Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

03 JULY, 2015

The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

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How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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01 MAY, 2015

Our Microbes, Ourselves: How the Trillions of Tiny Organisms Living Inside Us Are Redefining What It Means to Be Human

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“You are mostly not you… We are not individuals; we are ecosystems.”

Being alone may be the central anxiety of our time but, as it turns out, you are never really alone — at least in a biological sense: Every single cell of you — that is, every cell made of human DNA — is kept company by ten cells of microbes that call your body home. And because microbes are single-celled organisms that each carry their own DNA, the difference is even starker in genetic terms — you carry approximately twenty thousand human genes and two to twenty million microbial ones, which makes you 99% microbe. What’s more, although you and I are 99.99% identical in our human DNA, we are vastly different in our individual microbiomes — you have only one in ten of my microbes. Even more striking than the sheer number of these silent and invisible cohabitants is their power over what we consider our human experience — they influence everything from our energy level to how we handle illness to our moods to how tasty we are to mosquitoes.

The enormous implications of this micro-scale relationship, implicated in conditions as diverse as obesity, anxiety, arthritis, autism, and depression, are what Rob Knight explores in the deeply fascinating Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes (public library) from TED Books, who have previously published journalist Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and mathematician Hannah Fry on the mathematics of love.

Knight, a Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering and Director of the Microbiome Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, writes:

You are made up of about ten trillion human cells — but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you.

But we are not, as we have thought, merely the unlucky hosts to the occasional bad bug that gives us an infection. In fact, we live in balance with a whole community of microbes all the time. Far from being inert passengers, these little organisms play essential roles in the most fundamental processes of our lives, including digestion, immune responses, and even behavior.

Our inner community of microbes is actually more like a collection of different communities. Different sets of species inhabit different parts of the body, where they play specialized roles. The microbes that live in your mouth are distinct from those residing on your skin or in your gut. We are not individuals; we are ecosystems.

[…]

We’re discovering that microbes are deeply integrated into almost all aspects of our lives. Indeed, microbes are redefining what it means to be human.

And yet all this incredible complexity was practically unknown to us a mere forty years ago — a sobering testament to how inconstant knowledge is and how illusory our sense of its completeness. (Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser captures this beautifully in his manifesto for living with mystery, in which he writes: “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”) Knight considers the staggering disconnect between our longtime obliviousness to the single-celled universe and its far-reaching dominion:

Single-celled organisms are more diverse than all of the plants and animals combined. As it turns out, animals, plants, and fungi; every human, jellyfish, and dung beetle; every strand of kelp, patch of moss, and soaring redwood; and every lichen and mushroom — all the life we can see with our eyes — amount to three short twigs at the end of one branch on the tree of life.

So staggering is this diversity that not only are the microbes on your hands 85% different from those on mine — meaning we each have a microbial fingerprint — but the microbes on your left hand are even different from those on your very own right hand.

Inspired by the theory of biogeography developed by the great British biologist and anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace — Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and the underdog of the race for evolutionary theory, mapped the relationship between land area and species diversity — Knight collaborated with University of Colorado evolutionary biology and ecology professor Noah Fierer to develop a similar way of mapping computer keyboard area and microbial species diversity. They came up with what they call the “Wallace line” between the letters G and H — the fault line of mingling for the microbial populations of your left and right hand, which each colonize the respective half of the keyboard.

Here is some perspective for our human solipsism, which tends to grasp things not in absolute terms but in terms relative to us: You carry about three pounds of microbes in your body, which renders your microbiome one of your largest organs — around the same weight as your brain. But more than a mere static presence, this hefty microbiome is an active agent in your dynamic state of being. Knight points to one particularly pause-giving point of impact — the growing body of evidence that our microbiome affects our behavior, shaping “who we become and how we feel”:

It turns out that, rather than too few mechanisms, there are almost too many to contemplate.

From their throne in our guts, microbes not only influence how we digest food, absorb drugs, and produce hormones, but they can also interact with our immune systems to affect our brains. Together the various interactions between microbes and the brain are called the microbiome-gut-brain axis, and understanding this axis could have profound implications for our understanding of psychiatric disorders and our nervous system.

Among the potential applications of this understanding is the promise of alleviating the physiological and psychoemotional burdens of obesity:

Sometimes our genes determine which bacteria live inside us, and then those bacteria turn right around and influence how we behave. This is very well demonstrated in mice lacking a gene called Tlr5, which makes them overeat and subsequently become obese. Mice missing Tlr5 have microbes that make them hungrier; they overeat and become fat. We can prove it’s the microbes doing this in two separate experiments. In one, we transfer the Tlr5-less mice’s microbes into other genetically normal mice, which then overeat and become fat. In the other study, we use antibiotics to wipe out the microbes in the Tlr5-less mice and watch as their appetites return to normal. It’s amazing to think a genetic tweak can create gut microbes that affect behavior and that this behavior can be transferred into another stomach and alter the behavior of its formerly normal host.

Knight points to similar studies being done on inhibiting anxiety by introducing microbes from anxiety-free mice to anxious mice, and considers the imminent development of vaccines against stress, PTSD, and depression. He points to one particularly promising area of study:

According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the leading cause of disability in the United States and is rapidly becoming more common in the developing world. This increase in depression rates matches the rise of other diseases frequently considered to be Western, such as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes, all of which, we now know, have both immune and microbial components. Could our estranged soil bacteria, which modulate the immune system, be playing a role? In experiments in mice, Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil bacterium, has reduced anxiety. Intriguingly, in a social stress situation (essentially, smaller mice are put in a cage with a much larger, dominant mouse, which beats them up), M. vaccae treatment makes the mice much more resilient against the effects of stress, possibly providing a model for treating stress disorders in humans.

But far beyond the realm of lab mice, we’re conducting everyday experiments on our human microbiome all the time, usually without realizing it — Knight points out that everything from our diet (for instance, the balance of grains and proteins we eat and our your alcohol intake) to the antimicrobial hand-soap we buy to our use of antibiotics alters our microbiome.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Knight’s book, far beyond its scientific fascination, is its role as a vital public service announcement against the misuse and overuse of antibiotics — an outcry against the monoculture of mainstream medicine and a call for reclaiming our agency in the handling of our own bodies.

Pointing out that vaccines have “saved more lives throughout the world than any innovation except clean water” and are thus “humanity’s greatest triumph in public health,” he turns a critical eye toward the ludicrous anti-vaccination movement, lamenting “how much people worry about vaccines and how little they worry about antibiotics.”

A quick primer here: Antibiotics work by killing harmful bacteria in our bodies with poison that is more toxic to them than it is to us. But because bacteria breed rapidly, they also adapt to evolutionary pressures fast. Antibiotics exert one such pressure, which means bacteria swiftly sidestep the poison’s effect by developing resistance to it. Like the spammers who are constantly outsmarting and bypassing our anti-spam systems, we end up bombarded with unwanted, harmful material despite our ephemeral defenses.

But apart from being largely ineffective in the long run, antibiotics have a darker and far more significant downside — they tamper with our microbiome, sometimes modifying it to a dangerous degree. They are especially perilous for newborns and young children — Knight notes that antibiotics in the first six months are associated with weight gain (which is hardly surprising, given we use antibiotics to fatten up livestock) and may put the child at greater risk for obesity in adulthood:

Antibiotics can have a profound effect on a child’s microbial development, which may account for their apparent influence on later obesity.

[…]

Antibiotic treatment of newborns, even briefly, causes significant alterations to the composition of their gut bacteria. Perhaps more worrisome, antibiotics disturb the normal patterns of colonization of Bifidobacterium, one of the beneficial microbes. Colonization by Bifidobacterium plays a critical role in the development of a child’s immune system. Antibiotic use early in life may thus elevate the risks of allergies and allergic asthma by reducing the beneficial effects of microbial exposure.

But we are creatures of instant gratification, which is probably why we are so much more accepting of antibiotics, even if they are far more dangerous, than we are of vaccines — we take antibiotics when we are ill and they make us feel better almost immediately, almost miraculously; we are given vaccines when we are healthy, in the hope that they prevent some far-off future illness which, if they perform their respective medical miracle and work, we actually never get to experience. It’s easy to choose something that works easily and quickly, however perilous the side effects, to something that works invisibly and with greatly delayed gratification, even if it’s the safest life-saver.

In the remainder of the altogether illuminating Follow Your Gut, Knight goes on to explore how we get our microbiome and what we can do to optimize it for better physical and psychological health, both as individuals and as a culture. Complement it with Knight’s TED talk, which planted the seed for the book:

Illustrations by Olivia de Salve Villedieu

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28 APRIL, 2015

What Makes a Hero: Joseph Campbell’s Seminal Monomyth Model for the Eleven Stages of the Hero’s Journey, Animated

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“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.”

Nearly four decades before Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) refined his enduring ideas on how to find your bliss and have fulfilling life, the legendary mythologist penned The Hero with a Thousand Faces (public library) — his seminal theory outlining the common journey of the archetypal hero across a wealth of ancient myths from around the world. Campbell’s monomyth model has since been applied to everything from the lives of great artists to pop-culture classics like Star Wars.

This wonderful short animation from TED Ed presents a synthesis of Campbell’s foundational framework for the eleven stages of the hero’s quest — from the call to adventure to the crisis to the moment of return and transformation — illustrating its timeless potency in illuminating the inner workings of so many of our modern myths and the real-life heroes we’ve come to worship:

But perhaps Campbell’s most important and enduring point from the book has to do not with the mechanics of the hero’s journey but with the very purpose of hero-myths in human life. He writes in the opening chapter:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

[…]

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called “the archetypal images.”

Complement The Hero with a Thousand Faces with pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead on the role of “mythic ancestors” in how we form our identity, then revisit Campbell on how to find your bliss.

For more treasures from TED Ed, see these animated primers on how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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10 APRIL, 2015

How Do You Know You Exist? A Mind-Bending Animated Homage to Descartes Exploring the Conundrum of Reality

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“When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t.”

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” But what is the thing we call reality, exactly, and how are we even sure it is in the first place? Long before Philip K. Dick proclaimed that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” and E.F. Schumacher considered how we know what we know, the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) tussled with these questions in his foundational 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) — a quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what is known with absolute certainty, and to advance a framework for what we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This pleasantly mind-bending animation from James Zucker and TED-Ed turns our most fundamental sense of certainty on its head by directing Descartes’s inquiry at the most seemingly solid bastion of reality — the self: How do you know you’re real?

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t — so you can’t prove you aren’t dreaming. Maybe the body you perceive yourself to have isn’t really there. Maybe all of reality, even its abstract concepts like time, shape, color, and number are false.

Complement with Alan Watts on what we really mean by “reality”, Mark Strand’s poetic ode to dreams, and a wonderful animated take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains humanity’s greatest parable about the nature of reality, then find a necessary counterpoint in astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s beautiful case for living with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude.

Previous TED-Ed primers have explored how melancholy enhances our creativity, why we love repetition in music, how to detect lies, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

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