Maryam Mirzakhani wins Fields Medal


Today, Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakahani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal for her contributions to the understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces.

Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford, has been awarded the 2014 Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics. Mirzakhani is the first woman to win the prize, widely regarded as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” since it was established in 1936.

The award recognizes Mirzakhani’s sophisticated and highly original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. Although her work is considered “pure mathematics” and is mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory.

Mirzakhani’s recent research further investigates the symmetry of surface geometry, particularly within theories regarding Teichmüller dynamics. In general, her work can best be described as pure mathematics – research that investigates entirely abstract concepts of nature that might not have an immediately obvious application.

“Oftentimes, research into these areas does have unexpected applications, but that isn’t what motivates mathematicians like Maryam to pursue it. Rather, the motivation is to understand, as deeply as possible, these basic mathematical structures,” said Ralph Cohen, a professor of mathematics and the senior associate dean for the natural sciences in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “Maryam’s work really is an outstanding example of curiosity-driven research.”

The work, however, could have impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, because it could inform quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography. Despite the breadth of applications of her work, Mirzakhani said she enjoys pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studies.

“I don’t have any particular recipe,” Mirzakhani said of her approach to developing new proofs. “It is the reason why doing research is challenging as well as attractive. It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

[via Stanford News]

The Manhattan Projects

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The Manhattan Projects is a pretty rad little comic that’s been out for about a year now.  It asks, what if the actual Manhattan Project was really just a front for a number of other highly unusual science experiments carried out by a super-team of scientists including Einstein, Oppenheimer, Fermi and others?  It’s sci-fi with an extra dose of science.  Aside from it being a great comic, I wanted to post it here because of how big of a departure the modern minimalistic cover artwork (show above) is from what you’d normally see in this realm.  Really stunning, in my opinion.

Time Lapse Earth


Another inspiring short compiling footage from the International Space Station.  Made my day.

[via High Snobiety]

If you were tasked to redesign the human body, what would you change?

Another amazing thread from Reddit.  The snapshot of responses below perfectly encapsulates the vulgar, brilliance and wit living within this space.  Check it out here.

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The Overview Effect and Our Search for Truth

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Planetary Collective created this short documentary addressing the profound experience astronauts have when they first look down at the earth from outer space.  In 1987, author Frank White coined this The Overview Effect.  More specifically, it describes how the literal change in perspective of looking at the Earth from above can effect one’s cognitive perspective and associated belief systems.

Edgar Mitchell, astronaut on Apollo 14, eventually compared it to savikalpa samadhi, a non-dual state of awareness in which the subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still.

The result is often a shift in worldview that involves a sudden concern and appreciation for the fragility of the planet coupled with a deeper connection to mankind.

As someone with a deep and somewhat inexplicable interest in space exploration, astronomy and cosmology, I’m moved and fascinated by this.  My experience has been that we’re always chasing ourselves throughout life; our beliefs, our values and points of greatest connection to the world.  Astronauts have this incredible opportunity to move so far beyond themselves in the literal sense that I think it actually allows them to reconnect with their truths in a very immediate and inspiring way.

Space exploration, at it’s core, is a search for our deepest truths – how and why we are here.  The faithful individual searches for these answers in scripture and religious doctrine while the scientific, quite literally, looks up towards the heavens.

Ironically, the focus during the Apollo missions was always about where we were going and what was ahead of us.  This idea of, literally and figuratively, turning around to look back on ourselves, as pointed out by David Beaver could have been the most important reason for going to the moon.  It, in a sense, confirmed that the answers that we seek throughout life, were both inside and among us all along, but that it required a significant journey to reveal them.

Big thanks and congratulations to the Planetary Collective of the creation of this film and thanks to Christian for his selfless sharing of this piece.

Adobe’s Global Creativity Gap Study


The State of Create Global Benchmark Study from which this infographic is compiled sought to assess the attitudes and beliefs surrounding creativity in (5) of the largest economies in the world: U.S., Japan, France, U.K. and Germany.  I think the results are important. A couple things to note:

The increasing pressure to be productive and get things done at work was found to be one of the largest barriers to coming up with creative solutions and ideas.  This tension is always going to be present.  Making time to be creative in the workplace is something that takes it’s own set of novel solutions from the individual.

What is of greater concern to me is that our education system does not see creativity as an important aptitude.  Or, perhaps more accurately, the system is not designed in such a way as to nurture it among America’s youth.  Globally, 52% believe education systems are taking creativity for granted, compared to 70% in the United States.

Sir Ken Robinson, puts it best in his response to the study: “One of the problems is that too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we’re draining people of their creative possibilities and, as this study reveals, producing a workforce that’s conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.”

Surveyed Americans are not aloof to this issue, as 82% expressed urgency and concern that the country is not living up to it’s creative potential.  And yet, math and science still sit at the top of school’s priorities, because we (and our government) believe that these skill-sets, when applied to our economy, will create more growth.

I don’t disagree with this.  Math and science are extremely important aptitudes, but when taught from the standpoint of factual memorization and the following of predetermined protocols, are virtually useless.

We need to drastically reduce the standardized assessments that control our teacher’s curriculum and restructure them to allow for more critical thinking, open problem solving, and creative exploration. The context – math, science, writing, fine arts, etc. are secondary.

Head here to download the entire study.


NYT: Why We Love Beautiful Things

An eloquent foray into the science and ecology behind great design by Lance Hosey in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times.

…Simple geometry is leading to similar revelations. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the “golden rectangle”: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the “Mona Lisa,” the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.

Experiments going back to the 19th century repeatedly show that people invariably prefer images in these proportions, but no one has known why.

Then, in 2009, a Duke University professor demonstrated that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle. For instance, it’s the ideal layout of a paragraph of text, the one most conducive to reading and retention. This simple shape speeds up our ability to perceive the world, and without realizing it, we employ it wherever we can.

Certain patterns also have universal appeal. Natural fractals — irregular, self-similar geometry — occur virtually everywhere in nature: in coastlines and riverways, in snowflakes and leaf veins, even in our own lungs. In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals — not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder — home is where the genome is.

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock “the greatest living painter in the United States” in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

We respond so dramatically to this pattern that it can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent — just by being in our field of vision. One researcher has calculated that since Americans spend $300 billion a year dealing with stress-related illness, the economic benefits of these shapes, widely applied, could be in the billions.

[Original: Why We Love Beautiful Things]

The Centrifugal Brain Project

This short, mockumentary from German filmmaker Tim Nowak tells the hilariously misguided story of Dr. Nick Laslowicz, lead scientist at the Institute for Centrifugal Research and his experiments on the effect of wildly unbelievable amusement park rides on the IQs of four year old children.


Stardust from PostPanic on Vimeo.

Killer new short film from the folks at PostPanic that explores the journey of Voyager 1, the furthest traveling man-made spacecraft (that we know of). It evokes feelings of grandiosity and insignificance, while gently reminding us that eventually we all return to dust.

For best results, watch on fullscreen with your volume turned up.

Understanding the Difference Between Happiness and Meaning

I read a great piece in the Atlantic this weekend explaining the difference between the pursuit of happiness and meaning and wanted to summarize it here.

The piece was called, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, and a great deal of it focused on the work of Victor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist, concentration camp survivor, and author of one of the most significant works of non-fiction in history, Man’s Search For Meaning. I love Frankl, have been highly influenced by his work and encourage you to check out the article itself for a good synopsis on his life.

Man’s Search For Meaning was written in 1946. The book sought to identify the central difference between those who survived in the concentration camps and those who didn’t; namely it was the ability to identify and connect with the meaning in one’s life that helped many to survive. Frankl then surmised that it was meaning, not happiness that was at the core of a life well lived. Over 50 years later the field of positive psychology is adding new research and insight into this idea.

To dissect these two concepts, researchers surveyed 400 Americans about their attitudes and beliefs pertaining to the concepts of happiness and meaning. Interestingly enough, there is overlap, but the concepts are very different. I’ll elaborate.

SImply put, happiness is associated with “taking” while meaning is associated with “giving”. Those who are happy find life to be relatively easy, have the means to acquire the things they want and need, and are generally free of worry and stress. But overall, happiness is associated with more selfish behaviors.

While happiness is about serving the needs and desires of the self, meaning is about moving beyond the self, an act that is far more uniquely human. Meaning often comes from giving some part of ones self to others, a cause or a worthwhile pursuit. Not surprisingly, meaningful lives are often less happy ones, characterized by greater levels of stress and anxiety.

The key finding in the study, I think, is that meaning is more enduring than happiness.  While happiness, is essentially just another emotion, the pursuit of meaning has the ability to take us beyond the sensory satisfaction of the present moment into something more lasting.

All of this, in my mind, brings us back to a very central human struggle about delaying gratification. The emotional mind is constantly making demands to the rational mind, some needs, some wants.  All are ultimately distractions from our larger pursuits.  It is our ability to see the futility and endless cycle of desire and fulfillment that frees us up to see and become something greater.

Hopefully understanding this distinction, illuminated by science, helps to ease this tension.

[via The Atlantic]

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