Hey Maria! If you missed last week's edition – John Cleese on how to be more creative, Einstein's advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist, how to listen to music, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
What knowing the limits of knowledge has to do with finding the frontiers of creativity.
Sir Ken Robinson has previously challenged and delighted us with his vision for changing educational paradigms to better optimize a broken system for creativity.
In this wonderful talk from The School of Life, Robinson articulates the ethos at the heart of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything – one of 7 essential books on education – and echoes, with his signature blend of wit and wisdom, many of the insights in this indispensable collection of advice on how to find your purpose and do what you love.
Robinson seconds Stuart Firestein's insight on the importance of ignorance in exploration and growth:
In our culture, not to know is to be at fault socially… People pretend to know lots of things they don't know. Because the worst thing to do is appear to be uninformed about something, to not have an opinion… We should know the limits of our knowledge and understand what we don't know, and be willing to explore things we don't know without feeling embarrassed of not knowing about them.
Among Robinson's many astute observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton's admonition about "success":
It's not enough to be good at something to be in your element… We're being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that's perpetuated when you come to write your CV – that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.
If you haven't yet read The Element, do – it might just change how you relate to everything you do.
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What Descartes has to do with C. P. Snow and the second law of thermodynamics.
When legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was setting out to release A Brief History of Time, one of the most influential science books in modern history, his publishers admonished him that every equation included would halve the book's sales. Undeterred, he dared include E = mc², even though cutting it out would have allegedly sold another 10 million copies. The anecdote captures the extent of our culture's distaste for, if not fear of, equations. And yet, argues mathematician Ian Stewart in In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, equations have held remarkable power in facilitating humanity's progress and, as such, call for rudimentary understanding as a form of our most basic literacy.
The power of equations lies in the philosophically difficult correspondence between mathematics, a collective creation of human minds, and an external physical reality. Equations model deep patterns in the outside world. By learning to value equations, and to read the stories they tell, we can uncover vital features of the world around us… This is the story of the ascent of humanity, told in 17 equations.
From how the Pythagorean theorem, which linked geometry and algebra, laid the groundwork of the best current theories of space, time, and gravity to how the Navier-Stokes equation applies to modeling climate change, Stewart delivers a scientist's gift in a storyteller's package to reveal how these seemingly esoteric equations are really the foundation for nearly everything we know and use today.
But the case for why we should even care about equations – and mathematics, and science in general – goes back much further. In 1959, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow lamented – as Jonah Lehrer did half a century later – the tragic divergence of the sciences and humanities in his iconic lecture, The Two Cultures:
A good many times I have been presented at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you ever read a work of Shakespeare's?'
Snow later added:
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
It is no coincidence, then, that some the most revolutionary of the breakthroughs Stewart outlines came from thinkers actively interested in both the sciences and the humanities. Take René Descartes, for instance, who is best remembered for his timeless soundbite, Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. But Descartes' interests, Stewart points out, extended beyond philosophy and into science and mathematics. In 1639, he observed a curious numerical pattern in regular solids – what was true of a cube was also true of a dodecahedron or an icosahedron, for all of which subtracting from the number of faces the number of edges and then adding the number of vertices equaled 2. (Try it: A cube has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 vertices, so 6 - 12 + 8 = 2.) But Descartes, perhaps enchanted by philosophy's grander questions, saw the equation as a minor curiosity and never published it. Only centuries later mathematicians recognized it as monumentally important. It eventually resulted in Euler's formula, which helps explain everything from how enzymes act on cellular DNA to why the motion of the celestial bodies can be chaotic.
So how did equations begin, anyway? Stewart explains:
An equation derives its power from a simple source. It tells us that two calculations, which appear different, have the same answer. The key symbol is the equals sign, =. The origins of most mathematical symbols are either lost in the mists of antiquity, or are so recent that there is no doubt where they came from. The equals sign is unusual because it dates back more than 450 years, yet we not only know who invented it, we even know why. The inventor was Robert Recorde, in 1557, in The Whetstone of Witte. He used two parallel lines (he used an obsolete word gemowe, meaning 'twin') to avoid tedious repetition of the words 'is equal to'. He chose that symbol because 'no two things can be more equal'. Recorde chose well. His symbol has remained in use for 450 years.
The original coinage appeared as follows:
To avoide the deiouse repetition of these woordes: is equalle to: I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or gemowe lines of one lengthe: =, bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle.
Far from being a mere math primer or trivia aid, In Pursuit of the Unknown is an essential piece of modern literacy, wrapped in an articulate argument for why this kind of knowledge should be precisely that.
Stewart concludes by turning his gaze towards the future, offering a kind of counter-vision to algo-utopians like Stephen Wolfram and making, instead, a case for the reliable humanity of the equation:
It is still entirely credible that we might soon find new laws of nature based on discrete, digital structures and systems. The future may consist of algorithms, not equations. But until that day dawns, if ever, our greatest insights into nature's laws take the form of equations, and we should learn to understand them and appreciate them. Equations have a track record. They really have changed the world – and they will change it again.
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Down the rabbit hole in colorful dots, twisted typography, and strange eye conditions.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history's most beloved children's storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll's classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard's stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali's little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan's most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland yet.
Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll's story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.
A breathtaking piece of visual philosophy to complement Carroll's timeless vision, Kusama's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the latest affirmation of what appears to be the season of exceptionally beautiful books.
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The charismatic chaos of the city, captured in book spines.
It's National Poetry Month and the book spine poetry fun continues with another installment, this time about New York.
The inadvertent poets:
Catch up on the first two installments, entitled The Future and Get Smarter.
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'A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair.'
Though a slim collection, C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children shines with the enormity of Lewis's compassion and wisdom in responding to fan mail from his young readers, often imbuing his correspondence with a kind of subtle but profound advice on life, delivered unassumingly but full of wholehearted conviction.
Adding to his insight on duty and "the three things anyone need ever do" is this beautiful response to a boy named Hugh, who asked for a definition of "gaiety," in a letter dated April 5, 1961.
A creature can never be a perfect being, but may be a perfect creature – e.g. a good angel or a good apple-tree. Gaiety at its highest may be an (intellectual) creature's delighted recognition that its imperfection as a being may constitute part of its perfection as an element in the whole hierarchical order of creation. I mean, while it is a pity there sh[oul]d be bad men or bad dogs, part of the excellence of a good man is that he is not an angel, and of a good dog that it is not a man. This is the extension of what St. Paul ways about the body & the members. A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair; and if it were conscious it w[oul]d delight in being simply a good toe-nail.
Half a century later, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown articulated a similar sentiment, making an eloquent case for the gifts of imperfection, and Alain de Botton cautioned us that these ideals we contort so hard to conform to may not even be our own. Perhaps at the end of the day "gaiety" is simply the ability to be our own imperfect being and fully inhabit its beingness.
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