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Rules for the Direction of the Mind: Descartes’s 12 Timeless Tenets of Critical Thinking

“We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.”

Rules for the Direction of the Mind: Descartes’s 12 Timeless Tenets of Critical Thinking

In the late 1620s, about a decade before he coined Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) — the slogan that would establish him as the founding father of modern Western philosophy — the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) set about delineating the rules of critical thinking. His list, titled Rules for the Direction of the Mind and partway in time between the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry and Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, endures as a timeless tuning mechanism for the inner workings of reason.

Of the 36 rules Descartes planned to write, he only penned 21, the first twelve of which outlined the principles of the scientific method. (The latter nine were specific to mathematics and thus rather esoteric.) The list was never published in his lifetime — the first Dutch translation appeared 34 years after his death, and the first Latin one another seventeen years later — but it was later included in his Philosophical Writings (public library), where Descartes dedicates anywhere between a few paragraphs and a few pages to each.

Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648
Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648

His twelve-vertebrae backbone of critical thinking reads as follows:

  1. The aim of our studies must be the direction of our mind so that it may form solid and true judgments on whatever matters arise.
  2. We must occupy ourselves only with those objects that our intellectual powers appear competent to know certainly and indubitably.
  3. As regards any subject we propose to investigate, we must inquire not what other people have thought, or what we ourselves conjecture, but what we can clearly and manifestly perceive by intuition or deduce with certainty. For there is no other way of acquiring knowledge.
  4. There is need of a method for finding out the truth.
  5. Method consists entirely in the order and disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth. We shall comply with it exactly if we reduce involved and obscure propositions step by step to those that are simpler, and then starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely similar steps.
  6. In order to separate out what is quite simple from what is complex, and to arrange these matters methodically, we ought, in the case of every series in which we have deduced certain facts the one from the other, to notice which fact is simple, and to mark the interval, greater, less, or equal, which separates all the others from this.
  7. If we wish our science to be complete, those matters which promote the end we have in view must one and all be scrutinized by a movement of thought which is continuous and nowhere interrupted; they must also be included in an enumeration which is both adequate and methodical.
  8. If in the matters to be examined we come to a step in the series of which our understanding is not sufficiently well able to have an intuitive cognition, we must stop short there. We must make no attempt to examine what follows; thus we shall spare ourselves superfluous labour.
  9. We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.
  10. In order that it may acquire sagacity the mind should be exercised in pursuing just those inquiries of which the solution has already been found by others; and it ought to traverse in a systematic way even the most trifling of men’s inventions though those ought to be preferred in which order is explained or implied.
  11. If, after we have recognized intuitively a number of simple truths, we wish to draw any inference from them, it is useful to run them over in a continuous and uninterrupted act of thought, to reflect upon their relations to one another, and to grasp together distinctly a number of these propositions so far as is possible at the same time. For this is a way of making our knowledge much more certain, and of greatly increasing the power of the mind.
  12. Finally we ought to employ all the aids of understanding, imagination, sense and memory, first for the purpose of having a distinct intuition of simple propositions; partly also in order to compare the propositions.

Complement this particular portion of Descartes’s wholly indispensable Philosophical Writings with Galileo on critical thinking and Michael Faraday on countering our propensity for self-deception, then revisit Descartes on how you know you exist.

BP

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

On the lifelong pleasure of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

“One of the most powerful men in the United States is a dark-haired young bachelor with a mobile face, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928.” So wrote Brian O’Doherty in his 1963 New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012), a storyteller whose work “springs from his earliest self, from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.” (Beautifully true as the rest may be, one claim was an ugliness of the era’s pre-DOMA bigotry: Sendak wasn’t a bachelor at all — by that point, he already lived with Dr. Eugene Glynn, who would be his spouse for the remaining half-century of Glynn’s life.)

But the most timeless truth about Sendak’s genius lies in how his books granted and continue to grant validity to children’s imagination — not only in its boundless light but in its deepest darkness, too. For the latter he offered solace not through escapism but through solidarity: Yes, he seems to say, life is difficult and scary — but if we spend half of it in darkness, we might as well find rays of hope in the shadows and befriend the monsters lurking there as indelible companions in our conquest of the luminous half.

Illustration from Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s deeply philosophical first book

In 1970, 42-year-old Sendak sat down with Pulitzer-winning oral historian and interviewer extraordinaire Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) for a wide-ranging conversation about his creative evolution as a storyteller; about his influences and the inspiration behind his most celebrated books; about starting out as an illustrator of other writers’ stories — most notably, his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss — and then becoming a writer himself with the 1957 publication of his first solo book, the forgotten and wonderfully philosophical gem Kenny’s Window. “If you’re an illustrator,” he tells Terkel, “you’re almost a writer — or you want to be a writer. You sort of hug words when you illustrate a book, and eventually do think you’re going to be a writer — and then, hopefully, you become a writer.”

The conversation became the sincerest and most creatively revealing interview Sendak ever gave.Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On why William Blake became his great lifelong influence:

I love … Blake’s adoration of the child self as being the best part of the human self. How sad that as adults, we just drop it along the way — or are embarrassed by it, often. There are so many adults who enjoy a book for children but are vaguely embarrassed at enjoying it, as though only their children should enjoy it and there’s something strange about them enjoying it — which is such an odd twisting and distortion of the pleasure of having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence

On how ideas are born:

It’s an emotional quality — and they come up, they really well up, like when I wrote In the Night Kitchen… As the book grew, you’re just never so happy… You’re living two lives — you’re a 42-year-old man, and you’re a four-year-old boy. And it’s a little confusing, but it’s memorable. It’s a stupendous feeling — it’s the greatest joy in the world. And you know the validity of it because it comes pouring into your head.

On the artificiality of designating something as a “children’s book,” against which Tolkien too admonished and which Sendak repeated in his last on-camera interview shortly before his death:

I don’t set out to write for children. I don’t consciously set out to write a book for some imaginary child. I just write the book because I have to… I don’t have any audience in mind except my own pleasure.

One of Sendak’s 1973 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

On the secret to illustration as a storytelling medium and the relationship between text and image:

What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book.

[…]

That’s the beauty of book writing and illustrating. There’s nothing so dull as translating books that are beautifully written into a picture — the author’s already done that, so you as an illustrator must contribute something else: adorn the word, or go inside the word, or go around the word, but extend it in some marvelous way to make it a beautiful thing. And that’s the great fun.

On the fragmentary nature of creativity, which David Lynch echoed decades later, and the incubation period of ideas, which T.S. Eliot extolled decades earlier:

There are always ideas that sit in your head… A stray sentence from ’58 sits in my head, a stray sentence from ’62 sits in my head; I have a title for the past eight years now, which I just love, but I don’t have the story to go with it; I even have a subtitle, but don’t have a story to go with it… You get these little hunks of fragments [and] you just wait, and you’ve got to be very patient. Eventually, if they’re good enough, they come together. If they stink, they fall away.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and reading

On honoring children’s inherent Baloney Detection Kit:

Be as foolish and as silly and whatever as you want, but you tell the truth in some way… Kids know instantly when you’re not, and how awful to not tell the truth — what’s the point, really?

Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world, then join me in supporting the Studs Terkel Radio Archive digital conservation initiative.

BP

The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”

The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

“Reality is what we take to be true,” physicist David Bohm observed in a 1977 lecture. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” That’s why nothing is more reality-warping than the shock of having come to believe something untrue — an experience so disorienting yet so universal that it doesn’t spare even the most intelligent and self-aware of us, for it springs from the most elemental tendencies of human psychology. “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted in examining how our minds mislead us, “but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

The machinery of that construction is what New Yorker columnist and science writer extraordinaire Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our propensity for believing what we wish were true and how this illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist simply takes advantage of this hubris by finding the beliefs in which we are most confident — those we’re least likely to question — and enlisting them in advancing his or her agenda.

To be sure, we all perform micro-cons on a daily basis. White lies are the ink of the social contract — the insincere compliment to a friend who needs a confidence boost, the unaddressed email that “somehow went to spam,” the affinity fib that gives you common ground with a stranger at a party even though you aren’t really a “huge Leonard Cohen fan too.”

We even con ourselves. Every act of falling in love requires a necessary self-con — as Adam Phillips has written in his terrific piece on the paradox of romance, “the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams”; we dream the lover up, we construct a fantasy of who she is based on the paltry morsels of information seeded by early impressions, we fall for that fantasy and then, as we immerse ourselves in a real relationship with a real person, we must convince ourselves that the reality corresponds to enough of the fantasy to feel satisfying.

But what sets the con artist apart from the mundane white-liar is the nefarious intent and the deliberate deftness with which he or she goes about executing that reality-manipulation.

Konnikova begins with the story of a lifelong impostor named Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who successfully passed himself off as a psychologist, a professor, a monk, a surgeon, a prison warden, the founder of a religious college, and even his own biographer.

begins with
Ferdinand Waldo Demara (Photograph: Corbis)

Considering the perplexity of his astonishing ability to deceive, Konnikova — whose previous book examined the positive counterpart to the con, the psychology of thinking like Sherlock Holmes — writes:

How was he so effective? Was it that he preyed on particularly soft, credulous targets? I’m not sure the Texas prison system, one of the toughest in the United States, could be described as such. Was it that he presented an especially compelling, trustworthy figure? Not likely, at six foot one and over 250 pounds, square linebacker’s jaw framed by small eyes that seemed to sit on the border between amusement and chicanery, an expression that made [his] four-year-old daughter Sarah cry and shrink in fear the first time she ever saw it. Or was it something else, something deeper and more fundamental — something that says more about ourselves and how we see the world?

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.

What makes the book especially pleasurable is that Konnikova’s intellectual rigor comes with a side of warm wit. She writes:

“Religion,” Voltaire is said to have remarked, “began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” It certainly sounds like something he would have said. Voltaire was no fan of the religious establishment. But versions of the exact same words have been attributed to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, to Geoffrey Chaucer. It seems so accurate that someone, somewhere, sometime, must certainly have said it.

The invocation of Mark Twain is especially apt — one of America’s first great national celebrities, he was the recipient of some outrageous con attempts. That, in fact, is one of Konnikova’s most disquieting yet strangely assuring points — that although our technologies of deception have changed, the technologies of thought undergirding the art of the con are perennially bound to our basic humanity. She writes:

The con is the oldest game there is. But it’s also one that is remarkably well suited to the modern age. If anything, the whirlwind advance of technology heralds a new golden age of the grift. Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. That’s why they flourished during the gold rush and spread with manic fury in the days of westward expansion. That’s why they thrive during revolutions, wars, and political upheavals. Transition is the confidence game’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change. We may cling cautiously to the past, but we also find ourselves open to things that are new and not quite expected.

[…]

No amount of technological sophistication or growing scientific knowledge or other markers we like to point to as signs of societal progress will — or can — make cons any less likely. The same schemes that were playing out in the big stores of the Wild West are now being run via your in-box; the same demands that were being made over the wire are hitting your cell phone. A text from a family member. A frantic call from the hospital. A Facebook message from a cousin who seems to have been stranded in a foreign country.

[…]

Technology doesn’t make us more worldly or knowledgeable. It doesn’t protect us. It’s just a change of venue for the same old principles of confidence. What are you confident in? The con artist will find those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you. But you will be so confident in the starting point that you won’t even notice what’s happened.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sense, the con is a more extreme and elaborate version of the principles of persuasion that Blaise Pascal outlined half a millennium ago — it is ultimately an art not of coercion but of complicity. Konnikova writes:

The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want — money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support — and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong. Given the right cues, we’re willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone.

So what makes you more susceptible to the confidence game? Not necessarily what you might expect:

When it comes to predicting who will fall, personality generalities tend to go out the window. Instead, one of the factors that emerges is circumstance: it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this particular moment in your life.

People whose willpower and emotional resilience resources are strained — the lonely, the financially downtrodden, those dealing with the trauma of divorce, injury, or job loss, those undergoing major life changes — are particularly vulnerable. But these, Konnikova reminds us, are states rather than character qualities, circumstances that might and likely will befall each one of us at different points in life for reasons largely outside our control. (One is reminded of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s excellent work on agency and victimhood: “The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”) Konnikova writes:

The more you look, the more you realize that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there. Marks vary as much as, and perhaps even more than, the grifters who fool them.

Therein lies the book’s most sobering point — Konnikova demonstrates over and over again, through historical anecdotes and decades of studies, that no one is immune to the art of the con. And yet there is something wonderfully optimistic in this. Konnikova writes:

The simple truth is that most people aren’t out to get you. We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionarily beneficial path. People are trusting by nature. We have to be. As infants, we need to trust that the big person holding us will take care of our needs and desires until we’re old enough to do it ourselves. And we never quite let go of that expectation.

Trust, it turns out, is advantageous in the grand scheme of things. Konnikova cites a number of studies indicating that people who score higher on generalized trust tend to be healthier physically, more psychoemotionally content, likelier to be entrepreneurs, and likelier to volunteer. (The most generous woman I know, who is also a tremendously successful self-made entrepreneur, once reflected: “I’ve never once regretted being generous, I’ve only ever regretted holding back generosity.”) But the greater risk-tolerance necessary for reaping greater rewards also comes with the inevitable downside of greater potential for exploitation — the most trusting among us are also the perfect marks for the player of the confidence game.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves

But the paradox of trust, Konnikova argues, is only part of our susceptibility to being conned. Another major factor is our sheer human solipsism. She explains:

We are our own prototype of being, of motivation, of behavior. People, however, are far from being a homogeneous mass. And so, when we depart from our own perspective, as we inevitably must, we often make errors, sometimes significant ones. [Psychologists call this] “egocentric anchoring”: we are our own point of departure. We assume that others know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.

She cites an extensive study, the results of which were published in a paper cleverly titled “How to Seem Telepathic.” (One ought to appreciate the scientists’ wry sarcasm in poking fun at our clickbait culture.) Konnikova writes:

Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others. When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail. When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level. For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues. For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion. For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist. So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

The skilled con artist, Konnikova points out, mediates for this mismatch by making an active effort to discern which cues the other person is using to form judgments and which don’t register at all. The result is a practical, non-paranormal exercise in mind-reading, which creates an illusion of greater affinity, which in turn becomes the foundation of greater trust — we tend to trust those similar to us more than the dissimilar, for we intuit that the habits and preferences we have in common stem from shared values.

And yet, once again, we are reminded that the tricks of the con artist’s exploitive game are different only by degree rather than kind from the everyday micro-deceptions of which our social fabric is woven. Konnikova writes:

Both similarity and familiarity can be faked, as the con artist can easily tell you — and the more you can fake it, the more real information will be forthcoming. Similarity is easy enough. When we like someone or feel an affinity for them, we tend to mimic their behavior, facial expressions, and gestures, a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect. But the effect works the other way, too. If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the natural liking process quite well. We perpetuate minor cons every day, often without realizing it, and sometimes knowing what we do all too well, when we mirror back someone’s words or interests, feign a shared affinity for a sports team or a mutual hatred of a brand. The signs that usually serve us reliably can easily be massaged, especially in the short term — all a good con artist needs.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Confidence Game, Konnikova goes on to explore the role of storytelling in reality-manipulation, what various psychological models reveal about the art of persuasion, and how the two dramatically different systems that govern our perception of reality — emotion and the intellect — conspire in the machinery of trust. Complement it with Adrienne Rich on lying and what “truth” really means, David deSteno on the psychology of trust in work and love, and Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding capacity of truth-telling.

BP

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

A thrilling cosmological detective story of how the universe evolved and what made our very existence possible.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library), which I recently reviewed for The New York Times — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Art by Soyeon Kim for You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

One of the book’s central threads is the essential capacity for uncertainty that science requires of its practitioners. The same impulse that gave rise to religion — to do away with doubt and rest into certainty — is also present in science, for it is a profoundly human impulse and science is a profoundly human endeavor. Throughout the history of scientific breakthroughs that Randall chronicles, new theories are consistently met with opposition by scientists who have grown attached to older models. But therein lies the premier forte of the scientific method as a tool for advancing humanity’s conquest of truth — in the face of sufficient evidence, even staunch supporters of older models begin to doubt them and eventually accept the newer ones.

Randall captures this succinctly, perhaps with an eye to the rest of contemporary culture where opinions are formed with little consideration and opposition is dismissed on principle — in a sentiment that calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, she writes:

Only when existing scientific ideas fail where more daring ones succeed do new ideas get firmly established.

For this reason controversy can be a good thing for science when considering a (literally) outlandish theory. Although those who simply avoid examining the evidence won’t facilitate scientific progress, strong adherents to the reigning viewpoint who raise reasonable objections elevate the standards for introducing a new idea into the scientific pantheon. Forcing those with new hypotheses — especially radical ones — to confront their opponents prevents crazy or simply wrong ideas from taking hold. Resistance encourages the proposers to up their game to show why the objections aren’t valid and to find as much support as possible for their ideas.

Dark matter itself is a supreme example of this ethos. Although scientists have confirmed its existence, they don’t actually know what it is and believe that it’s made of a new elementary particle that doesn’t obey the forces that drive ordinary matter interactions. But the very search for dark matter is predicated on the leap of faith that despite being invisible, it has interactions, however weak, that human tools made of ordinary matter will eventually detect. Randall — who has previously written beautifully about the crucial difference in how science and religion explain the world — notes that this assumption is “based partially on wishful thinking.” But in that partiality lies the supremacy of science over truth-seeking ideologies built solely on wishfulness. Where humans hope and fear, experiments prove and rule out.

One of the most scintillating parts of the book illustrates this aspect of science in action. Randall tells the story of the unlikely and slow-burning revolution that led to our present understanding of how the dinosaurs perished — a riveting global detective story thirty years in the making, beginning in 1973, when a geochemist proposed that a meteoroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, only to be dismissed by the scientific community.

Art by Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen from the coloring book Evolution

The notion remained radical until a geologist named Walter Alvarez — whose dramatically titled book T-Rex and the Crater of Doom inspired Randall’s speculative work — embarked upon an investigative adventure that began in the hills of Italy and ended in one of the greatest breakthroughs in planetary science. The story is also a supreme testament to both the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the humanity central to science — Alvarez worked with his father, the Nobel-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, to solve the mystery.

The duo detected an unusually high concentration of iridium — a rare metal put to such mundane uses as fountain pen nibs — in the clay deposit separating two differently colored limestone layers. Because Earth is intrinsically low in iridium, they suspected that an extraterrestrial impactor was responsible for this perplexing quantity. After a team of nuclear chemists confirmed the anomaly, Walter and Luis Alvarez proposed that a giant meteoroid had hit the Earth and unleashed a downpour of rare metals, including iridium.

But rather than the end of the story, this was merely the beginning, sparking a worldwide scientific scavenger hunt for the actual site of the impact. Since craters are typically twenty times the size of the impactor and Alvarez estimated that the meteoroid was about ten kilometers in diameter, scientists set out to find a crater nearly 125 miles wide. Despite the enormity of the target, the odds of finding it were slim — if the meteoroid had hit the ocean, which covers three quarters of Earth’s surface, the crater would be both unreachable and smoothed over by sixty-six million years of tides; had it hit the land, erosion, sedimentation, and tectonic shifts may have still covered its traces completely. And yet, in a remarkable example of what Randall calls the “human ingenuity and stubbornness” driving the scientific endeavor, scientists did uncover it, aided by an eclectic global cast of oil industry workers, international geologists, three crucial beads of glass, and one inquisitive reporter who connected all the dots.

The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

In 1991, NASA announced the discovery of the crater in the Yucatan plane of the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn’t until March of 2010 — exactly thirty years after Walter Alvarez had first put forth his theory — that a collective of forty-one elite international scientists reviewed all the evidence that the meteoroid killed the dinosaurs and deemed it conclusive.

The story, which Randall tells with palpable reverence and exhilaration, brings home one of her central points — science, at its best, methodically applies the known tools at our disposal to reach into the unknown with systematic audacity. She writes:

The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

17th-century paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

There is a necessary observation to be made about the book that might seem banal to point out, but as artist Louise Bourgeois once resolved in her diary, “never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first”: Randall is one of a handful of scientists at the leading edge of physics born with two X chromosomes, and perhaps one of a dozen women in the entire history of science to have reached this caliber of influence. It’s rather heartening and perhaps uncoincidental that, throughout her riveting tour of the scientific discoveries that laid the foundation of our present understanding of the universe, she takes care to name the many women who overcame imposing odds in male-dominated fields to make major breakthroughs — trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter; nuclear chemist Helen Michel, who confirmed the high level of iridium that became the first clue that a meteoroid wiped out the dinosaurs; astronomer Wendy Freedman, who first measure the Hubble constant; geologist Joanne Bourgeois, who pinpointed the area where the deadly meteoroid struck; Julia Heisler, a Princeton undergraduate who quantified the degree of uncertainty that still makes predictions of periodicity reliable.

Lisa Randall (Photograph: Phil Knott)

Randall touches on her own experience as a female scientist only once, only obliquely, but rather tellingly: She mentions that people sometimes mistake her job title for “cosmetologist” — and even this remark is made not gratuitously but solely in the service of advancing knowledge as she traces the etymology of the word “cosmos” to the Greek kosmos, meaning “good order” or “orderly arrangement,” noting that both the universe and the standards of human beauty are undergirded by the art-science of order.

darkmatterandthedinosaurs_randall_cover

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Although Randall points out that there are “no shortcuts to scientific knowledge,” she covers an impressive amount of material and connects a vast constellation of dots with captivating clarity — a formidable feat of bridging our solipsistic and short-sighted human vantage point with the expansive 13.8-billion-year history of the universe.

BP

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