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Pictures at an Exhibition

Why Forgeries Are Great Art

Is the insular art world not giving us the excitement we crave? Jonathon Keats, author of the new book, ‘Forged,’ says forgeries are the new masterpieces we should be paying attention to.

What’s your big idea?

Art is in the business of anxiety. For well over a century, artists have been trying to rile us, making us question ourselves and our society. At the most fundamental level, Abstract Expressionism evokes existential angst for instance, and Pop Art satirizes consumerism. But the art world is an insular place, and for the select few who actually go to museums, any potential anxiety is neutralized by mind-numbing curatorial explanations.


A visitor looking at paintings by Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), on May 11, 2010 in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. (Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty)

As a result, legitimate art is doing a bad job of taking us outside our comfort zone. Art forgery, on the other hand, does so brilliantly. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.


Big Idea: Farming Treats Cancer?

You know labels like ‘organic,’ ‘free range,’ or ‘non GMO,’ but what exactly do they mean? Physician Daphne Miller, who teaches family medicine at UC San Francisco, sought to learn more about where our food is grown in ‘Farmacology,’ and finds that innovative farming can teach us new lessons about our health—a vineyard’s pest management strategy, for instance, offers a new take on cancer care.

What is your big idea?

We are more connected to the farm than we think.


A local Vermont worker, Brad Peacock, picks organically grown romaine lettuce at the Clear Brook Farm July 24, 2012 in Shaftsbury, Vermont. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty)

Recently I began to take time away from my medical practice to visit sustainable farms and see what went on there. As I journeyed across the country, milking cows, gathering eggs, weeding brassicas, laying irrigation pipe and hawking produce at farm stands, I discovered that good medicine and good farming had much in common. In fact, I began to see family farmers as healers whose jobs were more complicated than mine, since they were responsible for the health of an entire eco-system (soil, soil creatures, animals, plants, water, air, people, and so on) while I was expected to care for just one member of that eco-system (people).

Rising Sun

Why the West Will Fall Behind

Why has the West dominated human advances in recent centuries, and is China poised to take over? Historian Ian Morris answers those questions.

What’s your big idea?

The big idea is that geography explains why the West rules the world—and why its domination may not last much longer.


Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

There are two sides to the story.


The Big Idea: Love

On Valentine’s Day, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson gives us the latest scientific view of love.

What’s your big idea?

Worldwide polls suggest that most people take love to be romantic, everlasting, and unconditional, confining it to that special relationship they have with the one person they call their soulmate—or would call their soulmate, if they ever met the “right” person. To me, this popular view of love suggests a worldwide collapse of imagination that poignantly limits the benefits that love might otherwise carry for us all. As an emotions scientist, working from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, I’ve come to a very different perspective on love, one that can require a radical shift.

APTOPIX Valentine Phantom

Toby Talbot/AP

Suppose you could, for a moment, disregard all the love myths, love stories, and love songs lodged in your head, and drop down to your heart, and see love from that perspective. I’m not talking about some metaphorical heart, or the cartoon hearts we see everywhere this Valentine’s season, but your physical heart, beating away inside your chest. By listening to what your heart has to say, we can begin to appreciate love from a new angle. And suppose we go beyond your heart, into your bloodstream, and touch base with your white blood cells, the very front lines of your immune system. What does love look like from that perspective? This is my big idea: in Love 2.0, my aim has been to give voice to your body’s definition of love.


The Big Quantum Idea

Former Columbia biophysics professor Werner Loewenstein tells us what physics and quantum computing have to do with the brain.

What's your big idea?

How cells in our body transfer information to each other has been an old fixation of mine. Here, in Physics in Mind, I address the question of how information is transferred inside our most complex organ, the brain. I present an amazing set of molecules which achieve what the avant-garde of our computer scientists is only now hoping to: quantum computing. These molecules have been at it for eons—they were engineered in the oldest workshop on earth: evolution. And they wield unheard of computing power; they manage to harness the immense amounts of information inherent in quantum waves.


Alfred Pasieka/Getty

Quantum particles can behave like particles or like waves—all elementary particles will behave that way, including small atomic nuclei. And as waves, they will produce characteristic interference patterns caused by waves arriving out of step or in lockstep. It’s in the latter state, when their peaks and troughs all coincide, that these waves hold immense information amounts.


The Big Idea: Contagious Commerce

Oxford professor Mark Harrison tells us what governments are doing wrong in public health and what’s most dangerous about free trade.

What’s your big idea?

There can be little doubt that trade has contributed massively to human civilization, but we have often paid dearly for the goods and services it provides. That is as true today as it was at the time of Black Death, when the links between disease and commerce first became apparent. While the specter of plague no longer looms over us, we still rely heavily on the methods designed to prevent it. Renaissance city-states produced a template for dealing with trade-borne disease, which has proved enduring but also, in many cases, ineffective. By the late 19th century, it was clear to most governments that old-style methods like quarantine and sanitary embargoes had failed to prevent the movement of disease along the pathways of the new global market. They realized that quarantine needed to be combined with sanitary reform and that nation-states needed to come together to pool epidemiological information and agree on measures to prevent the spread of disease.


G. Baden/Corbis

Up to this point in time, states had engaged in a form of sanitary diplomacy which had more to do with furthering imperial interests than protecting public health. Quarantine had become a form of war by other means. The result was commercial chaos and sanitary disaster. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten the lessons learned by our Victorian forebears. Like them, we need to pay more attention to the factors which give rise to diseases and to seek greater cooperation in controlling them. That means shaking off some of the bad habits we’ve acquired over the years, especially our overreliance on measures of containment and our readiness to abuse sanitary controls for the purposes of economic protection. My book argues that we need to find a better balance between environmental reforms—especially regulation of agricultural production—and such tried-and-not-always-trusted methods as quarantine.

Are there mathematical models that study the ways diseases and commerce spread that can be applicable in, say, preventing pandemics or facilitating free trade? Can we even see commerce as a variation of a virus?

Computerized modeling has been used for decades to help governments assess the likelihood of pandemics and the ways in which they may spread. Some of these are now very sophisticated and incorporate studies of human interaction in real-life situations to gain an insight not only into the likely pattern of spread but also of how best to control pandemics should they break out. But sophisticated modeling isn’t necessary to prevent the spread of some trade-borne diseases. In the case of some foodborne diseases like E. coli we can often track and predict the movement of the disease by tracing suppliers and looking at logs and networks of distribution. In the case of diseases like influenza, sophisticated surveillance and modeling systems may enable us to pinpoint outbreaks and predict the rapidity of spread, but they are so protean in nature that they invariably defy expectations. Mathematical modeling, hypersurveillance and screening didn’t stop swine flu (H1N1) from spreading around the world. Nor did it prevent some countries from flying in the face of scientific knowledge and imposing quarantines and trade embargoes, even when the disease had already spread across their borders. Nor should we forget that a lot of trade in potentially dangerous products is illegal and therefore conducted with no sanitary scrutiny at all.

About The Big Idea

Scholars and writers tell us what their big idea is.

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