Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

07 APRIL, 2011

Ants Are Amazing: Count the Ways, Literally


We’ve already seen that bees are amazing. Today, we’re looking at why ants are: NPR’s Robert Krulwich and Odd Todd, the same team who explained to us why we can’t walk straight, report on an ingenious new study, in which scientists devised a creative way to prove that ants actually count their steps.

For more on this absolutely incredible civilization, we highly recommend Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions — a fascinating and riveting journey by entomologist Mark Moffett, who’s been rightfully described as “the Indiana Jones of entomology.” From Nigeria’s ant armies to Australia’s silk-spinning ants to Brunei diver ants, Moffett’s enthusiasm for these extraordinary and diverse creatures jumps off the page and pulls you into a remarkable parallel universe of intelligence and creativity.

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06 APRIL, 2011

Computational Origami by MIT’s Erik Demaine


Brain Pickings is all about the cross-pollination of ideas across disciplinary boundaries. We have a particularly soft spot for the interplay of art and mathematics — from Anatolii Fomenko’s vintage mathematical impressions to Vy Hart’s playful mathematics to Benoît Mandelbrot’s legendary fractals. So we love the work of MIT father-and-son duo Erik and Martin Demaine. In this wonderful presentation from MoMA’s now-legendary 2008 Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition, Erik reveals the extraordinary computational origami he has developed with his father, MIT’s first artist in residence.

Demaine, an endearing tried-and-true MIT-er complete with the ponytail-and-glasses combo and Comic Sans slides, embodies some of our highest ideals: From early childhood entrepreneurship to curiosity across the social strata to collaborative creation to the inspired interweaving of art and science. Seed Design Series

One of our growing realizations over the years is that mathematics itself is an art form, and I think that’s what attracted both of us to this area in the first place. [I]t has the same kind of creativity, the same kinds of aesthetics, that you get in art: You want a clean problem to solve, and you want an elegant solution to that problem. Both art and mathematics are about having the right ideas [and] executing those ideas in some convincing way, so in that sense they’re indistinguishable.” ~ Erik Demaine

For more of Erik Demaine’s cross-disciplinary creative genius, we highly recommend the tandem of Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra and Games, Puzzles, and Computation.

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01 APRIL, 2011

Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything


Out-geniusing Einstein, or what the Pope and quantum mechanics have in common.

In 1988, iconic theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking — the living paradox of a superhuman brain trapped in a body that doesn’t work, held in the merciless grip of Lou Gehrig’s disease — published the landmark A Brief History of Time as he set out to “know the mind of God” by developing a simple, elegant set of laws that would explain how our universe works and where it came from. And unlike other grand existential questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, whether God exists and what time is, his was the grandest quest of all: To build a complete theory everything. To do that, he had to do the seemingly impossible: Unify the two great theories of physics — the theory of the very big, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the theory of the very small, quantum mechanics.

Twenty years later, Discovery captured Hawking’s grand quest to find the fundamental reasons for our existence and his life’s work in Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything. The ambitious documentary follows Hawking who, at the age of 66, still puts in a tireless full week’s worth of teaching and research, and contextualizes his landmark work over the past two decades through rare and revealing interviews with renowned scientists who collaborated with Hawking, as well as with Hawking himself.

At a conference on cosmology in The Vatican, the pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began — I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo.” ~ Stephen Hawking

Though the DVD is most excellent, the film is also available on YouTube in 10 parts, gathered for your cognitive pleasure in this playlist:

My life’s work has been to unify the theories of the very large and the very small. Only then can we answer the more challenging questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?” ~ Stephen Hawking

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28 MARCH, 2011

What Is Time? Michio Kaku’s BBC Documentary


What string theory has to do with fish mating and your sleep-wake cycle.

We have a soft spot for BBC documentaries that attempt to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Previously, we’ve explored the nature of reality, how music works, is there God, the politics of fear and where innovation comes from. Last week, we saw this beautifully filmed teaser for an NPR story on why time seems to fly by as you get older:

So it made us wonder about the nature of time: What is it, how do we experience it, why does it play the tricks it does on us? Luckily, there’s a BBC documentary that explores precisely that: Time is a fascinating four-part series by string theory pioneer and prolific author Michio Kaku exploring our sense of time passing, the biological clocks governing our bodies, the geological clues to the depth of time on a planetary level, and the cosmic origin of time itself.

As a physicist, I’ve spent most of my life studying time and I know it’s one of the greatest mysteries in all of nature. We all know that time is out there, but we can’t see it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it. So how does it exert such power over our lives? In this program, I’m going to find out.” ~ Michio Kaku

The series is now available online in its entirely, compiled in this playlist for your illuminating pleasure:

Time drives every second of our lives in ways we can scarecely imagine. But what is time? This is the quest to understand time and our place within it. It’s a journey that starts with cutting-edge discoveries into what makes us tick and ends with the mind-boggling implications of cosmological time. It’s a journey that reveals something extraordinary: The more we understand time, the more we find that it is time that makes us uniquely human.”

For an even more mind-bending look at the trickeries of time, we highly recommend Kaku’s classic Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time — not only a deeply fascinating yet digestible distillation of the iconic physicist’s work, but also a fine companion read to the 7 newly digitized Einstein gems we featured earlier this month.

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