Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

18 NOVEMBER, 2011

Hands Are Amazing


From monkeys to Michelangelo, or what Margaret Mead has to do with combinatorial creativity.

Earlier this month, former Apple designer Bret Victor penned the most intelligent piece on what’s wrong with our visions for the future of interaction design, where in discussing the four basic grips, he mentions in passing a vintage book by John Napier, a physician specializing in hands. Having grown accustomed to finding my most interesting discoveries in footnotes and asides and passing mentions, I of course went ahead and pursued the book. Simply titled Hands and originally published in 1980, it’s a richly illustrated treasure trove of insight into the anatomy, function, and evolution of one of our most fundamentally human features. From handedness to fingerprints to gestures to grooming to the making and usage of tools, Napier covers a fascinating range of hand-related subjects, each explored through an absorbing blend of anecdote, entertainment, and education.

Right from the beginning, Napier blends science and storytelling with such Yoda-esque observations as:

The hand at rest is beautiful in its tranquility, but is infinitely more appealing in the flow of action.”


When the hand is at rest, the face is at rest; but a lively hand is the product of a lively mind.”

The powerful hand of David by Michelangelo expresses the position of rest.

Velasquez's court dwarf at the time of Philip IV. The facial expression is one of slyness, which leads one to the conclusion that the hands are up to something equally sly. Undoubtedly the arrogant dwarf is performing a conjuring trick.

Also included is this charming time-capsule of the era’s media reality, and a powerful reminder to appreciate just what we have at our disposal today:

The gap between scientists and nonscientists is not so wide as it used to be, largely because of the influence of radio and television and other forms of science reporting.”

Then a thoughtful meditation on curiosity and cognitive comfort zones, delivered with delightfully subtle humor:

I hope that scientists will not be offended by a not-too-technical approach. They may even find it a relief for, as Margaret Mead put it, ‘To a physicist even a botanist is a layman.’ We are all laypersons once we are outside our expertise. There may be only one language of science, but there are many dialects.”

But this excerpt from the book’s acknowledgements, a true testament to networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity, made my heart sing more than anything:

Anyone who writes a book about science or indeed about any subject that is rich in facts, figures, and ideas, is from the beginning up to his neck in debt. He must beg, borrow, and steal left, right, and center… Much of one’s information is derived from memories of conversations heard, snippets of fact retained, and bright ideas once read but the source promptly forgotten.”

Whether you’re a designer or detective, artist or anthropologist, surgeon or synchronized swimmer, Hands is the kind of book you won’t be able to put down, thanks to both the miracle of your opposable thumbs and Napier’s captivating edification.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2011

Celestial Navigations: 5 Conceptual Vintage Science Films by Al Jarnow


Education meets entertainment in experimental animation, or what Big Bird has to do with the dawn of computing.

Last week, Jason Kottke reminded me of how much I love the vintage short films of painter, educator, museum designer, and software developer Al Jarnow. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Jarnow created short segments for PBS’s 3-2-1 Contact series, Sesame Street, and various other children’s television programs, using stop-motion, timelapse, cell animation, and other experimental at the time techniques to bring everyday objects to life and illustrate scientific concepts by blending education and entertainment. (Sound familiar?) The films are now collected in Celestial Navigations: Short Films of Al Jarnow — an absolute gem restored from the original 16mm prints, featuring remastered sound, a 30-minute documentary about Jarnow’s work, and a beautiful 60-page book.

For a taste, here are five of my favorite Jarnow films:


Cosmic Clock compresses a billion years of time into two delightfully vintage animated minutes.


Face Film explores human behavior through the computational operations of a typewriter, using a large canvas to tease our inability to recognize an image using incomplete data.


Architecture was one of Jarnow’s most elaborate and labor-intensive shoots — which makes this photo of the set getting destroyed upon completion all the more mischievously delightful.


In Tondo, Jarnow places rectangles on grids made of meticulously measured horizon lines, then moves the camera or leaves each rectangle still for a near-impossible to achieve 3D effect. In fact, this technique is rarely used in animation precisely due to its tedious and time-consuming nature — doing away with the familiar shortcuts of cell animation, Jarnow had to come up with an entirely new kind of shortcut to fill out the 24 frames per second of traditionally projected films … in 1973.


In 1978, Jarnow created one of his most ambitious and groundbreaking films. Far from a mere mesmerizing meditation on the craft of animation itself, Cubits was also essentially a paper model of a computer — the cube sheet on which the film is based consists of a horizontal cubic rotation and a diagonal pan for diagonal rotation, combining these primary moves into complex rotations to explore the relationship between animation procedure and logical numerical operations.

A time-capsule of incredible visual and conceptual innovation, Celestial Navigations is the kind of cultural treasure that makes you sigh with appreciation.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2011

Onward to the Edge: Another Symphony of Science Remix Gem


A mashup ballad for the mystery of the universe.

As a general believer in remix culture and a particular fan of John Boswell‘s Symphony of Science mashup series, I’m all over Onward to the Edge — his latest brilliant installment, featuring the auto-tuned voices of rockstar particle physicist Brian Cox, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, mashing up material from Tyson’s My Favorite Universe video course, Cox’s BBC series Wonders of the Solar System, Porco’s TED talk, and scenes from National Geographic‘s A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets. It’s exquisite — enjoy:

Grab a download of the audio here, free or for a pay-what-you-will price, in which I too am a believer.

via Open Culture

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