Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

20 MAY, 2011

A Brief History of Cheese

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What the goodness of Gouda has to do with MRI scans have to do with microbial engineering.

The average American eats some 33 pounds of cheese per year, up from under 22 pounds in 1954. Cheese comes in some 2,000 varieties and has been around for some 4,000 years. The Science and Art of Cheese, a new microdocumentary from KQED, explores the rich and nuanced spectrum of this cultural fixation, from unraveling the secrets of cheese artisans, who hone the aesthetic and sensory attributes of fermented blocks of milk, to scientists who stick feta in the MRI in order to reduce its salt content without changing its texture.

Cheese is incredily scientific. Cheese is a living, dynamic food, and it changes during aging. By adding certain bacteria, we can change the direction of one common nutrient — milk — into many, many different products.”

Artisan cheese is a craft, it’s hand-made, it’s not made by pushing a button. It takes people to try to extract the most flavor and the most beauty of of this handmade product.”

To further feed your cheese curiosity, you won’t go wrong with Andrew Dalby’s Cheese: A Global History — a fascinating journey across eras, cheese types and cultures, interweaving curious factoids to drop at your next dinner party with 40 stunning color plates and 20 in black-and-white.

via GOOD

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18 MAY, 2011

Field Notes: A Glimpse Inside Great Explorers’ Notebooks

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On the singular joys of observing nature firsthand, or the best way to draw a bilaterally symmetrical sphinx moth.

In our age of screens, pencil and paper have lost some of their cultural status, but a new publication wants to remind us of their value in recording and understanding our world.

Just out from Harvard University Press, Field Notes on Science and Nature is as much a scientific travelogue as a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment. Full of beautiful reproductions of original journal pages, Field Notes takes us from Baja, California with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

In the words of the book’s editor, Michael Canfield (himself a biologist at Harvard), we can all “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

The simple satisfactions of mindfully documenting our surroundings are probably best summed up by E.O. Wilson, who penned the book’s introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Let Field Notes be your guide to seeing both the wonders of biology and your own backyard with new eyes.

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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17 MAY, 2011

BBC’s The Human Animal

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What offensive Italian hand-gestures have to do with beauty and the evolution of sexuality.

In 1994, BBC and Discovery Channel reached out to British zoologist, ethologist and popular anthropologist Desmond Morris for an ambitious and unusual endeavor: To illuminate human behavior from a zoological perspective — because we are, after all, just another animal species. The result was The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, a fascinating series later adapted as a book entitled The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.

More than the mere fascination of finding out about our deep pre-wiring, I find the documentary particularly timely in a cultural moment where we’re constantly caught up in some sort of media-perpetuated otherness, making it ever-easier to see those of other cultures, faiths, political beliefs or sexual orientation as so distinctly different from us that we forget our shared humanity.

Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris

The documentary is now available on Google Video in six parts, each examining a different biological component of our beliefs, behaviors and ways of being — a timeless and timely reminder that we share far more than we think.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY

The series begins with The Language of the Body — a fascinating look at how mankind communicated before the evolution of language. From gestures and expressions are so deeply ingrained in our collective memory that they appear to be universal to the curious, confusing and often comically misinterpreted cross-cultural difference of insult gestures, the segment explores the rich vocabulary of body language, both universal and regional.

Most regional body language has a long and complicated history, with the origins often forgotten. One of the special qualities of regional gestures is that they’re amazingly conservative — they remain confined to their own particular area, regardless of the fact that all around them national boundaries keep changing. As a result of this, within a particular country today, you can find what we call a ‘gesture frontier’ — a place where one gesture stops and another one begins.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUNTING APE

The second episode, The Hunting Ape, looks at our most fundamental activity — the quest for food — exploring how our origins as hunter-gatherers permeate every aspect of our modern lives, from fast-food culture to dating.

Viewed as a pattern of human feeding behavior, a trip to the supermarket is the remarkable endpoint of a long journey through evolutionary time, a journey that started in the primeval forest and at the checkout counter. To me, it’s a story of an arboreal ape, which became a ground-dwelling predator, which in turn became a credit card customer.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUMAN ZOO

Part three, The Human Zoo, examines how we managed to go from mud to skyscraper in what’s no more than a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. From the subtleties of human hierarchy in an English pub to the tribal behavior displayed by gangs in Los Angeles, the segment looks at the complex sociology of our species and how it shaped our civilization. It’s also fascinating to see, in 1994, one of the earliest time-lapse simulations of land change as Morris explores the construction of human cities over time.

Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE BIOLOGY OF LOVE

Episode four, The Biology of Love, explores the profound impact standing upright had on our sexuality and how this simple anatomic fact affect all our lives today. Morris analyzes how patterns of behaviour and signals of health and fertility evolved to ensure pair-bonding and genetic survival, ultimately underpinning many of our romantic quests and decisions. From the stages of courtship to the aesthetics of physical beauty, the segment looks at the very foundations of our sexual behavior.

The more we understand, the more fascinating the subject becomes. But how did it all begin — how did boy meet girl?” ~ Desmond Morris

THE IMMORTAL GENES

Part five, The Immortal Genes, explores the biological basis for parental love.

Our species has the heaviest parental burden of any animal on earth. Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?” ~ Desmond Morris

BEYOND SURVIVAL

The final part of the series, Beyond Survival, addresses the question we’ve all been asking ourselves since the very first rub with the program’s premise: Are we really merely another animal? And, if so, why do we have things like art, music, literature and philosophy? Morris concludes by exploring the deepest humanness of humans — what we do and who we become once we have our basic needs for food and shelter met. The episode explores concepts like creativity, artistic progression, play and symbolic thinking.

The human animal is not satisfied with mere survival. Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.” ~ Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is one of the most extraordinary books on being human that you’ll ever read, a rare and thought-provoking look at the tender and complex creature behind the socially constructed facade.

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13 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Velcro: From Nature to NASA, Animated

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Innovation that sticks, or how to turn nature’s aggravations into universal usefulness.

This year, Velcro — one of the world’s most beloved multipurpose inventions — celebrates its 60th birthday, and today marks the 53rd anniversary of Velcro’s US patent. The miracle adhesive was the brainchild of Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One afternoon, as he was taking a walk in the forest, he noticed the that burrs — the seeds of burdock thistle — stuck to his clothes and wondered how they did that. So he excitedly rushed home, stuck one under the microscope, and spent the next ten years perfecting nature’s brilliant hook-and-loop adhesion mechanism, eventually producing one of history’s smartest applications of biomimetic design.

To celebrate Velcro’s birthday, here are three different animated short films that tell the same great story of ingenuity and perseverance in just over a minute each.

From HowStuffWorks, here’s a characteristically short-and-sweet evaluation of the invention. Though I have to disagree with their 2/5 on the benefits-to-humanity scale — anything that’s good enough for NASA should be good enough for at least a 4.

From Pan-African media portal ABN Digital, a beat-by-beat recap on the chronology of Velcro’s invention and its impact as a zipper alternative.

And my favorite, from designer Antonio Alarcón Román, a delightfully fuzzy motion graphics narrative:

And a big “THANK YOU” to my wonderful intern, Adam Rubin, who is doing an admirable job of cataloging notable birthdays, deaths and historical anniversaries for me to find interesting content around.

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