Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 OCTOBER, 2012

David DeSteno on the Psychology of Compassion and Resilience

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How to use the intricate balance of altruism and self-interest to our collective advantage.

Last week, I journeyed to this year’s PopTech conference, where one of the most compelling talks came from psychologist David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab and author of the fascinating Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, one of last year’s 11 finest psychology books. DeSteno examines the science of compassion and resilience, and explores emerging ideas for leveraging the mechanisms of the mind that enable them:

The distress we see someone experiencing — the compassion we feel for them — isn’t determined by the objective facts on the ground; it’s determined by who’s looking. … It’s not the severity or the objective facts of a disaster that motivate us to feel compassion and to help — it’s whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.

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15 OCTOBER, 2012

When Charles Darwin Hated Everybody

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A necessary reminder that even geniuses have their despondent days.

“The day of days!,” wrote an elated 29-year-old Charles Darwin in his journal after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal, proceeding to famously weigh the pros and cons of marriage and merrily conclude that the enterprise was worth it. But Darwin, apparently, wasn’t always so cheerful. In her recent Creative Mornings talk,* the inimitable Maira Kalman shared a letter Darwin wrote to his friend, the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, in 1861, a little over a year after the publication of On the Origin of Species. The missive, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library) and made available online by the Darwin Correspondence Project, is at once jarring in its uncharacteristic despondency and oddly reassuring, reminding us that even the greatest of minds have their dark days — that rather than detracting from one’s genius, those are as much a part of it as the intellectual and creative highs, that emotional intensity is essential to the creative process in all of its extremes.

My dear Lyell

[…]

What a wonderful case the Bedford case.– Does not the N. American view of warmer or more equable period after great Glacial period become much more probable in Europe?–

But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.– I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am

Ever yours

C. Darwin

Kalman’s final presentation slide put it all so simply yet so eloquently:

*UPDATE: Kalman’s talk is now up — do yourself a favor and watch it.

Darwin image via The New York Times

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12 OCTOBER, 2012

Some of Today’s Hottest Scientific Mysteries, Illustrated by Some of Today’s Coolest Artists

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A beautiful celebration of the unknown at the intersection of art and science.

As a lover of the intersection of art and science, I find myself more excited about The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (public library) than I’ve been about a book in ages. In this gem, as intellectually stimulating as it is visually stunning, creative trifecta Julia Rothman ( ), Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe, better-known as Also Online, invite some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.

The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.

Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:

With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.

The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:

Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:

Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.

What existed before the big bang?

Illustrated by Josh Cochran

Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:

[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”

How does gravity work?

Illustrated by The Heads of State

In one of the more elegant explanations of the Higgs boson, often referred to — to the annoyance of some — as the “god” particle, Albert de Roeck writes:

The Higgs boson*, sometimes also called by its more complete name the Higgs-Brout-Englert boson, is a hypothetical massive elementary particle predicted to exist in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is the best theory we have to date in particle physics that describes the interactions between elementary particles. However, the problem with the Standard Model (without a Higgs field) is that, in order for it to work, all elementary particles would have to be massless. Since we know that particles have mass, we know that the Standard Model without an additional mechanism to give mass to particles is incomplete. Hence, the Higgs field is the name we give to the field which does the job of imparting mass to particles. And, since a field cannot exist without a matching particle, that gives us the Higgs boson.

What is the 'god' particle?

Illustrated by Jordin Isip

Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:

The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.

What is dark matter?

Illustrated by Betsy Walton

Equal parts delightful and illuminating, The Where, the Why, and the How is the kind of treat bound to tickle your brain from both sides.

* Earlier this year, likely after the book went to print, scientists at CERN (sort of) confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

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