Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘space’

29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog on America and His Lifelong NASA Dream

By:

“The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change.”

“America,” young Italo Calvino wrote upon his first visit to the United States, “is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible.” But for a land this vast, full of this many people of such enormous diversity, what is “America,” really, if not an abstraction onto which each person projects his or her narrow slice of experience? The landmarks, icons, and stereotypes that have come to signify “America” as a kind of shorthand certainly don’t even begin to capture the full dimension of that abstraction, for the measure of any country — as that of any person — lives between the lines of such shorthand, in the richness of the ordinary and the of the aliveness of the mundane.

From Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging interview by Paul Cronin, three decades in the making, that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s no-bullshit advice to aspiring creators and his thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love — comes Herzog’s meditation on America. Remarking that contrary to some critical interpretations, his film Stroszek was not intended as a critique of capitalism — “The film doesn’t criticize the country; it’s almost a eulogy to the place,” he adds — Herzog tells Cronin:

What I love is the heartland of the country, the so-called “flyover” zone, like Wisconsin, where we filmed Stroszek and where Orson Welles was from. Marlon Brando came from Nebraska, Bob Dylan from Minnesota, Hemingway from Illinois, these middle-of-nowhere places, to say nothing of the South, the home of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I like this kind of terrain, where you can still encounter great self-reliance and camaraderie, the warm, open hearts, the down-to-earth people. So much of the rest of the country has abandoned these basic virtues. I like America for its spirit of advancement and exploration; there is something exceptionally bold about the place. The idea of everyone having an equal chance to succeed, no matter who they are, is impressive. If a barefoot Indian from the Andes had invented the wheel, the patent office in Washington would have assisted him in securing his rights.

As an immigrant myself, having brushed with the less generous sides of American law during my decade-long tussle with the immigration system, I found Herzog’s optimistic take on the attitudes embedded in other aspects of the law particularly heartening:

When I made The Wild Blue Yonder I discovered an extraordinary cache of footage shot by NASA astronauts in outer space, and was told that because it was filmed by federal employees, the material was “property of the people.” I asked, “Can I, a Bavarian, be considered one of the people?” Such images, it turns out, according to American law belong to everyone on the planet. This is a unique and astounding attitude to the world. Naturally there are things in the United States I’m ambivalent about, just as there are when it comes to Germany. I could never be a flag-waving patriot. But there are many reasons why I have been in America for so many years. The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change. I could never live in a country I didn’t love.

Recontextualized NASA footage used in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder

Herzog, indeed, holds a soft spot for NASA. “We thank NASA for its sense of poetry,” he says at the end of The Wild Blue Yonder, a line that reads like a eulogy itself as we bear witness to NASA’s tragic downward slide in government priorities today. In contemplating the necessary risks of the creative life, Herzog shares with Cronin his dream of joining NASA — a notion that seems so naturally resonant with his penchant for the lyricism of wanderlust:

I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible any more. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet instead of an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Sample Herzog’s life-tested wisdom further here and here, then complement this particular bit with Debbie Millman’s illustrated literary geography of America.

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.

24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Edge of the Sky: An Unusual and Poetic Primer on the Universe Written in the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language

By:

“Perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.”

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[...]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[...]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Trotta also chronicles the origin of the universe and the mechanics of the Big Bang with elegant simplicity:

The All-There-Is started from a single point, but then grew very, very quickly to become very, very large.

It is almost not possible to picture how fast it grew. Imagine breathing into a colored party ball, so that with every breath the ball becomes ten times bigger than before. If every breath took you an hour, you would have to keep going for over three days to make the ball grow as much as the All-There-Is grew right after the Big Flash. By that time, your party ball would have become much bigger than the White Road, so that one hundred party balls would fill the entire part of the All-There-Is we can see!

We don’t know what made it grow so much, so fast.

THE BIG BANG: 'Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light.'

He distills what we do know about those first few moments of cosmic import, painting a sensual portrait of the science:

At the beginning, all the matter drops were hot and moved around quickly. Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light. All the drops would have gone and only light would be left over, if it wasn’t for a strange fact.

Imagine a number of matter drops as large as the number of people who live in the land of Mr. Mao today. Each one of them had a matching Sister Drop, and when they found it, both disappeared.

Except for one.

Everything we see around us today is made of the few matter drops that did not have a Sister Drop and that escaped their death hug. As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss, so they stayed alone. We call them the Single Drops.

Almost all the matter drops that kissed each other ended up as Heavier Drops, made of two pairs of different drops. Very few matter drops stuck together to form even bigger drops than the Heavier Drops.

At the end, there were about ten times as many Single Drops as Heavier Drops. Single Drops and Heavier Drops are the same kind of drops that today make up most of the Sun.

Also, a whole lot of much lighter Very Small Drops were still flying around like crazy.

After three minutes, the All-There-Is had grown too much for matter drops to kiss: they simply could not find each other any more in all that big, empty space! Once matter drops stopped kissing one another, nothing much happened for a long time.

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is is one part children’s book for grownups, one part imaginative exercise in economical yet lyrical language, and wholly wonderful. For a counterpoint that might well be written in the one thousand least common words in English but is utterly mind-expanding and at least as delightful, see Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.

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.

23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space: Imaginative and Illuminating Children’s Book Tickles Our Zest for the Cosmos

By:

Rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

In reflecting on the story of the Golden Record, Carl Sagan, in his infinite poetic powers, celebrated our destiny as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.” Given how gravely space exploration has plummeted down the hierarchy of cultural priorities in the decades since Sagan’s time, how can we hope to imbue the hearts of the next generation of astronauts, policy makers, and cosmic explorers with the passionate poetics of Sagan’s conviction, with the same exhilarating longing to reach for and embrace the stars?

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (public library), written by quantum computer scientist Dominic Walliman and designed and illustrated by Ben Newman, is a heartening step in the direction of an answer. Both modern in its scientific spirit and with a sensibility modeled after the delightful mid-century children’s books from the Golden Age of space exploration, it tickles young readers — as well as their space-enchanted parents — into precisely that “palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

From clever visualizations of the scale of the universe to an illuminating primer on how stars are born to an illustrated anatomy of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, the book combines solid science (pause for a moment to consider the size of the gaseous giant Jupiter, inside which 1,300 Earths can fit) with curious untrivia (I find poetic symbolism in the fact, previously unknown to me, that Venus spins in the opposite direction to all other planets in the Solar System, and how neat to know that the surface of the moon equals the size of Africa), binding it all together with subtle humor and wholehearted joy in learning.

What makes the book particularly wonderful is that it refuses to do the great disservice to science that textbooks often do, which is to insinuate having all the answers. Instead, it embraces the awareness that science thrives on “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and dedicates a good portion of the story to as-yet unanswered questions, like whether there is other intelligent life in the universe and what the human future in space might look like if we transplanted our civilization on other planets.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space comes from the treasure chest of British indie children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

Complement it with this remarkable vintage children’s book, which envisioned gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration decades before either became a reality, then revisit the wonderful You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in lyrical illustrated dioramas.

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.