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Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction

How the father of science fiction presaged airplanes, submersible warfare, space travel, and fuel cells.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” trailblazing science fiction author Jules Verne (February 8, 1828–March 24, 1905) wrote in his masterpiece Around the World in Eighty Days. And, indeed, many of the seemingly fanciful concepts Verne imagined were made real in the decades that followed. He conceived of an underwater vehicle “all powered by electricity!” at a time when only prototypes of submarines existed and electricity was known but not of wide use; he presaged the use of such a high-powered submersible in warfare and scientific research; with the help of an illustrator-friend, he envisioned a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the height of aviation; he depicted weightlessness when zero gravity was still a scientific guess and put humans on the moon a century before mankind’s giant step. But far more than a gifted fiction writer, Verne was also an amateur astronomer and amateur scientist. Obsessive research and fact-checking were core to his writing, and his immense curiosity about science and technology frequently drove him to seek out famous scientists and inventors passing through town.

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction is a fascinating Discovery documentary, chronicling Verne’s seminal contributions to science fiction and his strikingly accurate predictions of the technologies that came to life a century after his death, as well as how he used his fiction as escapism from his troubled family and why he ended up destroying his own legacy.

Verne creates Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus at a time when even a can-opener is considered an exciting new concept.

Complement with the beautifully illustrated 1964 biography Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future.

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The Genius of Dogs and How It Expands Our Understanding of Human Intelligence

“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.”

The Genius of Dogs and How It Expands Our Understanding of Human Intelligence

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

The Genius of Dogs goes on to explore the specific types of intelligence at which dogs excel, including their empathic acumen of taking another’s visual perspective and learning from another’s actions, their ability to interpret and act upon human communicative gestures, and the unique ways in which they go about asking for help. Pair it with John Homans’s indispensable What’s a Dog For?, artist Maira Kalman’s illustrated love letter to our canine companions, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how a dog actually “sees” the world through smell.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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How to Be a Decent Person: Charles Dickens’s Letter of Advice to His Youngest Son

“Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power.”

History has given us its fair share of deeply moving letters of fatherly advice, chief among them gems by Sherwood Anderson, Ted Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. But count on the great Charles Dickens to raise the bar with unparalleled tenderness and wisdom.

When his youngest and favorite son, Edward Bulwer Lytton, nicknamed Plorn and often referred to by his father as “the noble Plorn” and “the darling Plorn,” left for Australia on September 26th of 1868 to attend university, Dickens had an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction to his departure — as did the boy. In a letter to his wife, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | public domain), Dickens recounts the parting scene:

I can honestly report that he went away, poor dear fellow, as well as could possibly be expected. He was pale, and had been crying, and (Harry said) had broken down in the railway carriage after leaving Higham station; but only for a short time.

Just before the train started he cried a good deal, but not painfully. … These are hard, hard things, but they might have to be done without means or influence, and then they would be far harder. God bless him!

Edward ‘Plorn’ Dickens

On October 4th, Dickens can hardly contain his sadness in a letter to his good friend Charles Fechter:

Poor Plorn is gone to Australia. It was a hard parting at the last. He seemed to me to become once more my youngest and favourite little child as the day drew near, and I did not think I could have been so shaken.

And on October 11th, he laments:

I find myself constantly thinking of Plorn.

Eventually, on Christmas day that year, he pens Plorn this beautiful and timeless letter of advice:

My dearest Plorn,

I write this note to-day because your going away is much upon my mind, and because I want you to have a few parting words from me to think of now and then at quiet times. I need not tell you that I love you dearly, and am very, very sorry in my heart to part with you. But this life is half made up of partings, and these pains must be borne. It is my comfort and my sincere conviction that you are going to try the life for which you are best fitted. I think its freedom and wildness more suited to you than any experiment in a study or office would ever have been; and without that training, you could have followed no other suitable occupation.

What you have already wanted until now has been a set, steady, constant purpose. I therefore exhort you to persevere in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it. I was not so old as you are now when I first had to win my food, and do this out of this determination, and I have never slackened in it since.

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power. Try to do to others, as you would have them do to you, and do not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. It is much better for you that they should fail in obeying the greatest rule laid down by our Saviour, than that you should.

I put a New Testament among your books, for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes that made me write an easy account of it for you, when you were a little child; because it is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided. As your brothers have gone away, one by one, I have written to each such words as I am now writing to you, and have entreated them all to guide themselves by this book, putting aside the interpretations and inventions of men.

You will remember that you have never at home been wearied about religious observances or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it.

Only one thing more on this head. The more we are in earnest as to feeling it, the less we are disposed to hold forth about it. Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.

I hope you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father. You cannot show your affection for him so well, or make him so happy, as by doing your duty.

Your affectionate Father.

Complement with Dickens on how to heal a mourning heart in a beautiful letter to his bereaved sister.

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