Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Mathemusician Vi Hart Explains Space-Time with a Music Box and a Möbius Strip

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The fabric of the universe via backwards Bach.

If mathemusician Vi Hart — who for the past three years has been bringing whimsy to math with her mind-bending, playful, and illuminating stop-motion musical doodles — isn’t already your hero, she should be, and likely will be. (Cue in the GRAMMYs newly announced search for great music teachers.) In her latest gem, Hart uses music notation, a Möbius strip, and backwards Bach to explain space-time:

Music has two recognizable dimensions — one is time, and the other is pitch-space. … There [are] a few things to notice about written music: Firstly, that it is not music — you can’t listen to this. … It’s not music — it’s music notation, and you can only interpret it into the beautiful music it represents.

Also see Hart on the science of sound, frequency and pitch, and her blend of Victorian literature and higher mathematics to explain multiple dimensions.

For a decidedly less whimsical but enormously illuminating deeper dive, see these 7 essential books on time and watch Michio Kaku’s BBC documentary on the subject, then learn how to listen to music.

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08 FEBRUARY, 2013

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction

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How the father of science fiction presaged airplanes, submersible warfare, space travel, and fuel cells.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” Jules Verne, born on this day in 1828 and often regarded as the father of science fiction, wrote in his masterpiece Around the World in Eighty Days. And, indeed, many of the seemingly fanciful concepts Verne imagined were made real in the decades that followed. He conceived of an underwater vehicle “all powered by electricity!” at a time when only prototypes of submarines existed and electricity was known but not of wide use; he presaged the use of such a high-powered submersible in warfare and scientific research; with the help of an illustrator-friend, he envisioned a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the height of aviation; he depicted weightlessness when zero gravity was still a scientific guess and put humans on the moon a century before mankind’s giant step. But far more than a gifted fiction writer, Verne was also an amateur astronomer and amateur scientist. Obsessive research and fact-checking were core to his writing, and his immense curiosity about science and technology frequently drove him to seek out famous scientists and inventors passing through town.

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction is a fascinating Discovery documentary, chronicling Verne’s seminal contributions to science fiction and his strikingly accurate predictions of the technologies that came to life a century after his death, as well as how he used his fiction as escapism from his troubled family and why he ended up destroying his own legacy.

Verne creates Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus at a time when even a can-opener is considered an exciting new concept.

Complement with the beautifully illustrated 1964 biography Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future.

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08 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Genius of Dogs: A Dimensional Definition of Human Intelligence

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“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.”

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library; UK) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

The Genius of Dogs goes on to explore the specific types of intelligence at which dogs excel, including their empathic acumen of taking another’s visual perspective and learning from another’s actions, their ability to interpret and act upon human communicative gestures, and the unique ways in which they go about asking for help. Pair it with John Homans’s indispensable What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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