Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

21 MARCH, 2011

Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad on Sound, Science, and Mystery

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I’m an enormous admirer of WNYC’s Radiolab and its producer, Jad Abumrad. In this excellent talk from PopTech, Abumrad shares some fascinating examples of how sound has been used to facilitate scientific discovery and how audio can serve as the trial-and-error mechanism fundamental to scientific inquiry. From what a monkey brain sounds like when playing rock-paper-sciessors to how crayfish “hear” their way to survival, Abumrad takes us on a delightfully geeky journey into the biological basis of behavior.

You will find scientists who will tell you — and they deeply believe it — that we’re quantifiable. We are knowable. That if I can take a high enough resolution picture of all of you — not just your outsides, but your genes, your DNA, all the way down to your atoms — I can know everything about you and everything that you will be. There are people who believe this. And what this tells me is, no. No! All the way down, to the bottom of our thoughts, there’s just more mystery.

For more on the intersection of sound, science and being human, don’t miss our selection of 7 must-read books about music, emotion and the brain from earlier this morning.

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21 MARCH, 2011

Vision Revolution: Why We See The Way We Do

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Why do we see the way we do? Since the dawn of humanity’s fascination with the brain, scientists have tried to answer this question. But, as it turns out, much of what they thought to be true was wrong. In The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision, neuroscientist Mark Changizi — whose work has graced the pages of merchants of culture like TIME, Newsweek, New Scientist and The New York Times — offers groundbreaking insights into the science of how and why we see as we do through thoughtfully curated highlights from breakthrough research, complete with illuminating illustrations and diagrams that visualize his conclusions.

To understand how culture interacts with vision, one must understand not just the eye’s design, but the actual mechanisms we have evolved, for culture can tap into both the designed responses of our brains and the unintended responses.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi focuses on four fundamental “why” questions — why do we see in color, why do our eyes face forward, why do we see illusions, and why does reading come so naturally to us — the answers to which will surprise you.

For instance, scientists used to believe that color vision evolved to help our ancestors spot ripe fruit. It turns out, however, that it actually evolved to give us greater insight into the mental, emotional and physical states of other people: People who can see color changes in skin have a competitive edge over those who can’t because they can detect the reddening of rashes and know when others are blushing with embarrassment or purple-faced with exertion. (It’s unsurprising, then, that primates who have color vision are the ones who have no fur or hair on their faces and other instrumental body parts.) Even more interestingly, Changizi reveals that the cones in our eyes are exquisitely designed to see these skin color changes.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Changizi illuminates the neuropsychology of illusions, which are the result of our brains’ evolutionary need to micro-predict the motion of objects. (You know a baseball is about to hit you in the face before it does, because you can project its trajectory, which allows you to react accordingly.) Simply put, illusions happen when the brain is tricked into believing a static two-dimensional picture has a moving element, projecting that element into the future and seeing not what is actually on the page but what our brain thinks will be there a fraction of a second later.

If our brains simply created a perception of the way the world was at the time light hit the eye, then by the time that perception was elicited — which takes about a tenth of a second for the brain to do — time would have marched on, and the perception would be of the recent past.” ~ Mark Changizi

Deeply fascinating yet absorbingly readable, The Vision Revolution comes as a necessary foundation for better understanding one of our most fundamental tools for navigating the world and, in the process, better understanding ourselves.

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18 MARCH, 2011

7 Einstein Classics, Digitized for the First Time

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What the theory of relativity has to do with world government and the ethics of nuclear proliferation.

On Monday, we celebrated Einstein’s birthday with Albert Einstein: How I See The World, the fantastic 2006 PBS documentary now free to watch online. His birthday also marked the digitization of seven excellent authorized texts from the Albert Einstein Archives, available for the first time in a common electronic format through a collaboration between the Philosophical Library and digital publisher Open Road.

The World As I See It is a fascinating anthology of Einstein’s observations about life, religion, nationalism, and various other personal topics that engaged his mind in the aftermath of WWI. With characteristic blend of wit and idealism, the great genius tackles some of humanity’s most timeless dualities like good vs. evil, science vs. religion, activism vs. pacifism and more. The collection paints a portrait of Einstein as he makes sense of his own mind and a rapidly changing world through letters, speeches, articles, and essays written before 1935, including many rare documents.

Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.” ~ Albert Einstein, Forum and Century

Essays In Science gathers Einstein’s articles and speeches dissecting the scientific method in his own theoretical discoveries and contextualizing, with palpable admiration and respect, the work of his scientific contemporaries and historical influences, including Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Niels Bohr.

What place does the theoretical physicist’s picture of the world occupy among all these possible pictures? It demands the highest possible standard of rigorous precision in the description of relations, such as only the use of mathematical language can give.” ~ Albert Einstein, Principles of Research

Essays In Humanism captures Einstein’s philosophical reflections on the pace of progress, including prescient topics like Zionism and the global economy, in a collection of essays written between 1931 and 1950 amidst the aftermath of The Great Depression and the turbulent early days of the Cold War. Particularly timely, in light of the recent devastation in Japan, are his thoughts on the double-edged sword of nuclear proliferation.

What is the situation? The development of technology and of the implements of war has brought about something akin to a shrinking of our planet. Economic interlinking has made the destinies of nations interdependent to a degree far greater than in previous years.” ~ Albert Einstein, Towards a World Government

Letters to Solovine: 1906-1955 gathers Einstein’s correspondence with Maurice Solovine, his longtime friend and translator, discussing topics across science, politics, philosophy, and religion with remarkable candor and intimacy. Frank, funny and invariably insightful, the letters — which appear in both German and English — offer a rare glimpse of the intersection between Einstein’s private self and his public persona.

Men are even more susceptible to suggestion than horses, and each period is dominated by a mood, with the result that most men fail to see the tyrant who rules over them.” ~ Albert Einstein, Princeton, April 10, 1938

Letters on Wave Mechanics: Correspondence with H. A. Lorentz, Max Planck, and Erwin Schrodinger may be the most technical of the bunch, but it’s no less absorbing a read as we trace the communication between three of the era’s greatest scientific minds. Perhaps most fascinatingly, it’s a thought-provoking perspective shift in the pace of discovery and the time-scale of scientific — and all, really — communication: Just as The Republic of Letters taught us, an email exchange between today’s leading scientists may be near-instantaneous, but the written intellectual debates of yore took weeks and often months for a single idea to be transmitted and responded to, which greatly altered the course of scientific inquiry and debate.

I am as convinced as ever that the wave representation of matter is an incomplete representation of the state of affairs, no matter how practically useful it has proved itself to be.” ~ Albert Einstein to Erwin Schrödinger

The Theory of Relativity: and Other Essays features Einstein’s seven most most important essays on physics, in which the great thinker takes the reader by the hand and guides her through the layered scientific theory that served as the foundation for his discoveries. Compelling yet digestible, the book offers an essential primer on theoretical physics, the laws of science and of ethics, and the fundamental language of scientific inquiry.

The ‘principle of relativity’ in its widest sense is contained in the statement: The totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of ‘absolute motion;’ or shorter but less precise: There is no absolute motion.” ~ Albert Einstein The Theory of Relativity

Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words is a collection of essays on the topics and disciplines that tickled Einstein’s fancy. From world government to freedom in research to open education, the book, divided into subject matter sections like “Public Affairs” and”Convictions and Beliefs,” is equal parts timely and timeless.

Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” ~ Albert Einstein, “The Law of Science and the Laws of Ethics”

Thanks, Janet

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14 MARCH, 2011

Albert Einstein: How I See The World

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What the theory of relativity has to do with barefoot lectures and antisemitism in Europe.

Today is 3.14, which, besides being Pi day, is also Albert Einstein’s birthday. The iconic German theoretical physicist would’ve been 131 today, so we’re celebrating with Albert Einstein: How I See The World — a fantastic 2006 PBS documentary exploring his life, work and legacy, now free online in six parts. From his audacious scientific exploits to his notorious personal quirks to his controversial political convictions, the film is an essential piece of cultural history and a rare look at one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Historians, philosophers and scientists alike have spent decades trying to dissect the specific source of Einstein’s genius and his gift for ideas. Was it his keen analytical mind? His extraordinary computational ability? His eccentric way of withdrawing into his work? We believe a lot of it had to do with his remarkable curiosity and penchant for cross-disciplinary pattern recognition, something Hanna Loewy captures with wonderful eloquence:

It was like someone who looked for many, many, many dimensions, whether they be proven or not, and could see the whole.” ~ Hanna Loewy, family friend

You can catch the remaining four parts on YouTube. In a similar vein, OpenRoad Philosophical Library just released The World As I See It — a fascinating anthology of Einstein’s observations about life, religion, nationalism, and various personal topics that engaged his intellect. For more on Einstein’s unique brand of genius, you won’t go wrong with Einstein: His Life and Universe.

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