Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

19 JANUARY, 2015

How Jane Goodall Turned Her Childhood Dream into Reality: A Sweet Illustrated Story of Purpose and Deep Determination

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A heartening testament to the power of undivided intention.

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” More than a century later, Werner Herzog wrote passionately of the “uninvited duty” that a sense of purpose plants in the heart, leaving one with “no choice but to push on.” That combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity — which begins with letting your life speak and daring to listen — and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius. It is also at the heart of what it means to find your purpose and live it.

As a lover of illustrated biographies of cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was thrilled to stumble upon a wonderful take on the early life of one of my greatest heroes, Jane Goodall, and how she came to live the dream that bewitched her at a young age. In Me…Jane (public library), celebrated cartoonist, author, and animal rights advocate Patrick McDonnell tells the story of how the seed planted by a childhood dream blossomed, under the generous beams of deep dedication, into the reality of a purposeful life.

McDonnell’s protagonist is not Jane Goodall the widely influential and wildly revered elder of science and peace — one of a handful of people in history to have both the titles Dame and Doctor, and the subject of a very different illustrated biography — but little Jane, the ten-year-old girl who decided that she was going to work with animals in Africa when she grew up and, despite her family’s poverty, despite living in an era when girls were not encouraged to live the life of science or adventure, despite nearly everyone telling her that it was impossible, turned her dream into reality.

With simple, enormously expressive illustrations and an eloquent economy of words, McDonnell — creator of the beloved MUTTS comic strip — begins at the very beginning: that fateful day when little Jane was given a stuffed monkey named Jubilee.

Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, and she shared with him everything she loved — especially the outdoors. Together, they watched the birds and the spiders and the squirrels fill the backyard with aliveness.

At night, Jane and Jubilee read books to better understand what they saw.

One day, tickled to find out where eggs came from, they snuck into grandma’s chicken coop and observed the miracle of life.

It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.

Jane liked to climb her beloved beech tree with Jubilee on her back, then sit perched on its branches reading and rereading Tarzan, imagining herself in place of that other Jane, wild and filled with wonder amid the jungles of Africa.

That dream soon became an all-consuming desire not just to go to Africa but to live there, trying to understand the animals and help them.

Every night Jane tucked Jubilee into bed and fell asleep with that dream, until one day — and such is the genius of McDonnell’s elegantly simple message of the dreamer’s doggedness — she awakes in a tent in the Gombe, the seedbed of what would become a remarkable career and an extraordinary life of purpose.

Goodall herself — who founded the heartening youth-led learning and community action initiative Roots & Shoots — writes in the afterword:

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.

Me…Jane, which received the prestigious Caldecott Honor and is a spectacular addition to these great children’s books celebrating science and scientists, is an emboldening treasure from cover to cover. Complement it with Goodall on science and spirituality, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and her own little-known children’s book, then treat yourself to “Dream Jane Dream” — a magnificent homage to Goodall by jazz singer-songwriter Lori Henriques:

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16 JANUARY, 2015

Why Not to Put a Raincoat on Your Dog: A Cognitive Scientist Explains the Canine Umwelt

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“If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Levin observes his dog Laska one evening — “she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose” — and finds in her behavior a “token of all now being well and satisfactory,” mirroring the “blissful repose” he so desires in his own life. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our faithful canine companions and project on them our own experiences and intentions may have produced some great literature — including Mary Oliver’s sublime Dog Songs and an entire canon of high-brow comics — but it is something against which cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz admonishes with great elegance and rigor in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library).

Of all the misplaced anthropomorphism we unleash on our dogs, Horowitz — a self-described “dog person” and “lover of dogs,” who also happens to be a scientist heading Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, where she studies dogs at play — makes a special, and utterly fascinating, case against the use of doggie raincoats:

There are some interesting assumptions involved in the creation and purchase of tiny, stylish, four-armed rain slickers for dogs. Let’s put aside the question of whether dogs prefer a bright yellow slicker, a tartan pattern, or a raining-cats-and-dogs motif (clearly they prefer the cats and dogs). Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.

But dogs, Horowitz points out, are also masters of mixed signals — your dog might wag his tail excitedly as you put the raincoat on him, or he might cower from the coat and curl his tail between his legs; he might look disheveled after a coatless rainy walk, but then take great joy in shaking off the water vigorously. To discern the dog’s true feelings about that possibly plaid, possibly tartan-patterned raincoat, Horowitz turns to the dog’s evolutionary ancestor:

The natural behavior of related, wild canines proves the most informative about what the dog might think about a raincoat. Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed. One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative. Dominants often pin subordinates down by the snout. This is called muzzle biting, and accounts, perhaps, for why muzzled dogs sometimes seem preternaturally subdued. And a dog who “stands over” another dog is being dominant. The subordinate dog in that arrangement would feel the pressure of the dominant animal on his body. The raincoat might well reproduce that feeling. So the principal experience of wearing a coat is not the experience of feeling protected from wetness; rather, the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.

This interpretation is borne out by most dogs’ behavior when getting put into a raincoat: they may freeze in place as they are “dominated.” … The be-jacketed dog may cooperate in going out, but not because he has shown he likes the coat; it is because he has been subdued. And he will wind up being less wet, but it is we who care about the planning for that, not the dog. The way around this kind of misstep is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct. In most cases, this is simple: we must ask the dog what he wants. You need only know how to translate his answer.

But more than a mere evolutionary curiosity or reality check for our relationship with our beloved pets, this illustrates the broader solipsism of the Golden Rule in its traditional formulation, which urges us to do unto other human animals as we would like for them to do unto us. Instead, as Karen Armstrong has written in her magnificent treatise on the subject, true compassion requires that we seek to understand others so that we can do unto them what they would like done, rather than treating them by the personal ideals we subscribe to ourselves.

Artwork by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Much of that, whether it comes to a dog’s raincoat or to interpersonal relationships between humans, has to do with understanding the umwelt — the subjective reality in which each creature dwells — and how it shapes the meaning of things for that creature. Horowitz writes:

If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… Two components — perception and action — largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten.

[…]

Each individual creates his own personal umwelt, full of objects with special meaning to him. You can most clearly see this last fact by letting yourself be led through an unknown city by a native. He will steer you along a path obvious to him, but invisible to you. But the two of you share some things: neither of you is likely to stop and listen to the ultrasonic cry of a nearby bat; neither of you smells what the man passing you had for dinner last night (unless it involved a lot of garlic). We … and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.

This notion is what led Horowitz to follow up Inside of a Dog — which is intensely fascinating in its totality — with On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, a book that profoundly changed my perception of reality. For a sample taste of these first disorienting, then wonderfully reorienting ideas, see my conversation with Horowitz about the art and science of looking.

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15 JANUARY, 2015

Why Bees Build Perfect Hexagons

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The space-economics of honey and wax.

After half a lifetime as a schoolteacher, my grandmother retired and promptly became a beekeeper. I spent large chunks of my childhood observing these extraordinary creatures, but no part of their intricately orchestrated existence mesmerized me more than the tiny, perfect cells of their hives — rows and rows of hexagons that would make Euclid proud, each exactly like the next, filled with ancient sweet goodness. Indeed, as lyrical as bees’ role in giving Earth its colors may be, or in offering a metaphor for answering every parent’s most dreaded question, they are also mathematicians of formidable precision and masterful engineers of space-efficiency.

From my friends at TED-Ed comes this illuminating animated look at why and how bees build the mathematically meticulous hexagons of which their honeycombs are constructed.

For more fantastic TED Ed animated meditations, see how melancholy expands our capacity for creativity, how the universe was born, how big infinity really is, and the tell-tale signs of a liar.

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14 JANUARY, 2015

A Graphic Cosmogony: Illustrators Imagine the Origin of the Universe

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From the lyrical to the ludicrous, uncommon takes on how our world came to be.

Humanity’s history of mapping the cosmos is as long as our margin of error in explaining the universe is wide. We have been wrong about so much so often and so staunchly stubborn in admitting our errors. But we have also produced works of immeasurable beauty in giving form to our awe, however rooted in illusion, and continue to dwell in awe as we struggle to reconcile conflicting explanations and pursue the truth of our origins.

In A Graphic Cosmogony (public library), twenty-four of today’s most celebrated illustrators and graphic artists each take seven pages to tell their version of the story of the universe’s origin and how our world came to be. There are unusual takes on traditional creation myths like The Book of Genesis (who needs Adam’s biologically suspect rib when there is Eve’s true-to-life vagina?), imaginative homages to evolution, gorgeous interpretations of Japanese folktales, and all kinds of fanciful alternative mythologies that fuse the playful with the profound.

In the introduction, Paul Gravett considers why the medium of comics lends itself to the story of creation so aptly:

There is something instinctual, almost primal about making and reading/viewing comics, especially highly graphic ones with few or no words. They spark a provocative clarity that taps into our inner caveman’s brain, our pre-literate child-self deciphering to make sense of the strange wonders of the everyday. And for all our scientific advances, here we are now, only a mere decade into this second millennium, and still finding fascination in the show-and-tell choreographies of pictures, lettering, balloons, captions and panels.

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Jon McNaught: Pilgrims

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Clayton Junior: Ara Poty

Luc Melanson: Deus Magicus

Yeji Yun: Solitude

A Graphic Cosmogony, far more delightful in its sequential and tactile totality, comes from British independent press Nobrow, who have previously given us such gems as a graphic biography of Freud and an illustrated tour of how the brain works. Complement it with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s bewitching Ballad, a different kind of lyrical graphic mythology as old as the world, and this evolution coloring book.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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