Guest Post: Math Movie Music

Let’s be real: Watching someone doing math is only slightly more exciting than watching metal corrode. That may be why we’ve never seen a naturalistic depiction of math in the movies; such a snoozer would show someone hunched over a desk or a computer for hours, maybe with a few coffee refills and bathroom breaks. Math is such a mental sport that its dramas, its twists and surprises, its gradual build to Unassailable Truth, are usually locked between the eyes and the fingertips.

But not at the movies! A good math movie can draw out those inner eddies of abstraction. Which is why the math music of movies is so great. Imagine the the task given to a film’s composers as they start to assemble a soundtrack for a math-heavy movie: “Okay folks, in this scene the genius is going to solve some equations, and you have to write music to make people care. Go!” And yet they do it.

Last year’s Hidden Figures, for example, included several scenes where Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), NASA math genius, obliterator of obstacles rooted in racism, does nothing more than solve equations. And we’re riveted, partly because Henson pulls it off, and also because the soundtrack — by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch — tells us we should be. (To hear what I’m writing about, and for enhanced experience of this post, play one of the HF math-doing tracks by clicking here. In fact, if you play the music, this post will be better.)

At its best, math movie music helps the rest of us experience the emotional payoff of mathematics: The elegance of a proof, for example, or the underlying beauty of group theory. For just a moment, the music connects us to the mathematician’s mental gymnastics, and while may not get the math itself, we share in her feeling of triumph as she approaches the truth.

Continue reading

Cherry Blossoms, Close By

cherry blossoms, in full bloomHere in Washington, D.C., we love our cherry trees. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial, get all the attention. And they deserve it–they’re lovely. This year, peak bloom was an elusive creature. February was so unseasonably warm that the Park Service predicted peak bloom would come March 14 or 15, one of the earliest dates ever–but then it got colder, snow and ice came, and everyone fretted over whether the cherries would make it through at all.

I never made it down to see the famous flowers this year, but never fear. Next to a parking lot near my apartment are a line of scrawny pavement trees, and a few of them are cherries. Continue reading

Moby Peep: A Peeps Diorama

A diorama of Moby Dick, but with marshmallows instead of people and whale.
Thar she peeps!

I have a bit of a thing about whales. The shelf above my desk at home is full of whale art, and a National Geographic whale poster hangs in a frame above that. Along with that, I have a thing about Moby Dick, which is a book about whales.

So when it was time for my friends Joanna Church, Kate Ramsayer, and I to follow up the success of Hamilpeep and Knit One, Peep Two, I remembered my beloved whales and suggested: Moby Peep. Neither Joanna nor Kate has ever read Moby Dick – and, honestly, I haven’t read it in like a decade – but I think it was the Peep with a peg leg that sold them on it.

In the whaling boat

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab (Peephab) is dead set on getting revenge against the whale. (Many people think this is what the book is about, but you and I know it is actually about whales. So here he is, out in the boat with some of his top crew members to kill that darn whale once and for all. Because we are into historical accuracy, we included several lances for killing the whale, but because we have limits, we did not make any harpoons.

Let’s get a better look at those crew members.

From left: Our narrator, who asks you to call him Ishmael; Queequeg, the harpooneer; and Starbuck, the first mate (I am extremely proud of the logo on his apron – the mermaid is a peep).

The white whale

Kate spent many, many hours gluing mini marshmallows onto cardboard. Many hours.

The whaling ship

And way in the back there, rolling on the waves – you may know it as the Pequod, but the Peep figurehead and the tiny peep looking over the side should clue you in that this is in fact the Peepquod. Spoiler alert: The Peepquod doesn’t last much longer.

cutting a peep with a knife (to make Captain Ahab)
Experimental Peep amputation

We’d been so rushed on our previous diorama masterpieces, this time we decided to meet early and start working before the Washington Post’s annual contest was announced. In some Murphy’s law of contests, the Washington Post then announced that it is no longer in the business of fun. The Washington City Paper saved the day, announcing they would continue the contest! But, on the neverending emotional rollercoaster that is the Peeps diorama experience, Moby Peep didn’t make it to the finals. Alas. Almost as tragic as the ending of Moby Dick.

Photos: Helen Fields, except last photo, which is by Kate Ramsayer

The Junk-Bond Salesmen of Science: A Tribute

In honor of the posts of Michelle Nijhuis and Christie Aschwanden, too many posts to link to, about the detection, prevention, and treatment of bullshit.

I hate being lied to.  I purely hate it.  I hate it with a cold, hard hate.  I understand that “lying” means different things to different people, anything from exaggeration to story-telling to wishful thinking to ass-covering to purposeful deception.  I understand that what one culture regards as an outright lie, another might regard as courtesy to the person being lied to.  I understand that some lies are little and acceptable, and others are big and not.  I’ll arbitrarily define the lying I hate as: a person knows that the truth matters to you and also knows that what he/she is telling you is not the truth.  This is a short rant because of various things and, you know.  Current events.

Also because I just gave a talk to an editors’ conference in which I promised that if editors, writers, and readers would just think the way scientists do, the whole world would be immunized against liars.  Then I got home from the conference and read in Nature an article titled “Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor.”   “Predatory journals” are the telephone junk-bond salesmen of science.   Continue reading

On Competence

A girl of about seven with short black hair in a homespun garment, spinning cotton on a single spindle
A little girl in Peru trying, in vain, to teach me how to spin cotton. Photo by Glenn Shepard.

As human civilization becomes ever more technologically complex, the average competence of each person declines. When a society operates using a suite of technologies that a single adult can learn in his or her lifetime—building a house from scratch, farming, spinning cotton, making medicines, having babies, hunting, fishing, singing and dancing—then it is possible to attain a high level of competency in nearly every major task an adult may be called upon to do.

In the highly specialized western society in which I and perhaps you live, this is not the case. Most of us are completely inept at most things. I cannot build a house, or farm, or hunt very well, or fish very well, or sing or play any instruments or do virtually anything well except write. I needed expert help to have my babies and my one attempt at spinning cotton, in the Peruvian Amazon, brought my audience of skilled indigenous people to tears of helpless laughter. Most of us are in this boat. If we can program software, we can’t repair a lawnmower. If we can repair a lawnmower, we can’t make a decent omelet or pass a history test or do even a cursory tango. Most of us suck at most things.

Nevertheless, our admiration for competence is undiminished. We are impressed with people who can weld or make their own beer or do that thing with a frying pan where you flip everything by tossing it into the air. Our cinematic heroes are usually hyper-competent, from James Bond to Jason Bourne to superheroes and wariors. I like nothing more than to watch a bomb-disarmament or bank heist or car-chase trick driving, especially if the person doing the difficult thing never breaks a sweat. I think this admiration is in our nature. And the more traditional or concrete the task, the more we seem to admire competence in that task—to the point where we have begun teaching ourselves truly anachronistic things as a kind of competence-play: pressing cider, sewing or knitting our own clothes in a world where new ones are a tenth of the price of the unprocessed fabric or yarn, canning beets, flint-knapping, and so on.

If, like me, you are physically clumsy and if, like me, your job mostly involves going clickety-click on your computer, you may feel your own perpetual incompetence especially acutely. In addition to things I daydream about that I’ve never even tried (SCUBA diving, surfing, elk hunting, partner dancing) there are so many things I can “do” but do exceptionally poorly, including eating with chopsticks, any yoga pose that requires balance, swimming, running, art, music, home or auto repair, foreign languages, sports, packing smaller objects into a larger object, remembering where I put things, cooking, riding a bicycle and—let me put my cards on the table—driving. When my husband and I were first dating I was too vain to wear a bicycle helmet but he begged me to start because I crash constantly. He never wears a helmet, by the way, because he’s good at riding a bicycle. He can also do that frying pan flip thing. And cook.

A pan full of cookies that all melted together into one big soupy blob.
These were supposed to be chocolate chip cookies.

Incompetence is exhausting and embarrassing. I seem to spend my life sweeping up broken glass, dabbing at stains on my shirt with my napkin, and getting lost in my hometown. I ruin dinner at least once a week, mostly because I mess up the timing. I cannot wear any hairstyle more complicated than a pony-tail. Forget multi-tasking, I can barely single-task, if the task involves operating in three dimensions. This is likely the reason I became a writer. Writing is 2D. You string the words along, one after the other, and you don’t need any kind of balance, spatial reasoning, muscular strength, hand-eye-coordination or physical grace whatsoever. Then again, if you know anything about writers, you know that the majority secretly believe themselves to be lousy at it and regularly wake up at 3:00 AM anxiously wondering when everyone else will figure out they’ve been conned. I count myself among the majority in this respect.

Incompetence also frequently fills me with anger. Recently I spent the afternoon pruning a half dozen wildly overgrown climbing roses. I had watched several YouTube videos on the subject and consulted the Western Garden Book. I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was convinced that all the canes I was carefully pruning to the right length on an upward-facing bud were rootstock anyway, and would produce at most a few simple, short-lived roses. And the roses kept hurting me, kept stabbing me with their thorns and drawing blood, because I was not deft enough to avoid them. I started weeping—not out of sadness or pain but out of pure rage. Why should I be so bad at everything? Why should nature and nurture have produced such a useless person? I can’t even reliably produce a properly soft-boiled egg or apply eyeliner.

As children, my youngest brother and I used to speculate that had we been alive during the Paleolithic we would never have made it to adulthood. Weak, small for our ages, sickly, inattentive—we would have been saber-tooth cat food.

All of us must live with the fact that we are incompetent at some things, since there are now too many things for one human to master. A few of us must live with the fact that we aren’t really competent at anything.

But being human isn’t all canning beets or surfing or pruning climbing roses. A core part of being a human is our relationships with other humans, relationships often built upon cooperation, mutual assistance, division of labor. A purely competent woman wouldn’t need anyone else and might spend her life alone. I have found people in my life who help me. My husband chops onions for me; my brothers and father fix my car; my mother mends my clothes. I eat the ducks that others shoot, the omelets that others flip. If I am competent at anything, it is in maintaining these relationships. I suppose that is social competence. Maybe during the Paleolithic the other members of our group would have saved my me and brother from the saber tooth cat because they liked having us around. Individual incompetence means we need each other, and that need is the origin of the love between humans that makes life worth living.

Even so, I wish I were a better swimmer.

P.S. During the writing of this essay, I managed to spill an entire bottle of cranberry juice inside my purse.

Dead Bugs Under My Desk, a Tribute

In honor of Helen Fields’s beloved series about the bugs she comes across in her daily life [see Fields, H. “Bugs on my Window,” LWON (June 24, 2015)], I’d like to present a semi-related post:

Bugs (or Other Things) that my Dogs Probably Regurgitated

As a writer and a “scientist” (I studied Conservation Biology, which is only science about 1/3 of the time), when there is something on the ground or floor that I don’t recognize, I typically inspect it closely before cleaning it up, hoping to learn something new. Sometimes I smell unidentified things as my husband watches in horror. No, I do not taste them (unless I’m 99% sure it’s a bit of chocolate that came off as I snapped a square from a bar earlier). (The other 1% in that scenario is a killer.)

But when signs point to “a thing the dogs ate or dragged in,” I’m less likely to put my face near it, even in the name of science. Fortunately, those things usually can be identified from arm’s length.

It wasn’t me.

Here’s a countdown of 10 of the previously alive things I’ve discovered tangled in dust bunnies under my desk or left behind in a dog’s bed. Inside my house. Where I live. Ewww.

10. Regurgitated fly
9. Regurgitated honeybee (sorry, pollinators!)
8. Vole, probably Microtus pennsylvanicus, whole
7. Shrew, maybe Sorex cinereus, partial
6. Egg shell sans chick, likely American robin (Turdus migratorius)
5. Chick, newly fledged, Common/European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (invasive), partial
4. Regurgitated cricket, thorax intact, missing 1 forewing, 1 hind leg
3. Regurgitated earthworm (why? Why?)
2. Stink bug, Brown marmorated (Halyomorpha halys), chewed and spit, preserved in dog slobber
1. Bird foot, species unknown, whole

I cough things up pretty regularly. I’m probably doing it now.

When you think about it, it’s amazing what the dog gut can handle. Why don’t they get sick from the same things we do, especially bad bacteria?

I probably ate it, whatever it was. But look how cute I am!

I know some reasons. For one, their saliva contains lysozyme, an enzyme that kills off such stuff. They also have a short digestive tract, which means food (or whatever they ingest) moves through quickly—giving bacteria little time to grab on and build a colony. Dog guts are also really acidic. So, that helps. There are probably other explanations. But basically, they’ve evolved to handle funk in the environment because their wolf-like ancestors ate raw meat, and later garbage, rather than nosing around in bowls of high-priced kibble from the fancy dog food store.

Why am I even here?

Still, some things just don’t sit right. Each day, especially in the summertime, I learn something new that falls into that category. Although, I’d theorize that a lot of items come back up simply because they feel gaggy in the throat, not because of any toxic bacteria they carry. A buzzing fly in the esophagus feels funny, I’ll bet. It probably doesn’t get very far down the old shoot.

Some people might say I’m actually fortunate, because my dogs do not eat their own or each other’s waste. By waste I mean shit.

Good dogs.


Broom photo by Rigel via Flickr

Dog and kangaroo photos by the author

1,444 Candlesticks: The dark origins of modern fire science

Margo Schulz recalls a time from her childhood when large black snowflakes drifted down from the sky. She remembers those warm summer days, outside with her sister hanging laundry to dry. They made a game of reaching up and catching the blackened flakes mid-air. They were burnt pieces of paper: half a birth certificate, part of a love letter, half a Deutsch Mark note – the detritus of 50,000 lives incinerated just a few miles away.

The year was 1943. Schultz lived in the town of Bergedorf, several miles southeast of Hamburg, Germany. On the night of July 27-28, a British air raid had dealt Hamburg a devastating blow: 739 planes dropped more than 3 million incendiary charges – sticks of phosphorus or magnesium that hissed like Roman candles as they fell onto rooftops. What made the raid distinctive was the way it was orchestrated. Through a technique called “area bombing,” all of this firepower was focused on a small section of the city, its eastern quadrant, where middle- and working-class families lived in densely-packed six-story apartment blocks.

Within 20 minutes, thousands of blazes merged into a single firestorm. The fires greedily sucked in fresh oxygen, drawing in hurricane-strength winds, which splintered trees and launched burning planks of wood into the air. The hot gases and smoke rising from these flames pushed an angry, anvil-shaped thunderhead 30,000 feet into the sky. The black snowflakes that Schultz playfully plucked from the air for several days afterward were the exhaled breath of that firestorm: bits of paper lifted thousands of feet by the fire’s hot, buoyant updraft, which drifted back to earth as the air cooled.

Schulz’s story is one of many collected by the British historian Martin Middlebrook in his book, Firestorm Hamburg: The Facts Surrounding the Destruction of a German City 1943. Her story hints at how different observers can draw vastly different meanings from a singular event.

The novelist Hans Erich Nossack contemplated how the bombing had laid bare the role that random chance plays in every person’s life, in his account, The End: Hamburg 1943. On the night of the raid he happened to be 10 miles outside Hamburg – his first time out of the city in many years. Contemplating his unlikely role of spectator, he says: “I don’t know why.” Continue reading

The Last Word

March 27 – 31, 2017

One of LWON’s preoccupations is with the prevention, detection, and abolition of bullshit.  Christie, who often writes about controversies, gets angry emails which she understands and which suggest to her bullshit’s cause.

Cassie’s friend, Neda, has lots of hair which she wears in a bun which, every time she goes through airport security, the TSA squeezes.  Neda doesn’t think she’s being profiled but she thinks her hair is.

Rose ponders, and then ponders again, and then re-ponders why she apologizes for delaying her email responses.  She ponders herself right into setting all her emails on fire.

Craig’s life is so — what’s a nice synonym for “chaotic?” — unpredictably lively that he needs an indicator, a barometer, for when the liveliness has gotten out of hand: the number of single socks he has.

Jessa’s story of the days when zoos exhibited not only animals but humans, one of whom was an Inuit named Abraham Ulrikap.  He kept a diary.  This is the kind of story with which a week should end because there’s absolutely nothing to say about it.