tourists would come to visit him as he constructed the balloon, and he in turn would give lectures. While preparing the launch, Andrée had two problems. One was that the balloon’s fabric was not sufficiently holding in the hydrogen. The other was Fridtjof Nansen.

Andrée's Arctic rival was Fridtjof Nansen, a swashbuckling Norwegian to Andrée's introspective Swede.

For the past three years, Nansen had lived with his crew above the Arctic Circle, and was known as one of the few people who could weather an arctic winter in a tent. Just a few months before he had attempted to reach the pole by skis and set a new record latitude for northern travel. When Andrée returned to Stockholm, he was besieged by Nansen’s glory. But Andrée was a different breed of explorer, his trip was not survivalist, but as Wilkinson describes it, “futurist.” His wasn’t just a plan for a successful exploration, but the beginnings of a new kind of exploration, one by air.

Andrée's balloon 'The Eagle'” sets off on its journey, leaving Svalbard on July 11, 1897. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The next year, in 1897, Andrée and his crew returned to Svalbard and quietly launched the balloon, which drifted out over the horizon. An eyewitness reported:

There is profound silence at this moment. We hear only the whistling of the wind through the woodwork of the shed, and the flapping of the canvas… ooThe way to the Pole is clear, no more obstacles to encounter—the sea, the ice-field, the Unknown!

The public gave Andrée a year to reach his destination, then they considered looking for his bones. Andrée had homing pigeons aboard, and false reports of the birds showing up all over the world, including, improbably, Chicago, fueled interest in Andrée’s whereabouts.

The crew successfully hunted for food. Here, Andrée stands over a dead polar bear. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The bodies were found more than 30 years later, on a remote island in Svalbard. According to the recovered accounts what happened was this: The balloon sailed north on a bumpy trip for three days before crashing, making it only about half as far as Nansen did the year before. With their supplies intact, the crew of three headed back south.

The crew and their small boat, struggling across a pitch of ice. There was a timer on the camera, allowing for all three men to appear in the picture. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

For three months, the crew pulled three-hundred pound sledges across the broken ice, they shot polar bears and ate them, they celebrated the Swedish Jubilee on September 18th with flags and a special menu, and they took pictures, lots of them, which illustrated a journey of hardship but also good spirits until the end. The pictures also revealed to the world a dreamlike sight: an inflated balloon on its side in the Arctic.

The Ice Balloon is a remarkable account by Wilkinson, not just of S.A. Andrée and his crew, but of all Arctic explorers, some looking for a route, others for the glory of the pole. These were people of a different will, a different mind, and as Wilkinson writes, a different age, now at an end:

It is no observation of my own that the nineteenth century was the last to have been receptive to the enactment of myths… the last to pursue their models and outlines and to feel the rightness of embodying them… The walls of the known, the boundaries were close at hand. It was as if the restraints that men felt in sociable life made them feel compelled out rush into the wild.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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