Favorite Non-fiction of the Year: “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science”

This book is by Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but it’s already my favorite non-fiction of the year. To be more precise, it was published in 2016, so I should say favorite non-fiction that I read this year.

Things that I learned from the book:

  1. There are two parallel visual pathways in the brain, one that deals with what an image is about and one that deals with where it is located in the world. The what pathway is the only one that leads to hippocampus, which deals with the explicit memory of people, places, and objects. The where pathway is concerned with motion, depth, and spatial information. The pathways can exchange information, but they are distinct and separated. Art exploits the fact that seemingly inseparable information is actually processed in separate pathways.
  2. Occipital cortex responds to both sight and the sense of touch. The texture of an object activates cells in the medial occipital cortex regardless of whether the object is perceived by the eye or by the hand.  (This explains how I ‘feel’ the textures of Raku tea bowls or Franz Kline’s paintings.)
  3. Aplysia (large sea snail) has about 20,000 neurons. Its neural circuit is wired in a fixed way, but learning changes the strength of the connections among neurons.
  4. Each nerve cell in the primary visual cortex responds to simple lines and edges with a specific orientation, and that’w how we assemble contours and geometric shapes.
  5. Mating and fighting are mediated by the same population of neurons, and the difference is only on the intensity of the stimulus.
  6. The prefrontal cortex responds to categorized figurative images, whereas the superior parietal cortex is activated by any visual image, meaningful or not.

Some random art facts:

  1. Kandinsky discovered his abstract painting style from listening to Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet and Three Piano Pieces Op 11.
  2. Legend has it that upon viewing a sunset painted by Turner, a young women remarked, “I never saw a sunset like that, Mr. Turner,” to which Turner replied, “Don’t you wish you could, madam?”
  3. Klimt shows women’s teeth in his paintings, such as in Judith and Woman I.



Henry Billingsley’s First English Translation of Euclid’s Elements

For a class project, this week I had the opportunity to view an original copy of Henry Billingsley’s first English translation (1570) of Euclid’s Elements (~300 BCE). This edition was printed very finely, and it even included foldable pop-up geometric diagrams! I wish all geometry textbooks could be up to this standard.

Billingsley Elements

Foldable pop-ups in the eleventh book.

Euclid’s Elements has a pretty interesting history of transmission. The original Greek manuscript of Elements was lost to Western Europe in the Middle Ages. In 8th century, Elements was translated into Arabic and became known to Byzantine scholars. From the Arabic version, English monk Adelard of Bath produced the first Latin translation in 12th century. The Latin translation of Elements was first set in type in Venice in 1482 under the title Elementa Geometriae. Later in 1533, a Greek edition by Theon of Alexandria was fortunately recovered, and Billingsley’s first English edition was translated from the Greek edition in 1570. It’s really fascinating to think that we are still able to read something from more than two thousand years ago.

Billingsley Elements (1)

The handsome woodcut title page shows Billingsley’s ideal of the beauty of mathematics.

Billingsley Elements (2)

An example of complicated geometric figures in the book.

Montaigne, Of Quick and Slow Speech

I am the one who speaks slowly, very slowly. My parents, as well as my teachers and classmates, often kindly remind me of this fact. I cannot remember exactly at what age I started to speak slowly, perhaps ever since I learnt to speak. For me, it is time-consuming not only to find the most suitable phrases for a sentence, but also to search my memory for supporting evidences for my accuracy before I speak. Often, as I prefer to think more deeply rather than more quickly, I feel more comfortable to write than to speak.

Since the issue of slow speech has long been my concern, it is especially interesting for me to read Montaigne’s essay Of Quick and Slow Speech. As Montaigne put it, there are people with the gift of promptness and eloquence, as well as people with deliberation and thoroughness. Unfortunately, while I still have a mock trial competition next month, Montaigne remarked that I would be better for the pulpit, instead of for the bar.

Here comes the essay:


‘All graces were never yet given to any one man’ – a verse from one of Le Brebis’s sonnets

Some are very gifted in the art of speaking; they have a quick and easy wit, ready on all occasions and never taken by surprise. Others are heavy and slow, unable to say anything they have not ‘long premeditated and taken great pains to fit and prepare’.

When we teach young women sports and exercises to enhance and showcase their beauty and their character, we should teach them eloquence too. At the moment, it seems to be a skill that belongs principally to the lawyers and preachers of our age. I for one think that the preacher should be a slow speaker and the lawyer quick, because the preacher can allow himself all the time he wants to prepare. After all, ‘his career is performed in an even … line, without stop or interruption.’ The lawyer, on the other hand, has to prepared to defend a number of different cases, and to face all kinds of ‘unexpected objections and replies’, when the opposition attempts to jostle him off course or have him think up new answers and defences.

Still, lawyers are not always quick-witted. Let me share the example of Pope Clement and King Francis, where the Pope was asked to have a speech delivered on his behalf to the King and his subjects. The man chosen to make the speech was Mr. Poyet, a very experienced lawyer, known for his eloquence. Poyet had prepared the speech long in advance, in Paris. On the day of the speech, the Pope, afraid that the prepared speech was not appropriate, told the King of a speech he felt more suiting to the time and place, but very different from the one Poyet had taken so much time in preparing. The King liked it, and Poyet was asked to contrive a new speech. He found himself completely unable to do so, and in the end someone else gave the speech instead.

The lawyer’s job is more difficult than that of the preacher; and yet, in my opinion we see more passable lawyers in France than preachers. ‘It should seem that the nature of wit is to have its operation prompt and sudden, and that of judgment to have it more deliberate and more slow’. But he who stays silent, in order to take his time in deciding what to say, and he who finds that time does not better his speech at all, are equally unhappy.

Severus Cassius, it is said, spoke best when he was unprepared to speak. He was more obliged then, to fortune than to his own diligence, and it was actually an advantage to him to be interrupted whilst speaking. His adversaries were afraid, therefore, to annoy him, ‘lest his anger should redouble his eloquence.’ I’m familiar with this kind of disposition – so impatient of tedious preparation that it can only perform well if it works with a care-free light-heartedness. We say of some paintings that ‘they stink of oil and of the lamp’ because laborious handling can sometimes lend a rough harshness to work. Besides, the over-worrying about doing well can result in a mind ‘too far strained and overbent’, and this mind ‘breaks and hinders itself’ like water that is unable to escape from the neck of a bottle or a narrow path, due to its own force and abundance. Also, this type of laborious and painstaking style of work cannot be disordered or stimulated with the same kinds of ‘passions of fury’ as Cassius in his speeches.

As for me, I always perform worst when prepared. Accident and chance play a larger role in anything that comes from me than I myself play. The situation, the people I am around, even the rising and falling of my own voice, extract more from my mind than I myself could find if I tried to use my mind myself. Thus, ‘the things I say are better than those I write, if either were to be preferred where neither is worth anything’. Also, I’ve noted that ‘I do not find myself where I seek myself’. I discover things more by chance than by reasoning. Sometimes, I hit upon something when I write, and it appears clever and fresh to me, although maybe to others it will seem dull and heavy. But let’s leave these compliments; everyone talks this way of his perceived talent.

When I speak, ‘I am already so lost that I know not what I was about to say’ and sometimes the person I am addressing finds out what I mean before I do. If I were to stop myself every time this happened, I would, in fact, say nothing. Often, the meaning of what I have said is made clear to me long after I’ve actually said it.