Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

24 JUNE, 2011

The Exultant Ark: The Secret Emotional Lives of Animals

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What dolphins at play have to do the mating rituals of butterflies and our capacity for kindness.

Hundreds of books are published, research studies conducted and lectures given on human psychology and emotion every year, yet the question of animal emotion remains a hotpoint of scientific debate and contention. But why should our inability to measure these phenomena mean that they don’t exist at all? That’s exactly what scientist and animal advocate Jonathan Balcombe explores in The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure — an absolutely remarkable and fascinating journey into the rich, tender and complex emotional lives of animals.

Balcombe examines a new generation of research on animal feelings, especially animal pleasure, illustrated with joyful images of the animal kingdom by some of the world’s leading wildlife photographers. The story unfolds with equal parts affectionate enthusiasm and scientific rigor, extending a gentle invitation to reexamine our relationship with living beings, reaching for more kindness, more empathy and more wholeheartedness in how we think of and treat other animals.

Nobody denies that other humans are sentient, though it’s no more possible to prove another human being is sentient than it is to prove an animal’s sentience. We don’t accept such solipsism. It would be far-fetched. So let’s stop drawing this line between humans and all other animals.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Elk

'A young bull elk engages in an act of playful curiosity commonly performed by young children — sticking out a tongue to catch snowflakes.'

Image by Mark Peters via Wired

Barbary Macaque

Says Balcombe: 'Some macaques show an intense fascination with water — its appearance, its movements, and its feel ... The attention of this Barbary macaque was held completely for several minutes as she repeatedly splashed, apparently enchanted with the feel of the water and the consequence of the action.'

Image by Andrew Forsyth via Wired

Norway Rats

Norway rats can emit two telltale chirps, at 22 kHz and at 50 kHz. The higher-pitched chirp is emitted while wrestling, playing and having sex, and they also make the chirps when being tickled, a response akin to human laughter.

Image by Brandy Saxton via Wired

Chimpanzees

For chimps, mutual grooming plays a key role in communication and conflict resolution. These two, named Teresa and Sheila, live in the Chimp Haven sanctuary, a lifelong care facility for chimps abandoned as pets or rescued from medical research.

Image by Amy Fultz/Chimp Haven via Wired

Pleasure is a private experience, well nigh impossible to prove, though of course scientists don’t like the word “prove.” And there are good reasons for being skeptical of making assumptions that are difficult to prove. But what I’m getting at is everyday experience: the capacity to be empathic in viewing other animals’ experiences and comparing them to our own.” ~ Jonathan Balcombe

Common Blue Butterflies

Mating among common blue butterflies involves surprisingly complex displays of courtship. Although it's commonly assumed that these rituals are unaccompanied by feelings, Balcombe gives insects 'the benefit of the doubt,' pointing out that it's easier to be cruel to insects when we assume they aren't sentient than when we suspect they might be.

Image by Arthur Sevestre via Wired

Beluga Whale

Dolphins and beluga whales blow bubble rings and swimming through them, and tend to do this more in captivity, indicating the behavior might be a boredom-buster for them. A parallel theory is that it's a form of play and Balcombe suspects that, whatever the answer, they find the activity stimulating.

Image by Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures via Wired

Swift Fox

Says Balcombe: 'I did not choose this photo because it expresses pleasure. Indeed, how are we to know what this fox is feeling as he bounds across a field? I chose it because it expresses a fundamental value: freedom.'

Image by Thomas D. Mangelsen via Wired

Wired has an exclusive excerpt from the book, as well as an interview with Balcombe.

The Exultant Ark is the follow-up to Balcombe’s equally excellent Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals.

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22 JUNE, 2011

The Beekepers: Artful Documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder

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What Aristotle’s hobby has to do with the future of agriculture and our best defense against disaster.

I love bees. My grandmother, who essentially raised me, is a beekeeper and instilled in me a deep respect for these gentle and amazing creatures, so it breaks my heart every time I hear of new evidence for colony collapse disorder and the vanishing of the honeybee.

The Beekepers is a fascinating experimental documentary by filmmaker Richard Robinson, exploring the cultural history of beekeeping, from Aristotle to medieval monasteries to Darwin to the U.S. Army, and looking for answers to the CCD crisis through a near-expressionist blend of black-and-white archival footage and voice over narration. Equal parts artful and thoughtful, the film is a genre-bender with an uncommon creative angle, offering an illuminating glimpse of the intricate mechanisms driving a complex and all-permeating ecosystem.

Now that the environment is changing, the beekeeper has taken on another role: that of the environmental monitor. It turns out that bees are better at telling us what’s going on in the environment than just about anything else. They’re better than NASA’s satellites at tracking global warming and they’re the most efficient way we know of testing toxic waste sites. The government has even studied them as a way to alert us to environmental disasters. So when colony collapse disorder started killing bees mysteriously, it wasn’t just the food supply that concerned scinetists — it was the environment itself.”

For more on colony collapse disorder and what it means for the future of our civilization, I highly recommend Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

via @Jake_Barton; image via Wikimedia Commons

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21 JUNE, 2011

Shapes for Sounds: A Visual History of the Alphabet

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What the anatomy of your tongue has to do with ship flags and the evolution of human communication.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the intersection of sight and sound and have a well-documented alphabet book fetish. So I absolutely love Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson, exploring one of the most fundamental creations of human communication, the alphabet, through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.”

While the tome is full of beautiful, lavish illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets — it’s no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

The alphabet is one of the greatest inventions; it has enabled the preservation and clear understanding of people’s thoughts, and it is simple to learn. It still has great significance; while the advent of type — printed alphabets — has curtailed any real development of the shapes of letters, the alphabet has been more greatly utilised in the last 500 years than ever before. Typography is the engine of graphic design, and writing is the fuel. But more than that, the alphabet has been the enabler of mass communication technologies from Morse code to the internet.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Though the Latin alphabet is the focal point, Donaldson explores an incredible range of related history, from ancient calligraphic traditions to semaphore, to bar codes and binary code, exposing the magnificent cross-pollination of disciplines — design, typography, anatomy, phonetics, sociology, linguistics, psychology and more — that gave birth to one of our civilization’s oldest and most powerful technologies.

I would love to have the experience of having envelopes drop through my door with no address, just a picture of me and my house on the front. I would like to buy a newspaper full of nothing but pictures and graphic devices, and to find my way home using road signs that are just arrows and drawings, but I think these events a re a long way off. To cross national borders still requires a textual document; a passport is not just a picture of your face. The obligator tax-return, a document that, if ignore, will make you a criminal, contains no images. The highway code features many image-based signs, yet must be explained with words. The interent is 95% text.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Shapes for sounds comes as yet another gem from the fine folks at Mark Batty, my favorite indie publisher, who brought us such excellence as Notations 21, Cultural Connectives, Drawing Autism and more.

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20 JUNE, 2011

A Peek Inside the Notebooks of Great Creators, from Architecture to Advertising to Street Art

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What Brazil’s favelas have to do with field science and Milton Glaser’s creative process.

The nature and origin of creativity is the subject of many a theory. But, rather than theorizing about it, wouldn’t it be great if we could just lift the lid of a great creative mind and see just how the machinery works? Well, we sort of can — by way of great creators’ private notebooks and sketchbooks, which offer a trip to as close to the creative process as we can get. After last week’s rare look at Michelangelo’s, here are five cross-disciplinary favorites, spanning everything from street art to field science.

GRAPHIC DESIGN

Steven Heller is easily today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. In 2010, he partnered with the SVA’s Lita Talarico on an ambitious project: Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers, which offers a rare glimpse of how today’s most acclaimed designers think and create. The project features 110 designers, including icons like I ♥ New York logo creator Milton Glaser, Design Observer co-founder Michael Bierut, typography maverick Oded Ezer, the amazing Marian Bantjes, negative space master Noma Bar, 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Amy Franceschini, and my personal favorite, Stefan Sagmeister.

Noma Bar

Stefan Sagmeister

Milton Glaser

Sara Fanelli

Tim Lane

Paul Cox

Images courtesy of Monacelli Press via Flavorwire

Flip through the goodness here.

STREET ART

In Street Sketchbook: Journeys, Tristan Manco takes a rare peek inside the sketchbooks of 26 of the world’s hottest new graffiti artists. From Brazil’s iconic favelas to Tokyo’s backalleys, it reveals both globe-trotting adventures and rich internal landscapes in 227 large-format pages and lush double-spreads of pure creative genius.

Full review, with more images, here.

FIELD SCIENCE

I firmly believe science is a creative discipline, so no look at the creative mind is complete without a look at the scientific mind. Field Notes on Science and Nature offers exactly that thought beautiful reproductions of pages from the journals of the world’s greatest field scientists. Twelve essays by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology contextualize the doodles, drawings and marginalia with equal parts infectious curiosity and affectionate enthusiasm.

'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'

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

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

Kirstin Butler’s full review here.


ADVERTISING

In 2009, creative academics and researchers Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison set out to investigate the minds of the advertising industry’s greatest creative thinkers in a series of experiments, analyzing the “process drawings” of these top creative professionals — artwork that answered the deceptively simple question, What does your creative process look like? The results, illustrated with a Sharpie on what Griffin and Morrison call a “process canvas,” were published in The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising’s Big Ideas Are Born — a fascinating glimpse of the routes leading creatives take to finding and catching ideas.

Original review here.

ART

Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists is the second gem of a book artist Julia Rothman — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out. The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

The recent full review, complete with more images and an exclusive Q&A with Rothman about the project, here.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.