Category Archives: Science

Vi Hart’s 12-Tone Music

Vi Hart (a full-time mathemusician at Khan Academy) makes mostly short YouTube videos on a variety of mostly math and science subjects. She draws in a notebook while talking really fast, making insightful, surprising connections. She’s smart, funny, knowledgeable, and entertaining.

This brilliant video is, I think, a bit of a departure: a 30-minute piece explaining how 12-tone music works. Because of copyright law, she can’t play Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so she composes her own 12-tone versions of well-known tunes, with side-journeys into pattern recognition and the nature of art. By the end, she’s composed a four-part, 12-tone vocal version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that she sings herself. It’s a tour de force of music, science, art, and explanation.

Sparkles in the brain

Yesterday I was in the truck for an hour, so I listened to This American Life, the show called “Tribes”. Act 2 was remarkable enough that I played it for Susan last night — it’s 14 minutes. TAL’s description is “How could whispering change your life? Andrea Seigel tells this story about finding out that she is undeniably not alone,” which stems both from the show’s theme that day, and the desire not to give too much away.

But it doesn’t really explain what Seigel’s piece is about. It’s a first-person account of the phenomenon ASMR, which Vice called “The Good Feeling No One Can Explain“:

ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe… a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine… most [people] depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut or a manicure, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger), or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model.

This isn’t a thing I have at all, and yet I get it. Though obviously different, this seems related to the flow state described by psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though this is not about creativity or even concentrated action. Still, the idea that our brain creates natural, meditative effects due to internal or external stimuli doesn’t sound particularly controversial. People can fall into states of acute concentration and calming focus in many settings and activities — performing music, exercising or playing sports, playing games, even “chores” such as gardening, dishes, or ironing. Again, maybe with less of the physical sensation the ASMR folks describe, but it’s all a continuum of feeling, and I envy their ability to find triggers for it. If an hour of Bob Ross is your meditation practice, who could deny you that simple joy?

This phenomenon — where people get intense pleasure from small, tinny noises like rustling paper or clicking marbles — also has its opposite, hyperacusis, a condition where people are upset by those same sounds. Which, in turn, reminded me of word aversion, in which people have a string physical reaction to specific words, like moist or squab. (Sorry if that upset you.) Slate recently covered this phenomenon, “Why Do We Hate Certain Words?

Sic transit Venus

A handy way to have some front yard science to see the transit of Venus: tripod, binoculars, white cardboard (one fitted around the eyepieces of the binoculars to provide shade on the other, the projection screen), and a chair. Oh, and a sock over one eyepiece. 

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Prisoner’s Dilemma gamed

This is a remarkable six minutes, thre final round of a British game show, "Golden Balls." Please watch before reading my comments below:

So, I found this on Boing Boing, which led to a blog post with some astute comments by Bruce Schneier and his followers, but I'll just sum up my own quick take on this usurping of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma.

1. Nick's confidence helps "sell" his choice to Ibrahim. Nick is not swayed by Ibrahim's appeal to reason or honor, or to his complete confusion and despair. Nick says what he will do and leaves no doubt that he will do it: he says he will STEAL and split the money after the show; Ibrahim has no choice but to take him at his word about the former and guess about the latter.

2. Ibrahim's choice is now whether to believe Nick, choose SPLIT, and hope Nick sticks to his promise to split the funds after the show, or to spite Nick, choose STEAL, and assume they both end up with nothing. Nick seems entirely resigned to this possibility.

3. Nick's choice of SPLIT is absolutely brilliant. If Ibrahim chooses SPLIT, which Nick is clearly confident is Ibrahim's only rational choice, then trust is restored and the money is split. But, if Ibrahim chooses STEAL (and thus gets all the money), he would have little honorable choice but to do what Nick proposed anyway: split the money after the show. (That's not 100%, but especially given what Ibrahim said about honor, it's seems overwhelmingly likely that Ibrahim would do that.)

4. As someone on Bruce Scheier's blog said, Nick is essentially saying "I don't trust you; you must trust me or lose all."

5. It's unclear if this would ever work again. 

Charles Irwin Weiner, 1931-2012

Charlie+susan2011My father-in-law Charlie Weiner died on Saturday. He was 80, and having an extended stay in the village of Eyeries, Ireland with his wife, JoAnn Hughes.

Charlie was a remarkable guy, and I'm deeply sad that I won't get to spend more time with him. We only met in 2007, a few months after I met his daughter, Susan Weiner. I liked him immediately – he was funny, and engaging, and a great person to have a conversation with, because he loved to hear and share stories.

Here are some stories I heard him tell about himself and believe I remembered correctly:

He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1946, he hit the road to explore the South with a friend. Among his better documented stories is his encounter with Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, an old-time musician he searched out who lived in a ramshackle cabin near Asheville, North Carolina. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music, and Charlie's music experiences ranged from New York jazz clubs to Gullah singers in the Georgia Sea Islands. He had a great ear and memory for melody – at 80, he could still sing Japanese songs he'd learned in Tokyo during his brief military career in the '50s.

In the late '40s he rode the rails and played songs with Woody Guthrie, who gave him one of his hand-drawn, mimeographed songbooks. He attended get-togethers at Pete Seeger's Greenwich Village home, and was present the night Lee Hays brought over his friend Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers were born. Charlie acted as impromptu security for Paul Robeson and other musicians as the 1949 civil rights and music festival in Peekskill, New York deteriorated into a racist and anti-Semitic riot. 

His mother was a socialist who ran for office in New York, and Charlie remained a staunch supporter of those ideals his entire life. He distrusted and questioned authority, and always fought for basic human rights. In the '50s, he spent time in auto plants in Ohio, working on the line but secretly organizing for the union. He took part in civil rights marches in New York and Washington DC, and Susan got to see Martin Luther King when she was a young girl. He worked on campaigns for Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern. 

He met his first wife, Shirley Marks, in Cleveland, and they brought forth Susan Weiner, my wife. Their marriage didn't last, but he and Shirley remained cordial friends until the end.

Charlie entered college at Case Institute of Technology, eventually earning a PhD in the History of Science and Technology in 1965, the subject that became the focus of the rest of his life. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York, where he applied his earlier interests in talking to people and recording the results. In 1970, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to move his family to Copenhagen so he could document the life of Niels Bohr, and many of his oral histories, films, and papers can be found online in AIP's Niels Bohr Library.

In 1975, he joined MIT as professor of History of Science and Technology, and was founding director of the MIT Oral History Program until 1986. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 2002, he was named the Arthur Miller Lecturer on Science and Ethics at MIT.

Charlie_0003His work collecting interviews, letters, and other papers resulted in four books: Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics, History of Twentieth Century Physics, The Legacy of George Ellery Hale (with Helen Wright and Joan Warnow), and Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (with Alice Kimball Smith). This doesn't include the many interviews with prominent scientists Charlie made available to others. Notably, his interviews with Richard Feynman – the first time the famous physicist had agreed to discuss his work – were quoted and credited in James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

Sadly, his magnum opus, on which he worked for over twenty years, will remain incomplete. It was to be a book on (quoting his MIT page) “the history of social responsibility in science from the atomic bomb to contemporary genetic engineering. It uses archival and oral history materials to document scientists' complicity in and resistance to nuclear and biological weapons, their connections with citizens' groups affected by environmental toxins and by fallout from nuclear testing, and anticipatory concerns about ethical limits to human genetic manipulation.” 

Charlie never left behind his great love of music. Though he lived in Cape Cod with JoAnn, his wife and partner of many years, he kept a Greenwich Village apartment so he could see live jazz in the many clubs where he was well known to everyone from the owners and staff to musicians. Among his close friends, he counted guitarist Jim Hall (who gave him guitar lessons), trombonist Roswell Rudd, and pianist Bruce Barth, but the many, many people Charlie loved and who loved him back may be numberless. 


In February 2010, Susan and I came to Cape Cod, because Charlie had landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure (which continued to plague him for the next two years). It was not entirely a sad trip for us, as he was able to come home and he and JoAnn toasted our Valentine's Day engagement, which had occurred in the restaurant across from their home. By July, Charlie was healthy enough to come to California for Susan's birthday and he and JoAnn came to our wedding in October.

In December of 2010, Charlie and JoAnn had a long stay in Eyeries, a small village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland, so JoAnn could work on her art and Charlie could work on his book. Originally planned for three months, they had such a good time they extended their visit by another month. The people there welcomed them completely, and they made many friends. On their return home, Charlie played us recordings he made of community music sessions held in a nearby pub – a long and terribly sad song sung a cappella by an angelic-voiced young teen was a standout.

They returned to Ireland a year later. Despite misgivings about his health, Charlie was the biggest champion of the trip and refused to stay home. He looked forward to seeing his new friends and diving back into the book, where he'd done his most productive work in some time. After arriving in Eyeries, however, he never fully recovered his strength, and declined rapidly.

He is missed tremendously by all who knew him, and the idea that the world goes on without him – and his continuous, shameless puns – is hard to imagine. Sláinte and l'chaim, Charlie, we'll sing a song for you in loving memory.

Charlie_0002UPDATE 1: Susan and I were just talking, and I remembered one of Charlie's most endearing, entertaining, and frustrating traits: his love of good food. I once came to Boston for business without Susan, before we were married. I said I would have a car and I wanted to drive down to the Cape to have lunch before my flight home. The first thing he asked was, "What do you want to eat?" Well, I don't know, we can figure it out when I get there. "No, I need to know. We'll figure out what you want, and then work backwards from there." (For the record, we ate at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, a great, low-key place to get a lobster roll and sit next to the water that we returned to often.)

Eating out with Charlie meant enduring a ritual of joking banter with the waiter or waitress, who had to endure a pop quiz of their menu. "So, tell me, the sole — is that sauteed in oil or just how is it prepared?" As much as he enjoyed finding new restaurants he loved sharing his favorites with his friends. 

UPDATE 2: Thanks to all the visitors who are leaving personal remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn't know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others. Please encourage others!

MIT has published its official obituary

UPDATE 3: Will Thomas says kind things about this post and writes about oral history and the extent and importance of Charlie's work on the history of science blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

Jupiter rotation

Courtesy of the Astronomy Photo of the Day site, here's a full rotation of Jupiter, with a good view of the Great Red Spot, a storm larger than our planet that has raged for over a hundred years. I put it on full screen and set it to loop — very calming.


Full rotation of Jupiter from Jean-Luc Dauvergne on Vimeo.

A History of the Sky

I enjoy projects in which art emerges from a simple idea. In this case, Ken Murphy, a “musician, programmer, artist, and tinkerer living in San Francisco,” created a system on the roof of the Exploratorium to capture the sky every day with a time-lapse camera. He then combines the result into a whole that reveals something new and mesmerizing.

Looking at the time stamp in the lower right corner of the video below, you can guess at the approximate time of year of each square — I had expected January to begin in the upper left, but this doesn’t seem to be true. As it is, the grid is 20×18, which means each month takes up about 1.5 horizontal lines. I’ve only seen the video, but some of the other examples of installations on his website look even more compelling.



How Auroras Work

Courtesy of Brain Pickings, here's a 4:49 video that clearly explains how auroras (both borealis and australis) occur. I knew vaguely what was happening, but this is a clear and concise animation of the forces involved. 

I really hope to see this phenomenon one day. 

Dark Matters

Screen shot DarkMatters Perhaps taking a cue from the excellent RSA Animate videos, Dark Matters from PHD Comics is a six-minute video of a couple guys (apparently recorded at the playground or something) talking about dark matter and what physicists know and don't know.


This is your brain on jazz (and rap)

There’s not much to say about Charles Limb‘s work that he doesn’t say better in his TED talk, but: it’s nice to see a surgeon who plays jazz, a musician with ears open enough to hear the art in freestyle rap — and a scientist clever enough to wrap them both into his research.