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Posts Tagged ‘science’

18 JUNE, 2015

Our Luminous Humanity: What Earth’s Nocturnal Selfie from Space Reveals About Who We Are

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Shimmering assurance of our destiny as imaginative makers and tenacious tinkerers.

“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves,” Henry Beston wrote in his breathtaking 1928 love letter to darkness, “and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.” And yet it is as much our relationship with darkness as our relationship with light that helps us view ourselves through the cosmic eye, orbiting an unremarkable star on an unremarkable rock besparkled with our remarkably luminous humanity.

That’s what Diane Ackerman — one of the most bewitching science writers of our time — explores in a particularly enchanting portion of The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), one of the best science books of 2014.

While much of the book takes a lucid look at our civilization’s very real and very alarming impact on this Pale Blue Dot we call home, Ackerman — who reasons like a scientist, reflects like a philosopher, and rhapsodizes like a poet (so much so that Carl Sagan sent her scientifically accurate poems for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison) — succumbs neither to our era’s blind techno-utopian optimism nor to dismal techno-dystopian dogmas. Instead, her prose emanates Rilke’s poetic incantation: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” Nowhere does the beauty shine more brilliantly than in the passages about our shimmering world seen from space at night.

NASA's 'Black Marble,' 2012

Ackerman writes:

We don’t intend our cities to be so beautiful from space. They’re humanity’s electric fingerprints on the planet, the chrome-yellow energy that flows through city veins. Dwarfed by the infinite dome of space with its majestic coliseum of stars, we’ve created our own constellations on the ground and named them after our triumphs, enterprises, myths, and leaders… We play out our lives amid a festival of lights. The story the lights tell would be unmistakable to any space traveler: some bold life form has crisscrossed the planet with an exuberance of cities, favoring settlements along the coast and beside flowing water, and connecting them all with a labyrinth of brilliantly lit roads, so that even without a map the outlines of the continents loom and you can spot the meandering rivers.

The silent message of this spectacle is timely, strange, and wonderful. We’ve tattooed the planet with our doings.

And yet for all the perils of excessive illumination and light pollution, these glowing tattoos bespeak something profound and heartening about who we are — as a species, as a civilization, as brothers and sisters united by what Isaac Asimov so memorably called “the soft bonds of love” amid this vast unfeeling universe.

With an eye to NASA’s iconic “Black Marble” photograph from December of 2012 — the nocturnal counterpart to the even more iconic “Blue Marble” taken by Apollo 17 astronauts at the peak of the golden age of space exploration forty years earlier — Ackerman considers how this cosmic selfie of our civilization precipitates a sudden visceral awareness of our connected humanity, much as the “Blue Marble” did nearly half a century ago:

This was the one picture from the Apollo missions that dramatically expanded our way of thinking. It showed us how small the planet is in the vast sprawl of space, how entwined and spontaneous its habitats are. Despite all the wars and hostilities, when viewed from space Earth had no national borders, no military zones, no visible fences… Released during a time of growing environmental concern, it became an emblem of global consciousness, the most widely distributed photo in human history.

NASA's 'Blue Marble,' 1972

She returns to the singular story our shimmering planet tells about our species:

Ours is the only planet in our solar system that glitters at night. Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and for eons the nighttime planet was dark. In a little over two hundred years we’ve wired up the world and turned on the lights, as if we signed the planet in luminous ink.

[…]

Our shimmering cities tell all (including us) that Earth’s inhabitants are thinkers, builders and rearrangers who like to bunch together in hivelike settlements, and for some reason — bad night vision, primal fear, sheer vanity, to scare predators, or as a form of group adornment — we bedeck them all with garlands of light.

Complement The Human Age with Ackerman on how our miraculous sense of smell works, the natural history of love, and what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit, then consider an equally beautiful counterpoint in the 1933 Japanese gem In Praise of Shadows.

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15 JUNE, 2015

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship

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The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

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12 JUNE, 2015

June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart

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“In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.”

It is always astounding to observe the readiness with which posterity comments on the private lives of public figures — the more prominent the latter, the more cynical the former. Couple that with our lamentable but all too human tendency to appease our own insecurities about imperfection by pointing out the flaws — perceived flaws, rather, based on alleged and unscrutinized “facts” — of others, and you get one of the saddest sports in our culture: poking holes in genius through hubristic commentary on the flawed intimate relationships of luminaries. Couples like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are frequent fare for the simplistic opinions of cynics — people who never met the couple in question, much less were present at their kitchen table or in their bedroom.

The truth, of course, is that nobody really knows exactly what transpires between two hearts — including, more often than we like to admit, the two people in whose chests they beat. But one can get a far more accurate and nuanced impression of a relationship’s complexities by engaging with the first-hand realities of those involved, through their letters and journals and memoirs, than by simply borrowing the opinions of posterity’s self-appointed pundits.

Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić

Nowhere is this truer than in the life of “the quintessential modern genius” and thus the most alluring target for that cultural sport: Albert Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, is mired in various allegations that boil down to some version of Einstein as a selfish egomaniac. But reading their prolific correspondence, which includes a great many beautiful love letters early on and deeply sorrowful exchanges as their love begins, or even seeing the Alan Alda play based on that correspondence, leaves one acutely aware of how much more nuance and dimension there is to their relationship, as to any relationship.

Even then, we’ve hardly glimpsed a fragment of the couple’s private truth. But there emerges a distinct sense that the unraveling of their love was the case of two strong-willed, ambitious individuals, both of enormous intellect and emotional capacity, who in growing up together — they had met when Albert was seventeen and Mileva twenty-one — simply grew apart.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

By 1912, the relationship was strained beyond repair. They separated in 1914, after eleven years of marriage and eighteen as a couple. Soon, Einstein grew an epistolary romance and fell in love with Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin. (This was far from uncommon in that era.) In 1916, he suggested a formal divorce, but after Mileva developed a heart condition and began suffering from fever attacks, he retracted the idea. “From now on, I’ll not trouble her any more with the divorce,” he wrote to a friend.

But tensions continued to rise and as Mileva’s condition improved, Einstein proposed divorce for the second time in January of 1918, in a letter found in Princeton University’s newly released digital archive of Einstein’s papers — which also gave us Einstein on the fickle nature of fame — and included in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 8: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914–1918 (public library). What is most extraordinary is not only that he beseeches his wife for a divorce with such desperation as to practically bribe her, not only that he so readily offers his Nobel Prize money as part of the bribe, but that he does so three whole years before he actually got the Nobel Prize.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

Einstein ends with an endearing note about his elder son, Hans Albert, with whom he corresponded a great deal and once offered the secret to learning anything in a different letter. After a few well-wishing remarks about Mileva’s health, he writes:

Albert’s letters delight me exceedingly; fro them I see how well the boy is developing intellectually and in character… Kisses to the children.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

Two months later, Einstein wrote to his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, perhaps his closest confidante at the time:

My wife and I now have quite a satisfactory relationship, despite my wanting to divorce… There is a lively exchange of letters between me and her; and now I believe that it works best if I discuss all matters openly with her.

On June 12, 1918, a divorce agreement was finally laid out, translating Einstein’s promise into legalese. The hypothetical but confidently awaited Nobel Prize money remains a centerpiece of the agreement, which includes the following clause:

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

He goes on to stipulate that in the event of Mileva’s death or remarriage, the award money should be transferred to their two sons instead.

Einstein in 1921

Mileva agreed and they divorced in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which were instrumental in catalyzing the rise of quantum physics. He received his prize money a year later and, being a man of his word, promptly transferred the funds to Mileva. Some years later, when their younger son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Einstein’s Nobel Prize paid for the young man’s towering and otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment.

Complement with Einstein on why we are alive, his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher and fellow Nobel laureate Tagore, his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice, and his answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray.

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10 JUNE, 2015

The Blue Whale: A Loving Science Lullaby for Our Planet’s Largest-Hearted Creature

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An affectionate tour of an alternate universe right here on earth, where it’s possible to grow by nine pounds an hour and never sleep.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami,” and size of up to 100 feet, “the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor — all lined up,” this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.

But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing — its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales’ songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.

Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water — the blue whale’s tongue alone weighs three tons “and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is — Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale’s mouth. (Fifty. Check.)

We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales — being mammals — eat not krill but their mother’s milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.

But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:

Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean’s surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.

Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…

The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children’s books of our time — including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velveteen Rabbit, the repeatedly rewarding The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement it with an equally wonderful fictional counterpart, Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, then dive into the grownup mesmerism of marine life with this fantastic On Being conversation with legendary oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle.

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