The 84th Academy Awards happened last night. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen a fairly shameful percentage of the nominated films, so here’s a guide to some good reads about the Oscars and the stars of this year’s awards to help you get acquainted.
The internet might be making it easy to spoil the pleasure of a great illusion, but greats like Ricky Jay and Penn and Teller will never be forgotten, and magic might yet have a few tricks to teach: neuroscientists are looking closely at what magic can tell us about the brain, and the CIA hired a magician to write a manual on soldier deception.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition characterised by the stimulation of one sense causing an involuntary reaction from another sense. Although its study went out of fashion in the 19th century, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence in the study of its genetics, how it works, and how its study might be applied to other areas of science.
Synesthesia is most commonly exemplified by letters perceived as having distinct, inherent colors — grapheme-color synesthesia — although the form it can take is limited, in theory, only by the number of possible combinations of different senses. Vladimir Nabokov, as well as his wife and child, famously “suffered” from this type of synesthesia, which he described in an interview in 1962:
V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.
It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time — I think he was 10 or 11 — sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.
The earliest scientific study found that grapheme-color synesthetes had persistent, stable visualizations of letter colors, but did not share them with other synesthetes, who might see particular letters and symbols in a different color. For a long time, the research stopped here as cognitivism went out of fashion and behaviorism rose in popularity, but more recent research proving it was a genuine phenomenon has resulted in a resurgence in its popularity.
For some time it was believed that synaesthesia was not a “real” psychological condition and that subjects were merely confabulating - making up - the entire experience, or that they were speaking metaphorically (e.g. “She has a very sharp voice.”). Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen’s “gold standard” test changed this markedly. Baron-Cohen’s test was simple: he recorded subjects’ grapheme-colour associations, and then tested them using the same lists several months or years later. Synaesthetes performed significantly better than control subjects, showing that they could not be confabulating.
A later test by Ramachandran further established the legitimacy of synaesthesia. While Baron-Cohen’s test illustrated the stability of grapheme-colour associations, it did not show that they were necessarily perceptual. In other words, Baron-Cohen’s synaesthetes could have had a photographic memory and simply memorised the associations between the graphemes and colours without actually experiencing them perceptually. Ramachandran’s test employed “pop out”, a phenomenon well known to psychologists. This phenomenon can be easily demonstrated by looking at a field of identical characters and asking subjects to pick out the characters that are anomalous, for example, by dint of having a different colour or shape to the rest. The anomalous characters appear to “pop out” to the subject, allowing for near instantaneous identification.
The cause of synesthesia is still subject to research, but it’s generally believed to be the result of a genetic mutation on the X chromosome, explaining its dominance in woman and high heritability. Some researchers think its heritability could suggest an evolutionary benefit. Sickle cell anemia, for example, can be deadly, but also provides malaria immunity. Does synesthesia provide a similar benefit?
It might if you’re a mathmetician or an artist. One of the peculiarities of some forms of synesthesia is that equations are visualised in 3D space, which might help someone like physicist Richard Feynmann, another famous synesthete, with his work. David Hockney, also a synesthete, once told Robert Burton that when he was designing a piece of art intended to accompany a production of a Maurice Ravel piece, he listened to the relevant section of the score and “the tree painted itself.” It’s also been suggested that savants like Daniel Tammett get their incredible skills from a combination of autism and synesthesia, using it to help visualise complex memory recall tasks like recounting pi, or performing absurd mental arithmetic.
This similarity in function is driving much of the current research into synesthesia. Recent neuroimaging advances enable visualization of synesthetes’ brains and are helping scientists see the brain as a bundle interwoven connections, rather than discrete areas serving a single purpose. It’s hoped that this kind of research might be applicable to less understood disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, that are also caused by abnormal brain function.
“We’re trying to understand how a different activity pattern in your brain can change the way you perceive reality,” says Tomson, pointing out that studying disorders such as depression or schizophrenia in people who already have the disorder can be tricky. Not only are the network properties of these illnesses more complex than the relatively simple circuitry involved with synesthesia, but patients are often on medication, which makes it impossible to tell how their brains would function on their own.
“Synesthesia is a perfect model because we have a healthy brain that has some kind of perceptual tweak that changes the relationship between various regions of the brain,” she says
A recent paper by David Eagleman — best known for his work on time perception, but also responsible for a great deal of study into synesthesia — argues synsthesia falls on a spectrum (like autism) as the product of multiple neuronal processes gone awry, causing unusual cognitive pairings. Other studies suggest most people have the capacity for this “sensory crosstalk,” especially when we’re younger and our neural networks have yet to streamline. One study by V.S. Ramachandran helped a young man with Asperger’s communicate his emotions by instructing him to assign a color to them. Eventually, he was able to gauge his feelings about a person by the color of their “halo.”
(Image via The Art Blog)
Quentin Rowan published a novel, called Assassin of Secrets, under a pseudonym last year. It had been on sale for 5 days before anyone noticed that almost every word of it was plagiarised. Half of the novel alone is made up of various extracts from Charles McCarry’s writing, and the other half stitches bits and pieces of Robert Ludlum, John Gardner, Adam Hall, and a couple of others together. As is inevitable in these cases, it soon came out that much of Rowan’s past work was plagiarised too, but Assassins of Secrets makes for an interesting case study in modern plagiarism.
Online dating is in the spotlight again with a study to be published later this month arguing that the methods of online pairing are unlikely to be as effective as the dating sites would like you to think. The authors’ column in the New York Times’ Sunday Review says that the past 80 years of research into compatibility suggests the most useful factors determining success in a relationship emerge only after two people meet; factors like communication patterns, sexual compatibility, and problem-solving. Arbitrary similarity, therefore, is a relatively poor indicator of future success in a relationship.
This is well-trodden ground: as of 2009 the internet was the third most common way to meet new people and the pros and cons of online dating and algorithms like Match.com’s have been debated endlessly since at least then. Even the New Yorker saw fit to go long on the subject last year.
(Image via Financial Times)
The Myth of the Mona Lisa
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. It’s an enduring tourist attraction, immediately recognisable by millions, and highly coveted by art lovers, but La Joconde remains one of the most puzzling paintings that exists. We don’t know when she was painted, who she is, or what it is about her expression that’s so alluring.
Theories regarding her identity are plentiful. The most credible is that she’s Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, but several other candidates have been proposed, including Isabella of Naples, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, and even Leonardo himself. And the theorising doesn’t stop there. Donald Sassoon noted, in his book on the painting, that a “paucity of evidence keeps the experts divided.” That paucity of evidence also keeps the crackpots divided. An Italian researcher claims there are miniscule letters on her eyes, such as “LV” (da Vinci’s initials) and “BS” (“bullshit” probably isn’t the intended meaning, but it’s what comes to mind). There’s also the Canadian professor that thinks the Mona Lisa is simply an interpretation of love poems by Horace and Petrarch. Even Sigmund Freud had his pet theory that Mona Lisa’s smile was modelled on da Vinci’s mother’s.
Most of these theories are impossible to prove (and many are simply unprovable by their ridiculous nature), but some recent discoveries are helping us uncover her history. High resolution photoraphy has revealed that she used to have eyebrows that were wiped away during some stage of restoration, and some scientists in Spain think the secret to her changing moods is explained by which part of the eye sees her mouth first. The latest discovery should shed more light on the mystery: a copy of the Mona Lisa, painted by one of Leonardo’s pupils. It’s believed to have been painted at the same time as the original, and, without the cracked, yellowing varnish of the original, does a much better job of showing the subject’s youthfulness and other details.
The sheer enigma of the Mona Lisa lends a lot of weight to its high standing, but its fame didn’t reach its greatest heights until 1911, when an employee at the Louvre smuggled the painting out under his coat. (Also covered recently by Financial Times and Smithsonian Magazine.) Vincenzo Perrugia was an Italian patriot who was seized with a desire to return many of Italy’s stolen art treasures to Italy. (The Mona Lisa, of course, was not in fact stolen from Italy but finished there and sold to the king.) In the course of the two year investigation — which took so long that there were whispers of a hoax — even French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was briefly a suspect, and he in turn fingered Pablo Picasso for the theft. Both were eventually exonerated and Perrugia was caught when he inadvertently tried to sell the painting to the directors of a gallery in Florence.
The Mona Lisa’s theft is one of very few excursions from the Louvre. She was removed and hidden during World War II as Germans invaded France. And then there was the time Jackie Kennedy wanted to borrow her. France’s minister of culture André Malraux promised it to her at a dinner in Washington, presumably unaware of the public and private turmoil it would cause. The Mona Lisa’s handler at the Louvre didn’t want her to travel, its chosen handler in Washington didn’t think it should travel, and the French media exclaimed “La Joconde must not leave the Louvre!” Nevertheless, after 6 months of tortured negotiation, the exchange was made. In the end, the events unfolded during the Cuban missile crisis, and Malraux and Charles de Gaulle framed the loan to be a gesture of amity, while President Kennedy was able to use the loan to his political advantage, amplifying his domestic and international popularity.
(Image via dlajholt/Flickr)
The World of Coffee
Coffee has experienced something of a revival of interest in the last decade or so, with a growing trend in actually enjoying coffee. For many, the caffeine injection is delivered via their Keurig or Nespresso, and caffeine-to-go is a big enough industry that even something as simple as the design of disposable coffee lids is endlessly patented and improved upon, and Starbucks generates enough discarded paper cups for it to be an environmental liability. But increasingly coffee drinkers are looking for something better.
That starts with good beans. Coffee is a fussy plant and very few regions on Earth have the right conditions to grow the best coffee berries: it requires tropical climates at high altitudes, with the right amount of rain and dry spells to flourish. Microlots across East Africa, South America and Southeast Asia grow batches of coffee to precise specifications, and they make up the bulk of the “high end” in coffee.
Peet’s probably set the trend for gourmet coffee, but they’ve long since jumped the shark, leaving a gap for coffee shops like Stumptown in Portland and Blue Bottle in San Francisco to crop up, embodying a philosophy of good coffee in their bean sourcing and preparation methods. Running a coffee shop in a world with Starbucks is still a risky proposition, but many are carving out a niche among the growing segment of customers that want good coffee.
The demand is such that it’s driving the price of coffee up. In 2002, coffee was cheaper than it had been for over a century, with supply outstripping demand, but as retail sales went up, the amount the farmers saw went down, pushing many into poverty and the coffee supply to an all time low. On New York’s futures exchange, the price per pound of coffee hit a three-decade high and roasters and coffee shops across the country hiked their prices. Coffee is more stable now, but many gourmet roasters that pride themselves on sustainability take measures to ensure the farmers’ good treatment and pay, and that drives the cost up too. Combined with recent weather trends reducing coffee yields to their lowest for years, good coffee has become an expensive preference.
- Coffee’s Mysterious Origins — Coffee’s origin story goes all the way back to 850 AD and a goat shepherd named Kaldi
- The phonetic taste of coffee — The etymology of “coffee”
- My Kushy New Job — GQ sends Wells Tower to Amsterdam to see what it’s like to work in a marijuana coffee shop
- Pot of Gold — Joseph Brodsky’s journey to Ethiopia in search of the mysterious Geisha coffee
- Todd Carmichael, American — Can you save Haiti with coffee?
- How coffee created the modern world
(Image via Wired)
Journey to the Bottom of the Earth
The South Pole in the early 1900s was one of the biggest attractions for explorers. It made heroes of some, fools of others, and claimed the lives of many more.
The most well known stories are those of British Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, whose parallel polar expeditions make for an incredible story of Scandinavian efficiency and British amateurishness. Amundsen had initially planned to conquer the North Pole, but hearing that two explorers had done just that in 1909, he changed his plans. Today, the explorers who claimed to have reached the North Pole are largely believed to have been lying, but Amundsen had no way of knowing at the time, and so without telling anybody but his crew, he changed course and headed South. Once on his way, he also informed Scott, who had already announced his plans. The race was on.
Historically, perceptions of the two vary. Amundsen made it to the pole a full month before Scott did, with relative ease, but his victory will forever be tinged with deceit. Although Scott’s team made it to the pole, every single one of them died on the return journey. It’s a story of careless planning and foolhardiness that lead to needless deaths, and extravagant scientific diversions that were largely a waste of time. Scott, nonetheless, became a hero among Brits and received an outpouring of grief comparable to that of Princess Diana.
A year later, Douglas Mawson — who was invited to join Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, but declined — took a crew to the Antarctic in attempt to map some of its more remote areas. It was an unmitigated disaster. A series of odd events early on in the expedition portended the catastrophes that followed — a dream predicting his father’s death, one of the team’s huskies found devouring its newborn puppies, and a seabird appearing from nowhere to smash into one of their sledges — but they were ignored and the team pushed on.
Shortly after, one of the crew members fell into an 11 foot chasm with two of the team’s dogs, most of their food supplies, and their tent. They decided to turn back, but the health of Mawson’s remaining companion eventually took a turn for the worse and he deteriorated into deleriousness and finally died of exposure. Mawson found himself 100 miles from the nearest living human being, his body rotting from malnourishment, and survived only by bathing his eyes in cocaine and eating his dogs.
Finally, Ernest Shackleton, who aimed to be the first to walk across the continent. He set out in August 1914 with a crew of 28 on his ship The Endurance. In January 1915, with the Antarctic mainland in sight, the ship got stuck in thick pack ice, and eventually sunk. In a testament to Shackleton’s leadership skills, 22 of his crew survived to August 1916, when they were rescued, not one of them having set foot on Antarctica.
- Bruno Zehdner was found frozen to death only a mile and a half from his base in the Antarctic, having gone out to photograph Emperor penguins. The mystery surrounding the man and the suspicious circumstances of his demise made him a legend in death.
- You can now buy replicas of the Scotch Shackleton left behind on one of his Antarctic expeditions.
- Despite being the least hospitable place on Earth, the Antarctic is a hot tourist destination.
- Financial Times on the South Pole welcoming tourists and scientists.
(Image via Flickr)
The Science of Mysteries
Realising they shared an interest in classic murder mysteries, the science writers Deborah Blum, Jennifer Ouellette, and Ann Finkbeiner have been writing occasional posts on the science in mystery books and publishing them in tandem on their respective blogs. Turns out there’s a surprising amount of science in murder mysteries.
The first series started with Jennifer Oullette on the singing sand from Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. Singing sand is a real, rare phenomenon that only 30 sand dunes worldwide exhibit that puzzled scientists at first. Sand, as it turns out, is pretty interesting from a physics standpoint. Oullette also wrote about total eclipses, which inspired Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon and the science of bells and change-ringing, a large component of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Ann Finkbeiner’s first post of the series looked at geology and rivers in relation to Josephine Tey’s mystery To Love and Be Wise, and Deborah Blum wrote about toxicology and Dorothy L. Sayers’ book Strong Poison.
In the most recent series of posts, Jennifer Oullette looks at the physics of music, starting with counterpoint — the musical technique of intertwining two or more voices in musical dialogue — which Lord Wimsey famously noted his preference for in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Deborah Blum follows up her previous poisonous post with a look at Agatha Christie’s obsession with poison, starting with her very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And Ann Finkbeiner rounds out the latest series with a post on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and post traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of World War I.
There have been plenty of high profile crowds in the last year or so, with Anonymous protests, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the London Riots, to mention just a few.
Generally, crowds are well-behaved as long as somebody is in control, or appears to be, but when things get out of control as they did at a Walmart last Black Friday, a crowd can quickly become dangerous. Scientists have been studying crowd control for a long time in an effort to improve the safety of large groups of people, and have come up with an impressive array of tools for controlling them when the need arises. This kind of research is becoming increasingly important as technology enables large gatherings at short notice.
Something that can quickly turn a crowd’s behavior is deindividuation. When you become a part of a large group you lose your sense of individual identity through a sense of anonymity and diffused repsonsibility and take on the social identity of the group. This was evident most recently in the London riots, when the British police found themselves unable to control roaming mobs of youths.
This being 2012, deindividuation in a crowd can also be observed on a daily basis online, as hordes of people spew bile in comment fields across the web, such as in the case of the Korean popstar whose career was ruined by a misinformed lynch mob. Curiously, the utility of comments continues to be debated.