This Is Your Brain on Awesome

Title: This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Author: Daniel Levitin

Genre: Non-Fiction, Popular Science

Where I Got It: Bought it

Score: 6! out of 5

WARNING: Gratuitous use of ALL CAPS and cursing, lots of cursing.  Sorry, I try not to curse on this blog too much, but when I get really excitable I drop the F-Bomb. A LOT.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. 

I don’t read non-fiction books very often.  Or rather, I don’t voluntarily read non-fiction books that are required for my graduate classes very often.  I used to in high school and early in my college career, but when you’re in graduate school and most of what you read is heavy-theory, or historical criticism, or some such thing, you really just want to read fun popular fiction on your off-time.  And that’s mostly what I do.  I read fantasy, scifi, YA, and so forth.  But I’ve been meaning to get back into reading science books (reminder: I used to be a Physics major and I MISS my science classes), and I’ve actually had this book sitting on a shelf for three years now, so I figured I’d finally get around to reading it.

I bought it way back then because a) it was a science book and I’m always like: Yay, science! and b) because it was about music, and my life RUNS on music.  Seriously.  So, I was pretty certain I was going to love this book once I got around to it.

But OH. MY. GOD.  I cannot tell you how awesome this book is! It BLEW MY MIND!

Okay, okay, before I devolve totally into gratuitous cap letters, here’s what This Is Your Brain On Music is about:  Daniel Levitin started out as a member of a mediocre rock band.  But when he was in the studio recording with his band, he discovered he was actually a very good music engineer/producer, and eventually that’s what he became.  And he worked with some VERY BIG names in the business, including (just as an example): The Who.  Yeah. THE FUCKING WHO.  (Can I have this man’s life?)  Well, eventually, Daniel Levitin got more and more interested in exactly how the brain processes music, where music comes from, why it’s so universally important, etc.  And he went back to college and GOT A PHD IN NEUROSCIENCE with a specialization in music cognition.  Because apparently he is just that fucking awesome.  He then went on to work with some VERY BIG NAMES in neuroscience, including, just for the sake of name dropping: OLIVER SACKS.  (If you’re into science, you’ll realize how BIG that name is – and OMG can I please have this man’s life?)  AND THEN he started his own fucking lab to study music and the brain.

And after all that was done, HE WROTE A FUCKING BOOK ABOUT IT ALL.  And voila.  Here we are.

Of course, it’s difficult to give reviews of non-fiction books.  There are no plots and not often many characters, exactly.  This book goes through the basic units of what turns sound into music.  It talks about how the brain processes and understands music, why we couldn’t have music without the memory systems are brains are built with, why we get earworms – those songs that stick in your head forever, how music may have evolved from our caveman days, why it takes aprox. 10,000 hours of practice to become an “expert” at anything, and why there might not be any such thing as “natural talent” after… just to name a few topics.  He covers neurobiology, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, empirical philosophy, Gestalt psychology, memory theory, categorization theory, neurochemistry, and exemplar theory in relation to music theory and history.  All in about 300 pages.

And he does all of this with great metaphors to explain the more complicated and less intuitive science concepts, plenty of examples for real music that most people should recognize, a wonderfully light, humorous writing style, and an enormous love and respect for music that shines through every single word.

I cannot express how much I LOVE this book.  I have been raving about it to anyone who listen.  Most of my friends.  My mother.  My brother.  I have told practically everyone I know that THEY NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.  And I’m telling you all now too.  YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.  If you like science.  If you like music.  If you just like GOOD non-fiction.  YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.

IT WILL BLOW YOUR FUCKING MIND.

You will probably come out the other side wanting to be a neuroscientist.  Or a musician.  Or both.  If you ever played an instrument and let it fall by the wayside, I guarantee you this book will make you at least WANT to start practicing again.  It might actually get you ACTUALLY PRACTICING AGAIN.  You will have a new appreciation for not only the amount of work it takes to play music, but also the kind of brain power and evolutionary luck it takes JUST TO LISTEN TO MUSIC.  You will be amazed by how many different parts of the brain have to be in operating condition just to understand what you’re listening to.  And HOW AMAZING IT IS THAT WE CAN REMEMBER ALMOST EVERY SONG WE HERE MORE THAN ONCE.  Apparently babies ACTUALLY REMEMBER THE SONGS THEY HEAR IN THE WOMB!!!!  FUCK YEAH!

BUY THIS BOOK.  Go to Amazon right now.  Here.  Here’s the link: This Is Your Brain On Music.

AND ENJOY THE MIND-BLOWING EXPERIENCE.

Come see me when you’re done and just try to tell me it wasn’t worth every fucking penny.  I DARE YOU.

Some Science Developments That Make Me Squeal Like a Girl

Science/Fantasy Monday: Some Science Developments That Make Me Squeal Like A Girl

I realized on Thursday that I haven’t kept up with science news the last couple months.  Between school, and then the holidays, blog tours and book reviews, I just haven’t had the time or the energy.  And, quite frankly, I just sort of forgot to keep up.

So over the past couple days I’ve been wandering through the interwebs in search of interesting science news, and I’ve come up with some really cool things that have been developing lately.  In fact, some of these were so awesome they literally made me squeal like an excited little girl.  And at least one new development from Darpa makes me cringe as well.  Since I haven’t done any sort of linky mash-up in a while, I thought I’d share some of my findings with you, and see if you squeal too.

On the ocean front (as reported by National Geographic), there have been so interesting developments throughout 2011 and into the new year.  For instance, four new species of shark were discovered over the course of 2011 (among 140 new species found overall in 2011 by the California Academy of Sciences).

There was also a whole new “Lost World” of strange deep-sea species found near hydrothermal vents near Antarctica, including an as-yet unnamed new species of Yeti crabs that have HAIR on their abdomens (is that not the weirdest thing you’ve heard in a while?).

And these photographs display some of the wonders of the Coral Sea to support a new proposal for the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, which would encompass 385,000 square miles of water in the Coral Sea, including reefs, undersea volcanoes, and deep-sea canyons, making it the largest marine reserve ever (these photos are AMAZING, folks).

On the military front (as reported by Wired): in an effort to prove they are truly mad scientists, Darpa (the science agency owned by the Pentagon) has proposed a new program called “Living Foundries.”  They’re recruiting all sorts of scientists, engineers, and intellectuals to help design some kind of standardized “modular genetic parts” that would allow them to pretty build any sort of biological system they damn-well please (see what I mean? Creepy and cringe-worthy).

AND, a team of Cornell scientists, with support (of at least the financial kind) from Darpa, have created a “time hole” or “time cloak” which slows the speed of light in order to literally hide an event for 40 picoseconds.  This one was big enough to be covered by both Wired and National Geographic.  You’ll notice the Wired article focuses on the possible eventual military applications (it is Darpa, after all), while the National Geographic article focuses on how it could help computers.

The American Astronomical Society’s annual conference was held in Austin, Texas last week, and several fascinating and promising studies were released.  First, A UC Davis graduate student discusses a study of galaxy collisions which would shed some light on the issue of dark matter (from sciencedaily.com).

And second, three separate studies (summarized on Yahoo) give people like me (and other science fiction fans) more hope for alien life and the distant possibility of colonization as 1) a planet is found orbiting twin suns ala Tatooine (once thought probably impossible), and 2) a study concludes that its likely all or most stars in the Milky Way have at least 1 planet in orbit around them (yep, I’m squealing again!).

Lastly, in the world of quantum physics (one of my favorite kinds), some news from physorg.com: A group of Cambridge scientists make the quantum mechanics of electrons visible to the naked eye (how cool is that?!).

Scientists at Hoyt Laboratory make electrons dance, offering new possibilities for the development of quantum computers.

And a group of physicists working together in France and U.S. publish a proposal for a possible way to test the theory of loop quantum gravity, which has the potential to solve one of the biggest problems in physics: how to reconcile the theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics (can you imagine the possibilities?!!).

So, what do you think?  Any of that make you squeal too?  Even a little?  On the inside?

…just me…?

The Hobbit: It’s Here, It’s Here, It’s Here!

IT’S HERE, IT’S HERE, IT’S HERE!!!!

It’s all over the internet, but in case you somehow inexplicably missed it: The Hobbit trailer and poster are out! And they are amazing!!

The poster is gorgeous.  All by itself, it makes me nostalgic, and excited, and twists my stomach into knots in ways that are very reminiscent of the first time I ever read the book in 4th grade.

This post from the SyFy Channel blog analyzes the poster nicely and explains some of why it is so damn good: “1st Poster from The Hobbit Turns Us All Into Bilbo.”

But the real excitement comes from the trailer.  Which is utter brilliance.  But don’t take my word for it.  Check it out:

See?  SEE!!  Oh my god, I can’t tell you what this trailer does to me!  I got seriously teary-eyed when the dwarves started singing.  And I’m not the only one, I swear! Seeing Ian McKellen as Gandalf again is amazing.  And Martin Freeman looks to be PERFECT as Bilbo.  And all the dwarves look fantastic.  And The Lord of the Rings main theme at the end of the trailer: it goes straight to my gut.  Can you believe it’s already been TEN YEARS since The Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres?  It blows my mind to think about it!  I remember my best friend and I went to the midnight release on a thursday, despite the fact that it was during midterms our Junior year of high school.  And it was amazing, and mind-blowing, spirit-soaring, and life-altering.

The Hobbit is going to do it all over again.  It is going to bring me back to high school, and geeking-out with my best friend.  And it is going to bring me back to being in 4th grade, nine years old, reading The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings) for the first time, and realizing AT THAT MOMENT, that I was going to be a writer.  That I NEEDED to be a writer.  That this is what I was meant to do with my life.

My stomach is going to be in knots for the whole year.  I am going to be in agony waiting for Dec 14th 2012.  I’m not entirely sure I can handle it!  But I guess it’s time to go re-read The Hobbit for the fifty-millionth time, huh?

How about you?  Please share your gushing excitement below!  (And if you don’t like The Hobbit, well… I’m not sure we can friends anymore… ^_^; )

Also, if you love the gifs in this post, you can find them and many other awesome Hobbit gifs here on Kiersten Krum’s Tumblr.

Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet

Bookworm Wednesday: Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet

Hello all.  Sorry I’ve been absent from the blog so much lately.  Unfortunately, sometimes school does that.  And while I absolutely LOVE this blog (and it’s WAY more fun than schoolwork), doing my PhD is, in the end, far more important.  Still, I feel really bad for missing the last three post-days. I don’t have a TON of time on my hands currently, but I wanted to give you all a quick post.

Right now I’m reading a book called Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet by Graham Meikle.  It’s research for a paper I’m writing about the use of Twitter and other social media in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  But it’s also a really fascinating book so far (I’m about a third of the way through it right now).  Here are a couple different descriptions of the book from the back cover:

Future Active is an exploration of the widening field of internet activism, of the key players and their ideas, and of the tactics and technologies that inspire them.  The internet has enabled unprecedented global commerce and helped create new oligopolies but it has also mobilized millions of people locally and globally with very different visions of connected world communities.”

Future Active examines the uses of the internet as a tool to effect social, political, and cultural change.  Graham Meikle talks to activists from around the world: from culture jammers to right-wing resistance movements, from political parties to pioneer hacktivists.  He provides case studies of milestone Net campaigns key figures explain how Belgrade radio station B92 used the Net to thwart Milosevic’s censorship, how the McSpotlight website contributed to the campaign of the defendants in the McLibel trial, and how the global Indymedia Phenomenon was born.

Meikle argues that it is the unfinished and open nature of the Internet that is most radical.  It is through creating open media spaces that people can come to make their own futures and those futures will be much more exciting than the media McWorld of corporate ‘interactivity’.”

These descriptions give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on in this book.  It’s detailed, uses some very interesting examples (mainly from the 1990s) of internet activism, and offers some useful critiques of what works and does not work in each situation.

The one thing that does make it perhaps not as useful as it could be is that simple fact of its age.  It was published in 2002, which means it was probably written at least a year or two prior to that.  All of this was before Facebook, before Google had become the monolith it is today, and before Twitter.  This severely limits the continued relevance of the specific technologies, websites, and systems discussed in the book.  But the general ideas of internet activism and continually evolving as the technology evolves still hold true.  I suspect Meikle watches the developments of the last couple years, especially the Arab Spring uprisings and now the Occupy Wall Street movement and often shouts: “I told you so!”

Meikle, Graham. Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

Science/Fantasy Monday: Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

USS Titan going at warp speed, from startrek-ships.com

Faster-than-light travel.  Imagine it.  To go anywhere in the galaxy, maybe the universe, in no time at all.  Think Star Trek and warp drive.  It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but it would be incredibly, mind-numbingly fast.

A little over three weeks ago, on 22 Sept 2011, a group of CERN scientists working with the “Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus” (OPERA) announced that they believed they had succeeded in making neutrinos (an electrically neutral elementary subatomic particle with extremely tiny but not-quite-zero mass, that is able to pass through ordinary mass almost unaffected) travel faster than the speed of light — a barrier speed of 186,282 miles per hour, which, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, cannot be surpassed.  Here is the first article I caught wind of about the announcement, from The Telegraph: “Speed of light ‘broken’ at CERN, scientists claim.”

And, here is the actual paper written by the OPERA scientists on the experiment: “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam.”

Of course, nothing like this can ever be taken at face value.  There are a million things that could lead to a misreading, miscalculation, or flat-out falsehood (the number of scientists who have made fraudulent claims in the last few years has been staggering).  Immediately, an whole army’s worth of scientists were called in to check, re-check, and triple-check all the experimental parameters, equipment, and results — a process that is still ongoing.

lateral view of OPERA, from http://operaweb.lngs.infn.it/

Still, almost immediately an slew of scientists had climbed out of the woodwork to offer their explanations for why this discovery could not possibly be real.  On 26 Sept 2011, Scientific American released an article in which they had asked for reactions from a number of fairly-well-regarded scientists, most of whom voiced varying levels of doubt and skepticism: “Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts.”  Some of these scientists said they were withholding judgement until further tests and checks could be performed.  But some were embarrassed that the scientists involved had made any announcement at all — as far as some are concerned, it is simply impossible.  Period.

To that end, Wired Online released an article on 14 Oct 2011, discussing a number of the more down-to-earth and boring explanations scientists have come up with to explain away the apparently faster-than-light travel of these neutrinos: “Physicists Offer Mundane Explanations for Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos.”

In the October issue of ScienceNews, and on the ScienceNews website, an article written by Devin Powell offers a brief and balanced summary of the event and the current reactions, discussing what was done to prepare for the original experiment and some of what is being done to try to recreate the experiment: “Neutrinos Seen to Fly Faster than the Speed of Light.”  A few of the quotes in this article show the interesting struggle between exciting optimism and strong skepticism.  Theoretical scientists Matthew Mewes and Lee Smolin are voice some of the thoughts all scientists (and some of us laypersons).  Mewes: “This may mean that there’s much more going on in particle physics than we thought possible.  We could be seeing signs of exotic theories like string theories.”  Smolin: “This is a serious experiment, and these are serious people.  But at this point nobody sober would be willing to say that this is right.”

Obviously, even if the results prove to be correct — and of course, there’s nothing at this point saying that they WILL, but let’s assume for a moment that they are — somehow getting a few neutrinos to travel faster than the speed of light is a LONG way off from faster-than-light travel for humans.  But still… just think of the implications!  Think of the possibilities!  It’s difficult not to get at least a little excited.  Gene Roddenberry’s vision has been proven true before.  You never know, warp drive might be just around the corner (relatively speaking…).

So, what do you think of this news?  A mistake?  A hoax?  Or the real deal?

The Future Is Here Mash-Up

Science/Fantasy Monday: The Future Is Here Mash-Up

Over the last 2 weeks I have gathered up a plethora (heh, I love that word… plethora…) of news articles and blog posts on various science-y topics that I just find too damn cool to keep to myself.  So, for those of you who don’t generally have the time/patience to sift through Wired.com, etc, I offer a fun mash-up of a few of the of the articles/posts that really caught my eye.  I’ve often heard some scifi writers and scientists make comments along the lines of “The Future is already here.”  These articles remind me of this.

This article from Space.com, “Space Junk Threat Will Grow for Astronauts and Satellites”, highlights one of the biggest concerns for scientists and space programs world-wide.  What is interesting to me is that many recent articles on this topic have been making the rounds on Yahoo and various news sites in the last 2 weeks, as if this is a brand new problem.  But the problem has been around for awhile, and was even the subject of a fantastic Japanese manga called Planetes, written in 1999-2004.

“How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck”: This blog featured on Wired.com is about a bit more than a holodeck.  It is a survey of a variety of strange, complicated, awesome discoveries/inventions being worked on at Microsoft’s big “think tank” lab Building 99.  For example, there’s the “Skinput” wrist device that could theoretically control electronic devices by reading muscle movements in your hand.  And there’s The Wedge, a large acrylic prism that could change the way we interface with computer displays.  Just for starters.

This article about the possibility of a “Diamond Planet” that may be a stripped star, from National Geographic, is a little older, but it was such a COOL idea I had to share it for people who might have missed it.  Also, here’s something for the scifi writers out there to think about: assume this planet really is made of diamond, and suppose humans from Earth found a way to reach the planet… how well do you think that’s gonna end, huh?

Another article from National Geographic: “When Aliens Attack” asks what would really happen if aliens made contact with humans in light of the fact that humans seem intent on destroying their own planet.  Would they eat us, enslave us, or exterminate us for the greater good of the galaxy?  It is a strange, amusing little article.  To say the least.

“Attack of the Brain-Controlling Parasites”: I had to include this one because, seriously, who doesn’t LOVE the idea of Zombie Ants?  Really?  It’s the weirdest, creepiest, coolest thing I’d heard about in the last year or so.  And these pictures are awesome. (Also thanks to Wired.com.)

“Sidney Gottlieb proved to the world that there are few things more dangerous than a chemist with a metaphysical streak” — so says io9 post entitled “Every Crazy CIA Plot You’ve Heard of Originated With One Man” which is about CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who is apparently the man behind the infamous “poison cigar” scheme to assassinate Fidel Castro.

And finally: the COOLEST damn photo I think I have ever seen.  Saturn.  As seen from the NASA Cassini Orbiter.  It just goes to prove that sometimes real life really CAN be as amazing as science fiction, possibly even better.

If you have any cool science-related articles/posts to share, add them in the comments! I can always use more, and my other readers might just be interested too.

Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Science/Fantasy Monday: Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Few people outside the science/technology community have heard of him, but Ray Kurzweil is one of the kings of invention, and science fiction writers, at the very least, should become intimately familiar with his work.

He has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

Ray Kurzweil is, first and foremost, an inventor.  He was the principle inventor/developer of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical text recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition, the first computer programs capable of composing music and poetry based on synthesized materials, and the first virtual performing artists (Ramona) to perform in front of a live audience with a live band (just to name a few accomplishments).

He has written six books and a multitude of articles.  He has started several companies.  And he has made several movies/documentaries, including The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future, based on his book of the same title, which is part fiction and part non-fiction; and Transcendent Man, a documentary about Kurzweil made while on his global speaking tour in 2008-2009 (which is curently available for streaming on Netflix).

Kurzweil is a very vocal advocate for futurism and transhumanism.  In his books he has made many forecasts for technological advancements, his arguments derived principally from Moore’s Law, which argues that the rate of innovation in computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially.  Kurzweil argues that because so much of science and technology depends on computing power, this exponential advancement in computer tech will likewise mean exponential advancement in non-computer sciences, like nanotech, biotech, and materials science.  He calls this concept the “Law of Accelerating Returns.”

Kurzweil is at heart the ultimate optimist.  His predictions include such amazing claims as:

  • Before 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving quality of life through use of nanobots.
  • A computer will pass the Turing Test by 2029 (if you don’t know what the Turing Test is, well… then… I just don’t know what can be done for you… Kidding, kidding.  Go read this > Turing Test, and come right back.  I’ll wait.).
  • Sentient artificial intelligences will exhibit moral think and respect humans.
  • The line between human and machine will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start incorporating more tech into their bodies.

Admittedly, some of these predictions are a bit more far-fetched the others.  The thing is, many of the predictions made in his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), came true.  As one example, he predicted that a computer would beat the World Chess Champion by 1998, and IBM’s Deep Blue computer did just that in May 1997.  On the other hand, many of his predictions don’t happen at all a fact continually pointed out by his critics (though I think it is unfair to expect him to always get everything right in order to be taken seriously, and if he was always right, I’d be worried about where the hell he actually came from).

Kurzweil’s predictions have given rise to a lot of criticism from within the scientific community and from the media.  Everyone from Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach) to scifi author Bruce Sterling have taken exception to at least some of his ideas.  I myself do not agree with everything he says, or find every prediction all that plausible.  As others have pointed out, and I readily agree, as Kurzweil moves farther away from his focus on technology to biological sciences, his ideas become more far-fetched, more utopian, and a little harder to swallow.

Biologist P.Z. Myer’s blog article about Kurzweil is one example of some of the harsh, but potentially valid criticism that has been laid against Ray Kurzweil in recent years: “Ray Kurzweil Does Not Understand the Brain.”

Ray Kurzweil is one of my heroes.  I love his books, especially The Age of Spiritual Machines and Singularity Is Near, passionately.  But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his limitations, and that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything he says.  It is important that we think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions, especially where our heroes are concerned.

But agreeing with everything he says is not that point.  Especially not for science fiction writers.

The point is that this man thinks outside the box constantly and exuberantly, never dismissing any idea no matter how many people have already decided it’s impossible. In a world that is morbidly cynical about science and technology and the roles/consequences they will have in the future, Ray Kurzweil is unblinkingly, unapologetically optimistic.  And, at least some of the time, he is right.  His ideas, predictions, philosophies, and attitudes are positively ripe for the picking for future scientists and scifi writers alike.  While his relevancy within the science community may be fading, and his predictions are beginning to go off-mark, I believe he will remain and indispensable source of inspiration for science fiction writers.

Go read his books.  You’ll see what I mean.

Ray Kurzweil Links: