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A lot of our conversation in class at the end of this semester got me thinking about the fragility of life. A single earthquake caused the acceleration of the earth’s spin, shortened the length of our days by 1.8 microseconds, shifted distribution of the planet’s mass, moved Japan’s main island by about 8 feet, shifted the earth’s figure axis about 6 inches, and killed over 10,000 people. The death of a single terrorist who plotted the deaths of thousands of people is celebrated across the country. Diseases that we have yet to find a cure for are indiscriminately ending the lives of people across the world every second. Photographers and journalists who travel into some of the most dangerous places in the world in order to show viewers at home “the truth” are killed in cross-fire. Small biological changes across centuries bring on the extinction of some species, the proliferation and extended lifespan of others.

                          

As humans we go to school, get a job, try to stay young by eating well and exercising, maintain a social circle, buy a bigger house, buy more cars, have pets that we cremate once they have passed on, acquiring wealth and gaining success as we go. Our culture and society has dictated that this is what life is about. The “American Dream” of working our way to the top of society from wherever we may start is the highest goal that we should strive for. But enough never seems to be enough. There is no stopping point in evolution, and the only stopping point in our individual evolution is death.


It seems that no matter what we do, what college we get accepted to or how much money we make, there is always a void within us. By accumulating “things,” material things and knowledge things, we attempt to fill this void. We spend time with family and friends, read self-help books, search for a god through religion, and yet still there remains a void. How do we fill it? Is death the ultimate “rebirth,” regeneration of evolution?

            The processes of reproduction and natural selection are two of the driving forces behind evolution, and one of the observations in Darwin’s model of evolution by natural selection states that every population has such a high fertility rate that its size would increase exponentially if not constrained. Another observation is that the resources available to every species are limited, and from these two observations it can be inferred that there is intense competition (struggle for existence) among members of a species. Clearly, death is a part of life in the “big picture.”

                             

            I think that often it is not so much dying that people are afraid of; sometimes that is the case of course. I think what causes greater fear is the thought of what, or who, they will be missing, and fear of leaving before accomplishing everything that they desired to. It is the individual death that is of most concern to us. Every day we see on the news huge death tolls from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, from natural disasters and refugee camps in Uganda. And yet these three, four, five-figure numbers or a panning video footage of bodies in the street does not elicit the emotion or inward pain in each and every person as a story or single stirring photo may. And it is the death of those closest to us that affects us most deeply.


            I have been closer to loss this year than ever before in my life. I vaguely remember two teachers and a parent from a lower grade passing away when I was in grade school, but my first close loss was when I was a senior in high school, and two more this year. It is amazing what small things you remember about people once you know that they are no longer on this earth with us. I remember how much my grandmother loved to remind me of how I only ate broccoli as a child and how much better everything she made tasted than it did when my parents made it. I remember snapping my grandfather’s suspenders as I ran past him into the kitchen for breakfast and sitting with him on his tractor as he powered over the grass and fields on his farm. I remember sitting with my friend Alan doing the newspaper crosswords while he insisted that I was an integral part in the completion of the crossword when in reality I sat there smiling while he threw out two or three possibilities before shouting out the answer and scribbling it in. It’s the little things.

         

            This essay isn’t to make an argument, isn’t to inform you of any new revelation or information about life and death. It is to commemorate life, and to at least say that we must come to terms with death. After all, as Paul said and the proof of my memories above: no one ever really dies- they are always with us as long as we can remember. Tomorrow is not promised or guaranteed. As we said in class, there are no universal truths, constants that are definite. Uncertainty rules our universe, a neutral variable that we cannot control. Just because the sun has risen every day in our lives does not give us the certainty with which to say, without a doubt, that the sun will rise tomorrow. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you. 

 

-rachelr

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Although this project was dedicated to exploring the interconnection between fiction in science, I’ve used it more as a way to explore the dichotomy between the two. I’ve discussed opposing portrayals of the fields, the helplessness of science in the face of fiction, the limits science and fiction impose on one another, and the fate of communication as threatened by both science and fiction. Meanwhile, my peers have written about science as magic, fiction as an evolutionary necessity, our inherent relationship to the telling of stories. With all of this discussion of the potential for interaction between science and fiction, I can’t help feeling like a bit of a warmonger, pitting the fields against one another when it seems that they actually coexist beautifully. So in my final post, I’d like to try and be a little more positive.

In her most recent post, katlittrell discussed science as a form of magic when conceived and predicted by those who had not yet discovered it. The submarine was conceived by Francis Bacon as a fantastic transportation device used by members of New Atlantis; Cyrano de Bergerac fantasized about reaching the moon in a rocket; Samuel Madden wrote his own Memoirs of the Twentieth Century  200 years before the fact, predicting public granaries and women’s rights (not a form of science, but an important development nonetheless).

What fascinates me about these stories is the play between these authors’ imaginations and the practical applications of their stories. In their time, the technologies conceived by these authors were perceived as ludicrous, far-fetched, fitting for children’s tales or for works of fantasy such as Gulliver’s Travels. But their imaginations planted seeds for these technologies held as commonplace in our modern world. The fantasy became reality: science caught up to and met fiction, and the two melded to create the world we have today.

While I read these stories of fiction and fact, I can’t help but think back to Darwin and his foundational story. 

In his time, Darwin’s ideas were up against the long-held doctrine of the church. We are part of the Great Chain of Being, a rigid hierarchy put in place by God. He created the world, He placed every individual species onto it, and He ensured that our space in that hierarchy was just beneath His own (and the celestial beings’, of course).

To many, such a tale sound laughable now, almost out of a fairy tale itself. But is Darwin’s empirical tale of evolution any less strange, any less fantastic? Over billions of years, we became who we are today by means of trial and error, by chance, by the sheer luck of our ancestor having more babies than another’s ancestor or of those babies not falling off cliffs. Certainly people found it strange at the time, and laughable. In a “debate” between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley, Wilberforce famously asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.

Although Darwin’s story differs from the fantasies of those earlier authors because of the copious amounts of evidence he had to feed his imagination, and although much of the opposition’s incredulity was based on misunderstanding, Darwin’s story of evolution is nevertheless a magical one from which we draw many of the technologies and philosophies of our modern world. Founded upon a tale that seemed fantastic in its time, a tale of apes and chance and evolution, we nevertheless have fused that fiction and our science to create our modern world. The story of evolution is the story of empirical evidence and Darwin’s imagination.

—ewashburn

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My earlier blog post about how ancient magic crossed disciplines made me start thinking more about the role of magic in fiction. Since the beginning of this project, I have had Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law stuck in my head: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke was, for a time, one of the “Big Three” of science fiction. Is the role of science in science fiction the same of that as magic in ancient times? Science in science fiction is (at least sometimes) there to explain the unexplainable, or the impossible, things outside the realm of human capability or experience: faster than light travel, human life on other planets, life on other planets at all, advanced weapons technology to name a few examples. In Dr. Who, the TARDIS is a scientifically advanced time machine, the science behind which changes at the whim of the writers: traveling back in one’s own time stream results in a paradox… except when it doesn’t. In the episode Blink, Dr. Who explains how time works: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually—from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.” Vague science of this sort is not limited to Dr. Who - though Dr. Who is the trope namer, TV tropes has a whole list of other texts which use the same technique of general vagueness to explain time travel.

timey wimey

Fans often discuss the science of science fiction television shows and movies. In this link, the cracked.com writers explain the science behind why the Stormtroopers consistently miss the protagonists. This link examines some of the technologies in Star Wars (including holograms, droids, Luke’s binoculars which give him information about the objects he’s looking at, bionic limbs, force fields) and how our modern science is managing to catch up with the science presented in Star Wars. The same has occurred with science fiction novelists who imagined technologies which were decried as without a scientific base and then were later developed by scientists. Examples include:

  • H.G Wells predicted the role of airplanes in warfare, trains, cars and the atom bomb in 1901.
  • Jules Verne predicted glass skyscrapers, calculators and a worldwide communications network in 1863.
  • Arthur C. Clarke predicted  telecommunications satellites in 1945 and remote surgery in 1964, as well as a space escalator which he said would only be built “about 50 years after everyone stops laughing”, but according to this article from the Guardian “The American space agency Nasa is no longer laughing. It is putting several million dollars into the project under its advanced concepts programme”.


A list of predictions by authors from pre-1800 is here.

More recent science fiction has a greater focus on scientific accuracy, with fans more attuned to the inaccuracies of films such as those in the Star Wars sextet. It seems to be felt that science fiction stories must at least pay lip service to the possibilities presented by current stories of science. In the television show Firefly, the use of guns for example, is a contrast to the energy weapons used in Star Wars and Star Trek. Attention is also paid to technique when the protagonists, Zoe and Mal, pistol (or rifle) whip their opponents - “Mal reverses his grip on his pistol so that he can smack [another character] with the grip while holding the barrel (Hitting someone while holding the grip can bend the barrel and render the gun inoperative or dangerous to fire).” (from TV tropes)

Captain Mal Reynolds

As a contrast to the space scenes in Star Wars, in Firefly every space scene is shot without sound effects - no air means no sound. The retouched version of the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars IV A New Hope prompted a lot of negative fan reaction because George Lucas changed a more scientifically accurate depiction of a space explosion for a more visually dramatic but less scientifically accurate explosion. An explanation is here.

Sometimes, even when science is just part of a fictional story, it still stems from and contributes to the scientific theories/stories of the past and present.

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"Perhaps it is more useful to stop viewing the world from a physical view and start viewing it for its social shape, because we live by the latter story."

—ckosarek

When ckosarek wrote this, she was discussing our increased interconnectedness as a species, as related in Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat. With a click of a mouse and the touch of a key, it is now possible to communicate with people across the world instantaneously. Because our technology has developed to the point where distance does not impede communication, our world is growing smaller. We can cross oceans and trek across continents without leaving our homes, through the interconnectedness of our virtual reality.

No one can deny that our communications haven’t improved. We have social networking sites aplenty, from Facebook to MySpace to Twitter. We have scores of create-your-own-blog sites, where anyone can sign up and write about their hopes and dreams for all the world to see. We even have online art galleries, from deviantArt to Flickr, where anyone can post their artwork and receive feedback—or, as Flickr’s home page puts it: “Share your photos. Watch the world.” However, while we have this increased interconnection, and while we are able to communicate across great distances, how are we actually communicating?

Recently I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, which tells the story of a near-future obsessed with scientific advances that results in “a triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology, and catastrophic climate change.” One of the most distinct characteristics of this novel is the way language has been bastardized in this world. “Number people” are preferred over “word people,” and it shows in the way the people in this world communicate. Words like “incarnadine” and “erudite” are forgotten, laid to the wayside as inefficient or superfluous to proper communication. Brand names are bastardized, phonetic spellings of what the brand does: “AnooYoo” produces self-help products and spa treatments, food is monopolized by “SoyOBoy” brand, coffee is produced through “Happicuppa.” The most prized, brilliant minds are those of scientists, and those scientists exist in a “fridge-magnet culture,” displaying individual characteristics through fridge-magnets with pithy saying such as:

  • No Brain, No Pain
  • Take Your Time, Leave Mine Alone.
  • I think, therefore I spam.
  • The proper study of Mankind is Everything.

While Atwood’s world is certainly more dystopian than I hope ours ever becomes, I can’t help connecting this realm of truncated language to our own realm of storytelling. Over Facebook, it’s impossible to communicate with someone through their wall if your message is over 1000 words. Twitter is based on the primary gimmick that any thought, no matter how complicated, can be communicated in 140 characters or less. Our world has gotten smaller through our interconnection, but so has our method of communication.

We want to tell our stories, but we don’t want to tell them at length and we don’t want to hear others’ if they take too much time. The novel is being phased out by film, which can communicate a story directly without the pesky time spent turning pages. Film is being phased out by television, which can take a long story and parcel it out an our at a time over a series of weeks instead of forcing a viewer to sit still for three hours. For all that we “synthesize and understand the world by telling ourselves stories,” as ckosarek and Psychology Today put it, those stories are growing increasingly shorter as our technology makes them more available.

What a paradox our world has become. We freely acknowledge the importance of our storytelling. It makes us more empathetic; it facilitates communication; it’s an evolutionary necessity, going hand in hand with the development of language and science. At the same time, though, our attention spans grow shorter, our stories become truncated, and we are forced to cut down our communications despite the myriad of avenues our communications can travel. As a culture, as a species, we strive to communicate, to reach out to one another—but only in bite-sized chunks.

—ewashburn 

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At the end of my last blog post, I posed the following: “Are there certain scientific fictions that make living easier or more effective? And how might we measure them?” In my final post for this project, I intend to look at a couple of well-known scientific fictions and attempt to evaluate how “useful” they are in helping us amble around this world. I will evaluate their usefulness qualitatively  because I can’t think of a way to do so quanitatively (though I would be interested if anyone had a suggestion about how we might quantify this peculiar kind of usefulness), and I want to start by acknowledging that my perception (or story, if you will) of what is useful, effective, or easy is tailored only to myself and does not hold for the entirety of humanity (though I do hope that my perception might align itself with many others). 

We synthesize and understand our world by telling ourselves stories, as seen in this Psychology Today post (that I previously posted on our Facebook page). Sometimes those stories work to our benefit, and sometimes our “scientific empiricism” makes living, comprehending, and synthesizing more difficult. Adopting a scientific story is adopting a point of view, and as seen in several therapeutic approached (like narrative theory), some points of view are healthier and more practical for living than others. For example, I’m a distance runner and when I approach a hill, I tell myself that “an uphill is a downhill going the wrong way.” Of course, physics would measure the angle of that uphill and conclude that I’m not going downhill, but the story I tell myself - that I’m going downhill -, that conscious switch in perspective, makes the uphill seem easier. My story about uphills isn’t accurate, but its effects are more positive than the ones that other stories would yield. 

We have the ability to skew our understandings of this world by changing our story, and by changing our understandings, we also have the ability to change how we conceptualize ourselves and our existence. Over time, we’ve socially acquired a set of stories that “everyone” accepts as the “truth.” The world is round. Cancer is caused by a genetic blip in cells.  We call these stories “common knowledge,” but does it help us to hold them so closely? In what follows, I’ll explore the usefulness of the two aforementioned “common knowledge” stories. 

1. The World is Round

By the 1800s, most people accepted the fact that the Earth was round (a story that had been floating around since at least the middle ages). And with the advent of photography from space, the roundness of Earth was “confirmed.” Though we’ve confirmed that we won’t sail off the ends of our map, does the story that Earth is round positively impact our day-to-day living? I would argue not. As Paul pointed out in class, humans navigate Earth as if it were flat. Cities are on flat grids. Highway maps are flat. It doesn’t make sense to navigate our world on a curve; that kind of navigation would be too grand (and thus ineffective for smaller, more localized navigations). It is not useful for us to exist telling ourselves a story that says we’re walking on a great sphere when we live on a flat plane. 

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, journalist Thomas L. Friedman asserts that with our increasing interconnectedness, our perception of the world is actually becoming flatter. According to Friedman, though we may have “found out” that the physical object of the Earth is spherical, we aren’t inclined to treat it that way. (I think about that colloquialism, “Hopping across the pond”, when someone refers to visiting Europe from America - or vice versa. It’s implied that the pond is flat, isn’t it?) Perhaps it is more useful to stop viewing the world from a physical view and start viewing it for its social shape, because we live by the latter story. 

2. Cancer is Caused by a Genetic Blip in Cells 

I did a paper for my Women Poets class earlier this semester that reflected on Adrienne Rich’s poem, “A Woman Dead in Her Forties.” The poem meditates on the femininity of a friend of Rich’s who died of breast cancer, and was written (interestingly enough) during the midst of a psychoanalytic movement that claimed that people developed cancer as a result of having a “cancer personality” or by not confronting inner conflicts. (For more information about the psychoanalytic approach towards cancer, check out Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History by James S. Olson.) 

The psychoanalytic approach toward cancer extended a long tradition of blaming cancer victims for their disease. For example, many claimed that women developed breast cancer because of their poor performances as housewives or mothers. The word “cancer” was an embarrassment, and in the 1950s was instead called “The Big C”. 

But then a new story began to emerge, one that took the blame off of cancer patients. From data sets and observations and experiments, scientists developed a story that said cancer was developed in the presence of an error in a cell, causing that cell to divide malignantly and more rapidly than its surrounding cells, thus forming a tumor. The story about cancer became a story about an interrupted cell cycle, beyond the direct agency of the sufferer. And I would guess that the new story affected the emotional affect of sufferers and their friends and families positively. 

So, What Now?

Each story - whether it be science-based or not - we tell ourselves needs to be evaluated for its usefulness on its own basis and in the context of our own lives. I’m sure an astronaut heading to the moon might need to know that the world is round to navigate properly. And many (effective) preventive techniques for cancer hinge on the idea that we have agency over our own bodies to prevent a genetic blip for happening in the first place (and, of course, there’s been research that shows mindfulness as an effective tool for coping with some effects of illness). 

It may sound like I’m chasing the same idea, but more conclusively after researching for and writing this post, I’m stating that science is no more than a perspective or story we tell ourselves, and that that story may or may not be useful to us. But I also have to acknowledge that we can’t throw a story out if we personally don’t find it useful because we also must exist socially, and to do so requires adopting the major stories of the society in which we live (I don’t think we can go around saying the Earth is flat  and still maintain a healthy relationship with our society’s perspectives). It seems that the stories that serve us must be reconciled with the stories of a larger society, so that we will never be completely fulfilled or completely disappointed with the scientific fictions that come our way. As with all stories, it is our duty to integrate our understanding with the information we’ve been given in order to reach yet another story, with the ultimate goal of constructing a story that situates and serves us socially, emotionally, and practically. 

-ckosarek

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In katlittrell’s recent blog post , she talked about “choose-your-own-stories” as presented in literature and in video games. I’d like to extend her thinking even further - beyond media - to thinking about if we can look at scientific theories as the results of choose-your-own-story patterns. 

The format for a scientific article in many journals involves a section featuring data found in a given study or experiment followed by an interpretation of that data. The data tells readers what happened within the confines of the experiment itself - how many bacteria were there after five minutes? how much did the temperature of the solution rise after the reaction? The interpretation postulates about the practical applications and ramifications of the results. And it is from the interpretation that experiments are pushed beyond their boundaries to give birth to new experiments, new data, and possibly enough “evidence” to support a theory (or, as Paul would have it, a “damn good story”). 

But what is seldom talked about is the fact that for every theory that exists, there are several other alternate theories, each with its own data and birthed from that data’s interpretations, to discredit that first theory. I’ll start with a hot-button issue (weight loss) to illustrate this idea. We have a professor in our psychology department here at Bryn Mawr who is interested in the relationship between food intake and appetite. He uses rats to do his experiments, and has found that the more the rats run on a wheel (the more they exercise), the less appetitive food is for them (they’ll eat less). These data led this professor to conclude that food is less appetitive immediately after exercise. His interpretation seems logical, and it’s been backed up by other studies about activity anorexia (check out this book if you’re interested in the relationship between anorexia and exercise). Where this interpretation runs into a counter-theory, though, is found in other studies, which assert that gender differences make it so that when women exercise they crave more food than when they do not exercise. Thus, an interpretation of these alternate data is that activity anorexia would be gendered if it does exist, which wouldn’t explain why more women present with symptoms of compulsive exercise and an eating disorder than men. 

Of course, conflicting theories aren’t only centered around scientific data. I know that one should never discuss religion, but for the purpose of this post religion serves as an excellent mode by which to highlight the fact that we have multiple stories to account for how our world works. Judaism states that a savior will be coming and uses the presence of several prophets as evidence of this conviction. But coexisting with Judaism is Christianity, which claims that the Jewish savior has not only come but has also left (!) and will be returning again. The Christians back their claim with a killer story, eyewitnesses, and after-the-fact saints all attesting to the validity of the savior. In both religions, there is a gathering of data (whatever actually happened back in the day), an interpretation (whatever actually made it into the scriptures and the peripheral religious writings to which we have access today), and theories (ahem, stories) attempting to explain something of the human condition. And there’s no way to objectively validate or invalidate either of these stories. As with any theory, we take their “truth” on faith. 

I’ve heard science been called a religion, and it wasn’t until we started this project that I’ve considered the fictional intersections of the two. I don’t mean to insult either field by calling it “fictionalized”, but instead use the word “fiction” to refer to any story that can’t fully trump competing stories. That said, perhaps what is most striking (for me at least) is the role faith plays in both science and religion. In the same way that Christians can’t “prove” that Jesus is the savior the Jews have been talking about for a couple of millenia, neither can science “prove” that that whole story about eight chunks of rock rotating around one giant ball of fire. There is a socialization that hinges on faith involved in our acceptance of any story. 

Where our faith (and by extension, our scientific bearings) is shaken is when science creates-its-own story and thus provides us with a series of contrasting, intermingling, connected-but-not-quite theories, all of which seem viable and all of which are supported by a data set. It is at these theoretical intersections that we personalize the stories created by science, synthesizing them into our own scientific create-your-own tale. A popular and accepted scientific theory may be no better than a YouTube meme; acceptance just implies that a greater number of individuals decided to include that particular story in their own understanding of themselves and the world. Less popular scientific stories - creationism, phrenology, etc. - simply haven’t been able to compete with the other “next” options in our create-your-own storyline.  

If we accept that each person defines his or her scientific story based upon the inferences in the environment gathered from data, and that our understandings of science and how our world operates are carefully chosen, personalized fictions, then the question becomes not how fiction influences science, but rather how our chosen scientific fictions influence how we interact with and operate within our environment. Are there certain scientific fictions that make living easier or more effective? And how might we measure them?

-ckosarek

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Thinking about evolutionary forms of literature, I’ve been captured by the idea of choose-your-own-adventure stories. Not necessarily the choose-your-own-adventure books, which I still remember with from childhood and which seemed strange and out-dated even then, but the concept of fiction where you, the reader, choose your path. It is a concept which has moved from books to video games and has adapted its form on the internet, from choose-your-own-adventure to write-your-own-adventure.

I remember when I was younger reading a book called “Soccer Star”. It was a choose-your-own-adventure story about, predictably, you, a high school student, playing soccer. What move would you choose? Would you shoot or would you cross? Less predictably, one of the dead-ends involved you, the hero, being beaten to death by thugs, an ending random enough to draw (in my mind) instant correlation between the twists and turns of a choose-your-own-adventure novel and the twists and turns of random evolution. If the plot steps of a choose-your-own-adventure novel were drawn out, they would resemble something like Darwin’s diagram of speciation, with many branches forking outwards. Cross-over plots would look something like convergent evolution and dead-ends would be the mistakes, the experiments that went awry or just weren’t quite as successful as the others.

There is a distinct difference between choose-your-own and write-your-own adventure stories: in choose-your-own adventure stories, you, the reader, are placed in the protagonist’s position and read out the story, but all possible endings have been pre-written, all possible paths pre-ordained. This style is still used in a more complex way in role-playing video games such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age to list only a few. In write-your-own adventure games, when the adventure stops you, the reader, are encouraged to create the next chapter. This is a form more strictly popular on the internet, and also common to certain table-top role-playing games. There are many write-your-own-adventure sites and games on the internet, a form popular with text-based games (Avalon, Hamlet, the Text Adventure) and simple image-based adventure games where the visual nature often lends the adventure to point-and-click in order to choose the next step, or pick up an object, for example.

The device of choice and the comparison of the construction of free will in the choose-your-own adventure versus the never-ending story of write-your-own adventures made me think of the metaphor of the Library of Babel, the imaginary library wherein all possible actions, books, concepts, etc., from past, present and future are contained. I have never really completely grasped the concept of this library, though in class when we discuss it we do so in metaphors, the evolution of literature and thought and evolution itself all concepts which are contained in this library, and it is through this library that human thought evolves. If the Library of Babel were real and I picked up a book, when I opened the book would there be an infinite number of books inside, all the books that could have been written instead of this one but were not?

So. While thinking of the Library of Babel and choose-your-own adventure games, I wondered: is the Library of Babel more like a choose-your-own adventure game or a write-your-own adventure game? When we wander through the aisles of the library are our courses pre-determined, though we may have several different choices at any juncture? How does the Library of Babel work? Say the history of human thought is the protagonist of the Library of Babel Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, and you, human thought, progress down an aisle without picking up any books for a time. You reach the end of the aisle. Which way do you go? Left, right, or straight ahead? You are given agency to choose your path, but what lies before you, in whatever direction you choose, is already there, pre-ordained, pre-destined, pre-written.

Or is the history of human thought in its progress through the Library of Babel operating more like the reader of a write-your-own-adventure novel, tracing its way through past thoughts, building its choices on past experience before it reaches the end of the aisle, the moment of the present, the moment where past experience stops and the future begins, a future which can be written any way you, the reader, wants to write?

Are we operating on a level of free will? Or are our immediate choices the only agency given us, the larger picture already mapped out and numbered, like an infinite Dewey decimal system in a limitless Library containing all that has been, is, and will be?

I think that the metaphor of the Library of Babel has always jarred with me because it has felt more like a choose-your-own adventure story than a write-your-own adventure story. I don’t like feeling like all possibilities have already been created, waiting to be picked from the shelves. That metaphor takes away our reason for hard work and creativity, of striving to push new boundaries and think new thoughts - for why push boundaries and think new thoughts if there are no new thoughts to be thought? I think that the way humanity works is much more like a write-your-own adventure story, always full of possibility, looking over the abyss of the future where nothing has yet to be written and deciding to take a step forward, make a mark and write down new things.

-katlittrell

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Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I can get some kind of a happy ending.”

“Not only are there no happy endings,” she told him. “There aren’t even any endings.

"

-

American Gods, Neil Gaiman (via onceandfuture)

I was looking for some kind of literature tumblr to follow, just to balance out our amazing science finds, and found this. It definitely seems to resonate with some of the topics we’ve been discussing in class. -katlittrell

Source: two-onions-and-a-bottle-of-vodka
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While I was sitting thinking about what to write for this blog post I started wondering about who would enroll in this class. Clearly we all did, but what about scientists who sit scrunched over a microscope every day, or authors who sleep all day and wake up to erase and rewrite pages and pages on their computer screens deep into the night, or literary critics who author snarky comments about new and best selling books and have their names appear in black and white in the newspaper every week? I don’t think that this class is for many of them. 

         

I have always liked history, and when I was younger my fascination with it was primarily focused on the Revolutionary War and the founding fathers of our country. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson… I watched them come back to life through PBS with Ken Burns and Liberty’s Kids. Now sure Thomas Jefferson was pretty cool with his house being Monticello, having his bed between two rooms so he could choose in the morning which room to get up into, sending Lewis and Clarke out to explore America, saying “I cannot live without books,” and being on the $2 bill; but Benjamin Franklin has always captured my interest most, and I think that this is the class for Franklin, and Franklin would be the star student of The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Story

             

Franklin was an author, printer, newspaper columnist, and he founded the first public library in the country. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and the carriage odometer among other things. Walter Isaacson said that Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

As a 15 year old Franklin wanted to begin writing for his brother’s newspaper, the first independent newspaper in the country. When denied, he began to write letters to the newspaper using the pen name Silence Dogood. He later bought a newspaper himself, the Pennsylvania Gazette that he both printed and wrote articles for. In addition to this, in 1733 he began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac, which he continued for over 20 years with print runs reaching 10,000 each year.

Franklin retired from business so that he could concentrate on science in 1749, after already inventing the Franklin stove (which he refused to patent because it was intended to improve society), swim fins, the glass armonica, and bifocals. In the 1750s he turned his studies towards electricity. He believed that electricity could be harnessed from lightning, and while attempting to solidify his hypothesis he performed the famous kite and key experiment. The metal key was to conduct electricity, with the kite harnessing the electric fire and containing it in the key. Based on his experiment and the observations of others, Franklin invented the lightning rod. The lightning rod is a metal rod mounted on the roof with one end pointing to the sky and the other attached to a cable that runs down the house into the ground. The metal of the rod attracts the lightning and the cable “grounds” the charge, keeping the lightning from hitting the house directly and causing a fire. Fires were a major source of concern in the 1700s, and both his lightning rod and his founding of the first fire department in Pennsylvania greatly decreased the number of fires in colonial America.

       

In addition to physics and electricity Franklin also studied meteorology, light, temperature, oceanography, and was an avid chess player. He was the first U.S. ambassador to France, served as an ambassador to Sweden, was the first U.S. Postmaster General, was the sixth President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, was the 23rd Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, was a founding father of America, played an instrumental role in the Revolution and freedom of America from British rule, and signed the Declaration of Independence.

I think that it is safe to say that Benjamin Franklin lived out a liberal-arts education throughout his every day life, his whole life. He was interested in everything, and he never limited himself to only one way of thinking. Not only do I think that Franklin would have loved this class but I think that he could have greatly contributed to our class discussions with links between science and the humanities as the two were so interwoven for him. His actions and his life challenge us to move from the classroom and to take what we have learned with us and do something with it. After all as Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.


-rachelr

Photo

Its the 21st anniversary of the Hubble telescope! Brings me back to our first class in this course where Paul showed us photos of space… -rachelr

ohscience:

Hubble’s latest view of an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon). The illumination of interstellar dust comes from the red supergiant star at the middle of the image, which gave off a flashbulb-like pulse of light two years ago

Source: space.about.com