Talking Down

The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”

The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:

I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
of syntax,
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.

“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”

Augury

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0003433_Rechenkunst_%5E_Mathematik.jpg

Ohio State University philosopher Stewart Shapiro relates a puzzling experience that a friend once encountered in a physics lab. “The class was looking at an oscilloscope and a funny shape kept forming at the end of the screen. Although it had nothing to do with the lesson that day, my friend asked for an explanation. The lab instructor wrote something on the board (probably a differential equation) and said that the funny shape occurs because a function solving the equation has a zero at a particular value. My friend told me that he became even more puzzled that the occurrence of a zero in a function should count as an explanation of a physical event, but he did not feel up to pursuing the issue further at the time.

“This example indicates that much of the theoretical and practical work in a science consists of constructing or discovering mathematical models of physical phenomena. Many scientific and engineering problems are tasks of finding a differential equation, a formula, or a function associated with a class of phenomena. A scientific ‘explanation’ of a physical event often amounts to no more than a mathematical description of it, but what on earth can that mean? What is a mathematical description of a physical event?”

What right do we have to presume that the natural world will hew to mathematical laws? And why does the universe oblige us so graciously by doing so? Repeatedly, mathematicians have developed abstract structures and concepts that have later found unexpected applications in science. How can this happen?

“It is positively spooky how the physicist finds the mathematician has been there before him or her.” — Steven Weinberg

“I find it quite amazing that it is possible to predict what will happen by mathematics, which is simply following rules which really have nothing to do with the original thing.” — Richard Feynman

“One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulae have an independent existence and intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.” — Heinrich Hertz

“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” — Eugene Wigner

(From Stewart Shapiro, Thinking About Mathematics, 2000; also his paper “Mathematics and Reality” in Philosophy of Science 50:4 [December 1983].)

Postal Constraints

Letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Dec. 9, 1875:

This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave. ‘Two pounds to pay, sir!’ he said. ‘Extra weight, sir!’ (I think he cheats a little, by the way. He often makes me pay two pounds, when I think it should be pence). ‘Oh, if you please, Mr. Postman!’ I said, going down gracefully on one knee (I wish you could see me go down on one knee to a postman — it’s a very pretty sight), ‘do excuse me just this once! It’s only from a little girl!’

‘Only from a little girl!’ he growled. ‘What are little girls made of?’ ‘Sugar and spice,’ I began to say, ‘and all that’s ni–‘ but he interrupted me. ‘No! I don’t mean that. I mean, what’s the good of little girls, when they send such heavy letters?’ ‘Well, they’re not much good, certainly,’ I said, rather sadly.

‘Mind you don’t get any more such letters,’ he said, ‘at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!’ That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters — ‘Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.’

So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.

A Step Up

addison patent

Shropshire furniture maker Henry Addison patented these “elevators” in 1902:

My invention has for its object a new or improved device or stand for attaching to the foot by means of which those people who are at the rear of, or short people who are in the midst of a large gathering or crowd are enabled to easily and comfortably see over the heads of the people in front thus enabling them to witness a procession or game or other sight without any inconvenience or crushing which will be found of considerable advantage.

Addison thought they’d be particularly valuable at football matches, race meetings, sports, “or games of any kind where a crowd of spectators are assembled.” Of course, the people behind you will have to get stilts.

Misc

  • Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
  • C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
  • Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
  • π4 + π5e6
  • “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire

(Thanks, Larry.)

Unquote

“The really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.” — Albert Einstein

“Aside from purely technical analysis, nothing can be said about music, except when it is bad; when it is good, one can only listen and be grateful.” — W.H. Auden

Podcast: Episode 24

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_McGonagall.jpg

William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Versatile

What’s unusual about this magic square?

heath invertible square 1

It works just as well upside down:

heath invertible square 2

From Royal V. Heath, Scripta Mathematica, March-June 1951. See Topsy Turvy.

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Vernet_-_A_Seastorm_-_WGA24737.jpg

haliography
n. a description of the sea

Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”

Small Business

To help interest young students in chemistry, James Tour of Rice University devised “NanoPutians,” organic molecules that take the form of stick figures. The body is a series of carbon atoms that join two benzene rings; the arms and legs are acetylene units, each terminating in an alkyl group; and the head is a 1,3-dioxolane ring.

This gets even better — by using microwave irradiation, Tour found a way to vary the heads, creating a range of NanoProfessionals:

The synthesis is detailed on the Wikipedia page.

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