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The Mind's Sky
Cover of The Mind's Sky
The Mind's Sky
Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context
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The bestselling author of Coming of Age in the Milky Way delivers fascinating essays on the human mind, the search for extraterrestrial (and thus nonhuman) intelligence, comet strikes as a source of species extinction, near-death experiences, apocalyptic prophecies, information theory, and the origin of laughter.
 
Praise for The Mind’s Sky
 
“It is a joy to read The Mind’s Sky. What a sense of humility in the face of mystery—the spirit of Ulysses, as Tennyson put it, determined ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’—and sense of poetry too!”—John Archibald Wheeler, physicist, Princeton University
 
“A few chapters into this wonderful book I suddenly realized that I was taking wider views of my own mind’s sky than I have enjoyed in a long time. Ferris illuminates (among other matters) the mysteries of laughter, nirvana, common sense, and Joe Montana. He makes us think big thoughts.”—Jonathan Weiner, author of The Next 100 Years and Planet Earth
“One of our best and most imaginative writers, Timothy Ferris has never been afraid to tackle big themes. The Mind’s Sky is a dazzling and provocative synthesis of inner and outer space. This book is sure to be as controversial as it is elegant.”—Dennis Overbye, author of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos
The bestselling author of Coming of Age in the Milky Way delivers fascinating essays on the human mind, the search for extraterrestrial (and thus nonhuman) intelligence, comet strikes as a source of species extinction, near-death experiences, apocalyptic prophecies, information theory, and the origin of laughter.
 
Praise for The Mind’s Sky
 
“It is a joy to read The Mind’s Sky. What a sense of humility in the face of mystery—the spirit of Ulysses, as Tennyson put it, determined ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’—and sense of poetry too!”—John Archibald Wheeler, physicist, Princeton University
 
“A few chapters into this wonderful book I suddenly realized that I was taking wider views of my own mind’s sky than I have enjoyed in a long time. Ferris illuminates (among other matters) the mysteries of laughter, nirvana, common sense, and Joe Montana. He makes us think big thoughts.”—Jonathan Weiner, author of The Next 100 Years and Planet Earth
“One of our best and most imaginative writers, Timothy Ferris has never been afraid to tackle big themes. The Mind’s Sky is a dazzling and provocative synthesis of inner and outer space. This book is sure to be as controversial as it is elegant.”—Dennis Overbye, author of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos
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  • From the book This Is Not the Universe
     
    The mind does not understand its own reason for being.
    —René Magritte                
     
    A picture without a frame is not a picture.
    —John Archibald Wheeler
     
     
     
    Perhaps you’ve seen the painting: A pipe, depicted with photographic realism, floats above a line of careful, schoolboy script that reads Ceci nest pas une pipe—.” This is not a pipe.” Rene Magritte painted it in the 1920s, and people have been talking ever since about what it means.
     
    Did Magritte intend to remind us that a representation is not the object it depicts—that his painting is “only” a painting and not a pipe? Such an interpretation is widely taught to undergraduates, but if it is true, Magritte went to an awful lot of trouble—carefully selecting a dress-finish pipe of particularly elegant design, making dozens of sketches of it, taking it apart to familiarize himself with its anatomy, then painting its portrait with great care and skill—just to tell us something we already knew. After all, nobody really confuses paintings with reality, and the danger that people will try to smoke paintings of pipes or eat paintings of pears does not rank high among the hazards confronting the working artist.
     
    Perhaps it was with an eye toward discouraging simplistic explanations of his famous pipe that Magritte returned to the same motif toward the end of his career. In The Air and the Song, painted in 1964, just three years before Magritte’s death, the pipe is found inside a representation of an elaborate, carved frame, as if to emphasize that it is only a painting—yet smoke from its bowl billows up out of the painted “frame”! In another canvas, The Two Mysteries, Magritte is even more insistent: The original pipe painting, complete with caption, is depicted as sitting on an easel that rests on a plank floor; but above it to the left hovers a second pipe, larger (or closer) than the painted canvas and its frame. What we have here is a painting of a paradox. Obviously the smaller pipe is a painting and not a pipe. But what is the second pipe, the one that looms outside the represented canvas? And if that, too, is but a painting, then where does the painting end?
     
    We’ve been set on the road to infinite regress. Suppose, for instance, that Magritte had glued a real pipe to the actual frame of The Two Mysteries: Would the genuine pipe qualify as a pipe, or did it become something else once Magritte affixed it to the frame? (The same riddle is posed by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pad boxes, which are indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes on sale in any supermarket. Had Warhol captioned one with the words, “This is not a Brillo Box,” would the caption be true or false?)
     
    It seems to me that the roots of the paradox reside in the concept of the frame. When we look at a realistic painting—Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X and his nephews, say, or Breughel’s Peasant Wedding—we accept by convention that it represents real people and actual objects. When that convention is denied, as in Magritte’s pipe paintings or in the many impossible scenes depicted by his fellow surrealists—locomotives emerging from fireplaces, clocks limp as jellyfish—the point is not to remind us that paintings are not real. That much is true, but trivial. The point is to challenge the belief that everything outside the frame is real.
     
    The enemy of surrealists like...
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Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context
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