Category Archives: pop culture

Hollywood and physics: which movie gets it right?

Colin Hunter has written a May 18, 2017 posting for the Perimeter Institute’s (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) Slice of Pi blog about Hollywood and physics,

Sometimes filmmakers base plotlines and special effects on well-established science. Sometimes they’re even prescient, anticipating or inspiring later scientific and technological advances (remember when a videophone was the stuff of Jetsons-like fantasy?). [For anyone unfamiliar with The Jetsons cartoon]

Other times, filmmakers take a bit (or a lot) of creative license with science, resulting in scenes or entire films that are considerably more “fi” than “sci.” We focused a scientific lens on some of our favourite films (and some duds) and graded them for accuracy.

What did we miss? Comment below, or tweet your favourite movie-science wins and fails to @Perimeter.

Watch a great MinutePhysics video explaining time dilation and the so-called twins paradox.

I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s an easy read.

Solange Knowles and the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, Canada on April 27 and 28, 2017

Tickets ($35 CAD?) were sold out in less than an hour. Drat! On the upside, the Rennie Museum (formerly the Rennie Collection) is one of nine venues in nine cities hosting Solange Knowles’ music tour of art museums. (Not my usual topic but I have covered shows at the Rennie many times throughout the years.) This tour is discussed in Emilia Petrarca’s April 24, 2017 article for W magazine,

While Knowles isn’t formally touring for A Seat at the Table, she will continue on the festival circuit and is also working on a performance art-inspired “museum tour,” which she’ll perform at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum in May [2017].

On wanting to be more than just a singer:

“Singer is probably at the bottom of the barrel in terms of what I’m trying to achieve as an artist. Visually, through many mediums—through dance, through art direction, through color theory—there are so many things that I’ve dabbled in that I’ve yet to immerse myself in fully. But I think right now, I’m creating the live show and music composition, production, and creating from the ground up is when I feel the most at home.”

On her history as a dancer:

“I used to want to be a modern dancer when I was younger and go to Juilliard and do the whole thing, but I had a knee injury when I was 15. I was actually dancing for Destiny’s Child. And that was how I started to write, because I thought I was going to be an [Alvin] Ailey girl [emphasis mine] somewhere.”

On styling the costumes for her festival shows and museum tour:

“I’m touring two shows this spring/summer/fall, and one takes place in museum lobbies. For me, Donald Judd’s idea that we take on our surroundings as a part of the art itself really, really punctured me in the way that I look at performance art. It’s really rare that an artist gets to perform in daylight, unless it’s at a festival. So I really wanted to play with creating a strong color palette. I’ve been playing around with a lot of neutral tones since the record came out and Issey Miyake has been a huge influence. We’re also wearing a lot of Phillip Lim and really comfortable, moveable fabrics. On stage, I’ve really been empowered by the color red. I think it’s associated, especially with women, as this fiery, super volatile, and strong-willed color. Almost stubborn, if you will. So we’re wearing all-red for our festival shows and playing with the lighting for all the moods red can express. Color theory is this really nerdy side of me that I’ve been wanting to explore more of.”

It’s impossible to emphasize Alvin Ailey’s impact enough. Prior to him, there were no African American dancers in dance It was thought African Americans had the wrong body type until Alvin Ailey proved them wrong. (The topic of body type and dance is bizarre to an outsider, especially where ballet is concerned. It lends itself to racism but is rampant throughout the world of modern dance and ballet. I followed the topic for a number of years.)

Getting back to Solange Knowles, Tavi Gevinson’s Sept. 30, 2016 article for W explores her then new album ‘A Seat at the Table’,

Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, is so many things at once: an antidote to hate, a celebration of blackness, an expression of the right to feel it all. After a move to Louisiana and period of self-reflection, the artist joined forces with a range of collaborators to put her new discoveries to music. Hearing it for the very first time, my heart went in and out of slow motion: swelled at a layered vocal, stopped at a painfully apt choice of words, sped up with a perfect bass-line. Mostly I was struck by A Seat at the Table as a nurturing force among the trauma of anti-blackness; a further exploration of questions posed by Solange on her Twitter, last summer: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

So much of your album explicitly discusses racism and celebrating blackness, and one of the interludes talks about taking all the anger and metabolizing it through the work. Does that start with you through the lyrics or the sounds?

The writing process of this album was not more unique than any of my other processes, in that it typically starts with the melody idea and the words evolve based off of what I listen back to. Nine times out of ten, you’re freestyling, but you’re piecing the puzzle pieces together after you settle on a melody that you like. I definitely had concepts I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a song experiencing and communicating the exhaustion, the feeling of being weary and tired and energetically drained. I knew that I wanted to discuss this idea of the “angry black woman” in society, and dissect a conversation that I’ve had one too many times. I knew I had these concepts that I wanted to communicate, but I was resistant to letting them lead the creative process. So the first layer of making the album, I just jammed in a room with some incredible musicians. It was a great energy in the room, because it was not so much like, ‘I’m going to make this album about this specific thing. It was just music-making. Then, I took that music and I went to New Iberia for that time, and I needed that insular time to break down what I was saying, what I was going to communicate and how I was going to do that. From there, I spent that summer writing lyrics. It was an interesting process because I’m a mother and I had to balance making an album and raising a preteen. And having my hands in all these different pots, so it was either all or nothing to me. I spent three months in New Iberia, and I recorded some of the album in Ghana and Jamaica. I had to have these isolated experiences creatively in order to turn off and listen to myself.

For all of the continued awareness of systemic violence and oppression, there isn’t a lot of talk about that psychological toll of racism, at least in white circles and white media. That is so heavy in the album, and I’m really excited for people to have that to turn to.

That is such an ignored part of the conversation. I feel there were a lot of traumas that I had to experience during this creative process, that I didn’t identify as traumas until I realized just how much weight and how many triggers [there are] like constantly seeing the images of young black people lifeless in the street, and how many cries of mothers that you’re constantly hearing on a daily basis. Outside of those traumas, just the nuances that you have to navigate through everyday as a black person living in this country. It absolutely has a psychological effect on you. There are clinical and scientific studies that show the brain dealing with the same type of PTSD that we know of in other traumatic instances and experiences, but society has not yet come to terms with applying it to race. But I have a lot of optimism in the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation now. This isn’t something that my mom and one of her white friends would be discussing in their time. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, and the person leading it usually gets a lot of shit for it, but that’s with any revolution.

Here’s a little information about the upcoming Vancouver show from an April 21, 2017 news item on the Georgia Straight (Note: Links have been removed),

Solange Knowles, woke artist, activist, feminist, and producer of one of 2016’s most critically acclaimed albums, has announced that she will be playing a show at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum (51 East Pender Street) on April 27.

The singer published an image to her Instagram page yesterday (April 20), revealing that Vancouver is one of nine cities she will be stopping in over the next two months. Shortly after, the Rennie Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary art exhibited at the Wing Sang building in Chinatown, shared on its social media pages that Knowles will be conducting a “special performance”.

“Her album [A Seat at the Table] is very artistic,” Wendy Chang, director at the Rennie, tells the Straight by phone. “She’s on the West Coast this week and, because she has nothing planned for Vancouver at all, we thought we’d take advantage of that and have her perform and have all proceeds go to a charity.”

Chang reveals that the “very small, very intimate” performance will benefit the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a DTES–based nonprofit that provides safe housing and support for women and children affected by violence.

Not much else has been confirmed about the last-minute show, though given the venue and the sold-out act Knowles plans to present at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May, fans can expect an interdisciplinary set that explores blackness, prejudice, and womanhood both visually and sonically.

In March, Knowles also debuted “Scales”, a performance project “examining protest as meditation through movement and experimentation of unique compositions and arrangements from A Seat at the Table”, at Houston’s Menil Collection. More recently, she appeared at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In addition to Vancouver, Knowles is making stops in cities such as San Francisco, Mayer, Arizona, and Boston between now and June [2017].

I did find a review for Knowles’ April 21, 2017 show in Portland, Oregon (from  Emerson Malone’s April 22, 2017 review for DailyEmerald.com,

The unsinkable Solange Knowles played the headlining slot for Soul’d Out Music Fest, a soul and R&B music festival based in multiple venues around Portland, on Friday, April 21, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The festival’s events from April 19–23 have included Travis Scott (who brought Drake out to get cozy in the crowd); Giorgio Moroder, The Ohio Players and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.

One of the most admirable elements of Solange’s live show is the impeccable choreography. It’s so precisely designed that every subtle movement, every head nod and jazz hand-wave, was on cue. At times the group would form a tight chorus line and sway back and forth in unison, with everyone (save the trombonists) continuing to play.

When she demanded that everyone dance during the bubblegum-pop hit “Losing You” from her 2012 EP “True,” the entire hall erupted at her behest. The encore performance “Don’t Touch My Hair” — Solange’s exhortation of the casual fetishization of black women  — was phenomenal. She turned her back to the audience and acted as conductor, commanding the musicians with loud, grandiose gestures. As the drummer smashed the cymbals, she mirrored him, thrashed her limbs and windmilled her arms.

Following the show, even one of the Arlene’s security guards — who just spent the last hour dancing — was quietly weeping and speechlessly shaking her head in awe. Solange isn’t just a firebrand individual, and her show isn’t just an opulent, elegant triumph of performance art. She is a puppet master; we’re marionettes.

Unfortunately, the Solange Knowles’ Vancouver show sold out within minutes (yes, I know I’m repeating it but it was heartbreaking) and I gather from the folks at the Rennie Museum that they had very little notice about the show which is being organized solely by Knowles’ people in response to my somewhat grumbling email. Ah well, them’s the breaks. In any event, there are only 100 tickets per performance available so for those who did get a ticket, you are going to have an intimate experience with the artist  and given the venue, this will be a performance art experience rather than a music show such as the one in Portland, Oregon. There will be three performances in Vancouver,. one on Thursday, April 27, 2017 and two on Friday, April 28, 2017 (you can see the listing here). Enjoy!

Communicating science effectively—a December 2016 book from the US National Academy of Sciences

I stumbled across this Dec. 13, 2016  essay/book announcement by Dr. Andrew Maynard and Dr. Dietram A. Scheufele on The Conversation,

Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.

Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.

As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.

About a year ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine brought together a diverse group of experts and practitioners to address this gap between research and practice. The goal was to apply scientific thinking to the process of how we go about communicating science effectively. Both of us were a part of this group (with Dietram as the vice chair).

The public draft of the group’s findings – “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” – has just been published. In it, we take a hard look at what effective science communication means and why it’s important; what makes it so challenging – especially where the science is uncertain or contested; and how researchers and science communicators can increase our knowledge of what works, and under what conditions.

At some level, all science communication has embedded values. Information always comes wrapped in a complex skein of purpose and intent – even when presented as impartial scientific facts. Despite, or maybe because of, this complexity, there remains a need to develop a stronger empirical foundation for effective communication of and about science.

Addressing this, the National Academies draft report makes an extensive number of recommendations. A few in particular stand out:

  • Use a systems approach to guide science communication. In other words, recognize that science communication is part of a larger network of information and influences that affect what people and organizations think and do.
  • Assess the effectiveness of science communication. Yes, researchers try, but often we still engage in communication first and evaluate later. Better to design the best approach to communication based on empirical insights about both audiences and contexts. Very often, the technical risk that scientists think must be communicated have nothing to do with the hopes or concerns public audiences have.
  • Get better at meaningful engagement between scientists and others to enable that “honest, bidirectional dialogue” about the promises and pitfalls of science that our committee chair Alan Leshner and others have called for.
  • Consider social media’s impact – positive and negative.
  • Work toward better understanding when and how to communicate science around issues that are contentious, or potentially so.

The paper version of the book has a cost but you can get a free online version.  Unfortunately,  I cannot copy and paste the book’s table of contents here and was not able to find a book index although there is a handy list of reference texts.

I have taken a very quick look at the book. If you’re in the field, it’s definitely worth a look. It is, however, written for and by academics. If you look at the list of writers and reviewers, you will find over 90% are professors at one university or another. That said, I was happy to see references to Dan Kahan’s work at the Yale Law School’s Culture Cognition Project cited. As happens they weren’t able to cite his latest work [***see my xxx, 2017 curiosity post***], released about a month after “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.”

I was unable to find any reference to science communication via popular culture. I’m a little dismayed as I feel that this is a seriously ignored source of information by science communication specialists and academicians but not by the folks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who announced a wireless app in the same week as it was featured in an episode of the US television comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Here’s more from MIT’s emotion detection wireless app in a Feb. 1, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert),

It’s a fact of nature that a single conversation can be interpreted in very different ways. For people with anxiety or conditions such as Asperger’s, this can make social situations extremely stressful. But what if there was a more objective way to measure and understand our interactions?

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) say that they’ve gotten closer to a potential solution: an artificially intelligent, wearable system that can predict if a conversation is happy, sad, or neutral based on a person’s speech patterns and vitals.

“Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai, who co-authored a related paper with PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi that they will present at next week’s Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in San Francisco. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket.”

As a participant tells a story, the system can analyze audio, text transcriptions, and physiological signals to determine the overall tone of the story with 83 percent accuracy. Using deep-learning techniques, the system can also provide a “sentiment score” for specific five-second intervals within a conversation.

“As far as we know, this is the first experiment that collects both physical data and speech data in a passive but robust way, even while subjects are having natural, unstructured interactions,” says Ghassemi. “Our results show that it’s possible to classify the emotional tone of conversations in real-time.”

The researchers say that the system’s performance would be further improved by having multiple people in a conversation use it on their smartwatches, creating more data to be analyzed by their algorithms. The team is keen to point out that they developed the system with privacy strongly in mind: The algorithm runs locally on a user’s device as a way of protecting personal information. (Alhanai says that a consumer version would obviously need clear protocols for getting consent from the people involved in the conversations.)

How it works

Many emotion-detection studies show participants “happy” and “sad” videos, or ask them to artificially act out specific emotive states. But in an effort to elicit more organic emotions, the team instead asked subjects to tell a happy or sad story of their own choosing.

Subjects wore a Samsung Simband, a research device that captures high-resolution physiological waveforms to measure features such as movement, heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and skin temperature. The system also captured audio data and text transcripts to analyze the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary.

“The team’s usage of consumer market devices for collecting physiological data and speech data shows how close we are to having such tools in everyday devices,” says Björn Schuller, professor and chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at the University of Passau in Germany, who was not involved in the research. “Technology could soon feel much more emotionally intelligent, or even ‘emotional’ itself.”

After capturing 31 different conversations of several minutes each, the team trained two algorithms on the data: One classified the overall nature of a conversation as either happy or sad, while the second classified each five-second block of every conversation as positive, negative, or neutral.

Alhanai notes that, in traditional neural networks, all features about the data are provided to the algorithm at the base of the network. In contrast, her team found that they could improve performance by organizing different features at the various layers of the network.

“The system picks up on how, for example, the sentiment in the text transcription was more abstract than the raw accelerometer data,” says Alhanai. “It’s quite remarkable that a machine could approximate how we humans perceive these interactions, without significant input from us as researchers.”

Results

Indeed, the algorithm’s findings align well with what we humans might expect to observe. For instance, long pauses and monotonous vocal tones were associated with sadder stories, while more energetic, varied speech patterns were associated with happier ones. In terms of body language, sadder stories were also strongly associated with increased fidgeting and cardiovascular activity, as well as certain postures like putting one’s hands on one’s face.

On average, the model could classify the mood of each five-second interval with an accuracy that was approximately 18 percent above chance, and a full 7.5 percent better than existing approaches.

The algorithm is not yet reliable enough to be deployed for social coaching, but Alhanai says that they are actively working toward that goal. For future work the team plans to collect data on a much larger scale, potentially using commercial devices such as the Apple Watch that would allow them to more easily implement the system out in the world.

“Our next step is to improve the algorithm’s emotional granularity so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense, and excited moments, rather than just labeling interactions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’” says Alhanai. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.”

This research was made possible in part by the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center.

Episode 14 of season 10 of The Big Bang Theory was titled “The Emotion Detection Automation”  (full episode can be found on this webpage) and broadcast on Feb. 2, 2017. There’s also a Feb. 2, 2017 recap (recapitulation) by Lincee Ray for EW.com (it seems Ray is unaware that there really is such a machine),

Who knew we would see the day when Sheldon and Raj figured out solutions for their social ineptitudes? Only The Big Bang Theory writers would think to tackle our favorite physicists’ lack of social skills with an emotion detector and an ex-girlfriend focus group. It’s been a while since I enjoyed both storylines as much as I did in this episode. That’s no bazinga.

When Raj tells the guys that he is back on the market, he wonders out loud what is wrong with his game. Why do women reject him? Sheldon receives the information like a scientist and runs through many possible answers. Raj shuts him down with a simple, “I’m fine.”

Sheldon is irritated when he learns that this obligatory remark is a mask for what Raj is really feeling. It turns out, Raj is not fine. Sheldon whines, wondering why no one just says exactly what’s on their mind. It’s quite annoying for those who struggle with recognizing emotional cues.

Lo and behold, Bernadette recently read about a gizmo that was created for people who have this exact same anxiety. MIT has a prototype, and because Howard is an alum, he can probably submit Sheldon’s name as a beta tester.

Of course this is a real thing. If anyone can build an emotion detector, it’s a bunch of awkward scientists with zero social skills.

This is the first time I’ve noticed an academic institution’s news release to be almost simultaneous with mention of its research in a popular culture television program, which suggests things have come a long way since I featured news about a webinar by the National Academies ‘ Science and Entertainment Exchange for film and television productions collaborating with scientists in an Aug. 28, 2012 post.

One last science/popular culture moment: Hidden Figures, a movie about African American women who were human computers supporting NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Agency) efforts during the 1960s space race and getting a man on the moon was (shockingly) no. 1 in the US box office for a few weeks (there’s more about the movie here in my Sept. 2, 2016 post covering then upcoming movies featuring science).  After the movie was released, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote up a Jan. 23, 2017 interview with the ‘Hidden Figures’ scriptwriter for Salon.com

I [Allison Schroeder] got on the phone with her [co-producer Renee Witt] and Donna  [co-producer Donna Gigliotti] and I said, “You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this.” Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, “God, these Hollywood types would say anything.” I said, “No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.”

She was like, “OK that’s impressive.” And I said, “No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.”

She said, “Well do you think you can handle the math?” I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, “Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.”

I pitched her a few scenes. I pitched her the end of the movie that you saw with Katherine running the numbers as John Glenn is trying to get up in space. I pitched her the idea of one of the women as a mechanic and to see her legs underneath the engine. You’re used to seeing a guy like that, but what would it be like to see heels and pantyhose and a skirt and she’s a mechanic and fixing something? Those are some of the scenes that I pitched them, and I got the job.

I love that the film begins with setting up their mechanical aptitude. You set up these are women; you set up these women of color. You set up exactly what that means in this moment in history. It’s like you just go from there.

I was on a really tight timeline because this started as an indie film. It was just Donna Gigliotti, Renee Witt, me and the author Margot Lee Shetterly for about a year working on it. I was only given four weeks for research and 12 weeks for writing the first draft. I’m not sure if I hadn’t known NASA and known the culture and just knew what the machines would look like, knew what the prototypes looked like, if I could have done it that quickly. I turned in that draft and Donna was like, “OK you’ve got the math and the science; it’s all here. Now go have fun.” Then I did a few more drafts and that was really enjoyable because I could let go of the fact I did it and make sure that the characters and the drive of the story and everything just fit what needed to happen.

For anyone interested in the science/popular culture connection, David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog does a better job than I do of keeping up with the latest doings.

Getting back to ‘Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda’, even with a mention of popular culture, it is a thoughtful book on the topic.

Essays on Frankenstein

Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?

Introductions

Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.

Lingo

….

Debates

Popular Culture

Further Reading

….

‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.

The mathematics of Disney’s ‘Moana’

The hit Disney movie “Moana” features stunning visual effects, including the animation of water to such a degree that it becomes a distinct character in the film. Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Few people think to marvel over the mathematics when watching an animated feature but without mathematicians, the artists would not be able to achieve their artistic goals as a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes clear (Note: A link has been removed),

UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] mathematics professor Joseph Teran, a Walt Disney consultant on animated movies since 2007, is under no illusion that artists want lengthy mathematics lessons, but many of them realize that the success of animated movies often depends on advanced mathematics.

“In general, the animators and artists at the studios want as little to do with mathematics and physics as possible, but the demands for realism in animated movies are so high,” Teran said. “Things are going to look fake if you don’t at least start with the correct physics and mathematics for many materials, such as water and snow. If the physics and mathematics are not simulated accurately, it will be very glaring that something is wrong with the animation of the material.”

Teran and his research team have helped infuse realism into several Disney movies, including “Frozen,” where they used science to animate snow scenes. Most recently, they applied their knowledge of math, physics and computer science to enliven the new 3-D computer-animated hit, “Moana,” a tale about an adventurous teenage girl who is drawn to the ocean and is inspired to leave the safety of her island on a daring journey to save her people.

A Jan. 3, 2017 UCLA news release, which originated the news item, explains in further nontechnical detail,

Alexey Stomakhin, a former UCLA doctoral student of Teran’s and Andrea Bertozzi’s, played an important role in the making of “Moana.” After earning his Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 2013, he became a senior software engineer at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Working with Disney’s effects artists, technical directors and software developers, Stomakhin led the development of the code that was used to simulate the movement of water in “Moana,” enabling it to play a role as one of the characters in the film.

“The increased demand for realism and complexity in animated movies makes it preferable to get assistance from computers; this means we have to simulate the movement of the ocean surface and how the water splashes, for example, to make it look believable,” Stomakhin explained. “There is a lot of mathematics, physics and computer science under the hood. That’s what we do.”

“Moana” has been praised for its stunning visual effects in words the mathematicians love hearing. “Everything in the movie looks almost real, so the movement of the water has to look real too, and it does,” Teran said. “’Moana’ has the best water effects I’ve ever seen, by far.”

Stomakhin said his job is fun and “super-interesting, especially when we cheat physics and step beyond physics. It’s almost like building your own universe with your own laws of physics and trying to simulate that universe.

“Disney movies are about magic, so magical things happen which do not exist in the real world,” said the software engineer. “It’s our job to add some extra forces and other tricks to help create those effects. If you have an understanding of how the real physical laws work, you can push parameters beyond physical limits and change equations slightly; we can predict the consequences of that.”

To make animated movies these days, movie studios need to solve, or nearly solve, partial differential equations. Stomakhin, Teran and their colleagues build the code that solves the partial differential equations. More accurately, they write algorithms that closely approximate the partial differential equations because they cannot be solved perfectly. “We try to come up with new algorithms that have the highest-quality metrics in all possible categories, including preserving angular momentum perfectly and preserving energy perfectly. Many algorithms don’t have these properties,” Teran said.

Stomakhin was also involved in creating the ocean’s crashing waves that have to break at a certain place and time. That task required him to get creative with physics and use other tricks. “You don’t allow physics to completely guide it,” he said.  “You allow the wave to break only when it needs to break.”

Depicting boats on waves posed additional challenges for the scientists.

“It’s easy to simulate a boat traveling through a static lake, but a boat on waves is much more challenging to simulate,” Stomakhin said. “We simulated the fluid around the boat; the challenge was to blend that fluid with the rest of the ocean. It can’t look like the boat is splashing in a little swimming pool — the blend needs to be seamless.”

Stomakhin spent more than a year developing the code and understanding the physics that allowed him to achieve this effect.

“It’s nice to see the great visual effect, something you couldn’t have achieved if you hadn’t designed the algorithm to solve physics accurately,” said Teran, who has taught an undergraduate course on scientific computing for the visual-effects industry.

While Teran loves spectacular visual effects, he said the research has many other scientific applications as well. It could be used to simulate plasmas, simulate 3-D printing or for surgical simulation, for example. Teran is using a related algorithm to build virtual livers to substitute for the animal livers that surgeons train on. He is also using the algorithm to study traumatic leg injuries.

Teran describes the work with Disney as “bread-and-butter, high-performance computing for simulating materials, as mechanical engineers and physicists at national laboratories would. Simulating water for a movie is not so different, but there are, of course, small tweaks to make the water visually compelling. We don’t have a separate branch of research for computer graphics. We create new algorithms that work for simulating wide ranges of materials.”

Teran, Stomakhin and three other applied mathematicians — Chenfanfu Jiang, Craig Schroeder and Andrew Selle — also developed a state-of-the-art simulation method for fluids in graphics, called APIC, based on months of calculations. It allows for better realism and stunning visual results. Jiang is a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Teran’s laboratory, who won a 2015 UCLA best dissertation prize.  Schroeder is a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who worked with Teran and is now at UC Riverside. Selle, who worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios, is now at Google.

Their newest version of APIC has been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed Journal of Computational Physics.

“Alexey is using ideas from high-performance computing to make movies,” Teran said, “and we are contributing to the scientific community by improving the algorithm.”

Unfortunately, the paper does not seem to have been published early online so I cannot offer a link.

Final comment, it would have been interesting to have had a comment from one of the film’s artists or animators included in the article but it may not have been possible due to time or space constraints.

“Science Fiction by Real Scientists” campaign success

This news bit concerns a science fiction short  story anthology and novel series from scientists and experts and a now completed fundraising campaign. From a Nov. 14, 2016 Springer Books press release on EurekAlert,

Springer Nature and Humble Bundle have raised a charitable contribution of $22,000 through the science fiction book campaign “Science Fiction by Real Scientists.” One half of the proceeds, $11,000, goes to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Givers Fund. The same amount goes to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF as part of the global children’s charity’s annual Halloween fundraising drive. Humble Bundle supports a number of charities by offering media packages to its customers on a pay-what-you-want basis.

During the campaign, Springer offered a specially priced eBook bundle from its Science and Fiction series, consisting of nine full novels, two books of short stories and five nonfiction books. Readers were able to choose how their purchase dollars were allocated between the publisher and charity. Starting at just one dollar, customers could name their price, increasing their contribution to upgrade their bundles or contribute more to charity.

The Science and Fiction series, launched in 2012 by Springer, is a unique publishing program for fiction written by actual scientists and experts in scientific fields. Each novel or anthology of short stories is accompanied by an extensive afterword that explains, in lay terms, the current scientific theory or findings that serve as the basis for the fictional work.

Mia Kravitz, Director Global eRetail at Springer Nature, said, “Springer was so pleased to work with Humble Bundle on this worthwhile effort to aid children globally as well as support writers and artists in the science fiction genre. Pushing the envelope for scientific inquiry is part of our mission, and this is a fun way to bring current research to a wider audience.”

Here’s a bit more information about the “Science and Fiction” series from a Sept. 20, 2016 Springer Books press release,

The Springer series Science and Fiction was launched in 2012 and comprises entertaining and thought-provoking books which appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans. The idea was born out of the recognition that scientific discovery and the creation of plausible fictional scenarios are often two sides of the same coin. Each science fiction book, with an afterword on the science underlying the tale, relies on an understanding of the way the world works, coupled with the imaginative ability to invent new or alternative explanations and even other worlds.

Christian Caron, Executive Editor Physics at Springer, said the concept developed when a Springer author, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, published his first hard science fiction novel on Amazon. “Our very first thought was, why couldn’t we do this?” he said. “Our authors, all of them scientists and experts at some forefront of research, would of course have an interface with speculative science in their fields.”

The books in Springer’s Science and Fiction series explore and exploit the borderlands between accepted science and its fictional counterpart. Uncovering mutual influences, promoting fruitful interaction, and narrating and analyzing fictional scenarios, they serve as a reaction vessel for inspired new ideas in science, technology and beyond.

You can find a list of books in the series here. Note: I found forthcoming titles in 2017 and titles dating back to 2014. Springer made the announcement in 2012 but didn’t publish any books in the series until 2014.

Monster science (a book announcement and interview)

Helaine Becker has launched a new children’s science book incorporating monsters with science. The title, unsurprisingly, is: ‘Monster Science’. Here’s more about the book from Helaine’s Oct. 14, 2016 post on Sci/Why where she shares two reviews,

“From Frankenstein’s creation to Nessie, Becker uses the creatures of our scariest stories as a springboard for an introduction to the scientific understandings that might make such creatures possible—or impossible. In addition to man-made monsters and legendary sea creatures, she covers vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wild, humanlike creatures like Bigfoot. Chapter by chapter, she provides references from literature, film, and popular culture, including a bit of science, a bit of history, and a plentiful helping of humor. She includes numerous monster facts, suggests weapons of defense, and concludes each section with a test-yourself quiz. Science topics covered range widely: electricity, genetic engineering, “demonic diseases,” the nature of our blood and the circulatory system, the possibility of immortality, animal classification, evolution, cannibalism, optical illusions, heredity, hoaxes, and the very real profession of cryptozoology, or the search for hitherto unidentified creatures. … Kirkus

Then, there’s this one,

A highlight of this work is its exploration of the often symbiotic relationship between culture and science; figures such as Shelley, John Polidori (The Vampyre), and filmmaker George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) merged cultural fascination with scientific development to create truly inspiring works and further public interest in science… School Library Journal

Interview with Helaine Becker

Not to be confused with ‘Interview with a vampire’, this one is not novel-length and includes a scoop about an upcoming book in 2017,

Were you surprised by anything when you were researching and/or witting the book?

I learned so much while writing Monster Science – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing nonfiction, especially for kids. I always turn up fascinating stuff. I was surprised to learn that werewolves were rounded up and burned at the stake, just like witches, during the period of the Inquisition. Werewolves, it turns out, were thought to be witches – usually male ones – who could shape shift.

My fave fact of all is that vampires would still have to eat their vegetables.

Did you have to leave any monsters/pop culture references/science out of the book? And, why?

Children’s books have very tight space constraints, but my research is comprehensive and complete. That means we have to pick and choose what stays in. It’s gotta be the very best! I work closely with my editors on this, and sometimes we have, shall we say, “heated” discussions.” For Monster Science, I was particularly sorry to see the fascinating back story of the mad scientist trope end up with a stake in its heart.

Did you have a favourite monster before you started? If so, has your favourite changed? Or if you didn’t have one before writing the book, have you since developed a favourite monster?

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with vampires from the age of about 7, after watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island. It featured a “humorous” dream sequence with Gilligan as the vampire. I failed to see the humor at that tender age, and was terrified out of my socks. And anyone remember the original Dark Shadows? Barnabus Collins? Yeah. That show should have never been on in the afternoon. I slept with the blankies up to my ears until my mid-thirties. (Who am I kidding? I still do!)

Are you hoping to tie this book into the Frankenstein bicentennial celebrations?

Illustrated children’s books have very long time lines from concept to finished book. I wrote Monster Science several years ago, before I had any notion of Frankenstein bicentennials. But now that we’ve arrived at this auspicious date, I’m excited! I’d love to participate in some way. I will put on my zzz zzzz zzzt thinking cap.

Where can your fans come to a reading or some other event?

I do dozens of school visits and festival events every year. Some of them might be focused on a specific book, like Monster Science, but most usually feature discussions around several of my titles. This holiday season, for example, I will be doing events around my latest picture book, a very Canadian Christmas-themed title called Deck the Halls. It’s the third in a very popular series. Anyone can drop in to the Sherway Gardens branch of Indigo Book Store [in Toronto] at noon on Sunday, Dec. 4 [2016], to take part in that.

I’ll be doing many events in association with the Forest of Reading, one of North America’s largest children’s choice award programs this spring. More than 250,000 children participate! I am honored to have two science-related books nominated this year, Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo (Owlkids) and Everything: Space (National Geographic Kids). I will also be the keynote at the Killaloe Literary Festival in beautiful northern Ontario at the end of May. Best place to look for my latest book and schedule info is my blog, http://helainebecker.blogspot.ca/.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

For insiders only: Coming soon! Look for my upcoming picture book biography of William Playfair, the Victorian era scoundrel who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. It’s called Lines, Bars and Circles and will be published by Kids Can Press early in 2017.

Thank you, Helaine! (I usually don’t get funny interviews. It makes for a good change of pace.)

Getting back to ‘Monster Science’, you can purchase the book here.

Dr. Frankenstein and competitive exclusion

A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, using Jack Pierce's makeup design. Credit:: Universal Studios

A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, using Jack Pierce’s makeup design. Credit:: Universal Studios

An Oct. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org provides some new insight into the ‘Frankenstein story’ and its perspective on science,

Frankenstein as we know him, the grotesque monster that was created through a weird science experiment, is actually a nameless Creature created by scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein.” Widely considered the first work of science fiction for exploring the destructive consequences of scientific and moral transgressions, a new study published in BioScience argues that the horror of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology.

The co-authors point to a pivotal scene when the Creature encounters Victor Frankenstein and requests a female companion to mitigate his loneliness. The Creature distinguishes his dietary needs from those of humans and expresses a willingness to inhabit the “wilds of South America,” suggesting distinct ecological requirements. Frankenstein concedes to this reasoning given that humans would have few competitive interactions with a pair of isolated creatures, but he then reverses his decision after considering the creatures’ reproductive potential and the probability of human extinction, a concept termed competitive exclusion. In essence, Frankenstein was saving humankind.

An Oct. 28, 2016 Dartmouth College news release (also on EurekAlert) by Amy Olson, which originated the news item, describes the co-authors and the research in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

A study co-authored by Dartmouth’s Nathaniel Dominy casts a new light on the story of Frankenstein’s monster, who lives on in the public imagination in stories, in movies, and of course, on Halloween.

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology, and its horror lies in the specter of the extinction of the human race, say Dominy, a professor of anthropology, and his coauthor, Justin Yeakel.

“The principle of competitive exclusion was not formally defined until the 1930s,” says Dominy. “Given Shelley’s early command of this foundational concept, we used computational tools developed by ecologists to explore if, and how quickly, an expanding population of creatures would drive humans to extinction.”

The authors developed a mathematical model based on human population densities in 1816, finding that the competitive advantages of creatures varied under different circumstances. The worst-case scenario for humans was a growing population of creatures in South America, as it was a region with fewer humans and therefore less competition for resources.

“We calculated that a founding population of two creatures could drive us to extinction in as little as 4,000 years,” says Dominy. Although the study is merely a thought experiment, it casts new light on the underlying horror of the novel: the extinction of the human race. It also has real-word implications for how we understand the biology of invasive species.

“To date, most scholars have focused on Mary Shelley’s knowledge of then-prevailing views on alchemy, physiology, and resurrection; however, the genius of Mary Shelley lies in how she combined and repackaged existing scientific debates to invent the genre of science fiction,” says Justin D. Yeakel, an Omidyar fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced.

“Our study adds to Mary Shelley’s legacy, by showing that her science fiction accurately anticipated fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution by many decades,” he says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion by Nathaniel J. Dominy and Justin D. Yeakel.  BioScience (2016) doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw133 First published online: October 28, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

News from Arizona State University’s The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project

I received a September 2016 newsletter (issued occasionally) from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University (ASU) which contained these two tidbits:

I, Artist

Bobby Zokaites converted a Roomba, a robotic vacuum, from a room cleaning device to an art-maker by removing the dust collector and vacuuming system and replacing it with a paint reservoir. Artists have been playing with robots to make art since the 1950s. This work is an extension of a genre, repurposing a readily available commercial robot.

With this project, Bobby set out to create a self-portrait of a generation, one that grew up with access to a vast amount of information and constantly bombarded by advertisements. The Roomba paintings prove that a robot can paint a reasonably complex painting, and do it differently every time; thus this version of the Turing test was successful.

As in the story of Frankenstein, this work also interrogates questions of creativity and responsibility. Is this a truly creative work of art, and if so, who is the artist; man or machine?

Both the text description and the video are from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5ihmwPWgY

Frankenstein at 200 Exhibit

From the September 2016 newsletter (Note: Links have been removed),

Just as the creature in Frankenstein [the monster is never named in the book; its creator, however, is Victor Frankenstein] was assembled from an assortment of materials, so too is the cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth. Now a new, interdisciplinary exhibit at ASU Libraries examines how Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old science fiction story continues to inspire, educate, and frighten 21st century audiences.

Frankenstein at 200 is open now through December 10 on the first floor of ASU’s Hayden Library in Tempe, AZ.

Here’s more from the exhibit’s webpage on the ASU website,

No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than “Frankenstein;” or “The Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, influencing the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, and consider the ethical relationships between creators and their creations

Two hundred years after Mary Shelley imagined the story that would become “Frankenstein,” ASU Libraries is exhibiting an interdisciplinary installation that contextualizes the conditions of the original tale while exploring it’s continued importance in our technological age. Featuring work by ASU faculty and students, this exhibition includes a variety of physical and digital artifacts, original art projects and interactive elements that examine “Frankenstein’s” colossal scientific, technological, cultural and social impacts.

About the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project: Launched by Drs. David Guston and Ed Finn in 2013, the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, is a global celebration of the bicentennial of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from 2016-2018. The project uses Frankenstein as a lens to examine the complex relationships between science, technology, ethics, and society. To learn more visit frankenstein.asu.edu and follow @FrankensteinASU on Twitter

There are more informational tidbits at The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project website.

Westworld: a US television programme investigating AI (artificial intelligence) and consciousness

The US television network, Home Box Office (HBO) is getting ready to première Westworld, a new series based on a movie first released in 1973. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Westworld is a 1973 science fiction Western thriller film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton and produced by Paul Lazarus III about amusement park robots that malfunction and begin killing visitors. It stars Yul Brynner as an android in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park, and Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as guests of the park.

Westworld was the first theatrical feature directed by Michael Crichton.[3] It was also the first feature film to use digital image processing, to pixellate photography to simulate an android point of view.[4] The film was nominated for Hugo, Nebula and Saturn awards, and was followed by a sequel film, Futureworld, and a short-lived television series, Beyond Westworld. In August 2013, HBO announced plans for a television series based on the original film.

The latest version is due to start broadcasting in the US on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 and as part of the publicity effort the producers are profiled by Sean Captain for Fast Company in a Sept. 30, 2016 article,

As Game of Thrones marches into its final seasons, HBO is debuting this Sunday what it hopes—and is betting millions of dollars on—will be its new blockbuster series: Westworld, a thorough reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult classic film about a Western theme park populated by lifelike robot hosts. A philosophical prelude to Jurassic Park, Crichton’s Westworld is a cautionary tale about technology gone very wrong: the classic tale of robots that rise up and kill the humans. HBO’s new series, starring Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris, is subtler and also darker: The humans are the scary ones.

“We subverted the entire premise of Westworld in that our sympathies are meant to be with the robots, the hosts,” says series co-creator Lisa Joy. She’s sitting on a couch in her Burbank office next to her partner in life and on the show—writer, director, producer, and husband Jonathan Nolan—who goes by Jonah. …

Their Westworld, which runs in the revered Sunday-night 9 p.m. time slot, combines present-day production values and futuristic technological visions—thoroughly revamping Crichton’s story with hybrid mechanical-biological robots [emphasis mine] fumbling along the blurry line between simulated and actual consciousness.

Captain never does explain the “hybrid mechanical-biological robots.” For example, do they have human skin or other organs grown for use in a robot? In other words, how are they hybrid?

That nitpick aside, the article provides some interesting nuggets of information and insight into the themes and ideas 2016 Westworld’s creators are exploring (Note: A link has been removed),

… Based on the four episodes I previewed (which get progressively more interesting), Westworld does a good job with the trope—which focused especially on the awakening of Dolores, an old soul of a robot played by Evan Rachel Wood. Dolores is also the catchall Spanish word for suffering, pain, grief, and other displeasures. “There are no coincidences in Westworld,” says Joy, noting that the name is also a play on Dolly, the first cloned mammal.

The show operates on a deeper, though hard-to-define level, that runs beneath the shoot-em and screw-em frontier adventure and robotic enlightenment narratives. It’s an allegory of how even today’s artificial intelligence is already taking over, by cataloging and monetizing our lives and identities. “Google and Facebook, their business is reading your mind in order to advertise shit to you,” says Jonah Nolan. …

“Exist free of rules, laws or judgment. No impulse is taboo,” reads a spoof home page for the resort that HBO launched a few weeks ago. That’s lived to the fullest by the park’s utterly sadistic loyal guest, played by Ed Harris and known only as the Man in Black.

The article also features some quotes from scientists on the topic of artificial intelligence (Note: Links have been removed),

“In some sense, being human, but less than human, it’s a good thing,” says Jon Gratch, professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Southern California [USC]. Gratch directs research at the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies on “virtual humans,” AI-driven onscreen avatars used in military-funded training programs. One of the projects, SimSensei, features an avatar of a sympathetic female therapist, Ellie. It uses AI and sensors to interpret facial expressions, posture, tension in the voice, and word choices by users in order to direct a conversation with them.

“One of the things that we’ve found is that people don’t feel like they’re being judged by this character,” says Gratch. In work with a National Guard unit, Ellie elicited more honest responses about their psychological stresses than a web form did, he says. Other data show that people are more honest when they know the avatar is controlled by an AI versus being told that it was controlled remotely by a human mental health clinician.

“If you build it like a human, and it can interact like a human. That solves a lot of the human-computer or human-robot interaction issues,” says professor Paul Rosenbloom, also with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. He works on artificial general intelligence, or AGI—the effort to create a human-like or human level of intellect.

Rosenbloom is building an AGI platform called Sigma that models human cognition, including emotions. These could make a more effective robotic tutor, for instance, “There are times you want the person to know you are unhappy with them, times you want them to know that you think they’re doing great,” he says, where “you” is the AI programmer. “And there’s an emotional component as well as the content.”

Achieving full AGI could take a long time, says Rosenbloom, perhaps a century. Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s chief innovation officer, is also circumspect in predicting if or when Watson could evolve into something like HAL or Her. “Boy, we are so far from that reality, or even that possibility, that it becomes ludicrous trying to get hung up there, when we’re trying to get something to reasonably deal with fact-based data,” he says.

Gratch, Rosenbloom, and Meyerson are talking about screen-based entities and concepts of consciousness and emotions. Then, there’s a scientist who’s talking about the difficulties with robots,

… Ken Goldberg, an artist and professor of engineering at UC [University of California] Berkeley, calls the notion of cyborg robots in Westworld “a pretty common trope in science fiction.” (Joy will take up the theme again, as the screenwriter for a new Battlestar Galactica movie.) Goldberg’s lab is struggling just to build and program a robotic hand that can reliably pick things up. But a sympathetic, somewhat believable Dolores in a virtual setting is not so farfetched.

Captain delves further into a thorny issue,

“Can simulations, at some point, become the real thing?” asks Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. “If we perfectly simulate a rainstorm on a computer, it’s still not a rainstorm. We won’t get wet. But is the mind or consciousness different? The jury is still out.”

While artificial consciousness is still in the dreamy phase, today’s level of AI is serious business. “What was sort of a highfalutin philosophical question a few years ago has become an urgent industrial need,” says Jonah Nolan. It’s not clear yet how the Delos management intends, beyond entrance fees, to monetize Westworld, although you get a hint when Ford tells Theresa Cullen “We know everything about our guests, don’t we? As we know everything about our employees.”

AI has a clear moneymaking model in this world, according to Nolan. “Facebook is monetizing your social graph, and Google is advertising to you.” Both companies (and others) are investing in AI to better understand users and find ways to make money off this knowledge. …

As my colleague David Bruggeman has often noted on his Pasco Phronesis blog, there’s a lot of science on television.

For anyone who’s interested in artificial intelligence and the effects it may have on urban life, see my Sept. 27, 2016 posting featuring the ‘One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100)’, hosted by Stanford University.

Points to anyone who recognized Jonah (Jonathan) Nolan as the producer for the US television series, Person of Interest, a programme based on the concept of a supercomputer with intelligence and personality and the ability to continuously monitor the population 24/7.