Watch a Young Carl Sagan Appear in His First TV Documentary, The Violent Universe (1969)

Much of the world got to know Carl Sagan through Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part PBS series on the nature of the universe — and the intensity of Sagan’s own passion to discover that nature. First aired in 1980, it would become the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. But it’s not as if Sagan had been languishing in obscurity before: he’d been publishing popular books since the early 1970s, and 1977’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence won him a Pulitzer Prize. When Cosmos made its impact, some viewers may even have remembered its host from a series of similarly themed broadcasts a decade earlier, The Violent Universe.

Produced by the BBC in 1969 and broadcast just three months before the Apollo 11 moon landingThe Violent Universe (viewable above) explains in five parts a range of discoveries made during the then-recent “revolution in astronomy,” including infrared galaxies, neutrinos, pulsars and quasars, red giants and white dwarfs.

In so doing it includes footage taken in observatories not just across the Earth — England, Puerto Rico, Holland, Californa — but high above it in orbit and even deep inside it, beneath the badlands of South Dakota. One installment pays a visit to Kōchi, the rural Japanese prefectural capital where guitarist-astronomer Tsutomu Seki makes his home — and his small home observatory, where he had worked to co-discover Comet Ikeya–Seki just four years before.

All of this international material — or rather interstellar material — is anchored in the studio by television journalist Robert MacNeil, later of PBS’ The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a certain professor of astronomy at Cornell University by the name of Carl Sagan. Despite exuding a more deliberate seriousness than he would in Cosmos, the young Sagan nevertheless explains the astronomical and astrophysical concepts at hand with a clarity and vigor that would have made them immediately clear to television audiences of half a century ago, and indeed still makes them clear to the Youtube audiences of today. Apart, perhaps, from its Twilight Zone-style theme music The Violent Universe has in its visual elements aged more gracefully than the 70s series that made Sagan into a science icon. And how many other other public-television documentaries about the universe include poetry recitations from Richard Burton?

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

GPS Tracking Reveals the Secret Lives of Outdoor Cats

We track sharksrhino, and bears, so why not Boo Boo KittyPeanut, and Pumpkin?

The Long Island feline residents volunteered—or more accurately, were volunteered—by their human companions to participate in a domestic cat movement study as part of the international Cat Tracker project.

Each beast was outfitted with a GPS tracker-enhanced harness, which they wore for a week.

(Many cat owners will find that alone something of an achievement.)

In total, almost a thousand households in four countries took part—the United StatesNew ZealandAustralia, and the UK.

Scientists were particularly interested to learn the degree of mayhem these cherished pets were visiting on surrounding wildlife in their off hours.

Anyone who’s been left a present of a freshly murdered baby bunny, mole, or wingless bat can probably guess.

It’s a considerable amount, though by and large the domesticated participants stuck close to home, rarely traveling more than two football fields away from the comforts of their own yards. The impulse to keep the food bowl within easy range confines their hunting activities to a fairly tight area. Woe to the field mice who set up shop there.

Their movements also revealed the peril they put themselves in, crossing highways, roads, and parking lots. Researcher Heidy Kikillus, who tracked cats in New Zealand, reported that a number of her group’s subjects wound up in a fatal encounter with a vehicle.

Generally speaking, gender, age, and geography play a part in how far a cat roams, with males, younger animals, and country dwellers covering more ground. Unsurprisingly, those who have not been neutered or spayed tend to have a freer range too.

“Without the motivations of food and sex, most cats seem content to be homebodies,” zoologist Roland Kays, one of the US Project leaders, noted.

American citizen scientists who’d like to enroll their cat can find information and the necessary forms on the Cat Tracker website.

The cat-less and those with indoor cats can enjoy photos of select participants and explore their tracks here.

And what better fall craft than a DIY cat tracking GPS harness?

via National Geographic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Readings of Albert Einstein’s Love Letters (and Chilly Divorce Letters) to His First Wife Mileva

Beware the fake quotation. They have become so ubiquitous they often appear in books and speeches by politicians and their family members, not that anyone seems to care much. But most of us feel a measure of shame at being duped, as Katharine Rose did when she found herself moved by a letter supposedly written by Albert Einstein to his daughter, Lieserl, “regarding the ‘universal force’ of love.” The letter is a “beautiful read,” and it’s a fake. But many admirers of Einstein were eager to believe it.

Why? Like other famous figures to whom spurious words are attributed, Einstein isn’t just well-known, he is revered, a celebrity, and celebrities are people we feel we know intimately. (A common defense for fake-quote-sharing goes: “Well, if he didn’t say it, then it’s exactly the kind of thing he would say.”) Discussing the theft of Einstein’s brain after his death, Ross Anderson at Aeon observes that “an ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius—and his grey matter—belongs to the world.” We might add, “and so do the intimate details of his private life.”

The details of Einstein’s marriage, and of his very unpleasant separation and divorce, from Mileva Marić have long been public knowledge. “Few public marriages have been subjected to a more unnuanced verdict,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings. Their love letters first came to light in 1986, discovered by Einstein’s granddaughter Evelyn. They were published in 1992 as The Love Letters, “a collection of fifty-four missives exchanged between the beginning of their romance” when they met as students in 1897 to their marriage in 1903. Dozens more are available at Princeton University’s online collection of Einstein’s papers.

The letters are real, and they are “spicy,” as YouTuber Tibees shows us in the video at the top. No awkward private expression is safe: we begin with letters Einstein wrote to his high school girlfriend, Marie Winteler, including a breakup letter at 3:13. The excerpts here are all timestamped on the video’s YouTube page, with helpful summaries like “Einstein’s mom trying to break them up” (them being Albert and Mileva), “Einstein having an affair with his cousin Elsa,” “Breaking up with Elsa,” and “Getting back with Elsa.”

Elsa, you may know, was Einstein’s second wife, in addition to being his cousin, and the cause of his separation and divorce from Mileva, to whom he had professed undying devotion. In the interest of fully invading the genius’s privacy, we have, above, some readings of his harsh “divorce letters” to Mileva, with hits like “Separation,” “Proposing divorce,” and “Court proceedings.” Love may or may not be a “universal force”—we do not, sadly, have Einstein’s thoughts on the matter—but we do know he found it a troublingly chaotic, unpredictable one.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Explore Dozens of Drawings by Charles Darwin’s Creative Children

Charles Darwin’s work on heredity was partly driven by tragic losses in his own family. Darwin had married his first cousin, Emma, and “wondered if his close genetic relation to his wife had had an ill impact on his children’s health, three (of 10) of whom died before the age of 11,” Katherine Harmon writes at Scientific American. (His suspicions, researchers surmise, may have been correct.) He was so concerned about the issue that in 1870, he pressured the government to include questions about inbreeding on the census (they refused).

Darwin’s children would serve as subjects of scientific observation. His notebooks, says Alison Pearn of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library, show a curious father “prodding and poking his young infant,” Charles Erasmus, his first child, “like he’s another ape.” Comparisons of his children’s development with that of orangutans helped him refine ideas in On the Origin of Species, which he completed as he raised his family at their house in rural Kent, and inspired later ideas in Descent of Man.

But as they grew, the Darwin children became far more than scientific curiosities. They became their father’s assistants and apprentices. “It’s really an enviable family life,” Pearn tells the BBC. “The science was everywhere. Darwin just used anything that came to hand, all the way from his children right through to anything in his household, the plants in the kitchen garden.” Steeped in scientific investigation from birth, it’s little wonder so many of the Darwins became accomplished scientists themselves.

Down House was “by all accounts a boisterous place,” writes McKenna Staynor at The New Yorker, “with a wooden slide on the stairs and a rope swing on the first-floor landing.” Another archive of Darwin’s prodigious writing, Cambridge’s Darwin Manuscript’s Project, gives us even more insight into his family life, with graphic evidence of the Darwin brood’s curiosity in the dozens of doodles and drawings they made in their father’s notebooks, including the original manuscript copy of his magnum opus.

The project’s director David Kohn “doesn’t know for certain which kids were the artists,” notes Staynor, “but he guesses that at least three were involved: Francis, who became a botanist; George, who became an astronomer and mathematician; and Horace, who became an engineer.” One imagines competition among the Darwin children must have been fierce, but the drawings, “though exacting, are also playful.” One depicts “The Battle of Fruits and Vegetables.” Others show anthropomorphic animals and illustrate military figures.

There are short stories, like “The Fairies of the Mountain,” which “tells the tale of Polytax and Short Shanks, whose wings have been cut off by a ‘naughty fairy.’” Imagination and creativity clearly had a place in the Darwin home. The man himself, Maria Popova notes, felt significant ambivalence about fatherhood. “Children are one’s greatest happiness,” he once wrote, “but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.”

It was an attitude born of grief, but one, it seems, that did not breed aloofness. The Darwin kids “were used as volunteers,” says Kohn, “to collect butterflies, insects, and moths, and to make observations on plants in the fields around town.” Francis followed his father’s path and was the only Darwin to co-author a book with his father. Darwin’s daughter Henrietta became his editor, and he relied on her, he wrote, for “deep criticism” and “corrections of style.”

Despite his early fears for their genetic fitness, Darwin’s professional life became intimately bound to the successes of his children. The Darwin Manuscripts Project, which aims to digitize and make public around 90,000 pages from the Cambridge University Library’s Darwin collection, will have a profound effect on how historians of science understand his impact. “The scope of the enterprise, of what we call evolutionary biology,” says Kohn, “is defined in these papers. He’s got his foot in the twentieth century.”

The archive also shows the development of Darwin’s equally important legacy as a parent who inspired a boundless scientific curiosity in his kids. See many more of the digitized Darwin children’s drawings at Brain Pickings.


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What Made Richard Feynman One of the Most Admired Educators in the World

If Richard Feynman had only ever published his work in theoretical physics, his name would still be known far and wide. As it is, Feynman remains famous more than thirty years after his death in large part for the way he engaged with the public. From his popular textbook The Feynman Lectures on Physics (which you can read free online here) to his bestselling conversational essay collections like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman to the classes he taught at Cornell (now available online) to his demonstration of what went wrong with the Space Shuttle Challenger, he kept in conversation all his life with humanity outside the realm of professional science. This explains, in part, why Feynman became what Bill Gates calls, in the video above, “the best teacher I never had.”

Gates points to Feynman’s lecture series “The Character of Physical Law,” previously featured here on Open Culture, as “a great example of how he could explain things in a fun and interesting way to everyone. And he was very funny.”

That sense of humor complemented a sense of rigor: “Dr. Feynman used a tough process on himself, where if he didn’t really understand something, he would push himself,” asking questions like “Do I understand this boundary case?” and “Do I understand why we don’t do it this other way?” Such an effort to find the gaps in and failures of one’s own understanding may sound familiar, fundamental as it is to Feynman’s “notebook” technique of learning that we’ve posted about more than once before.

You only know how well you understand something when you explain it to someone else; many of us realize this, but Feynman lived it. The depth of his own understanding allowed him never to be boring: “Feynman made science so fascinating,” Gates says, “He reminded us how much fun it is,” and in so doing emphasized that “everybody can have a pretty full understanding. He’s such a joyful example of how we’d all like to learn and think about things.” Though the term “science communicator” wasn’t in wide use during Feynman’s lifetime, he played the role to near-perfection. And in the kind of materials highlighted here, he continues to convey not just knowledge but, as he liked to put it, the pleasure of finding things out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of the Beautifully Illustrated, 200-Year-Old British & Exotic Mineralogy

What if I said the problem with STEM education is that it doesn’t include nearly enough art? For one thing, I would only echo what STEAM proponents have said for years. This doesn’t only mean that students should study the arts with the same seriousness as they do the sciences. But that science should be taught through the arts, as it was in the 19th century when Naturalists relied on fine art illustration.

Maybe increasing complexity demands charts and graphs, but there are reasons other than hip antiquarianism to cherish 19th century scientific art, and to aim for something close to its high aesthetic standards. Humans seem to find nature far more awe-inspiring when it’s mediated by painting, poetry, narrative, music, fine art photography, etc. We want to be emotionally moved by science. As such, few guides to the natural world have elevated their subjects as highly as British & Exotic Mineralogy, a multivolume reference work for… well, rocks, to put it vulgarly, published between 1802 and 1817.

During these years, “notable naturalist, illustrator, and mineralogist James Sowerby drew intricate pictures of minerals in an effort to illustrate the topographic mineralogy of Great Britain and minerals not yet known to it,” writes Nicholas Rougeux. “These illustrations were some of the finest on the subject and are still considered by some to be to this day.” Though he was surely compensated for his work, Sowerby’s detailed drawings come across as labors of devotion.

Rather than just printing them on postcards or tote bags (though he does sell posters), Rougeux has done for Sowerby’s minerals what he had previously done for other classic textbooks and taxonomies from the past, such as the 200-year-old Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours and Euclid’s Elements from 1847. Digitizing the 718 illustrations on one sprawling interactive page allows him to retain their educational value: click on any individual mineral and you’ll bring up an enlarged image followed by excerpts from the text.

You have never seen such rocks as these, no matter how many uncut gems you’ve held in your hand. Because these illustrations turn them into something else—crystalline palaces, alien organs, petrified explosions, moldy loaves of bread… all the many shapes that time can take in rock form. They aren’t all beautiful rocks, but they are each beautifully-rendered with lines that might remind us of the most skilled comic artists, who are perhaps some of the last inheritors of this kind of graphic style. Sowerby himself illustrated several other scientific works, including series on biology, mycology, and a color system of his own devising.

“We feel much pleasure in presenting our friends with a figure and account of the most perfect and rare specimen yet found of this substance,” begins the text accompanying Hydrargillite, above, which resembles a small, misshapen moon or asteroid. Rougeux also takes quite a bit of pleasure in his work of recovering these reference books and making them beautifully useful once again for 21st century readers. You can read his detailed account of the original illustrations and his adaptation of them for use on the web here.

While appreciating the finer points of color, line, and composition in Rougeux’s tapestry of vintage mineral illustrations, you might just inadvertently expand your knowledge and appreciation of mineralogy. You can also read the entire British & Exotic Mineralogy, if you’ve got the time and inclination, at the Internet Archive.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Physicist Examines the Scientific Accuracy of Physics Shown in Major Movies: Batman, Gravity, Contact, Interstellar, Star Trek & More

Ever had a friend who cannot bring themselves suspend disbelief? It’s not a moral failing, but it can be a tedious quality in situations like, say, the movies, or the cinema, or whatever you call it when you’ve paid your day’s wages for a giant tub of carcinogenic popcorn and a three-hour distraction. (These days, maybe, an overpriced streaming new release and Grubhub.) Who doesn’t love a big-screen science fiction epic—science be damned? Who wants to listen to the seatmate who mutters “oh, come on!,” “no way!,” “well, actually, that’s scientifically impossible”? You know they never passed intro to physics….

Dominic Walliman, on the other hand, is a physicist. And he is not the kind of person to ruin a movie by going on about how goofy its scientific ideas sound, though he’s likely to express appreciation for films that get it right. He doesn’t get bent out of shape by artistic license and can appreciate, for example, the creative use of visual effects in Interstellar to represent a black hole, which would otherwise appear onscreen as, well, a black hole. “I’m okay with bad physics in movies,” he says, “because the job of a movie isn’t to be a science documentary, the goal of a movie is to tell an interesting story.”

Even so, if you sit him down and ask him to talk specifically about science in movies, as a friend does in the video above, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and you’ll want to listen to him (after the movie’s over) because he actually knows what he’s talking about. Over the years, Walliman has mapped various domains of science, like chemistry, computer science, biology, mathematics, physics, and his own field, quantum physics. His visual explanations make the relationships between difficult concepts clear and easy to follow. In this video, he comments on some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy films (standouts include the first Batman and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons) in ways that are equally illuminating.

Big winners for relative accuracy, in Walliman’s opinion, are no surprise. They include Gravity, Contact (written by Carl Sagan), even a clip from the incredibly smart Futurama. It is soon apparent that the use of a folded piece of paper to represent spacetime through a wormhole has “become a bit of a cliché,” although a helpful-enough visual aid. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “boring” (with apologies), a judgment that might disqualify Walliman as a film critic, in many people’s opinion, but does not tarnish his scientific reputation.

One of the biggest science-in-film fails: 2009’s Star Trek, whose villains have discovered a substance called “red matter.” A single drop can destroy an entire planet, and the idiots seem to have enough onboard their ship to take out the universe with one careless oopsie. Walliman is maybe not qualified to weigh in on the paleobiology of Jurassic Park, but Jeff Goldblum’s explanation of chaos theory fits within his purview. “So, this is not a good description of chaos theory,” he says, “at all.” It is, however, a fabulous plot device.

If you’re interested in more engagingly accessible, non-cinema-related, surveys of scientific ideas, visit any one of Walliman’s many Domain of Science videos here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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