Monday, 31 January 2011

Tales of War and Futility

Today I set myself the goal of showing you two certain emotions I feel when reading particular passages and books. I want to define and describe those emotions and classify the materials that evoke them. It is not too easy, as all emotions are elusive and become something different when you think hard about them, and furthermore I cannot be sure you feel them in the same way as I do.

Imagine giant nations in an endless war. Imagine mud-filled trenches meandering for hundreds or thousands of miles through desolate landscapes, filled with famished men in field-grey uniforms. Imagine giant and absurd monstrosities of concrete and iron built for killing and for survival. Imagine gun barrels longer than railway cars. Imagine dark and cramped submarines.

Imagine nations pouring millions, tens of millions of lives into the fires of this stalemate. Imagine immense bright laboratories bustling with scientists in white belted lab coats, pince-nezes on their noses or, if they are female, their blonde hair knotted in tight, neat buns, all single-mindedly working day and night to perfect nerve gasses or atomic bombs. Imagine the war never ending.

Images like that never fail to evoke emotions in me, and they might do the same for you. I have encountered them in various books and now I want to distil their essence.

They are images of conflict, and there is something enormous about it. The details may vary greatly and still achieve the same effect. The level of technology can be different, but generally something between 1910 and 1950 works best. The enemy may be just like you, they may be faceless, or they may be never shown. The images may deal with the front, or with other aspects of the war. Even if not a single soldier is shown, it can still work.

The easiest way to encounter these kind of feelings is to read the history books. After all the images I tried to decribe above are basically simplified and exaggerated descriptions of the first and second world wars with a bit of the American civil war strewn in. The horrifying tales of Verdun and of the Somme certainly do evoke comparable feelings.

But there is a problem with that. We like to read horror stories and watch horror movies because in that context we desire to feel the kind of emotions they evoke. We want to feel the thrill and in our case the trill lies in the sheer enormous magnitude of the numbers, the amount of hate, suffering and madness, and of the enormity of the machine. I tried (maybe to no avail) to include that notion in my text above by talking of millions and tens of millions, of monstrosities and of endlessness. It is called the sense of wonder and letting yourself be overwhelmed by it is usually, despite everything, a pleasurable feeling.

This is the problem! It is in principle possible to read true (or at least drawn-from-life) stories of war and atrocities like horror stories, but it is guilty pleasure. And with good reason. We tend to overlook this if the time and place of the story is far from our reality (crusades, Mongols), but the fact is that these things really happened and that they happened to real people. Some are still alive to tell the tales. If you read how 10.000 people were killed in this town, and 20.000 in the next and 25.000 in a third and you remind yourself that all these people, these fates were real, you can only read these stories with appalled dismay. The feeling of enormity remains, but it is not pleasurable any more.

In fact, if we read the stories of real atrocities in this serious manner (which is the only manner in which we should read them) we find that we do not like to read them at all. But if we want to avoid reading about them how much more must we avoid them happening—ever again!

One possible solutions to this dilemma is to take the source of the horror (the Nazis, for example) and put them in a fictional environment (thereby making their victims fictional). Alternative history scenarios do the trick nicely and they are used abundently.

There are quite a few alternate history Nazi novels, for example. I feel that there are issues about them that somewhat transcendend the topic at hand, so I will talk about them some other time. For the moment I will limit myself to mentioning the names of two examples of such novels: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Weaver by Stephen Baxter (there are hundreds more).

But you can also go a step further and sever all links with our world completely. You can take the warring nations in a different reality, a different planet, a different species. This has two advantages.

Firstly, you can ramp up the dimensions to heighten the sense of wonder. I don’t want to harp on about this point, but it is done frequently in stories. It is a somewhat cheap trick, but it sure works.

The other thing is that in the case of a foreign species on a foreign planet the reason for the described conflict is always remote. On this earth we love and hate, but whether on some planet the blues or the greens win does not matter to us (unless the author cheats and pictures one of them as evil and the others as good). In other words, their conflict is meaningless. It is futile and random.

Combined with the size of wonder feeling we are astonished how something that large can be that meaningless, astonished, even enraged over the futility and the stupidity of it.

We may also get these feeling when we consider real wars. In fact, many authors have used scenarios like the one above to make a point about the real world (Iain Banks, for one). It is probably not true for all wars, but with some of them you just cannot help thinking, “Why didn’t they just stop fighting, for god’s sake?”

Finally, I want to list a few examples which evoke these feelings in me and which were the reason of writing this article in the first place.

  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter has two examples. One is an alternate history where the first world war never ended but was still on in the 1930s. It is hampered a bit by Baxter trying to squeeze in as many ideas of H.G. Wells as possible, but still there are some extremely impressive and chilling scenes there.
    The other one is only a short description. A future civilisation built a Dyson sphere around the sun (a habitable sphere with the radius of Venus’ orbit). On its inner surface of perpetual day, millions of earths in area, thousands of cultures are locked in endless wars. The fact that they are never described in detail or even named, that there are so many of them, that there is a vast abundance of space, and that all is built on an enormous scale heightens the feeling of meaningless to a maximum.
  • Iain Banks has used images like that several times. The most prominent one may be the dead planet in Consider Phlebas, where fear of nuclear strikes made a civilization undermine their whole planet with vast tunnels filled with railroad tracks, on which their leaders would stay forever in motion, so that they could not be targeted by the bombs. Banks mentions that despite that the people of that planet were all wiped out eventually by biological warfare.
    It has to be mentioned that Banks’ book are usually full of a sense of futility, even when they are describing pleasant things. In his world of billions of populated planets, of electronic mind infinitely superior to people, of unlimited technological abilities nothing has any meaning any more. His descriptions of holocaust evoke a feeling of futility, but so do his descriptions of parties.
  • TV series have done it as well. Star Trek tried several times (for example in the episode A Taste of Armageddon) but did not quite pull it off because of a lack of budget.
    But there is an impressive example in Stargate Atlantis, the episode Poisoning the Well. Here scientists of a planet develop a serum that will make them invulnerable to the alien attackers that devour them. They push on with unbreakable fanaticism, despite the fact it turns out that the serum kills half of their population. Much of the episode’s effect stems from the 1940s imagery of the planet and the fanatic hardness of the characters.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Proving 1 + 1 = 2

Mathematics is the science where we always prove things. This has even entered into popular rhetorics: If we claim that some fact or other is “mathematically proven” it is the highest kind of authority. Usually this is sloppy phrasing or simply a lie, because sociological, psychological, political, even physical facts cannot be mathematically proven, because you can only mathematically prove mathematic statements, and they are not. Mostly they are, if at all, juristically proven (“true beyond a reasonable doubt”). But in our own sphere we mathematicians prove everything, and if we can’t we don’t assume that thing as true (be that painful as it may).

I have a few times explained this to students. Usually the consequence is that someone ask me how you can prove that 1 + 1 = 2, or something along that line. In these cases I have to admit I generally just answer that this is indeed possible to prove, but don’t show how. The reason is that it simply would take too long. But here in this medium I have all the time I need.

If you read this article (and others in the same vein, which are sure to come soon) you will know what lies at the heart of mathematics. This is the stuff they don’t teach at school and I promise, it won’t contain any of the stuff you learned to hate when you were 14. (Fractions, for example: A neat and immensely useful method, but how on earth could anybody like doing them? It’s the results and the proofs that give satisfaction, the nuts-and-bolts calculations is just work for performing monkeys.)

If you feel that despite this you cannot be interested just skip this article! Mathematics is just one of my topics in this blog.

We start by asking: what are 1 and 2 anyway, or to be more exact: what are numbers?

For quite some time mathematicians have been using a tool called the axiomatic method. This lies at the roots of all mathematics, and certainly deserves to be talked about in detail. But I want to keep this article as short as possible and so I am forced to defer this undertaking to some other time. But I promise I will make good for it soon!

The basic idea is this: We might think we all share a common notion of numbers (that is natural numbers, 1,2,3,4 etc.). But is it true? In prehistoric times people used to count “one–two–many…” (allegedly there is still a tribe in Brazil that does that), and I read somewhere that in Indo-European languages the words “nine” and “new” are etymologically related—because when nine was invented after centuries of people only knowing 1 to 8 it became the new number (about 5000 years ago).

So I think we certainly do not have an instinctive notion of numbers. We merely learn it at a young age because our world is filled with numbers.

Learning numbers that way resembles learning a game by watching other people play and trying for yourself until you are sure you are doing it right. The downside is that in this way you can never be sure you are doing it right. Maybe in the next match a situation might arise where you do not know what to do? Some special case you are not prepared for?

But mathematicians want to be sure. In this analogy, it would mean that we want to thoroughly read the rules of the game before we play.

So mathematicians (actually it was an Italian, Giuseppe Peano) wrote down a set of rules (or axioms) for natural numbers. They clearly state which (natural) numbers exist and some properties of them. Here are Peano’s axioms:

  1. There is a natural number, call it 1.
  2. For every natural number n there is a natural number n′ which is the successor of n.
  3. The successor of any natural number is not 1.
  4. If two natural numbers have the same successors, they are the same.
  5. If a set of natural numbers contains 1 and, for every number n in it also contains its successor n′, then that set is the set of all natural numbers.

Once we have these rules we will never give a thought to what natural numbers actually are. We don’t know and we don’t need to know. All we need to know is that we can use these rules freely. We have no idea what numbers are, but we know what they do. (If I write any more on this, it is bound to get philosophical and I am going to reserve that for some other occasion. Suffice to say that however you may look on the matter, if you accept these rules as true you are still with me—and we will not use anything other than these rules.)

Adding up

Now can define a few numbers and give them names:

  • 1 we already know.
  • 2 = 1′
  • 3 = 2′ = 1″

and so on …

Now we know what 1 and 2 are, what what do we mean by “+”?

The task at hand is to define addition using only the Peano rules of natural numbers. This is done by stating two simple laws of addition, which I am sure will concur with your “instinctive” notion of Addition. We state:

“+” is an operator between two natural numbers that satisfies the following laws:

  1. n + 1 = n′ for all natural numbers n.
  2. n + m′ = n′ + m for all natural numbers n and m.
Now what is 1 + 1? We simply use the first rule, setting n = 1 and get

1 + 1 = 1′ = 2.

That is a proof. If we consent that natural numbers satisfy the Peano rules and that addition satisfies the two rules stated above and 2 is the successor of 1 then 1 + 1 = 2 is mathematically proven.

Now that was disappointingly simple. Let’s try for something harder. What’s 2 + 2 (that is 1′ + 1′)?

This time we start with addition rule (2). We find 1′ + 1′ = 1″ + 1. After that we once again use rule (1) and obtain

2 + 2 = 1′ + 1′ = 1″ + 1 = 1′′′ = 4.

I think you will now have no problem calculating 5 + 9 or whatever takes your fancy.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Really precious voices

There are a few actors out there who you will never forget when you have heard them once. Who have a certain quality which you will not find once in a thousand. This is not the same as just being a good actor. There are fabulous actors who do immortal performances with perfectly unremarkable voices. Mark Rylance as Shakespeare’s Richard II for example, or Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

But then there are a couple of people who just sound special, whether it be a theatrical monologue, an interview or a song.

I now want to give you a few examples of people I put in this category.

Christopher Lee!

In a career spanning from 1948 to the present day he has starred in hundreds of roles, including Dracula, a James Bond villain, a lightsaber wielding count in Star Wars, the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Tolkien’s wizard Saruman. He has sung with metal bands and done voicework for animated movies. He was knighted by the Queen of England in 2009. And above all he has a voice you will never forget.

The first example I would like to show you is a clip from an otherwise unremarkable movie called The Return of Captain Invincible, a superhero satire (which I haven’t actually seen yet, except for the mentioned clip, but I am searching for it.) Here it is! It shows Lee as the film’s villain singing a song about alcohol torturing the formerly alcoholic superhero, and he pulls all the vocal stops here.

The other one is from the animated movie The Last Unicorn. It is a weird movie, deadly serious, melodramatic bordering to being ridiculous, but still in some way strangely touching. And it has a famous title song (which you surely have heard, even if you don’t know the movie).

Christopher Lee voiced the movie’s villain, King Haggard (as so often: villains for Mr. Lee) and he did a fantastic job. See this clip! An interesting thing is the fact that Lee also voiced the part in the German version of the movie. The traces of accent he had only served to make his performance still more outlandish.

Unfortunately most of the other people I could mention as examples are either Austrian or German, and so are the clips I can show you. You can of course listen to them, but I am sorry that your enjoyment probably won’t be anywhere near mine. Still I enjoy listening to Shakespeare performances despite the fact that I don’t understand too much of it (without listening to the same passages 10 times over, anyway, or reading the text beforehand).

The first is the late theatrical actor Oskar Werner. For people outside Vienna he is best known (maybe only known) for playing the lead role in Truffaut’s 1966 movie adaption of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

There seems to have been a bunch of trouble concerning languages when the movie was shot. It was shot in English, which the director did not speak, and the language on the set was French. I have watched some bits of it in the English version and I am not at all sure whether it is Werner’s voice at all. It does sound similar, but it does have nothing of the particular ring which made him so special. Either he was dubbed (I don’t know by who) or it is indeed Werner, but speaking a foreign language coupled with indifference (there was a lot of friction on the set between Werner and Truffaut) changed his voice to be hardly recognizable.

All in all this leaves a movie that is, to be frank, not very good. It does not do justice to the novel (and I heard, Bradbury hated it for that): Bradbury’s world is an intensified version of modern urban life, where people drown themselves in fast driving, television and triteness. The movie is set in a landscape of small cottages in endless woods with empty roads and all kinds of quaint old-fashionedness.

But Oskar Werner personally dubbed his part for the German version of the movie, with his usual quality, and this saves it. It therefore is one of the very rare examples where a translated version of a movie can be said to be better than the original.

If you want to hear Werner at his best, try this recording of Schiller’s poem Die Bürgschaft (The Hostage). It is, as I have announced, in German. It is one of the most famous German poems and in former times millions of school children had to memorize it as an exercise.

The other one is the famous German theatrical actor Klaus Kinski. He was known for his weird, dark, flamboyant personality, and his fondness for playing such roles. I hesitated whether I should name him at all as I feel his way of speaking was more of an aquired habit or a shtick than a unique talent. Still it is definitely memorable. [Addendum: This seems to be true, I just listened to an interview with him and there he sounded completely normal, except for what he said, which was utterly crazy.]

The example I would like to give you is the German original of Goethe’s poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was famously used as the basis of Paul Dukas orchestral piece of the same name, which in turn was used as the score to the cartoon version of the poem in Disney’s Fantasia.

I have listened to Kinski reciting Die Bürgschaft as well and was not impressed. His voice, always sounding like a man close to insanity is so much more suited to the sorcerer’s apprentice than to the heroically faithful Greek of Schiller.

I noticed that my examples do not contain any women and wondered why. I have to admit I don’t know. Hollywood tends to chose their famous actresses mainly for their looks (which makes me really angry sometimes), but then again the men I mentioned aren’t Brad Pitt or George Clooney either. There sure are some unique and talented women around (like Tilda Swinton), but I haven’t found one yet with a really unique voice.

I considered mentioning Björk, but her voice sounds only fascinating when she is singing. That’s alright as she is a singer, but if I start listing singers who sound interesting I won’t ever be able to finish.

So I will end this article with an invitation. If you know a person, actor or actress who you think deserves to be included in this list, drop me a line! I would love to expand my knowledge and my list and my article.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

What mathematicians find funny

As I mentioned in my second Dan Brown article there are special mathematicians’ and physicists’ jokes but they are not good. Here is a particularly hideous example:

All the real functions are having a party, when suddenly someone shouts: “A differential operator is coming! Run for your lifes, he will kill or distort us all!”

The all scatter and run away except one who stays behind. When the differential operator arrives he confronts the remaining function: why it is not afraid like the others?

The functions answers: “I am exp(x), you cannot harm me.”

But the differential operator laughs: “But I am ∂/∂y, ha ha ha!”

This is a typical example. If you have forgotten your calculus you may not understand it, but if you do it’s still not funny. Do mathematicians laugh at that kind of joke? No. In fact, the only kind of enjoyment to be gotten from jokes like these is in the knowledge that you understand them. Some people have tried to collect mathematical jokes and all they could scrape together was a sad little pile which made no-one laugh.

There are some jokes with which mathematicians make fun of physicists and vice versa. They feed off an ancient rivalry and some of them are rather good.

The following one is a variant of the popular “how to catch a lion” jokes. I have read a lot of them, which go: “How does a [insert profession] catch a lion?” followed by a more or less funny answer. Other than the “How many […] does it take to change a light bulb?” jokes catching-lion jokes seem to focus on scientific professions and their various sub-categories—e.g. general physicists, newtonian physicists, relativity physicists, string theorists, theoretical physicists etc. Or different kinds of mathematicians. Or programmers of different programming languages. Many are stupid and shallow, but most require you to know the basic characteristics of the respective fields, languages etc. The one I’m going to show you may very well be the original one. It is a thing a physicist might tell to make fun of mathematicians.

How does a mathematician catch a lion?

He puts up a cage, steps inside, closes the door and declares “Let this be the outside!”

So much for mathematical jokes, but what about the actual sense of humour of mathematicians, or of scientists in general? What do we find funny?

Generally scientists (or at least those that I have met) are a sarcastic lot. Then again, most people seem to be these days, so it may be nothing of note.

The best way I can think of to describe the sense of humour of scientist is to talk about the cartoons that are pinned to walls at the university institutes. In the foreword to The Far Side Gallery, Pt.3, renowned biologist Stephen Jay Gould stated that, judging by the walls of his institute, the favorite cartoonist of his collegues was Gary Larson. I found this to be true at our university too.

Why Larson? Firstly, if you have never seen any of his work, do so today! It’s really great! The Far Side Gallery, parts 2 and 3 show him at his best, I think. Some years ago it was practically impossible to find any Larson on the internet: Gary Larson had put out a letter to the world (by way of his lawyer) asking people not to infringe his copyright that way. It was not the most friendly thing to do, but of course he was perfectly entitled to it. Amazingly people complied, at least for the time being. It seems Larson has given up on this endeavor since, as by now the Cartoons have returned to the web in droves. So, have fun with the search engine of your choice!

By the way: There seems to be only a single small black-and-white photograph availabe of Gary Larson the man. There’s a guy who values his privacy. Almost like Pynchon.

So why exactly do scientist like Larson so much? He drew a lot of cartoons featuring all kinds of scientist (always wearing white lab coats, don’t cha know) and these, small wonder, are the favorites. Now other cartoonists have drawn scientists in lab coats too, what makes Larson’s special? I think his basic shtick in these cartoons is to show that scientists are childish and silly just like everybody else. It ran counter to the public perception of us so we loved it.

But in the last few years clearly Larson has been superseded by a new artist. Despite the fact that Larson got a lot right about scientists from a psychological point of view, he badly blundered when it came to the nuts and bolts. As I mentioned his scientists wear lab coats at all times, and they write on chalkboards and what they write is utter gibberish. There were jokes about scientists but never jokes about science, because Larson did not have the kind of knowledge it took to do them.

Since then a new cartoonist has entered the scene who is an actual scientist (a rocket scientist, to be exact), and he gets everything right. His name is Randall Munroe and he draws the XKCD webcomic.

I suspect it may boring stuff for biologists but physicists, mathematicians and other computer creatures find it delightful. These days institute corridors are filled with prints of Munroes little stick people (male and female) and at the last mathematicians’ party I came across more than one XKCD T-shirt.

I don’t think anyone will get every one of Randall Munroe’s comic strips (I know I don’t), unless you know a thing about relativity, string theory, iPods, MMORP games, mathematics, chess, Unix, programming and 10.000 other things. It feels good if you know what some of the more obscure ones are about. Like a huge in-joke. I think this accounts for much of the strip’s appeal.

Also the people in it are geeks drawn by a geek behaving in an authentic geeky way (let me stress the word “authentic”) and so we real-life geeks can relate to it.

Randall Munroe must be credited for helping the female scientist (or the nerd girl, to put it bluntly) to get her rights. In XKCD’s world, science is an equal-gender business and there is a lot of love and romance between the little stick people. It is a long way from the all-male labcoat wearers. It’s not completely the way reality looks like today but it is what I (and many others) hope we will achieve one day, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Speaking of science and romance, these have always been held to be mutually exclusive by popular culture. Lab coat wearers are basically asexual. In mainstream movies the professor is never the one who gets the girl in the end (except if they never were much of a professor anyway, like Indiana Jones). Of course that is not true, scientists have the same feelings as other people. Still we are full of nerdy quirks. XKCD shows how it works out.

There a small downsides to Randall Munroes cartoons too, of course. He does indulge in a certain amount of soapbox preaching on the greatness of science, for example (“because it works, bitches!”, as he puts it), which I personally find a little menacing. Also he writes from his own point of view, which is physics, so for example biologists will feel severely underrepresented, not to mention linguists, sociologists, or musicologists. Still it is the best thing of the last years.