Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

14 MARCH, 2014

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1958*. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes further transforms Einstein’s alleged aphorism in into a charming short fable in the introduction to his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

“Fairy Tales,” Einstein responded without hesitation.

“Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?” the mother asked.

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated.

“And after that?”

“Even more fairy tales,” replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

UPDATE: Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick has now dug deeper into the origin of Einstein’s alleged aphorism.

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12 MARCH, 2014

Mary Roach on the Science of Masturbation and the Outrageous Vintage Pseudoscientific Techniques for Controlling It

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A cautionary tale of what happens when religious dogmatism attempts to subvert science.

Human sexuality has a long history of intellectual fascination, from the first ejaculation on Earth to Malcolm Cowley’s parodic vintage prediction for sex in the techno-future to Susan Sontag’s poignant meditation on the gap between love and sex. But the recent perusal of Mark Twain’s entertaining treatise on masturbation brought to mind the most intensely interesting and illuminating account ever published on the subject: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (public library) by science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach. Among a wealth of other phenomena, Roach examines the subject of Twain’s fascination, particularly the outrageous pseudoscientific techniques physicians, parents, and disciplinarians in the 18th and 19th centuries used to control the religiously abominable human urge — a tragicomic testament to society’s long and rather futile quest to judge and punish pleasure without understanding the underlying biology or the psychological repercussions of such misguided “treatments.”

Roach outlines the inhumane devices invented to abate the urge:

On the simple side, there was the Penile Pricking Ring. Invented in the 1850s, this was an adjustable, expandable metal ring slipped onto the penis at bedtime. If the sleeper’s penis begins to expand, it forces the ring open wider, exposing metal spikes….

Many of these devices included an option for daytime use, along with a lock-and-key mechanism. For the true target customer was not the penitent masturbator, but the worried parent and, even more so, the insane asylum caretaker. . . .

Happily, parents of K-through-8 masturbators were encouraged to try less drastic preventive measures. Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums. One of the biggest spoilsports in the antimasturbation crusade was American physician William Robinson. His 1916 Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women includes a long chapter on preventing the premature awakening of the sexual instinct in children. “I strongly urge parents to keep their boys away from sensuous musical comedies and obscene vaudeville acts,” tutted Robinson … “Many of my patients told me that their first masturbatory act took place while witnessing some musical show.”

Jazz hands were not mentioned.

Illustration from Pixar's 'The Ancient Book of Sex and Science.' Click image for details.

Another antimasturbation crusader, a Dr. Crommelinck, prescribed “memorizing difficult passages on philosophy or history when overcome by the desire to masturbate.” And a book admonished citizens that masturbation could cause impotence, blindness, heart disease, insanity, stupidity, and “suppurating pustules on the face.” Even “mental masturbation” was strictly discouraged. Roach marvels at the pseudoscientific absurdity of it:

Truly it seemed that any activity undertaken — sleeping, thinking, eating spiced food, taking in a matinee of Mame — led the heedless male down the path to self-pollution. A man couldn’t even relieve himself without having to worry. Crommelinck urged gentlemen to avoid touching their genitals at all times, lest they inadvertently arouse themselves — even at the urinal. “Urinate quickly, do not shake your penis, even if means having several drops of urine drip into your pants.”

Those who could not manage to curb their impulses with philosophical tracts and antimasturbation gadgetry faced a withering assortment of brutal treatments. Robinson casually states that in two or three cases he applied “a red hotwire” to a child’s genitals.

In those days, masturbation was termed onanism — after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression — and condemned as “self-abuse.” Applying hot iron to a child’s body was, evidently, not abuse but the cure for “self-abuse.” But beyond this gobsmacking moral irony lies a biological one. Roach circles back to science:

The bitter irony here is that regularly spilling one’s seed serves a valuable biological function. [S]perm which sit around the factory a week or more start to develop abnormalities; missing heads, extra heads, shriveled heads, tapered and bent heads. All of which render them less effective and headbanging their way into an egg. [Sex psychologist Rob] Levin speculates that that’s why men masturbate so much: It’s an evolutionary strategy.

The point, of course, isn’t that evolution explains everything or that our ancestors were ignorant brutes, but that the true power of science lies in illuminating, rather than controlling or punishing, the human condition so that we can live more intelligently and more freely, driven by a desire to understand rather than a blind righteousness.

Bonk is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Dorion Sagan’s scientific history of sex and see Roach’s most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

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11 MARCH, 2014

The Life and Death of Mountains

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The humility of understanding how Earth’s most monumental creations crumble to the bottom of the sea.

Some years ago, I discovered and fell in love with the work of filmmaker, illustrator, and composer Temujin Doran, who makes incredibly thoughtful and poetic documentary-style cinematic meditations on everything from the rise of mass media to the beauty of the vowels to the joy of illustration to the art of protest. Now comes The Weight of Mountains — a magnificent short film about the life-cycle of mountains and the interlaced processes by which they are born and eventually laid to rest. Inspired by the work of legendary British geographer prolific author L. Dudley Stamp, the film was shot in Iceland and features animation from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Best experienced in full-screen.

Despite their great size and age, their lives pan out in much the same way that a living creature’s does: They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and as such, the life of a mountain mimics our own — it is a life that carries the weight of being and anticipation of sadness that one day things will change.

For another poetic take on Earth’s cycles of life, see the breathtaking animation Whale Fall.

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