Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

09 MARCH, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate on the Spirit of Exploration


On the heroism of curiosity, or what The Little Prince can teach us about longing for infinity.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently made a chill-giving case for the whimsy of the Universe, is among our era’s most articulate advocates and storytellers of science. On March 7, Tyson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of space exploration — an urgent message at time when space funding is at an all-time law and Carl Sagan’s vision lives on only as a poetic lament.

Tyson opens with a beautiful quote from French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, better-known as the author of The Little Prince — a philosophy treasure chest all its own:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Any nation, any time, has the capacity to create a hero. It just has to have ambitions with goals set.


If people see NASA as a charity agency for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, they are not understanding the actual growth NASA has played in the growth of this nation — and the economic growth of this nation.


The pathway from the investment to the return on the dollar takes a little longer than an elevator ride to explain… Innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed, the culture of innovation spills over. Everyone feels like tomorrow is something they want to invent and bring into the present. That’s the culture that so many of us grew up with, and that’s the culture that so many of us who read about it want to resurrect going forward. Without this, we just move back to the caves.”

So what happened between the golden age of space exploration, when the design of the spacesuit was a feat of cross-disciplinary ambition and excitement oozed even from the ad pages of science magazines, and today? When did we forget that infinity beckons? Perhaps Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said that the universe is made of stories, not of atoms, but the stories we tell about those atoms are the fabric of our understanding, our culture, and our society. Without cosmic storytellers like Tyson, the universe would contract into a ball of anthropocentricity — next thing we know, we’re back to believing the Earth is the center of the universe.

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, isn’t merely an eloquent case for space exploration — it’s an intelligent and necessary manifesto for rekindling an infinitely important torch of human curiosity.


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08 MARCH, 2012

Creating a “Fourth Culture” of Knowledge: Jonah Lehrer on Why Science and Art Need Each Other


From Gertrude Stein to Karl Popper, or how to architect “negative capability” and live with mystery.

One of my favorite books of all time is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which tells the story of how a handful of iconic creators each discovered an essential truth about the mind long before modern science was able to label and pinpoint it — for instance, George Eliot detected neuroplasticity, Gertrude Stein uncovered the deep structure of language, Cézanne fathomed how vision works, and Proust demonstrated the imperfections of memory. I was recently reminded of this powerful passage, in which Lehrer makes a case for the extraordinary importance of the cross-pollination of disciplines, the essence of Brain Pickings’ founding philosophy, particularly of art and science — a convergence Lehrer calls a “fourth culture” that empowers us to “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.”

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”

Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, comes out later this month.

HT Wired

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07 MARCH, 2012

From Francis Bacon to Hobbes to Turing: George Dyson on the History of Bits


What Sir Francis Bacon has to do with the dawn of the Internet and the inner workings of your iPhone.

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” proclaimed twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing in 1936.

The digital text you are reading on your screen, which I wrote on my keyboard, flows through the underbelly of the Internet to transmit a set of ideas from my mind to yours. It all happens so fluidly, so familiarly, that we take it for granted. But it is the product of remarkable feats of technology, ignited by the work of a small group of men and women, spearheaded by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Legendary science historian George Dyson traces the history and legacy of this pioneering work in his highly anticipated new book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, based on his 2005 essay of the same name — the most comprehensive and ambitious account of that defining era yet, reconstructing the events and characters that coalesced into the dawn of computing and peering into the future to examine where the still-unfolding digital universe may be headed.

It begins with a captivating promise:

There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.”

The book is absolutely absorbing in its entirety, but this particular abstract on the history of bits illustrates beautifully Dyson’s gift for contextualizing the familiar with the infinitely fascinating:

A digital universe — whether 5 kilobytes or the entire Internet — consists of two species of bits: differences in space, and differences in time. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. Bits that are embodied as structure (varying in space, invariant across time) we perceive as memory; and bits that are embodied as sequence (varying in time, invariant across space) we perceive as code. Gates are the intersections where bits span both worlds at the moments of transition from one instant to the next.

The term bit (the contraction, by 40 bits, of “binary digit”) was coined by statistician John W. Tukey shortly after he joined von Neumann’s project in November of 1945. The existence of a fundamental unit of communicable information, representing a single distinction between two alternatives, was defined rigorously by information theorist Claude Shannon in his then-secret Mathematical Theory of Cryptography of 1945, expanded into his Mathematical Theory of Communication of 1948. “Any difference that makes a difference” is how cybernetician Gregory Bateson translated Shannon’s definition into informal terms. To a digital computer, the only difference that makes a difference is the difference between a zero and a one.

That two symbols were sufficient for encoding all communication had been established by Francis Bacon in 1623. ‘The transposition of two Letters by five placeings will be sufficient for 32 Differences [and] by this Art a way is opened, whereby a man may expresse and signifie the intentions of his minde, at any distance of place, by objects… capable of a twofold difference onely,’ he wrote, before giving examples of how such binary coding could be conveyed at the speed of paper, the speed of sound, or the speed of light.

That zero and one were sufficient for logic as well as arithmetic was established by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1679, following the lead given by Thomas Hobbes in his Computation, or Logique of 1656. ‘By Ratiocination, I mean computation,’ Hobbes had announced. ‘Now to compute, is either to collect the sum of many things that are added together, or to know what remains when one thing is taken out of another. Ratiocination, therefore is the same with Addition or Substraction; and if any man adde Multiplication and Division, I will not be against it, seeing… that all Ratiocination is comprehended in these two operations of the minde.’ The new computer, for all its powers, was nothing more than a very fast adding machine, with a memory of 40,960 bits.”

Turing’s Cathedral, though dense at times, is fascinating in its entirety.

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