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Our Smallness and the Cosmic Scale: How Big the Universe Is Relative to Us, Animated

A humbling celestial reflection on what enlarges the minuteness of human life with meaning against the vast backdrop of the universe.

At the end of the nineteenth century, well before women could vote, a team of female astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory known as the Harvard Computers made calculations and discoveries that became the basis for Edwin Hubble’s eponymous law demonstrating that the universe is expanding — one of the most revolutionary scientific breakthroughs in human history.

But this begot the inevitable questions of what the universe is expanding into, how big it really is, and whether it is infinite or finite.

More than half a century after Hubble formulated his law, NASA named an enormous, ambitious telescope after him and launched it into space to probe these mysteries of the cosmos. What the Hubble Space Telescope found, and how it illuminates the size of the universe relative to us, is what Alex Hofeldt explores in this wonderful animation from TED-Ed and animator Tom Matuszewski:

Complement with these five visualizations to grasp the scale of the cosmos, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg on the unity of the universe, and physicist Sean Carroll on what gives our lives meaning against our seeming smallness, then revisit other terrific TED-Ed animated inquiries into how you know you exist, what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.


The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.”

The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes,” Van Gogh wrote in a magnificent letter to his brother about how taking risks and making inspired mistakes moves us forward. He was speaking, of course, from the only perspective he knew — as an artist and a human being — but he was also speaking to a central principle of creativity that holds true in art, science, and any human endeavor.

That principle is what the great Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, writer, and historian of science Jacob Bronowski (January 18, 1908–August 22, 1974) examined in 1967, when he was invited to speak at the prestigious Silliman Memorial Lectures at Yale University, previously delivered by titans of science like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and Edwin Hubble. (Of disquieting note is the fact that since the founding of the series in 1901, only three women have spoken — perhaps Yale would be well advised to heed astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom about the importance of role models in equalizing science.)

In his six lectures, posthumously published as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (public library), Bronowski sets out to explore the essence of creative thought, the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the mechanism by which we continue to transcend ourselves as individuals, a society, and a species.

Jacob Bronowski

In the fifth lecture, titled “Error, Progress, and the Concept of Time,” Bronowski makes a beautiful case for how “errors” — which are often simply contradictions of and challenges to the established order, ideas incompatible with the status quo — move us forward:

Evolution is built up by the perpetuation of errors. It runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics by promoting the error to the new norm so that the second law now works on the error, and then a new error is built up. That is also central to all inductive acts and all acts of imagination. We ask ourselves, “Why does one chess player play better than another?” The answer is not that the one who plays better makes fewer mistakes, because in a fundamental way the one who plays better makes more mistakes, by which I mean more imaginative mistakes. He sees more ridiculous alternatives… The mark of the great player is exactly that he thinks of something which by all known norms of the game is an error. His choice does not conform to the way in which, if you want to put it most brutally, a machine would play the game.

Therefore, we must accept the fact that all the imaginative inventions are to some extent errors with respect to the norm. Nothing is worth doing which is not this mad maverick kind of change. But these errors have the peculiar quality of being able to sustain themselves, of being able to reproduce themselves.

With an eye to how groundbreaking discoveries are portrayed in popular culture — as a single Eureka! moment of epiphany, rather than the combinatorial product of innumerable imaginings, trials, and errors — Bronowski cautions:

Never confuse the process of exposition with the process of discovery… Discovery is made with tears and sweat … by people who are constantly getting the wrong answer. And it is not possible to eliminate it because that is the nature of looking for imaginative likenesses. You are always looking for a likeness and nine out of ten of the likenesses you are looking for are not there. So, of course, more bad science is produced than good and more bad works of art are produced than good ones.


Progress is the exploration of our own error.

“Fool’s Cap Map of the World” (1580–1590) from Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

And yet that exploration, Bronowski reminds us, is, as another tremendous scientific mind would elegantly put it half a century later, a “truly human endeavor.” He admonishes:

You must remember that by the time science becomes a closed — that is, computerizable — project, it is not science anymore. It is not in the area of the exploration of errors. I want very much to transmit to you — scientists as well as nonscientists — the feeling of adventure, of exploration, in this exactly because we are all the time pushing the boundaries of the closed scientific system into an area which is full of pitfalls and errors.


If we ask “Why do we know more now than we knew ten thousand years ago, or even ten years ago?” the answer is that it is by this constant adventure of taking the closed system and pushing its frontiers imaginatively into the open spaces where we shall make mistakes.

He illustrates this necessary willingness to make mistakes and to be seen as being in error with a charming anecdote:

I once addressed, on a Christmas day many years ago, on behalf of the United Nations, an audience of about two thousand school children in London. As on this occasion, I knew in general what I was going to say, but I did not know exactly what I was going to say, and in a moment of abandon I said to them: “This is how the world goes, you are going to have to make it different, you are going to have to stop listening to your parents. If you go on obeying your parents, the world will never be a better place.” And at that moment twenty newspaper men representing the European press got up from the front row and rushed for the telephone boxes. And by the time I got home one of the more adventurous correspondents from Geneva had actually phoned my daughter, then aged seven, at school in order to ask her whether she was encouraged to disobey her parents at home.

At the heart of the ability to transform the world is what Bronowski calls “the heroism of being a contrary man.” (To be sure, he was one such contrarian himself — brought up as “a very orthodox Jew,” by his own description, he went on to become a scientist and one of the past century’s most influential voices of reason.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s memorable assertion that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” Bronowski writes:

Knowledge is not a finished enterprise… To go looking for the truth only has a point if the truth has not already been found. And naturally if you suppose that the truth is a thing, that you could find it the way you could find your hat or your umbrella, then none of this makes sense, then you just look for a good finder. But that is not how truth is found. It is not how knowledge is created, and it is not how it works to quicken and leaven and create social change. The kind of questioning personality that I am describing is one who is appropriate to our changing society only because he is the self-correcting mechanism. He is the thermostat built into the system. He is the man who says, “That is not right, we will try it another way.” Science is essentially a self-correcting activity. But more important, scientists are people who correct the picture of the moment with another one, as a natural evolution towards a “true” picture of the world.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

This necessary “maverick personality” of the scientist, Bronowski argues, is just as necessary in any field of creative endeavor. In a sentiment which psychology’s most influential study of what makes a creative person has affirmed, he notes that creative visionaries like Goethe, Da Vinci, Rutherford, and Einstein were notoriously “troublesome for their teachers,” and writes:

The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change. Otherwise, what are you creating for? If the world is perfectly all right the way it is, you have no place in it. The creative personality thinks of the world as a canvas for change and of himself as a divine agent of change.

Complement this particular portion of Bronowski’s wholly magnificent The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination with physicist David Bohm on creativity, Kahlil Gibran on why artists make art, Janna Levin on why scientists do science, and Alan Lightman on the shared psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bronowski on the dark side of certainty.


Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on How Our Certitudes Keep Us Small and the Generative Power of Not-Knowing

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on How Our Certitudes Keep Us Small and the Generative Power of Not-Knowing

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion,” the great painter Richard Diebenkorn counseled in his ten rules for beginning creative projects. “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going,” the artist Ann Hamilton wrote a generation later in her magnificent meditation on the generative power of not-knowing. “In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.”

What is true of art is even truer of life, for a human life is the greatest work of art there is. (In my own life, looking back on my ten most important learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings, I placed the practice of the small, mighty phrase “I don’t know” at the very top.) But to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement — a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”

That difficult feat of insurgency is what the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explored in 1996 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for capturing the transcendent fragility of the human experience in masterpieces like “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.”

In her acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library) — which also gave us the spectacular speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered after becoming the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize — Szymborska considers why artists are so reluctant to answer questions about what inspiration is and where it comes from:

It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

Noting that she, too, tends to be rattled by the question, she offers her wieldiest answer:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In a sentiment of chilling prescience today, as we witness tyrants drunk on certainty drain the world of its essential inspiration, Szymborska considers the destructive counterpoint to this generative not-knowing:

All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Such surrender to not-knowing, Szymborska argues as she steps out into the cosmic perspective, is the seedbed of our capacity for astonishment, which in turn gives meaning to our existence:

The world — whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

Twenty years before she received the Nobel Prize, Szymborska explored how our contracting compulsion for knowing can lead us astray in her sublime 1976 poem “Utopia,” found in her Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library):


Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Purely for the fun of it, I found myself drawing Szymborska’s poetic island in a map inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia:

Complement with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Szymborska on why we read, our cosmic solitude, how artists humanize our history, and the importance of being scared.


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