Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

27 JUNE, 2012

A Radical Journey of Art, Science, and Entrepreneurship: A Self-Taught Victorian Woman’s Visionary Ornithological Illustrations


The bittersweet story of a young woman and her family, who triumphed through tragedy to bring a passion project to life and change the face of science illustration.

When she was only six years old, Genevieve Jones, known to her friends as Gennie, began accompanying her father Nelson, a medical student and amateur ornithologist, on buggy rides into the wilderness, searching for birds’ nests and collecting eggs to add to their make-shift cabinet of natural history. One spring morning in the 1850s, Gennie found an intricate bird’s nest that neither her father nor Howard, her younger brother, could identify. An inquisitive mind, she set out to find a book that would solve the mystery, only to find that no one had ever written one to help people differentiate the nests and eggs of various birds. What followed was a remarkable story of art, science, and entrepreneurship, full of tragedy and triumph, as the Jones family embarked upon filling that void in natural history, told for the first time in America’s Other Audubon (public library) by former National Endowment for the Arts librarian Joy M. Kiser.

Gennie as a young woman. Howard tipped this photograph into the front of his mother's copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio

Gennie had grown up a bright, curious young woman, fascinated with science, gifted in art, and an avid reader, but awkward and shy — unusually tall at nearly 6 feet, with a skin condition that made her appear flushed at all times. Still, she fell in love with a man ten years her senior, whom Kiser describes as “an exceptional musician and literary critic, but, unfortunately…a periodical drunkard.” In 1876, just before Gennie turned thirty, her parents broke off her engagement, concerned about her suitor’s drinking. To console her broken heart, Gennie went away to stay with her best friend Eliza’s parents in Pennsylvania, where she visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw some of the hand-colored engravings in Audubon’s now-iconic The Birds of America, noting that even Audubon had neglected to include eggs and nests as anything more than a decorative prop.

When she returned home to Circleville, Ohio, Gennie had grown unusually despondent. Her parents became increasingly concerned and, eventually, Nelson encouraged her to pursue her illustrations of nests and eggs, and collect them into a book — an idea he had previously rejected whenever Genie had brought it up, due to astronomical costs of creating a lavishly illustrated book, but was now ready to support it as a much-needed distraction from Genie’s anguish, for which he felt personally responsible.


Progne Purpurea – Purple Martin


Fig. 1. Pandion Haliaetus Carolinensis – Fish Hawk (a.k.a. American Osprey)

Fig. 2. Meleagris Gallopavo Americana – Wild Turkey

Fig. 3. Cathartes Aura – Turkey Buzzard


Melanerpes Erythrocephalus – Red-headed Woodpecker

Family and friends rushed in to support the project and Gennie set out to illustrate the 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio, many common throughout the rest of America. She and Eliza labored over the intricate illustrations, while Nelson devised a business plan to produce 100 copies of the book, to be called Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, and sell them by subscription in approximately 23 parts, charging $5 for the hand-painted version and $2 for the uncolored version. When the first twenty subscribers were secured, including some of the country’s most prominent ornithologists, production began. Kiser describes the astonishingly laborious and scientific process, reminding us of how far we’ve come with design and printing technology:

Gennie and Eliza drew illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of sixty-five-pound lithographic stones. Then Howard placed the stones into crates that were shipped eighty-nine miles to Cincinnati, where [the printing company’s] artisans fixed the drawings with a solution of nitric acid, applied ink to the surface of the stones, and printed test proofs to determine the quality of the renderings. When errors were found, the ink was cleaned off and the stones were recrated and shipped back to Circleville for corrections. The first stones made several trips back and forth before the artists conquered the challenges of keeping the points on the wax crayons sharp and the edges of the line drawings crisp.


Quiscalus Purpureus var. Aeneus, Ridgway – Crow Blackbird (a.k.a. Bronzed Grackle)

In 1878, the first three lithographs of part one were finished and sent to ornithological publications for review, earning Gennie’s artwork praise as equal to and even better than Audubon’s. Elliott Coues, a prominent ornithology bulletin editor, wrote:

I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women.


Coccyzus Americanus – Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a.k.a. Rain Crown, Rain Dove)

Once the first batch was mailed in 1879, the overwhelmingly positive response nearly doubled the number of subscribers to 39 — 34 for the hand-colored version and 5 for the uncolored — including former President Rutherford B. Hayes and a young Harvard student by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But fate threw Genie a cruel curveball — a mere month after the first part was mailed, she contracted typhoid fever and fell violently ill. On her deathbed, she instructed her brother to keep the project alive and enlist the help of their mother in producing the illustrations. She died on Sunday, August 17, 1879, at the age of thirty-two.

In the years that followed, Gennie’s suitor, overcome with sorrow, committed suicide. Her family remained in profound grief and shock, from which their only solace was in bringing Gennie’s vision to life in its full glory. Her mother, Virginia, learned the lithographic technique and began illustrating the eggs and nests Gennie had collected. Kiser writes:

Gennie’s book became the Jones family’s transitional object, a physical entity with which they could distract themselves from their heartache and into which they could invest their passion and energy. Virginia poured all the love she could no longer give to her daughter into illustrating the nests and eggs. Virginia had never drawn or painted anything that required scientific accuracy before…. Despite her grief, she struggled with overcoming her casual artistic style and transformed herself into a scientific observer. Analysis and intellectual rigor were essential, because an artist does not draw what she sees, she draws what she understands.


Empidonax Traillii – Traill's Flycatcher

Soon, Virginia was producing lithographs “every bit as lovely, exacting, and accurate as her daughter’s,” but even so, she couldn’t manage the workload and had to hire three assistants, paid between $1 and $3 for each illustration they painted. The subscription plan of $5 for a single hand-colored part — three illustrations with text — was now significantly short of breaking even. But Virginia and Howard continued to publish the book for two more years, funding it out-of-pocket, until they, too, were struck with typhoid fever. They survived, but Howard suffered heart damage and Virginia’s eyesight was permanently damaged. Still, though he had to give up his medical practice for a year, Howard continued to collect eggs and nests, and Virginia, despite her severe eye pain, continued to illustrate them.


Petrochelidon Lunifrons – Cliff's Swallow

Gennie’s memorial book was finally completed in 1886 and published as a lavish volume bound in full red morocco leather, with a remarkable, first of its kind feat of ornithological illustration inside. But the folio-sized treasure was too expensive for almost anyone to afford and, even though Gennie’s father had spent his entire retirement savings of $25,000 to finance the project, not enough copies of the book were sold to offset the production costs. Virginia became temporarily blind for nearly two years, having strained her eyes so severely to complete the work, and the family was on the brink of poverty — but they never complained:

They both felt thankful that they had the resources to see the project through and considered their collective work on the book the most significant accomplishment of their lives. Nelson never recovered from his daughter’s death. He remained a pension examiner for the United States Army, but he gave up his medical practice and spent much of his time alone in the woods.


Ardea Virescens – Green Heron (a.k.a. Fly-up-the-creek)

After Nelson and Virginia passed away in the early 1900s, Howard locked the doors to the studio where Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio had been produced and they remained sealed for thirty years, until grandson Nelson III, at the age of twelve, was so overcome with curiosity that he sawed the hinges off and broke into the forbidden family temple. Though he was promptly punished, his act prompted Howard to seek a suitable home for his mother’s copy of the family’s masterpiece and it eventually made its way to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Kiser came upon it as the museum’s librarian.


Icterus Baltimore – Baltimore Oriole

The museum’s copy of the labor of love that nearly drove the Jones family into bankruptcy was eventually appraised at $80,000. But its contribution to the study of ornithology, its feat of exquisite scientific illustration, and its testament to the power of working with true purpose remain priceless.


Fig. 1. Tinnunculus Sparverius – Sparrow Hawk

Fig. 2. Accipiter Cooperi – Cooper's Hawk

Fig. 3. Buteo Lineatus – Red-shouldered Hawk

Fig. 4. Buteo Borealis – Red-tailed Hawk (a.k.a. Hen Hawk)

Smithsonian Curator of Natural-History Rare Books Leslie K. Overstreet writes in the foreword to the book, which falls somewhere between A Glorious Enterprise and Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them:

The creation of a talented young woman and her dedicated family in a small Ohio town far from the intellectual and artistic centers of mid-nineteenth century, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was a singular and remarkable achievement. It is almost impossible for us today to imagine how ambitious the project was in its own time or how daunting the physical and technological obstacles that had to be dealt with and overcome. Even more, in our modern world of the professionalization of science*, it may seem astonishing that amateurs like the Joneses could produce something scientifically important and lasting.

(*Of course, one could also argue the exact opposite — the Jones family is an early example of today’s explosion of citizen science, from protein folding to whale songs to space exploration, its feats every bit as “scientifically important and lasting” as formal science.)

America’s Other Audubon, an appropriately lavish large-format volume full of Gennie, Virginia, and Eliza’s gorgeous illustrations, captures this extraordinary story of curiosity, creativity, and entrepreneurship with the kind of rigor and passion on par with the Joneses’ own.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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26 JUNE, 2012

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects


The ever-expanding definition and cultural role of design in the age of sensors, data, and responsive interfaces.

It is a privilege to have someone in your life who is both a good friend and a personal hero. I’m fortunate to count among those rare gifts MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonellidesign oracle, crusader for humanized technology, curious octopus — whose shows continue to define and redefine design, expanding our understanding of it not only as a creative discipline but also as a cultural translator, social lubricant, and “interface between progress and humanity.” Her latest exhibition, titled Talk to Me, which ran between July 24th and November 7th, 2011, explored with an unparalleled blend of excitement and insight the evolving communication between people and objects — a relationship all the more palpable, quite literally so, in our age of ubiquitous sensors and data feeds and interfaces, yet still rooted in our inextricable and increasingly complex relationship with the physicality of the analog world.

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (public library) is itself a meta-object in the exhibition — exquisitely produced and thoughtfully constructed to contextualize and illuminate the nearly 200 projects in the show, this analog artifact flows beautifully and seamlessly into the digital and mechanical world it encapsulates. An embossed faux-pixelated cover invites you to touch the “interface” of the book. On many of the pages, QR codes let you leap into a specific project’s digital presence. The Cubitt Fax computerizes the printed page, exuding a kind of binary intimacy.

Antonelli writes in the introductory essay:

The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership.

And, indeed, the projects and objects featured span the entire spectrum of human intellectual and emotional investment. From the unapologetically analog and deeply personal, like Stefanie Posavec’s handmade visualizations and Nicholas Felton’s infographic life reports, to the widely exploratory and the wildly futuristic, like Christien Meindertsma’s brilliant PIG O5049 project and Daisy Ginsberg’s E.chromi “designer bacteria,” the works cover (and uncover) interfaces, tools, devices, data visualization, video games, websites, and many more facets of this curious cultural shift we are witnessing, exploring the intersection and interplay of these various conduits of communication.

Invisible City: What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal about New York (2010)

Wesley Grubbs and Mladen Balog of Pitch Interactive

Published in Wired magazine, November 2010

The Lost Tribes of New York City (2009)

Andy London (American, born 1968) and Carolyn London (American, born 1972) of London Squared (USA, est. 1999)

In this stop-motion animation, various objects on the streets of New York City—among them a public telephone, a manhole cover, and newspaper boxes— come to life, with voices taken from the filmmakers’ interviews with New Yorkers and tourists. The result is a kind of urban ethnographic research: conversations with a wide and representative range of people about their hopes and identities and how they relate to New York. Some of the interview subjects speak with heavy accents, some don’t; some tell jokes, others wax wise and philosophical. The filmmakers’ skill with the stop-motion effects allows the objects to embody the voices in a vibrant way. The Lost Tribes of New York City is both comic and poignant, showcasing the city’s remarkable diversity while at the same time emphasizing the common experience that connects its various tribes.

(En)tangled Word Bank (2009)

Greg McInerny (British, born 1977) of Microsoft Research, Cambridge (UK, est. 1997) Stefanie Posavec (American, born 1981)

This visual comparison of the six editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species shows the changes Darwin made to the texts during his lifetime. Using data from online versions of the books, the designers created six wheels, each representing a different edition, with each chapter divided into sub-chapters, paragraphs (represented by a leaf shape), and sentences (represented by a smaller 'leaflet'). The sentences are colored blue or orange based on whether or not they will appear in the next edition—on whether or not they will survive. Changes representing scientific advances, adjustments in the author’s thought process, and conflicting sections in the text become apparent, with subtleties as well as major changes immediately revealed.

Talk to Me is also very much about locating the present:

In contrast to the twentieth-century triumph of semiotics, which looked down on communication as nothing but a mechanical transmission of coded meaning, the twenty-first century has begun as one of pancommunication — everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-to-everybody. We now expect objects to communicate, a cultural shift made evident when we see children searching for buttons or sensors on a new object, even when the object has no batteries or plug.

Tio (2009)

Tim Holley (British, born 1985)

Tio is a bird-shaped light switch designed to teach children not to waste energy. Using a traffic stoplight’s color progression and a series of increasingly angry facial expressions, Tio lets children know how long the lights have been on, so they can decide when it is time to turn them off. The accompanying website allows them to see their energy-use patterns and explains where energy comes from and how harvesting it affects animals, plants, and the larger environment. Tio was developed for Onzo, a British company that provides energy utilities with data-capture and analysis services.

littleBits (2008)

Ayah Bdeir (Lebanese, born 1982)

Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits are a hardware library of preassembled circuit boards that connect to one another with magnets. Like Legos, which allow anyone to understand how to build structures without a complex engineering education, littleBits make a complex process intuitive, in this case assembling prototypes by snapping together electronic components. Thus littleBits allow non-experts to engage with electronics, letting anyone get a feel for working with circuits. Users have made, for instance, a garage-door opener, a coffeemaker, a pair of blinking shoes, and a joystick.

Antonelli’s talent for bridging the esoteric with the universal shines throughout:

In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.

Phantom Recorder (2010)

Revital Cohen (Israeli, born 1985)

Revital Cohen designs speculative, metaphysical objects that examine the relationship between the natural and artificial. The Phantom Recorder explores the phenomenon of the phantom limb: an amputee’s sensation that a missing limb is still attached to the body and functioning. 'The phantom owner is suddenly endowed with a unique and personal appendage,' Cohen explains, 'invisible to others and sometimes capable of extraordinary hyperabilities.' This physical hallucination is often treated as a hindrance and corrected through therapy, but Cohen feels that attempts to alleviate it 'tend to overlook poetic functions of our body.' What if, she wonders, the sensation could be harnessed and used at will? The conceptual interface Cohen created in response to this inquiry would connect the part of the brain that thinks it is controlling the missing limb to electrodes in a neural-implant device. This device could be activated to record or cause particular sensations. The potential for new ways to understand the communication between mind and body goes further, Cohen says: 'Could we use this technology to record illusions of the mind? What if our imagination could be captured through our nerves?'

My Wheel of Worry (2010)

Andrew Kuo (American, born 1977)

Andrew Kuo presents his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs. In the three-tiered graph my Wheel of Worry, originally published in the May 16. 2010, New York Times Magazine, Kuo illustrates the things in his life that concern him and his specific feelings about each. On the graph's innermost ring Kuo shows what causes him anxiety in the moments before sleep (loneliness, death, money, bedbugs, and the new York Knicks); in the middle ring he charts his very specific reactions to his credit card statement; on the outermost ring, what he thinks about as he scratches a lottery ticket. In this chart and others, Kuo brings the graphic language of scientific fact to the irrational emotions associated with everyday life.

Citing Austrian-American psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick and his five axioms of communication, defined in 1967, Paola examines how our paradigms of idea-transmission have both changed and remained the same half a century later:

The first axiom tells us, ‘One cannot not communicate.’ Any kind of gesture, behavior, and attitude can and will be interpreted as communication. In e-mail, for example, responding immediately to a message creates a particular subtext, as does not responding at all; a congratulatory message sent ‘reply all’ can be interpreted as displaying presence and authority or else insecurity, and an ill-advised response by a person who received only a blind copy reveals…something else.

The third axiom says, ‘The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners’ communication procedures.’ Communication, Watzlawick posits, is cyclical, with each partner believing that he or she is simply responding to the other; some of the most common problems of the digital era arise from the cycle of amplification and reaction that marks our text exchanges, something that serial e-mail gaffers and awkward users will be familiar with. The problem is acute enough to require the invention of ToneCheck, developed by Lymbix, an emotional spell-check for e-mail messages that alerts the writer to excessive displays of anger, sadness, or insensitivity.

Locals and Tourists, New York and London (2010)

Eric Fischer (American, born 1973)

Locals and Tourists uses geotagging data from the photo-sharing websites Flickr and Picasa to visualize the different areas frequented by locals and tourists in New York, London, and 124 other cities, including Taipei, Sydney, Berlin, and San Jose, California. After harvesting millions of data points in the form of photographs, Eric Fischer links them by photographer and date and then plots them on a city’s OpenStreetMap grid. A photographer with many shots of the same city and a long photo history can be assumed to be a local and is represented in blue, and someone whose photos are taken within a limited time period is assumed to be a tourist and represented in red; photographers whose status can’t be determined are represented in yellow.

Menstruation Machine–Takashi's Take (2010)

Sputniko! (British/Japanese, born Japan 1985) Design Interactions Department (est. 1989) Royal College of Art (UK, est. 1837)

With Menstruation Machine, Sputniko! explores the relationship between identity, biology, and choice, while also inquiring into the meaning of gender-specific rituals. The metal device, which looks like a chastity belt and is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, replicates the pain and bleeding of the average five-day menstruation period. It is designed to be worn by men, children, postmenopausal women, or whoever else wants to experience menstruation. A music video that can be displayed with the device is about Takashi, who wants to understand what it feels like to be a girly girl. Takashi builds the Menstruation Machine and wears it out on the town with a girlfriend, strutting around a shopping mall and occasionally doubling over in pain. Thus an internal, private process is transformed into a wearable display of identity. Since the 1960s, advances in hormone-based contraception have, by suppressing ovulation, made monthly periods no longer biologically necessary. Sputniko! notes that the Menstruation Machine may be particularly desirable in a future in which menstruation in fact becomes obsolete.

In the introductory essay, Antonelli also exercises her remarkable gift for explaining technical terminology and complex systems in layman language that takes none of the substance away, breaking down the four main design disciplines covered in the show:

Communication design focuses on delivering messages, and it encompasses most graphic design, signage, and communicative objects of all kinds, from printed materials to three-dimensional and digital projects. Interface and interaction design, which is sometimes brought under the more generic and functionalist rubric of user-experience design, delineates the behavior of products and systems, as well as the experience that people will have with them. Information or visualization design includes the maps, diagrams, and visualization tools that filter and make sense of the enormous amount of information that is more widely available than ever before. Critical design is one of the most promising and far-reaching new areas of study, using conceptual scenarios built around hypothetical objects to comment on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technologies and behaviors. Its disciples are experts in ‘What if?’

Rubik's Cube for the Blind (2010)

Konstantin Datz (German, born 1988)

Konstantin Datz has reimagined the popular Rubik’s Cube for people who cannot see the toy’s original colors. Datz stuck white panels embossed with the Braille words for each color over the squares, transforming the game from a visual puzzle into a tactile one.

Prayer Companion (2010)

Interaction Research Studio (est. 2000) Goldsmiths (UK, est. 1891) University of London (UK, est. 1836)

Developed for the nine Poor Clare Sisters who live at a monastery in York, UK, the Prayer Companion is a communication device with a very explicit purpose: it alerts the nuns to issues that need their prayers. The nuns, whose everyday lives have changed little since medieval times, have taken vows of enclosure, and their only connection to the outside world is through occasional access to Catholic newspapers, mail, and limited use of the telephone and computer. Designed to be understated and unobtrusive, the Prayer Companion subtly scrolls a ticker tape of issues across its top; its small screen can only be viewed from above and close-up, thus minimizing its distracting potential. The device was designed specifically for the nuns and is the only one of its kind. 'Goldie,' as the nuns call it, sits on a table in a hallway that they often pass through, scrolling news as well as the feelings of anonymous strangers whose blog entries are aggregated by the website We Feel Fine. The nuns have told Bill Gaver, of the Interaction Research Studio, that 'it has been valuable in keeping our prayers pertinent.'

More than anything, Talk to Me is about both challenging and owning design as a centripetal force of culture:

Talk to Me is an opportunity to anchor design’s new dimension and highlight innovative interfaces that can inform designers in the future. Whether they use the skin and shell of objects as an interface or animate them from within, designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.


It might seem that design has abandoned its tested, grounded, functionalist territory to venture into an ambiguous universe where its essence is confused and a crisis of identity arises — is the 5th Dimensional Camera art or scientific modeling? Is Humeau’s work creative paleontology? Are Sputniko!’s devices contributing to interpretive anthropology? Is Pachube mere coding and infrastructure engineering? Not at all. I claim them, with their powerful vision and their focus on knowledge and awareness, as design, and I praise their radical functionalism. Ambiguity and ambivalence — the ability to inhabit different environments and frames of mind at the same time — have become central to our cultural development. They are qualities that embody the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity, and they are critical to the questioning and imagining that are the preferred methods of inquiry. Communication is at the nexus of all these necessary human features: the most critical function of design today.

Tweenbot (2009)

Kacie Kinzer (American, born 1983)

Tweenbots are small, constantly moving robots that depend on the kindness of strangers to get where they are going. Interaction designer Kacie Kinzer sent Sam, the best traveled of the Tweenbots, on many missions in New York City’s Washington Square Park, armed only with a flag that asked passersby to point him toward a particular destination. She fully expected that Sam—made of a battery-operated motor and cardboard—would be crushed, lost, or thrown away, but surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on how helpful you believe New Yorkers to be) he always arrived safely at his destination. The Tweenbots demonstrate that a clever situation staged by a designer can set a dialogue in motion between people and objects.

Several essays by prominent cross-disciplinary thinkers contextualize the various thematic sections. In one titled “Reality Is Plenty, Thanks: Twelve Arguments for Keeping the Naked Eye Naked,” the always-thoughtful Kevin Slavin asks:

As parlor tricks go, [virtual reality] is a neat one. Reality is built on human perception, entering consciousness through the human eye. If you add to the stack, you have something like reality, only more. But more what?

In another essay, “Conversations with the Network,” Khoi Vinh observes:

The designer as author, as craftsperson bringing together beginning, middle, and end, becomes redundant in a space in which every participant forges his or her own beginning, middle, and end. And that is exactly what happens in networked media. The narrative recedes, and the behavior of the design solution becomes prominent. What becomes important are questions that concern not the author but the users. How does the system respond to the input of its users? When a user says something to the system, how does the system respond?

At its heart, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects — like the show itself, and the entirety of Antonelli’s work — is the essence of what true curation is: Context, conscience, cultural curiosity, and, above all, a point of view of what matters in the world and why.

Exhibition images and image captions courtesy of MoMA

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22 JUNE, 2012

Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius


On the man who was caught between the past and the future in clothes a size too small, and profoundly changed our lives anyway.

Little about your day so far, including reading this, would be the same were it not for logician, mathematician, avid reader, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954). While he remains celebrated as instrumental in the invention of the computer, responsible for coining the very concepts of “computation” and “algorithm” in their present form, Turing — who has shaped nearly every facet of our modern lives — is also one of history’s most tragic figures. Beyond his intellectual prowess, another aspect of his character permeated his intellectual contribution and ultimately led to his untimely death, yet it remains at best a silent echo.

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide. In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:

In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think

His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.

Alan Turing

To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:

Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…

This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:

He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.

Leavitt laments:

The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.

If only he had been able to save himself.

The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?

But, for now, a much more upbeat way to celebrate Turing — a LEGO Turing Machine, recreating the famous 1936 Turing Machine, the first simulation of a computer algorithm, in everyone’s favorite brick toy:

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21 JUNE, 2012

A Brief History of Alchemy, Pseudoscience & Transmutations, from Ancient China to Craig Venter


What Richard Nixon has to do with cinnabar and diamonds.

As if you need another reason to love Lapham’s Quarterly — after tracing the origins of famous words and mapping the history of robots in a matrix of creepiness vs. intelligence — here’s a Brain Pickings exclusive from the summer edition of the magazine, titled Magic Shows and exploring “all things magical, around the globe and throughout time” — a visual history of alchemy (and pseudoscience) through famous transmutations, real ones and shams, from cinnabar to gold in 133 B.C. China to artificial meat in the present-day Netherlands.

Find more articles from the Magic Shows issue online, or just treat yourself to the real deal by subscribing today.

Thanks, Michelle

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