Review: The Beautiful Brain

Review: The Beautiful Brain

Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y CajalBeautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday—who knows?—clarify the secret of mental life.

I love walking around cathedrals because they are sublime examples of vital art. I say “vital” because the art is not just seen, but lived through. Every inch of a cathedral has at least two levels of significance: aesthetic and theological. Beauty, in other words, walks hand in hand with a certain view of the world. Indeed, beauty is an essential part of this view of the world, and thus facts and feelings are blended together into one seamlessly intelligible whole: a philosophy made manifest in stone.

The situation that pertains today is quite different. It is not that our present view of the world is inherently less beautiful; but that the vital link between the visual arts and our view of the world has been severed. Apropos of this, I often think of one of Richard Feynman’s anecdotes. He once gave a tour of a factory to a group of artists, trying to explain modern technology to them. The artists, in turn, were supposed to incorporate what they learned into a piece for an exhibition. But, as Feynman notes, almost none of the pieces really had anything to do with the technology. Art and science had tried to make contact, and failed.

This is why I am so intrigued by the anatomical drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. For here we see a successful unification, revealing the same duality of significance as in a cathedral: his drawings instruct and enchant at once.

Though relatively obscure in the anglophone world, Cajal is certainly one of the most important scientists of history. He is justly considered to be the father of neuroscience. Cajal’s research into the fine structures of the brain laid the foundation for the discipline. At a time when neurons were only a hypothesis, Cajal not only convinced the scientific world of their existence (as against the reticular theory), but documented several different types of neurons, describing their fine structure—nucleus, axon, and dendrites—and the flow of information within and between nerve cells.

As we can see in his Advice to a Young Investigator, Cajal in his adulthood became a passionate advocate for scientific research. But he did not always wish to be a scientist. As a child he was far more interested in painting; it was only the pressure of his father, a doctor, which turned him in the direction of research. And as this book shows, he never really gave up his artistic ambition; he only channelled it into another direction.

Research in Cajal’s day was far simpler. Instead of a team of scientists working with a high-powered MRI, we have the lonely investigator hunched over a microscope. The task was no easier for being simpler, however. Besides patience, ingenuity, and logical mind—the traits of any good scientist—a microanatomist back then needed a prodigious visual acumen. The task was to see properly: to extract a sensible figure from the blurry and chaotic images under the microscope. To meet this challenge Cajal not had to create new methods—staining the neurons to make them more visible—but to train his eye. And in both he proved a master.

He would often spend hours at the microscope, looking and looking without taking any notes. His analytic mind was not only at work during these periods, making guesses about cell functions and deductions about information flow, but also his visual imagination: he had to hold the cell’s form within his mind, see the the cells in context and in isolation, since the fine details of their structure were highly suggestive of their behavior and purpose. His drawings were the final expression of his visual process: “A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.” For Cajal, as for Leonardo da Vinci, drawing was a form of thinking.

Though by now long outdated by subsequent research, Cajal’s drawings have maintained their appeal, both as diagrams and as works of art. With the aid of a short caption—ably provided by Eric Newman in this volume—the drawings spring to life as records of scientific research. They summarize complex processes, structures, and relations with brilliant clarity, making the essential point graspable in an instant.

Purely as drawings they are no less brilliant. The twisting and sprawling forms of neurons; the chaotic lattices of interconnected cells; the elegant architecture of our sensory organs—all this possesses an otherworldly beauty. The brain, such an intimate part of ourselves, is revealed to be intensely alien. One is naturally reminded of the surrealists by these dreamlike landscapes; and indeed Lorca and Dalí were both aware of Cajal’s work. Yet Cajal’s drawings are perhaps more fantastic than anything the surrealists ever produced, all the more bizarre for being true.

Even the names of these drawings wouldn’t be out of place in a modern gallery: “Cuneate nucleus of a kitten,” “Neurons in the midbrain of a sixteen-day-old trout,” “Axons in the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man.” Science can be arrestingly poetic.

One of the functions of art is to help us to understand ourselves. The science of the brain, in a much different way, aims to do the same thing. It seems wholly right, then, that these two enterprises should unite in Cajal, the artistic investigator of our nervous system. And this volume is an ideal place to witness his accomplishment. The large, glossy images are beautiful. The commentary frames and explains, but does not distract. The essays on Cajal’s life and art are concise and incisive, and are supplemented by an essay on modern brain imaging that brings the book up to date. It is a cathedral of a book.

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Review: Advice to a Young Investigator

Review: Advice to a Young Investigator

Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica. Los tónicos de la voluntad.Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica. Los tónicos de la voluntad. by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Books, like people, we respect and admire for their good qualities, but we only love them for some of their defects.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal has a fair claim to being the greatest scientist to hail from Spain. I have heard him called the “Darwin of Neuroscience”: his research and discoveries are foundational to our knowledge of the brain. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1906 it was for his work using nerve stains to differentiate neurons. At the time, you see, the existence of nerve cells was still highly controversial; Camillo Golgi, with whom Ramón y Cajal shared the Nobel, was a supporter of the reticular theory, which held that the nervous system was one continuous object.

Aside from being an excellent scientist, Ramón y Cajal was also a man of letters and a passionate teacher. These three aptitudes combined to produce this charming book. Its prosaic title is normally translated into English—inaccurately but more appealingly—as Advice to a Young Investigator. These originated as lectures delivered in the Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales in 1897 and published the next year by his colleague. They consist of warm and frank advice to students embarking on a scientific career.

Ramón y Cajal is wonderfully optimistic when it comes to the scientific enterprise. Like the philosopher Susan Haack, he thinks that science follows no special logic or method, but is only based on sharpened common sense. Thus one need not be a genius to make a valuable contribution. Indeed, for him, intelligence is much overrated. Focus, dedication, and perseverance are what really separate the successes from the failures. He goes on to diagnose several infirmities of the will that prevent young and promising students from accomplishing anything in the scientific field. Among these are megalófilos, a type exemplified in the character Casaubon in Middlemarch, who cannot finish taking notes and doing research in time to actually write his book.

While much of Ramón y Cajal’s advice is timeless, this book is also very much of a time and a place. He advises his young students to buy their own equipment and to work at home—something that would be impractical today, not least because the equipment used in laboratories today has grown so much in complexity and expense. He even advises his student on finding the right wife (over-cultured women are to be avoided). More seriously, these lectures are marked by the crisis of 1898, when Spain lost the Spanish-American war and the feeling of cultural degeneration was widespread. Ramón y Cajal is painfully aware that Spain lagged behind the other Western countries in scientific research, and much of these lectures is aimed alleviating at specifically Spanish shortcomings.

In every one of these pages Ramón y Cajal’s fierce dedication to the scientific enterprise, his conviction that science is noble, useful, and necessary, and his desire to see the spirit of inquiry spread far and wide, are expressed with pungent wit that cannot fail to infect the reader with the same zeal to expand the bounds of human knowledge and with an admiration for such an exemplary scientist.

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Review: Opticks

Review: Opticks

OpticksOpticks by Isaac Newton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiment

I’ve long wanted to read Newton’s Principia, but its reputation intimidates me. Everyone seems to agree that it is intensely difficult, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t worked up enough nerve to face it yet. But I did still want to read Newton; so as soon as I learned about this book, Newton’s more popular and accessible volume, I snatched it up and happily dug in.

The majority of this text is given over to descriptions of experiments. To the modern reader—and I suspect to the historical reader as well—these sections are remarkably dry. In simple yet exact language, Newton painstakingly describes the setup and results of experiment after experiment, most of them conducted in his darkened chamber, with the window covered up except for a small opening to let in the sunlight. Yet even if this doesn’t make for a thrilling read, it is impossible not to be astounded at the depth of care, the keenness of observation, and the subtle brilliance Newton displays. Using the most basic equipment (his most advanced tool is the prism), Newton almost literally tweezes light apart, making an enormous contribution both to experimental science and to the field of optics.

At the time, the discovery that white light could be decomposed into a rainbow of colors, and that this rainbow could be recombined back into white light, must have seemed as momentous as the discovery of the Higgs Boson. And indeed, even the modern reader might catch a glimpse of this excitement as she watches Newton carefully set up his prism in front of his beam of light, tweaking every variable, adjusting every parameter, measuring everything could be measured, and describing in elegant prose everything that couldn’t.

Whence it follows, that the colorifick Dispositions of Rays are also connate with them, and immutable; and by consequence, that all the Productions and Appearances of Colours in the World are derived, not from any physical Change caused in Light by Refraction or Reflexion, but only from the various Mixtures or Separations of Rays, by virtue of their different Refrangibility or Reflexibility. And in this respect the Science of Colours becomes a Speculation as truly mathematical as any other part of Opticks.

Because I had recently read Feynman’s QED, one thing in particular caught my attention. Here’s the problem: When you have one surface of glass, even if most of the light passes through it, some of the light is reflected; and you can roughly gauge what portion of light does one or the other. Let’s say on a typical surface of glass, 4% of light is reflected. Now we add another surface of glass behind the first. According to common sense, 8% of the light should be reflected, right? Wrong. Now the amount of light which is reflected varies between 0% and 16%, depending on the distance between the two surfaces. This is truly bizarre; for it seems that the mere presence of second surface of glass alters the reflectiveness of the first. But how does the light “know” there is a second surface of glass? It seems the light somehow is affected before it comes into contact with either surface.

Well, Newton was aware of this awkward problem. He famously comes up with his theory of “fits of easy reflection or transmission” to explain this phenomenon. But this “theory” was merely to say that the glass, for some unknown reason, sometimes lets light through, and sometimes reflects it. In other words, it was hardly a theory at all.

Every Ray of Light in its passage through any refracting Surface is put into a certain transient Constitution or State, which in the progress of the Ray returns at equal Intervals, and disposes the Ray at every return to be easily transmitted through the next refracting Surface, and between the returns to be easily reflected by it.

Also fascinating to the modern reader is the strange dual conception of light as waves and as particles in this work, which can’t help but remind us of the quantum view. The wave theory makes it easy to account for the different refrangibility of the different colors of light (i.e. the different colors reflect at different angles in a prism).

Do not several sorts of Rays make Vibrations of several bignesses, which according to their bignesses excite Sensations of several Colours, much after the manner that the Vibrations of the Air, according to their several bignesses excite Sensations of several sounds. And particularly do not the most refrangible Rays excite the shortest Vibrations for making a Sensation of deep violet, the least refrangible the largest for making a Sensation of deep red, and the several intermediate bignesses to make Sensations of the several intermediate Colours?

To this notion of vibrations, Newton adds the “corpuscular” theory of light, which held (in opposition to his contemporary, Christiaan Huygens) that light was composed of small particles. This theory must have been attractive to Newton because it fit into his previous work in physics. It explained why beams of light, like other solid bodies, travel in straight lines (cf. Newton’s first law), and reflect off surfaces at angles equal to their angles of incidence (cf. Newton’s third law).

Are not the Rays of Light very small Bodies emitted from shining Substances? For such Bodies will pass through uniform Mediums in right Lines without bending into the shadow, which is the Nature of the Rays of Light. They will also be capable of several Properties, and be able to conserve their Properties unchanged in passing through several Mediums, which is another conditions of the Rays of Light.

As a side note, despite some problems with the corpuscular theory of light, it came to be accepted for a long while, until the phenomenon of interference gave seemingly decisive weight to the wave theory. (Light, like water waves, will interfere with itself, creating characteristic patterns; cf. the famous double-slit experiment.) The wave theory was reinforced with Maxwell’s equations, which treated light as just another electro-magnetic wave. It was, in fact, Einstein who brought back the viability of the corpuscular theory, when he suggested the idea that light might come in packets to explain the photoelectric effect. (Blue light, when shined on certain metals, will cause an electric current, while red light won’t. Why not?)

All this tinkering with light is good fun, especially if you’re a physicist (which I’m not). But the real treat, at least for the layreader, comes at the final section, where Newton speculates on many of the unsolved scientific problems of his day. His mind is roving and vast; and even if most of his speculations have turned out incorrect, it’s stunning to simply witness him at work. For example, Newton realizes that radiation can travel without a medium (like air), and can heat objects even in a vacuum. (And thank goodness for that, for how else would the earth be warmed by the sun?) But from this fact he incorrectly deduces that there must be some more subtle medium that remains (like the famous ether).

If in two large tall cylindrical Vessels of Glass inverted, to little Thermometers be suspended so as not to touch the Vessels, and the Air be drawn out of one of these Vessels thus prepared be carried out of a cold place into a warm one; the Thermometer in vacuo will grow warm as much, and almost as soon as the Thermometer that is not in vacuo. And when the Vessels are carried back into the cold place, the Thermometer in vacuo will grow cold almost as soon as the other Thermometer. Is not the Heat of the warm Room convey’d through the Vacuum by the Vibrations of a much subtiler Medium than Air, which after the Air was drawn out remained in the Vacuum?

Yet for all Newton’s perspicacity, the most touching section was a list of question Newton asks, as if to himself, that he cannot hope to answer. It seems that even the most brilliant among us are stunned into silence by the vast mystery of the cosmos:

What is there in places almost empty of Matter, and whence is it that the Sun and Planets gravitate towards one another, without dense Matter between them? Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in vain; and whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the World? To what end are Comets, and whence is it that Planets move all one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, while Comets move all manner of ways in Orbs very excentrick; and what hinders the fix’d Stars from falling upon one another? How came the Bodies of animals to be contrived with so much Art, and for what ends were their several Parts? Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? How do the Motions of the Body follow from the Will, and whence is the Instinct in Animals?

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Review: Aristotle’s Physics

Review: Aristotle’s Physics

PhysicsPhysics by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the ancient thinkers that medieval Christians could have embraced, it always struck me as pretty remarkable that Aristotle was chosen. Of course, ‘chosen’ isn’t the right word; rather, it was something of a historical coincidence, since Aristotle’s works were available in Latin translation, while those of Plato were not.

Nonetheless, Aristotle strikes me as a particularly difficult thinker to build a monotheistic worldview around. There’s simply nothing mystical about him. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, and his eyes are level with the horizon. Whereas mystics see the unity of everything, Aristotle divides up the world into neat parcels, providing lists of definitions and categories wherever he turns. Whereas mystics tend to scorn human knowledge, Aristotle was apparently very optimistic about the potential reach of the human mind—since he so manifestly did his best to know everything.

The only thing that I can find remotely mystical is Aristotle’s love of systems. Aristotle does not like loose ends; he wants his categories to be exhaustive, and his investigations complete. And, like a mystic, Aristotle is very confident about the reach of a priori knowledge, while his investigations of empirical reality—though admittedly impressive—are paltry in comparison with his penchant for logical deduction. At the very least, Aristotle is wont to draw many more conclusions from a limited set of observations than most moderns are comfortable with.

I admit, in the past I’ve had a hard time appreciating his writing. His style was dry; his arguments, perfunctory. I often wondered: What did so many people see in him? His tremendous influence seemed absurd after one read his works. How could he have seemed so convincing for so long?

I know from experience that when I find a respected author ludicrous, the fault is often my own. So, seeking a remedy, I decided that I would read more Aristotle; more specifically, I would read enough Aristotle until I learned to appreciate him. For overexposure can often engender a change of heart; in the words of Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” So I decided I would stick with Aristotle until I loved him. I still don’t love Aristotle, but, after reading this book, I have a much deeper respect for the man. For this book really is remarkable.

As Bertrand Russell pointed out (though it didn’t need a mind as penetrating as Russell’s to do so), hardly a sentence in this book can be accepted as accurate. In fact, from our point of view, Aristotle’s project was doomed from the start. He is investigating physical reality, but is doing so without conducting experiments; in other words, his method is purely deductive, starting from a few assumptions, most of which are wrong. Much of what Aristotle says might even seem silly—such as his dictum that “we always assume the presence in nature of the better.” Another great portion of this work is taken up by thoroughly uninteresting and unconvincing investigations, such as the definitions of ‘together’, ‘apart’, ‘touch’, ‘continuous’, and all of the different types of motions—all of which seem products of a pedantic brain rather than qualities of nature.

But the good in this work far outweighs the bad. For Aristotle commences the first (at least, the first, so far as I know) intellectually rigorous investigations of the basic properties of nature—space, time, cause, motion, and the origins of the universe. I find Aristotle’s inquiry into time particularly fascinating, for I’m not aware—at least, I can’t recall—any comparatively meticulous investigations of time by later philosophers I’ve read. Of course, Aristotle’s investigation of ‘time’ can be more properly called Aristotle’s investigation of the human experience of time, but we need not fault Aristotle for not thinking there’s a difference.

I was particularly impressed with Aristotle’s attempt to overcome Zeno’s paradoxes. He defines and re-defines time—struggling with how it can be divided, and with the exact nature of the present moment—and tries many different angles of attack. And what’s even more interesting is that Aristotle fails in his task, and even falls into Zeno’s intellectual trap by unwittingly accepting Zeno’s assumptions.

Aristotle’s attempts to tackle space were almost equally fascinating; for there, we once again see the magnificent mind of Aristotle struggling to define something of the highest degree of abstractness. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with a good definition of space. It’s hard, right? The paradox (at least, the apparent paradox) is that space has some qualities of matter—extension, volume, dimensions—without having any mass. It seems, at first sight at least, like empty space should be simply nothing, yet space itself has certain definite qualities—and anything that has qualities is, by definition, something. However, these qualities only emerge when one imagines a thing in space, for we never, in our day to day lives, encounter space itself, devoid of all content. But how could something with no mass have the quality of extension?

As is probably obvious by now, I am in no way a physicist—and, for that matter, neither was Aristotle; but his attempt is still interesting.

Aristotle does also display an admirable—though perhaps naïve—tendency to trust experience. For his refutation of the thinkers who argue that (a) everything is always in motion, and (b) everything is always at rest, is merely to point out that day-to-day experience refutes this. And Aristotle at least knows—since it is so remarkably obvious to those with eyes—that Zeno must have committed some error; so even if his attacks on the paradoxes don’t succeed, one can at least praise the effort.

To the student of modern physics, this book may present some interesting contrasts. We have learned, through painstaking experience, that the most productive questions to ask of nature begin with “how” rather than “why.” Of course, the two words are often interchangeable; but notice that “why” attributes a motive to something, whereas “how” is motiveless. Aristotle seeks to understand nature in the same way that one might understand a friend. In a word, he seeks teleological explanations. He assumes both that nature works with a purpose, and that the workings of nature are roughly accessible to common sense, with some logical rigor thrown in. A priori, this isn’t necessarily a bad assumption; in fact, it took a lot of time for us humans to realize it was incorrect. In any case, it must be admitted that Aristotle at least seeks to understand far more than us moderns; for Aristotle seeks, so to speak, to get inside the ‘mind’ of nature, understanding the purpose for everything, whereas modern scientific knowledge is primarily descriptive.

Perhaps now I can see what the medieval Christians found in Aristotle. The assumption that nature works with a purpose certainly meshes well with the belief in an omnipotent creator God. And the assumption that knowledge is accessible through common sense and simple logical deductions is reasonable if one believes that the world was created for us. To the modern reader, the Physics might be far less impressive than to the medievals. But it is always worthwhile to witness the inner workings of such a brilliant mind; and, of all the Aristotle I’ve so far read, none so clearly show Aristotle’s thought process, none so clearly show his mind at work, as this.

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Review: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

Review: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World SystemsDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I should think that anyone who considered it more reasonable for the whole universe to move in order to let the earth remain fixed would be more irrational than one who should climb to the top of your cupola just to get a view of the city and its environs, and then demand that the whole countryside should revolve around him so that he would not have to take the trouble to turn his head.

It often seems hard to justify reading old works of science. After all, science continually advances; pioneering works today will be obsolete tomorrow. As a friend of mine said when he saw me reading this, “That shit’s outdated.” And it’s true: this shit is outdated.

Well, for one thing, understanding the history of the development of a theory often aids in the understanding of the theory. Look at any given technical discipline today, and it’s overwhelming; you are presented with such an imposing edifice of knowledge that it seems impossible. Yet even the largest oak was once an acorn, and even the most frightening equation was once an idle speculation. Case in point: Achieving a modern understanding of planetary orbits would require mastery of Einstein’s theories—no mean feat. Flip back the pages in history, however, and you will end up here, at this delightful dialogue by a nettlesome Italian scientist, as accessible a book as ever you could hope for.

This book is rich and rewarding, but for some unexpected reasons. What will strike most moderns readers, I suspect, is how plausible the Ptolemaic worldview appears in this dialogue. To us alive today, who have seen the earth in photographs, the notion that the earth is the center of the universe seems absurd. But back then, it was plain common sense, and for good reason. Galileo’s fictional Aristotelian philosopher, Simplicio, puts forward many arguments for the immobility of the earth, some merely silly, but many very sensible and convincing. Indeed, I often felt like I had to take Simplicio’s side, as Galileo subjects the good Ptolemaic philosopher to much abuse.

I’d like to think that I would have sensed the force of the Copernican system if I were alive back then. But really, I doubt it. If the earth was moving, why wouldn’t things you throw into the air land to the west of you? Wouldn’t we feel ourselves in motion? Wouldn’t canon balls travel much further one way than another? Wouldn’t we be thrown off into space? Galileo’s answer to all of these questions is the principal of inertia: all inertial (non-accelerating) frames of reference are equivalent. That is, an experiment will look the same whether it’s performed on a ship at constant velocity or on dry land.

(In reality, the surface of the earth is non-inertial, since it is undergoing acceleration due to its constant spinning motion. Indeed the only reason we don’t fly off is because of gravity, not because of inertia as Galileo argues. But for practical purposes the earth’s surface can be treated as an inertial reference frame.)

Because this simple principle is the key to so many of Galileo’s arguments, the final section of this book is trebly strange. In the last few pages of this dialogue, Galileo triumphantly puts forward his erroneous theory of the tides as if it were the final nail in Ptolemy’s coffin. Galileo’s theory was that the tides were caused by the movement of the earth, like water sloshing around a bowl on a spinning Lazy Susan. But if this was what really caused the tides, then Galileo’s principle of inertia would fall apart; since if the earth’s movements could move the oceans, couldn’t it also push us humans around? It’s amazing that Galileo didn’t mind this inconsistency. It’s as if Darwin ended On the Origin of Species with an argument that ducks were the direct descendants of daffodils.

Yet for all the many quirks and flaws in this work, for all the many digressions—and there are quite a few—it still shines. Galileo is a strong writer and a superlative thinker; following along the train of his thoughts is an adventure in itself. But of course this work, like all works of science, is not ultimately about the mind of one man; it is about the natural world. And if you are like me, this book will make you think of the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars in the sky; will remind you that your world is spinning like a top, and that the very ground we stand on is flying through the dark of space, shielded by a wisp of clouds; and that the firmament up above, something we often forget, is a window into the cosmos itself—you will think about all this, and decide that maybe this shit isn’t so outdated after all.

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Review: Voyage of the Beagle

Review: Voyage of the Beagle

Voyage of the BeagleVoyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is really a rare treasure. Is there anything comparable? Here we have the very man whose ideas have revolutionized completely our understanding of life, writing with charm about the very voyage which sparked and shaped his thinking on the subject. And even if this book wasn’t a window into the mind of one of history’s most influential thinkers, it would still be entertaining on its own merits. Indeed, the public at the time thought so, making Darwin into a bestselling author.

I can hardly imagine how fascinating it would have been for a nineteenth-century Englishman to read about the strange men and beasts in different parts of the world. Today the world is so flat that almost nothing can surprise. But what this book has lost in exotic charm, it makes up for in historical interest; for now it is a fascinating glimpse into the world 150 years ago. Through Darwin’s narrative, we both look out at the world as it was, and into the mind of a charming man. And Darwin was charming. How strange it is that one of today’s most vicious debates—creationism vs. evolution, religion vs. science—was ignited by somebody as mild-mannered and likable as Mr. Darwin.

His most outstanding characteristic is his curiosity; everything Darwin sees, he wants to learn about: “In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.”

As a result, the range of topics touched upon in this volume is extraordinary: botany, entomology, geology, anthropology, paleontology—the list goes on. Darwin collects and dissects every creature he can get his hands on; he examines fish, birds, mammals, insects, spiders. (Admittedly, the descriptions of anatomy and geological strata were often so detailed as to be tedious; Darwin, though brilliant, could be very dry.) In the course of these descriptions, Darwin also indulged in quite a bit of speculation, offering an interesting glimpse into both his thought-process and the state of science at that time. (I wonder if any edition includes follow-ups of these conjectures; it would’ve been interesting to see how they panned out.)

In retrospect, it is almost unsurprising that Darwin came up with his theory of evolution, for he encounters many things that are perplexing and inexplicable without it. Darwin finds fossils of extinct megafauna, and wonders how animals so large could have perished completely. He famously sees examples of one body-plan being adapted—like a theme and variations—in the finches of the Galapagos Islands. He also notes that the fauna and flora on those islands are related to, though quite different from, that in mainland South America. (If life there was created separately, why wouldn’t it be completely different? And if it was indeed descended from the animals on the mainland, what made it change?)

Darwin also sees abundant examples of convergent evolution—two distinct evolutionary lines producing similar results in similar circumstances—in Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals in this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in everything but his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same & certainly the end in each case is complete.’

More surprisingly, Darwin finds that animals in isolated, uninhabited islands tend to have no fear of humans. And, strangely enough, an individual animal from these islands can’t even be taught to fear humans. Why, Darwin asks, does an individual bird in Europe fear humans, even though it’s never been harmed by one? And why can’t you train an individual bird from an isolated island to fear humans? My favorite anecdote is of Darwin repeatedly throwing a turtle into the water, and having it return to him again and again—because, as Darwin notes, its natural predators are ocean-bound, and it has adapted to see the land as a place of safety. Darwin also manages to walk right up to an unwary fox and kill it with his geological hammer.

You can see how all of these experiences, so odd without a theory of evolution, become clear as day when Darwin’s ideas are embraced. Indeed, many are still textbook examples of the implications of his theories.

This book would have been extraordinary just for the light it sheds on Darwin’s early experiences in biology, but it contains many entertaining anecdotes as well. It is almost a Bildungsroman: we see the young Darwin, a respectable Englishman, astounded and amazed by the wide world. He encounters odd creatures, meets strange men, and travels through bizarre landscapes. And, like all good coming of age stories, he often makes a fool of himself:

The main difficulty in using either a lazo or bolas, is to ride so well, as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily about the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush; and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and like magic caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practiced animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.

At this point, I’m tempted to get carried away and include all of the many quotes that I liked. Darwin writes movingly about the horrors of slavery, he includes some vivid description of “savages,” and even tells some funny stories. But I’ll leave these quotes to be discovered by the curious reader, who, in his passage through the pages of this book, will indulge in a voyage far more comfortable than, and perhaps half as fascinating as, Darwin’s own. At the very least, the fortunate reader need not fear exotic diseases (Darwin suffered from ill health the rest of his days) or heed Darwin’s warning to the potential traveler at sea: “If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil which may be cured in a week.”

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Review: The Ascent of Man

Review: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of ManThe Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

I watched this series right after finishing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, as I’d heard The Ascent of Man described as a companion piece. So like my review of Clark’s work, this review is about the documentary and not the book (though since the book is just a transcription of the series, I’m sure it applies to both).

The Ascent of Man is a remarkable program. I had doubts that anyone could produce a series to match Civilisation, but Bronowski made something that might even be better. Bronowski was a polymath: he did work in mathematics, biology, physics, history, and even poetry. In this program, his topic is the history of science. Yet for Bronowski, the word “science” not only refers to the modern scientific method, but rather encompasses all of humanity’s efforts to understand and manipulate the natural world.

We thus begin with Homo erectus, learning how to chip away stone to make tools. As Bronowski notes, this simple ability, to chip away at a stone until a cutting edge is left, is a remarkable indication of human uniqueness. Since the behavior is learned and is not an instinct, it requires a preconception of what the toolmaker wants to create, a certain amount of imagination is required to picture the goal before it is realized. What’s more, creating a stone tool requires a sense of the structural properties of the rock. (I’ve actually tried making stone tools with various types of rock, and let me tell you that it’s not so easy. Even with an archaeologist giving me advice, I was only able to create stone tools of the sophistication of an Australopithecus—randomly beating the stone until a sharp edge was created.) Thus both our creative drive and our knowledge are involved in this quintessentially human activity. “Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

This brings Bronowski to one of his main points, one of the themes of this series: that art and science are not fundamentally different; rather, they are two manifestations of the human spirit. What is this human spirit? It is a composite of many qualities, what Bronowski calls “a jigsaw of human faculties,” which include our wide behavioral flexibility, our capacity to play, our need to create, our curiosity about the natural world, our sense of adventure, our love of variety. Indeed, these can be pithily described by saying that humans retain many childlike characteristics throughout their lives. The name of the last episode is “The Long Childhood.”

One of my favorite sequences in this documentary is when Bronowski takes the viewer from the posts and lintels of the Greek temples, to the arches in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, to the somewhat prettier arches in the Mezquita in Cordoba, to the cathedral at Reims with its magnificent flying buttresses. Each of these structures, he explains, is a more sophisticated solution to this problem: how do you create a covered space out of stone? The lintel and post system used by the Greeks leads to a forest of columns, and the Mezquita, although less crowded, is still filled with arches. The Medieval Christians achieved a magnificent solution by placing the buttresses on the outside, thus leading to the towering, open interior of Reims.

We’re used to thinking of this development as an architectural triumph, but as Bronowski points out, it was also an intellectual triumph. This progression represents better and better understandings of the structural properties of stone, of the force of gravity, and of the distribution of weight. And when you see it play out in front of your eyes, it’s hard to shake the impression that these marvelous works are also progressively more elegant solutions to a mathematical puzzle. This is just one example of Bronowski’s talent: to see the artistic in the scientific and the scientific in the artistic; and he does this by seeing the human spirit in all of it.

Here’s another example. Bronowski wants to talk about how humanity has come to understand space, and how this understanding of space underpins our knowledge of structure. How does he do it? He goes to the Alhambra, and analyzes the symmetry in the tiles of the Moorish Palace. Then, he bends down and spreads a bunch of crystals on the ground, and begins to talk about the molecular symmetry that gave rise to them. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition. How many people would think to compare Moorish architecture with modern chemistry? But it’s so appropriate and so revealing that I couldn’t help but be awed.

As the title suggests, this series is not simply about science (or art), but about science through history. Bronowski aims to show how humanity, once freed from the constraints of instinct, used a combination of logic and imagination to achieve ever-deeper conceptions of our place in the universe. This is the Ascent of Man: a quest for self knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp this, but consider that we are living in one of the brief times in history that we can explain the formation of the earth, the origin of our species, and even the workings of our own brains. Imagine not knowing any of that. It’s hard to envy former ages when you consider that their sense of their place of the universe was based on myth supported by authority, or was simply a mystery. I’m sure (and I earnestly hope) that future generations will believe the same about us.

Bronowski’s final message is a plea to continue this ascent. This means spreading a understanding and an appreciation of science, as his programs tries to do. This strikes me as terribly important. I’ve met so many people who say things like “Science is a form of faith” or “Science can’t solve every problem” or “Science is dehumanizing and arrogant.” It’s sad to hear intelligent people say things like this, for it simply isn’t true. It’s an abuse of language to call science a faith; then what isn’t? And yes, of course science can’t solve every problem and can’t answer every question; but can anything? Science can solve some problems, and can do so very well. And science, as Bronowski points out, is the very opposite of dehumanizing and arrogant. Science is a most human form of knowledge, born of humility of our intellectual powers, based on repeated mistakes and guesses, always pressing forward into the unknown, always revising its opinions based on evidence. Atrocities are committed, not by people who are trained to question their own beliefs, but by ideologues who are convinced they are right.

This is Bronowski’s essential message. But like in any good story, the telling is half of it. As I’ve mentioned above, Bronowski and his team are brilliant at finding unexpected ways to illustrate abstract ideas. This series is full of wonderful and striking visual illustrations of Bronowski’s points. What’s more, the man is a natural storyteller, and effectively brings to life many of this series’ heroes: Newton, Galileo, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mendel. He’s also a poet; one of his books is a study of William Blake’s poetry. This not only gives him a knack for similes, but helps him to explain how science is fundamentally creative. One of my favorite scenes is when Bronowski compares abstract portraits of a man to the ways that various scientific instruments—radar, infrared, cameras, X-rays—detect the man’s face. As he explains, both the portrait and these readings are interpretations of their subjects.

The cinematography is also excellent. There are some sequences in this documentary that are still impressive, saturated as we are with CGI. There are even some quite psychedelic sections. One of my favorite of these was a sequence of microscopic shots of human cells with Pink Floyd (who contributed music) jamming chaotically in the background. Unlike in Clark’s Civilisation, which uses exclusively ‘classical’ music and is devoid of special effects, the style of this documentary is surprisingly modern and even edgy. Another thing Bronowski does that Clark doesn’t, is include some information on non-Western cultures, from Meso-America, Japan, China, and Easter Island.

Yes, there are some parts of this that are outdated. Most obviously, much of the scientific information is no longer accurate—particularly the information on human evolution in the first episode. This is unavoidable, and is in fact a tribute to the ideals Bronowski championed. More jarring is Bronowski’s somewhat negative assessments of the culture of Easter Island and the lifestyle of nomadic peoples. Less controversially, he also has some negative words to say about Hegel. (Did you know Hegel published an absurd thesis when he was young about how the distance of the orbits of the planets had to conform to a number series?) Another mark of this program’s age is that Bronowski several times shows nudity and even a human birth. This would never fly on television today, at least not in the States.

But these flaws are minor in such a tremendous program. The Ascent of Man is a landmark in the history of science education and of documentary making, and a stirring vision of the progress of humanity by an brilliant and sympathetic man. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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