Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

09 JULY, 2013

Vi Hart Explains Stravinsky’s Atonal Compositions and Why We Hear Music the Way We Do

By:

What experimental composers have to do with copyright wrongs and the neuroscience of language.

The magnificent Vi Hart — mathemusician extraordinaire, who has previously stop-motion-doodled our way to understanding such mysteries as space-time, Möbius strips, Fibonacci numbers, and the science of sound, frequency, and pitch — is back with another gem, this time illuminating Stravinsky’s atonal composition for Edward Lear’s classic nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Stravinsky actually borrowed the basis for his composition from the 12-tone technique Arnold Schoenberg invented, which Hart explains as well. Enjoy, and keep an eye open for Hart’s delightful sideways sleight against the brokenness of copyright law, one that would’ve actually left Stravinsky particularly miffed.

What’s interesting about 20th-century 12-tone composers is that they were actually trying to get away from the implied context and invisible meaning people were so used to. … The whole structure of the 12-tone row is designed to help break free of old musical habits. How are you supposed to hear the pure truth of the notes A-flat, F, D-flat, when the existing music has taught your brain to hear it as a Neapolitan chord in the cue of C? … But Stravinsky didn’t want children growing up to think music was supposed to sound a certain way — he knew that whatever language people speak to children is a language they grow up to speak and to think in.

And on the off chance you haven’t yet seen it, don’t miss Hart’s fantastic video on how to tame trolls and deal with negative comments — an essential piece of digital literacy that every single human should be shown before being given an internet-enabled device.

Open Culture

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

08 JULY, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Meaning of Life

By:

“We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock.”

Carl Sagan was not only one of the greatest scientific minds in modern history, he was also an unrelenting humanist with profound insight on spirituality, psychology, and even literature. From The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — the same wonderful 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existence from such luminaries as John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski — comes a remarkable contribution from Sagan, an anchoring reminder that rings with exquisite timeliness:

In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

The Meaning of Life is superb in its entirety. Pair it with Sagan’s reading list, his gentle warning to future Mars explorers, and his superb advice on mastering the vital balance between skepticism and openness.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

05 JULY, 2013

July 5, 1934 Obituary: Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science

By:

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.”

“Read obituaries,” Charles Wheelan advised in his wonderful 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. “Obituaries are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.”

On July 4, 1934, legendary Polish-born physicist and chemist Marie Curiesage of science, reconstructionist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences — took her last breath. The following day, The New York Times published a lengthy obituary for Curie, which began on the front page and spilled over into the interior of the paper — a rare outlier in mainstream media’s recently bemoaned severe gender bias in notable deaths, amidst the travesty of opening a remembrance for a female rocket scientist with her Beef Stroganoff recipe. Curie’s obituary, however, was a true masterpiece of the genre, celebrating Curie’s spirit and legacy in a beautifully dimensional way:

PARIS, July 4. — Mme. Marie Curie, whose work alone and with her husband on radium and radiology has been one of the greatest glories of modern science, died at 6 o’clock this morning in a sanitarium near Sallanches in Upper Savoy. Her death, which was caused by a form of pernicious anemia, was hastened by what her physicians termed “a long accumulation of radiations” which affected the bones and prevented her from reacting normally to the disease.

Mme. Curie went to Sallanches last Friday after having been for five weeks in a Paris clinic. It was thought at first that she had suffered a lung ailment and for that reason she was sent to the mountains. Her death came as a surprise to all but her family and intimate friends, for the rare modesty of her character never deserted her and she did not allow the public to know how ill she was. Her daughters, Eve, who is a dramatist and pianist of considerable talent, and Mme. Jolliot, who with her husband was carrying on the family tradition at the radium institute over which her mother presided, were at the bedside when the end came.

The text goes on to note the astounding contrast between Curie’s monumental contributions to science and her famous modesty.

Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie. Her epoch-making discoveries of polonium and radium, the subsequent honors that were bestowed upon her — she was the only person to receive two Nobel prizes — and the fortunes that could have been hers had she wanted them did not change her mode of life. She remained a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun. The road which she and her husband had chosen she followed throughout her life, disdaining all pomp. And thus she not only conquered great secrets of science but the hearts of the people the world over.

What New York Times obituaries say about America (Columbia Journalism Review)

For anyone still convinced that the attainment of a Nobel Prize is glorious business, the Times cites Academy of Paris president Paul Appell’s account of the Curies’ version of Patti Smith’s starving artist days:

M. and Mme. Curie, not being able to pursue their chemical experiments in a schoolroom which had been placed at their disposal, arranged for these in a sort of abandoned warehouse opposite their atelier. In this place, with its asphalt floor, its broken and patched glass roof, hot in Summer, heated by a cast-iron stove in Winter, they performed their wonderful work.

The equipment consisted of some old and worn deal tables, upon which Mme. Curie prepared the material for the production of radium. She was laboratory chief assistant and handy boy at the same time. In addition to her intellectual labor it was frequently necessary for her to perform severe manual toil. On many an afternoon she stirred in a great caldron with a heavy iron rod the molten mass of the radioactive products, reaching home at evening exhausted by fatigue but delighted to see that her labors had led to a luminous product of concentration.

The obituary further illustrates the Curies’ humble, dedicated ways:

So devoted were these two to their work that they frequently forgot to eat, and as often ate plain bread and washed it down with coffee in their laboratory.

This humility is also manifested in how, like fellow science hero Richard Feynman, notoriously nonchalant about honors Curie was:

Honors were heaped upon her, but she was indifferent to most. The money she received from her prizes was immediately used for purposes of scientific research. In 1919 one gram of radium, valued at $100,000, was presented to Mme. Curie as the gift of the people of the United States. In 1929 she received the money with which to purchase another gram of the precious substance, the presentation being made by President Hoover.

Marie Curie, reconstructionist

Curie further defied the stereotypes of her field by infusing her scientific pursuits with a genuine humanistic disposition, best bespoken by her tireless efforts during WWI:

When the World War broke out Mme. Curie offered her services to the Government of France. She closed the Institut Curie and with her elder daughter, Irene, and a few students, she went to a hospital behind the front, employing her knowledge of radiography in aiding the wounded. At her suggestion, automobiles equipped with radiographic apparatus were utilized along the front, and by this means bullets and shell splinters were located in the heads of dangerously wounded soldiers.

But Curie’s legacy is perhaps best captured by Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale, one of the many universities that awarded her honorary degrees:

There is one thing rarer than genius. That is radium. Mme. Curie illustrates the combination of both.

At the heart of what made Curie particularly exceptional, however, lies a bittersweet, wistful recognition of how rare women in science have always been — a fact that desperately needs changing if we are to save the future of science for all of humanity.

Pair with artist Lauren Redniss’s magnificent illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

03 JULY, 2013

Beware of Beauty Overload: The Adaptive Eye of the Beholder

By:

How sensory adaptation is compromising our experience of love.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her indispensable meditation on the psychology of beauty. But beauty’s primal appeal and its polarizing power on our inner world has a dark side. In a chapter unambiguously titled “Why Playboy Is Bad for Your Mental Mechanisms” from his altogether engrossing book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Nature (public library), Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick explores how overexposure to beauty makes us recalibrate our own criteria for what is beautiful to a point that harms human relationships and even our experience of love.

He describes a curious experiment inspired by his own everyday experience as a graduate student twenty years earlier, when he caught himself noticing a disproportionate number of attractive female students in the crowd passing by during campus rush hour. Fascinated by this phenomenon of extreme selective attention when it comes to beauty, Kenrick decided examine it empirically two decades later as a formal researcher and replicated his youthful ogling in an experimental setup:

When we strained our subjects’ attentional capacities, we found exactly what I had suspected several decades before: Men overestimated the number of beautiful women (though their estimates of handsome men were unaffected). Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good-looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing.

But pointing to other research he has conducted with his colleague Sara Gutierres, Kenrick argues that “an overdose of beauty might have ill effects for both sexes, albeit different ones for women than for men.” Citing Harry Helson’s famous 1947 theory of sensory adaptation, which holds that we make psychological adjustments as we match new forms of stimulation — hot or cold, salty or sweet, heavy or light, etc. — against our adaptation level, he began suspecting that sensory adaptation might be at work when it comes to our judgments of beauty. So Kenrick and Gutierres set out to test the idea:

In our first study, [we] asked people to judge an average-looking woman after being exposed to one of two series of other women. Half the participants judged the target woman after seeing a series of unusually beautiful women; the other half judged her after seeing a series of average-looking women. As in the case of expose to extremes of water temperature, exposure to extremes of physical appearance affected people’s judgments of what was average. As we had predicted, an average-looking woman was judged significantly uglier than normal if the subjects had just been gazing at a series of beauties.

Josef Albers: 'Homage to the Square'

Another study sought to assess whether these same processes played out in our judgments of people we know and love. Under the pretext of conducting research on “community standards of aesthetic judgment,” the scientists told participants they were collecting opinions from a random sample of students to settle an ongoing controversy about what is considered good and bad taste in visual art:

Subjects in the control group first judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings such as Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The men in the experimental group saw centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse; the women saw handsome naked men from Playgirl. After they had looked at either paintings or centerfolds, we asked our participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. Again, there was a cover story — that psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty. To test which side was right, we told them, we needed to know about the extent to which their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds.

Once again, the results displayed a curious gender difference:

Men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.

Playboy December 1972

What the study suggests is at once obvious and ominous: Exposure to beautiful women changes people’s reference points for what is beautiful. Kenrick considers the implications for men:

The harmful side effect for guys … is this: Real women … do not look as attractive once the mind has been calibrated to assume the centerfolds are normal. And for guys in relationships, exposure to beautiful photos undermines their feelings about the real flesh-and-blood women with whom their lives are actually intertwined.

(It turns out, then, that Esquire’s 1949 dating tips were not only amusingly appalling in their sexism, but also scientifically off in advising women to only bring their most glamorous friend to a double date.)

But lest we’re too quick to assume men are the only ones who conform to the worst of their gender’s stereotypes, women didn’t fare much better when the experiment was repeated with power rather than beauty as the variable:

Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.

But what could be driving this toxic allure of beauty? Kenrick suggests a biological basis for our sensory receptors, which evolved to make our ancestors aware of opportunities and threats while looking for mates in a world very different from our own — but amidst today’s media overstimulation, he argues, our natural mechanisms are overwhelmed and begin to malfunction. He likens our relationship with beauty to our relationship with food:

In a sense, the images from Hollywood and Madison Avenue are analogous to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The tasty flavors and images tap into mechanisms that were designed to promote survival and reproduction in a much different world. Consume too much, though, and it may be harmful to your health.

Like Clay Johnson did in his information diet guide, Kenrick suggests a cure that is at once obvious and onerous, simple but certainly not easy, and altogether necessary for the sake of sanity:

So what’s a mortal to do? Are we helpless in the face of our evolved mechanisms, which may lead us astray without our conscious awareness? Not completely. People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.

It may sound simplistic, perhaps, but at the heart of this empirically grounded suggestion is the idea that our beauty diet is just one of the harmful habit loops we can rewire if we remember that, as William James famously put it, “we are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is absolutely captivating in its entirety, exploring such fascinating subjects as the relationship between sex and religion, the psychology of homicidal fantasies, and the missing bricks in Maslow’s classic pyramid of needs.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.