Nature Archives

November 29, 2007

Science in Arabic


Hundreds of science books, including classics by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, will be translated into Arabic for the first time. The ambitious plan by a non-profit group in Abu Dhabi has the backing of the Crown prince and funding from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

The project, called Kalima (“word” in Arabic), is an attempt to address the fact that, although there are more than a quarter of a billion Arabic speakers worldwide, only a few hundred books are translated into Arabic each year. The group is working with more than 20 publishers throughout the Arab world. It plans to help them acquire, translate, publish and distribute about 100 books in Arabic every year. Around a quarter of these will be science titles.

“There is a particularly large gap in the Arab library of books in the natural-science category,” says Karim Nagy, the Egyptian entrepreneur and book collector who directs the project. “We have therefore purposely placed a heavier weighting on it.”

One book already translated is A Briefer History of Time , Stephen Hawking's revision of his best-seller (see right). Next year, Kalima will translate books by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck and Richard Feynman into Arabic, and prepare Arabic versions of recent works by Roger Penrose, Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson. Other scientists to be translated include Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Wolfram and James Watson. Eventually, Nagy hopes also to begin translating Arabic books into English and other languages.

March 6, 2008

Home Cooking for Hackers


Raspberry gumdrops with ant venom. Image: MagicSafire.

"I think of cooking as hacking," says Californian computer programmer Marc Powell, who led a 'Kitchen Hack Lab' demonstration at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego this week.

In the kitchen, we're all amateur chemists. Protein, carbohydrate, fat and water react to changes in pressure and temperature during cooking. Just as a hardware hacker adapts an electronic device to a new purpose, a food hacker recombines ingredients in unconventional ways.

Powell wants to bring "the red-headed stepchild of molecular gastronomy" to the masses. At Unicorn Precinct XIII in San Francisco, he hosts a 'collaborative supper club'. Guests can sample blood ice cream, chocolate monkfish liver and savoury bubble tea with squid ink tapioca pearls (

A chemical logic underpins Powell's odd blend of ingredients: one batch of gumdrops used raspberry, rum and ant venom because they all contain derivatives of formic acid, which has a strong, tangy taste.

After the dot-com bust, Powell trained in the kitchen of Heston Blumenthal, head chef of The Fat Duck in Berkshire, UK. Blumenthal founded his own research laboratory to refine such culinary techniques as sous vide, or slow cooking in vacuum-sealed bags. In recent years, a handful of molecular chefs — including Ferrán Adria at Spain's El Bulli and Homaru Cantu at Moto in Chicago, Illinois — have used liquid nitrogen, lasers and inkjet printers to expand the range of possible flavours and textures.

Ultramodern kitchen experimentation has largely bypassed the amateur because of the high cost of equipment, such as rotary evaporators or an 'anti-griddle' that chills to -34 °C. But vacuum-sealers and smoking guns are relatively cheap and, as food scientists such as Harold McGee and Hervé This have shown, there is also room for innovation using standard ingredients and appliances.

What sets Powell apart is his home-grown approach. He invites strangers to bring their own ingredients into his kitchen and hack alongside him. "I think food cooked at home is always better than what's cooked in a restaurant," he says.

Plus, unlike many restaurant chefs who keep their recipes secret, Powell encourages 'open-source recipe development' ( For when inspiration fails, his website program ( generates random recipes — such as 'grub-injected wasp caviar with salt-baked spider bun' — that can be tailored to the contents of your larder.

It remains to be seen whether the invention of such new dishes, as the French epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825, "does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star".

—Jascha Hoffman
Nature 452, 32-33 (6 March 2008)

April 3, 2008

How Faces Share Feelings



The Search for Universals in Human Emotion: Photographs from the New Guinea Expedition

Forty years ago, psychologist Paul Ekman took his camera to the island of New Guinea to photograph the faces of the South Fore people. He wanted to prove that the expressions on their faces did not mirror social convention but were universal displays of human emotion. A set of these photographs, which launched Ekman's long career deciphering the secrets of the human face, is now on display in the new Mind exhibition at San Francisco's Exploratorium.

In the 1960s, many anthropologists thought that a smile could convey joy in one culture and disgust in another. Ekman had a hunch that this relativistic thinking was wrong. Almost a century before, Charles Darwin had conducted his own international survey of facial expressions in the belief that they were universal. Inspired by this approach, Ekman secured military funding for a series of experiments that showed that people from Japan and Chile, among others, could read expressions on North American faces. When the American anthropologist Margaret Mead protested that exposure to magazines and films might have obscured the differences between cultures, Ekman set out to test the most isolated humans he could find. "I needed to study people who had never had contact with the outside world," he explained. "I wanted to settle it decisively."

When he arrived in New Guinea, there were some misunderstandings. Ekman's attempt, recorded on film, to inspire fear by lunging at a South Fore boy with a rubber knife caused nothing but laughter. After this experiment failed, he had to hand out cigarettes and soap to get people to take part in further ones. Yet when participants were asked to point to a pictured face that matched the emotion evoked by a particular story — anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise — they made the same associations as people living elsewhere. There was one exception. The South Fore people did not distinguish between fear and surprise. Ekman now speculates that they may have had trouble telling these two emotions apart because, as he says: "In that culture, anything totally unexpected is going to be threatening."

Since his South Fore study, Ekman has found only one more emotion with a universal expression: contempt. Some other emotions, such as guilt, shame and interest, have not been added to the list of universals because they are expressed in different ways even in the same culture. One might expect some expressions to be learned by mimicry, but Ekman cites evidence to the contrary: psychologist David Matsumoto found that blind judo wrestlers show the thrill of victory and conceal the agony of defeat in precisely the same ways that sighted athletes do. "It's not something we have to learn by observing others," Ekman says. "It's got to be stored in the brain. Nobody knows where."

Ekman went on to devise a system to classify facial expressions using the movements of 43 muscles in the face. He discovered that hidden emotions, such as those caused by lying, can be revealed by fleeting 'microexpressions'. His system is now used by computer animators to create realistic facial animations and by police officers interviewing suspects. Ekman is also working with the US Department of Homeland Security to train airport staff to identify potential hijackers by searching for suppressed fear and disgust in passengers' faces.

One item in the exhibition stands out. A tiny video screen shows Ekman's 1967 footage of a group of boys playing outside the window of his hut in New Guinea. After disappearing from view, a young boy suddenly sticks his head back into the frame and pulls faces at the camera. The scene is so familiar, yet, after one has paid such close attention to facial detail, it seems utterly foreign. It is a reminder of how flexible our faces are, and of how much we can convey when we know someone is watching.

[full text at Nature]

June 19, 2008

Alda on Einstein

Nature 453, 987 (19 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/453987a; Published online 18 June 2008

Q&A: Insight into Einstein

Actor Alan Alda, who starred in the television series M*A*S*H and now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US network PBS, is fascinated with physics. At last month's World Science Festival in New York he led a panel discussing the quantum world, portrayed Richard Feynman in the play QED, and presented Dear Albert, his new play drawn from Albert Einstein's letters.

Why did Einstein's letters interest you?

It's very important for us to see that science is done by people, not just brains but whole human beings, and sometimes at great cost. Letters can be very personal, and sometimes confrontational.

I had also planned to write a play about Marie Curie's letters. I got a little discouraged because not only are they in Polish and French, but the French letters are still slightly radioactive. After you look at them they go over you with a Geiger counter. I thought I'd wait until somebody else goes in a hazmat suit and translates them. So I stuck with Einstein.

Einstein emerges from your play as a highly volatile character, sometimes spiteful and domineering, sometimes withdrawn and resigned. How do you see him?

Einstein claims not to have felt lonely, but he was a lonesome figure. He could see far out into the cosmos but he was myopic about the people next to him. It was difficult for him to take the time for what he called the "merely personal". And he really did seem to take refuge in these very complicated images in his head. Like Feynman, he challenged every idea that came to him. He wanted to rethink it, he wanted to see more deeply into it.

Why did you focus on Einstein's relationships with his two wives, Mileva and Elsa?

Plenty of his correspondence with colleagues was about the science that he was working so hard on. But I wanted to show the personal side of the discoveries and ruminations. For somebody with hair like that, he did awfully well with the women. At one point he couldn't decide whether to marry his second wife Elsa or her daughter Ilse, who wrote to a friend, "Albert refuses to take a position on this".

Will the play be performed again?

I don't know. It was like a high-energy experiment: we just let the actors collide with the material. Whatever particles came out of it we could observe for a short time, and now it has evaporated.

Interview by Jascha Hoffman, a writer based in New York.

July 16, 2008

A Universal Library of Math?

A small group of researchers is meeting in Birmingham, UK, later this month to plan a free digital library of mathematics.

All the mathematical literature ever published runs to more than 50 million pages, with around 75,000 articles added each year. Over the past decade there have been several attempts to make this prodigious body of work accessible in a single digital archive, but so far none has succeeded.

A group of mathematicians intends to change this. They have started small, with a handful of digitization projects in Poland, Russia, Serbia and the Czech Republic. In a few years they hope to unite these repositories with their western European counterparts in an archive to be hosted by the European Union, according to the organizer, Petr Sojka, an informatics scientist at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic. Eventually this pan-European archive could be expanded globally, he says.

To make such an archive easier to search, researchers have found ways to guess the subject of a paper on the basis of the frequency of symbols in it. But there will be many more-practical challenges, such as finding the funds to scan millions of old papers and striking deals with publishers who hold rights to them.

It may already be too late to build a single free mathematical archive, according to John Ewing, head of the American Mathematical Society, which maintains a list of more than 1,500 journals whose archives have already been digitized. “A few years ago, this model had the potential to change the mathematics journal literature in profound ways,” he says. But most publishers have rushed to scan their own archives in order to lock them up and sell them to libraries.

“While the effort to digitize the smaller collections is admirable, and it's certainly worthwhile, it's unlikely to effect a larger change,” says Ewing.

—Jascha Hoffman

July 31, 2008

Maths and Mad Hatters


Nature 454, 580-581 (31 July 2008)

Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life
by Robin Wilson
Allen Lane/Norton: 2008. 237 pp./208 pp. £16.99/$24.95

reviewed by Jascha Hoffman

Legend has it that Queen Victoria was so enchanted by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that she insisted on Lewis Carroll's next work being sent to her. One can imagine her expression as she opened the book that arrived, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Determinants.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had many careers. He is best remembered for the sublime nonsense verse he wrote under the name Lewis Carroll. He was a pioneering childrens' photographer and a lay clergyman admired for his sermons. Before all else he was a mathematician who taught generations of students at the University of Oxford, UK, contributed to the fields of geometry, algebra and logic, and used games and puzzles to entertain and instruct. In Lewis Carroll in Numberland, mathematician Robin Wilson reveals Dodgson to be the grandfather of recreational mathematics.

He was precocious, orthodox and craved variety. Born in 1832 in Cheshire, UK, Dodgson was a lecturer at Oxford by his early twenties. At a time when non-Euclidean geometries were catching on, he wrote a four-act play stubbornly arguing that Euclid should remain at the centre of the Oxford curriculum. He invented a method to find the determinants of large matrices, but his strange notation meant that it never caught on. Later, he sought mathematical remedies for real injustices, suggesting tie-break methods for parliamentary elections to his friend Lord Salisbury, and devising a way to make lawn tennis tournaments fairer to the runners-up.

Some work was ahead of its time, especially his efforts to bring mathematics to young people. Although pupils complained of his "singularly dry and perfunctory manner" in the classroom, Dodgson's gift for teaching shone through in dozens of self-published guides for students, and in his letters to children. Wilson shows that he found humour in the plainest of subjects and did not underestimate his young correspondents, once commenting that intelligence seemed to vary inversely with size. In person, he drew their attention using guessing games and feats of memory. He could recite the first 71 digits of pi using a series of nonsense couplets as memory aids, and once contrived an algorithm that could give the date of every Easter Sunday until 2499.

Sooner or later every child who knew Dodgson would receive a brain teaser. Published in collections with titles such as A Tangled Tale and Pillow Problems Thought Out During Sleepless Nights, many of these word problems required the dutiful application of algebra, trigonometry or geometry. Some needed mere patience and common sense. One devious puzzle asked how many guests would come to a dinner party if a man invited his father's brother-in-law, his brother's father-in-law, his father-in-law's brother, and his brother-in-law's father. Others were in the form of fallacies to debunk. Dodgson once asked a 14-year-old boy to find the flaw in his proof that 2 + 2 = 5, which Wilson reveals to be a stealthy division by zero. A few problems hinged simply on a pun.

Later in life, Dodgson taught symbolic logic with a board game that used red and grey counters on a set of nested squares, which he believed superseded the overlapping circles championed by British logician John Venn. In Dodgson's Game of Logic, published under his pen name to gain a wider audience, one can see some of the punctilious lunacy of the Mad Hatter. Following chains of inference he called 'sillygisms', he led readers from reasonable premises to conclusions such as "Babies cannot manage crocodiles", "No banker fails to shun hyaenas" and "No bird in this aviary lives on mince-pies". These examples are perhaps less interesting as logic than as the stirrings of a systematic kind of literature, also apparent in his symmetrical poem that can be read vertically and horizontally.

Lewis Carroll in Numberland is not a conventional biography. Robin Wilson has winnowed Dodgson's prodigious output into a first-rate scrapbook of proofs and puzzles. Sadly, his tone is often fawning and flat — not up to the standard of mathematical storytelling he set in his previous book, Four Colours Suffice (Allen Lane, 2002), on the history of the conjecture that four colours can fill any map without any bordering countries sharing a colour. By immersing us in Dodgson's correspondence, however, Wilson conjures the spirit of a man who delighted in paradox yet insisted on precision, who held fiercely to the ancients while straining to understand the world around him, and who wanted most of all to stump everyone he knew. Writing for work or pleasure, for children or adults, Wilson shows that Dodgson turned the most sober of problems into child's play.

"Some perhaps may blame me for mixing together things grave and gay," he wrote as Lewis Carroll in an insert to his nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark. But, he continued, "I do not believe God means us thus to divide life into two halves."

[full text] [pdf]

October 9, 2008

Science at the Movies

Nature 455, 734-735 (9 October 2008)

Jascha Hoffman

-Imagine Science Film Festival
New York City, New York
16–25 October 2008

Village CinemaScience, Bordeaux, France
16–26 October 2008

When scientists appear on the big screen, if at all, they tend to be going mad or else paying for their hubris — think Dr. Strangelove, Jurassic Park and A Beautiful Mind. This month, two new film festivals — the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York ( and CinemaScience in Bordeaux, France ( — aim to correct this impression. Privileging fiction over documentary, they show how to tell stories grounded in real research.

The Imagine festival, sponsored by Nature, began as a series of screenings at New York's Rockefeller University by biologist Alexis Gambis. Illness is the villain in many of the chosen short films, from Jen Peel's medical thriller Muerto Canyon, about a deadly virus in New Mexico, to Toddy Burton's The Aviatrix, about the superhero alter-ego of a woman struggling with cancer. Some of the best use humour. California King, directed by Eli Kaufman, is the tale of a mattress salesman who falls for an insomniac, and it is leavened with ironically placed lessons in Newtonian mechanics. Like the wordless opening of Disney–Pixar's WALLE, the post-apocalyptic Pygmalion story Lone, from Andrew Nowrojee, has some of the pathetic charm of Buster Keaton.

A pair of pulse-quickening features in Spanish round out the programme: La Habitación de Fermat (Fermat's Room; 2007), a thriller about a group of mathematicians forced to solve word problems or die, and Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (2008), in which virtual labour and water politics make for a Mexican Star Wars with a Marxist twist. The festival also screens Paul Devlin's stranger-than-fiction documentary BLAST! (2006), about astrophysicists travelling to Antarctica to launch a telescope on a high-altitude balloon.

The CinemaScience festival in Bordeaux is sponsored by the CNRS, France's basic-research agency. The festival examines Hollywood's reliance on scientific innovation as a source of disaster, with retrospectives of classics from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) to James Cameron's Terminator II (1991). As a mild corrective, Exodus Film Group's new animated feature Igor, about a hunchbacked lab assistant who hopes to win the Evil Science Fair, promises to poke gentle fun at common misperceptions.

Other films engage more seriously with the history of science. The biopic Korolev (2007), directed by Yuri Kara, follows the career of the Russian rocket scientist who survived Stalin's labour camps to launch Sputnik into orbit. Andrzej Wajda's acclaimed film Katyn (2007), about the Soviet massacre of Polish troops in 1940, is informed by a forensic investigation of their mass grave. But not all is dark and Slavic. The French comedy La Très Très Grande Entreprise (directed by Pierre Jolivet, on general release next month), about workers who sue an agrochemical company for polluting their pond, is Erin Brockovich played for laughs. And Chilean Ricardo Larraín's Chile Puede (2008) tells the story of an unfortunate cosmonaut stranded in space by his own countrymen.

The festivals show that there are many ways to get research right at the movies. "When you make a film, you want the science to be wrapped around a story," said Gambis of the Imagine festival. "I don't think you have to distort science to make it exciting."

November 6, 2008

Opera for the End
of the World


Q&A: Opera for the end of the world

Nature 456, 39 (6 November 2008)

The dawn of the nuclear era finds its voice in Doctor Atomic, an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the first atom bomb. With a new production showing in New York, composer John Adams explains how physicists have reacted to the work, and how writing it has changed his view of nuclear weapons.
Q&A: Opera for the end of the world

What is the setting for the opera?

It mainly takes place during the night leading up to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, code-named the Trinity test, in New Mexico on the morning of 16 July 1945. Just as the plutonium sphere had been winched up on a tower over the desert, an electrical storm blew in, causing huge anxiety. There was pressure to test the bomb as soon as possible because Russia wanted a piece of Japan.

How is the story told?

Peter Sellars compiled a one-of-a-kind libretto using historical sources for every line of sung text. Some of Oppenheimer's words are drawn from a top-secret memorandum that discussed target choices. Because he was a cultured person, we used his favourite poets for moments of lyrical flight or hallucination. Exhausted and nervous, with a dawning awareness of the horror of his creation, our Oppenheimer sings from Charles Baudelaire's poetry, the sacred text of the Bhagavadgita and the John Donne sonnet from which he supposedly drew the name 'Trinity'.

Did Oppenheimer face opposition about dropping the bomb?

After two years of utter focus on the engineering feat, the war in Europe was suddenly over and there were rumours that the bomb would be dropped on civilians. A petition [to warn the Japanese] was circulated by young scientists who naively thought it would end up on the President's desk. But people have different recollections. After one rehearsal, an 80-year-old physicist who had worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico came up to me and said, "I want you to know that there wasn't a single person who wasn't happy as hell that we dropped that bomb on Japan."

How has working on the opera changed your view of nuclear weapons?

I've been thinking about the use of the bomb in Japan for eight years now and I still can't tell you whether I think it was the right decision. We were facing a land invasion where a million people could have been killed. If the bomb had not been used in Japan, I'm almost certain it would have been used in the Korean war a few years later. It's just human nature.

Have you received any criticism from scientists?

The first words sung by the chorus used to be "matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form." Marvin Cohen, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote to me to say that's not strictly right [because a fission bomb turns matter into energy]. I tried to fix it at the dress rehearsal of the San Francisco production in 2005 but the chorus panicked. I have since corrected it.

The opera mentions physicist Edward Teller's concerns about the bomb igniting the air around it. Why did you include this?

Enrico Fermi had voiced his concern that the bomb might cause an atmospheric meltdown, and Teller once calculated the odds of this. By 1945, that possibility was not considered seriously, but I wanted to keep the discussion in the opera because this weapon was a tipping point in the relationship between our species and the planet. Starting on that morning, we had it in our power to destroy the world.

Interview by Jascha Hoffman, a writer based in New York.

January 15, 2009

Chemistry in the Kitchen

Q&A: Chemistry in the kitchen

Jascha Hoffman

Voted the world's best restaurant, Spain's elBulli near Barcelona offers an unusual culinary experience, from hot velvet-crab aspic with mini-corncob couscous to ice-cold liquorice nitro-dragon dessert. Innovative head chef Ferran Adrià explains how science and haute cuisine can work together.


Ferran Adrià's 'Folie' salad combines tuna-oil foam, air-bag dough and yoghurt nodules.

What will a guest find at elBulli?

It's not just about the food, it's an experience in itself. Cooking is a language. I'm expressing myself and everyone perceives it in a different way, like a piece of theatre. Each person takes away something new. In most human activities it would be normal to find humour, irony and deception. The one place this isn't expected is in the kitchen.

What are you doing now?

At the moment my team and I are working with a very strange ingredient, veal cartilage. We're also designing a new version of the Chinese 'thousand-year-old egg' [traditionally an egg preserved in clay, salt, ash, tea and lime]. I spend half the year composing at my workshop in Barcelona, and the other half interpreting in the kitchen at elBulli.

How hard is it to develop new dishes?

Last year we ran 4,000 tests and only about 300 of them panned out. Everyone learns from their mistakes — it's a necessary consequence of being creative. The important thing is to have lots of ideas simmering. Some of these ideas will work, and from these we build our new dishes.

Do you ever seek advice?

As with any other art, when my creative team needs something specific we go to an expert such as a scientist or historian. But when it comes to everyday ingredients, we don't usually consult researchers. Our work is systematic: you have to be very organized to achieve a sense of anarchism. It's not possible to grasp our work without seeing it for yourself — it would be like trying to describe eating an Amazonian fruit you've never tried.

Where do you find new ingredients?

I recently went to the Amazon, which has incredible fruits, some of them unknown to science. Under jungle conditions, many fruits ferment naturally. I also studied them in museums, in markets and with biologists.

Has your work raised any scientific questions?

It is having an influence in the world of science. I visited the physics department at Harvard University last month to talk about this. The dialogue between science and cooking is not new. Bread making has been considered a chemical process for hundreds of years, and the food industry has relied on chemists for almost a century. But only recently has there been a dialogue between science and haute cuisine.

A Day At elBulli
by Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià & Juli Soler
Phaidon Press: 2008. 600 pp. £29.95

January 22, 2009

Science on Stage


Scripting scientists' lives

Jascha Hoffman

Leave a Light On
Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York City
22 January 2009. Part of the First Light Festival, which runs until March 2009.

Last year, at a first reading of her play about the life of biologist Robert Trivers, Ann Marie Healy noticed a stranger in the back of the theatre, laughing. Afterwards, the man strode over to the actor who had played the young biologist as a foul-mouthed and promiscuous genius working out the evolutionary logic of human kindness and conflict, and said: "You got it exactly right." That stranger was Trivers.

Healy's play features in New York's First Light Festival, a collaboration between the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that incubates science-based theatre. The festival, which has run annually for more than a decade, includes nine full-length plays this year and continues until the end of March.

In Leave a Light On, Trivers is portrayed as an ambitious, untenured professor who ruffles feathers at Harvard University's department of zoology as he attempts to take a Darwinian approach to human nature. Dissatisfied with an academic culture that is hostile to his ideas, Trivers retreats to Jamaica to study lizards and then moves to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he meets Huey Newton, former leader of the Black Panther party. Widely believed to have dropped 'off the grid', Trivers returns to academia more than a decade later to study the adaptive value of self-deception.

Healy weaves in the science with a light touch. In the play, with the help of a female colleague who is also a love interest, Trivers works out his theory of reciprocal altruism using a series of imaginary birds with distinct approaches to selfless behaviour: Suckers, who always groom their peers; Cheaters, who never do; and Grudgers, who only groom tit-for-tat. As in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, the script darts between centuries and characters, punctuating Trivers's sobering career with farcical episodes from the courtship of Charles and Emma Darwin that are meant to explain the logic of gene competition. The play hardly needs such asides: Trivers's own ideas are enough to drive the plot.

The 2009 First Light Festival began with an uneven selection of one-act plays collectively called E = mcbrunch, portraying a chemist discovering her brother's meth lab, an Olympic gymnast trying to prove her rivals are underage, and a mathematician confronting risk in an airport restaurant. The full-length plays take on an equally wide range of topics. Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 portrays the familiar story of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images led the way to the discovery of DNA structure in 1953. Tommy Smith's Beautiful Night will show Soviet inventor and electronic-music pioneer Léon Theremin falling in love with a black ballerina in New York City in the 1930s — with live accompaniment from the eerie-sounding theremin instrument. And in the improbable monologue Five Easy Steps to Metaphysical Fitness: They Actually Work, comedian Emily Levine will impart wisdom gained by staging a one-woman show about physics while struggling with her pituitary-gland disorder.

"The goal is not just to demystify science but to show its intrinsic appeal, both emotional and intellectual," says Darcy Kelley, a neurobiologist at Columbia University and an adviser to the theatre. "Then science itself becomes a character, not just window dressing."

February 25, 2009

Science at Sundance

It will be a good year for films about science, judging from the screenings at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Some of the best films examined the human mind... [full text]

April 8, 2009

Praying for Success

The documentary film BLAST! follows a team of cosmologists from Sweden to Antarctica as they launch a balloon-borne telescope to study the early Universe...[full text]

April 15, 2009

Bonfire of the Humanities


[pdf] [text]

Q&A: Tom Wolfe on language and the mind

Jascha Hoffman

Nature, Books and Arts, 16 April 2009

Behind the novelist's eye of Tom Wolfe — bestselling author of Bonfire of the Vanities — lies a keen interest in brain science. Discussing the origin of language this week with Steven Pinker at the Brainwave festival in New York, Wolfe explains why he sees human behaviour as more than mechanistic, and genetic theory as little more than literature.

Your father was an agronomist. Did he give you a taste for science?

Actually, no. He worked at the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, dealing mainly in corn [maize], whose yield was enormously increased by artificial selection. My father edited a farm magazine called The Southern Planter. I would see him writing on a yellow legal pad and two weeks later his words were converted into beautiful, sharp-edged type. I was five years old, and it seemed magical. I lost track of the science. I just wanted to write.

When did you become interested in the brain?

When I enrolled in the American Studies graduate programme at Yale University I fell in love with sociology. I realized that almost everything one does is determined by status considerations — just think of your conduct in the bathroom, all by yourself. As early as 1956, I became convinced that there must be some area of the brain that determines this drive. I started trying to study brain physiology, only to discover that the status of Sigmund Freud's psychology was so high that the science had practically come to a halt. When it turned out that Freud did not have the answers — a fact brought out by lithium — only then did neuroscience, as we know it, get started.

Where did you begin your study?

The first thing I found was the book Physical Control of the Mind by the Spanish physician José Delgado at Yale. He was one of the first to insert needles into the brain to show where the seat of certain impulses were. Delgado proved his theory by letting himself be charged by a raging bull into whose brain he had sunk a stereotaxic needle. He pressed a button on a radio transmitter and the bull came to a screeching halt, like in the cartoons. He is still, to my thinking, the greatest neuroscientist ever.

Why are you sceptical about genetic explanations for human behaviour?

So many neuroscientists have become gnostics — convinced they see things the rest of us can't see because they've had a revelation. They have a secret: what we call 'soul', 'mind' and even 'self' must go into quotation marks. There's no 'me' inside of me. We are machines programmed at birth; we think we have free choice but we don't. But none of this has any scientific basis. As Delgado's son has said, we are not two miles down the long road of understanding the brain, we are two millimetres, and all the rest is literature.

What is your view of the origins of language?

It's my contention that evolution stopped when the first caveman spoke. Nobody knows when or how language was invented. Steven Pinker calls it an instinct that grows out of the process of evolution. My view is that language is an artefact like an axe or a sword, which can affect people's behaviour thousands of years later. Right now, as we speak, I'll bet you there are at least 250 million orgasms taking place that would not have taken place had Freud never lived. This is the influence of words. They will not lie down.

A Forbes article you wrote in 1996 made some think you wanted to defend the soul against the onslaught of science.

That is ludicrous. I don't care one way or another about the existence of the soul. I wrote the piece 'Sorry, but your soul just died' to point out that the march of neuroscience and genetic theory was beginning to prove Friedrich Nietzsche's prediction that the twenty-first century would see the eclipse of all values. If you have the gnostic belief that we are all just machines, and we react to one another according to how we are programmed, there is no room for values. I didn't say the theory was wrong. I predicted that, if it was proven correct, it would depress people.

Do you believe such a deterministic view of the brain could be validated?

My view in 1996 was, if they actually do end up proving it, I'd like to be there to report on it. It's all great journalism as far as I'm concerned — that's my sole interest. I now see that I made a mistake in trying to conflate neuroscience, which really is a science, with genetic theory, which is pure literature.

You predicted that, by 2006, brain imaging would be more important than the Internet. How has that held up?

Not very well. It's so easy to make predictions. Brain imaging has been very valuable in medicine, but I don't know of any great breakthroughs that have resulted. So much of it traces only blood flow. You bring up a certain subject to someone who's got the skull cap on and a certain part of the brain lights up, and you want to conclude that's where that subject is handled in the brain. But that's reading shadows on the wall. No, it hasn't done all those wonderful things. But eventually, in the hands of rational people, it will have tremendous promise. That's science, not literature.

Tom Wolfe's fourth novel is due out later this year. Brainwave events run until 23 April at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

Interview by Jascha Hoffman, a writer based in New York.

[pdf] [text]

April 23, 2009

Pursuing the Infinite

infinity.jpg The authors of Naming Infinity argue that an esoteric Christian sect contributed to advances in set theory in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. But they reveal a much larger drama: the flourishing of mathematics under the repression of the early Soviet regime... [pdf] [text]

April 29, 2009

Fiction beyond the Grave

sum.jpgWhen our bodies fail, our minds go with them, and the game is over. Or is it? A new book gathers 40 playful sketches of what an afterlife might hold for us, from expanding into a nine-dimensional cloud to working as an extra in other people’s dreams... [pdf]

May 22, 2009

The Exhibition Designer

schlossberg2.jpg"If you put a bucket of water in front of a child, they will play with it forever," says Edwin Schlossberg, who has conceived museum installations for NASA and the Catholic Church. "I try to design like that." [pdf][text]

June 4, 2009

Watching Wilson and Watson

ads.jpg "I don't understand exactly what happens when a word enters my imagination," said documentary playwright Anna Deavere Smith as she prepared to portray biologists Edward O. Wilson and James Watson at the World Science Festival in New York... [text] [pdf]

June 12, 2009

The Technology of Illusion

abracadabraPata1.jpg Magic is not limited to the tricks performed at children's parties. It can refer to anything that resists explanation, from cognitive illusions to high-tech wizardry. This broader sense of magic was in the air in Lima, Peru, earlier this spring, when engineers and artists converged to explore the intersection of magic and technology, with awe-inspiring results... [pdf] [text]

June 18, 2009

A Fresh Take on Food

food.jpg "What's in the fridge?" may not seem a weighty question. But food is one of our oldest and most advanced technologies. Over the centuries, armies and empires have stood and fallen on the strength of their provisions. And as two new books and a documentary film show, we all have a stake in what we eat. [pdf]

September 17, 2009

An Ear for the Past

Engineer Duncan Miller has spent decades reviving the lost art of acoustic recording to wax cylinders, a technique pioneered by Thomas Edison. His Vulcan Cylinder Record Company has combined sleuthing and modern chemistry to craft a new repertoire for the hand-cranked phonograph... [pdf] [text]

October 15, 2009

The Space Entrepreneur

qq2.png As his animated feature Quantum Quest — made with real footage from the Cassini spacecraft — is previewed at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York, space exploration consultant Harry Kloor shares his thoughts on manned space flight and the use of prizes to motivate adventurous science... [text] [pdf]

January 21, 2010

Sundance 2010

Picture%203.png At this year's Sundance Film Festival, many of the science-related films are concerned with disaster scenarios, both real and imagined. There are documentaries about nuclear proliferation, climate-change refugees and invasive Australian toads, not to mention fiction films about vicious human-animal hybrids, post-apocalyptic Kenyan botany, and an encyclopedia of obsolete things that may eventually include the human race... [pdf] [text]

April 15, 2010

Math-Art on the Bowery

sims.jpgWhile pursuing his doctorate in dynamical systems, John Sims was drawn to explore the connections between mathematics and art. Now curating a year-long series of math–art shows at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, the conceptual artist explains his work...[pdf] [text]

Beyond the Tragic Genius

dawn.jpgA lonely man flirts with madness to recover truth—or so it goes in films from Pi to Proof. But where did the figure of the tragic mathematician originate? In Duel at Dawn, historian Amir Alexander pierces the haze that has gathered around great mathematical lives to reveal gloriously complicated men... [pdf] [text]

May 1, 2010

The Omnipresent Hubbub

Enlarged%20Book%20Jacket.gifNoise is hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. In The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, writer Garret Keizer exposes the history of noise, its opponents and apologists, and recent efforts to measure and curb it. The result is a scattered mosaic that uses the conceit of human clamour to reveal the paradoxes of post-industrial life...[pdf] [text]

May 12, 2010

Sylvia Earle on Oceans

2010_oceans_001.jpgOceanographer and underwater explorer Sylvia Earle advised on Disney's recent cut of the documentary film Oceans. In anticipation of the release of the Census of Marine Life this fall, Earle explains why films are important for raising awareness of the state of our seas. [text] [pdf]

May 26, 2010

Icarus at the Edge of Time

icarus.jpegBrian Greene, author of best-selling books The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, is a theoretical physicist at Columbia University. As an orchestral work based on his 2008 children's book, Icarus at the Edge of Time, premieres at the World Science Festival in New York City, Greene discusses black holes and how music might portray the physics of warped space-time... [text] [pdf]

July 15, 2010

The Future of Opera

The inventor and composer Tod Machover, whose group at MIT's Media Lab developed the technology behind Guitar Hero, has built instruments for musicians from Prince to Yo-Yo Ma. As Machover prepares for the world premiere of his robotic opera Death and the Powers in Monaco in September, he explains how his interactive performance techniques might lead to personalized therapies... [text] [pdf]

November 7, 2010

Deception by the Numbers

proofiness.jpg Bad statistics are “toxic to democracy”, argues science journalist Charles Seife in his latest book Proofiness. Seife's polemic against the reporters, politicians, scientists, lawyers and bankers who spread these bad statistics is strident but sobering... [partial text] [pdf]

December 8, 2010

The Ideas Lab


Harvard engineer David Edwards has built a growing empire of labs, galleries and non-profit organizations that stretches from Paris to Cape Town. His latest book, The Lab, calls for a new breed of small, flexible institutions to support researchers who blur the lines between science, business and art... [paid text] [free pdf]

December 21, 2010

Roger Penrose

penroseCircle.pngAs he publishes his collected works — six volumes comprising more than 5,000 pages — mathematical physicist Roger Penrose muses on 50 years of groundbreaking research in general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, geometry and consciousness... [pdf] [paid text]

January 22, 2011

Science at Sundance

nim.pngThis year at the Sundance Film Festival, a number of films explore the subtleties of human and animal behavior, the impact of new technologies, and the personal lives of scientists... [pdf] [paid text]

February 23, 2011

The Scent Collector

kaiser.jpegRoman Kaiser gathers the scents of rare and endangered plants and recreates them in his laboratory. For this interview in Nature, the Swiss chemist explains how he preserves the fragrances of disappearing flora...[pdf] [paid link]

August 9, 2011

Steakhouse Science

Nathan Myhrvold trained as a quantum cosmologist and was chief technology officer of Microsoft before founding a company that acquires patents. As he publishes a six-volume work on the science of cooking, Myhrvold explains why chemistry techniques could soon be seen in every restaurant... [pdf]

Isabella Rossellini on Animal Behavior

Picture%2028.png Isabella Rossellini, star of films including Blue Velvet and Big Night, has made a series of short films on the mating rituals of insects and sea creatures. As her latest humorous biopic debuts in the United States, Rossellini explains why she is fascinated by animals [pdf]

The machinist


Dutch artist Christiaan Zwanikken makes computer-controlled mechanical sculptures, many of which use animal skeletons he has found. He discusses the relationships between humans, animals and machines. [pdf]

Monkey Don't

In 1973, Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, embarked on an experiment to teach sign language to an infant chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky. On the release of the documentary Project Nim, Terrace talks about research ethics, chimp cognition and the origins of language. [pdf]

The Space Man

NASA astronomer Richard Berendzen advised the science-fiction film Another Earth, winner of the Sloan Prize for science at Sundance this year. On the film's release, he talks about parallel worlds and the future of human space exploration. [pdf]

August 10, 2011

Werner Herzog on Cave Paintings

Picture%2029.png As he releases a 3D documentary about the prehistoric paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France, Werner Herzog — the German director of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man — talks about cave art and the hostility of nature. [pdf]

October 12, 2011

Internet Visionary

Screen%20Shot%202011-10-12%20at%2012.23.42%20PM.pngAs the new director of the Media Lab at MIT, Joichi Ito brings his knowledge of Internet start-ups — including Flickr, Twitter and Creative Commons — to the lab that developed the ideas behind the game Guitar Hero and Amazon Kindle's E-Ink technology. Ito talks about the value of playfulness and freedom in scientific discovery... [pdf]

October 14, 2011

Postcards from Dystopia

Novelist Margaret Atwood’s essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is a companion piece to her dystopian fictional world of global warming and engineered plagues. The Canadian author discusses where she gets her science, and her concerns for the future. [pdf] [link]

September 20, 2012

Collision Creator

Julius von Bismarck is the first artist in residence at the particle-physics laboratory CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland. As he prepares to give the final lecture of his residency, he talks about whipping mountains, hacking photographs and digging into the history of invention... [pdf]

December 6, 2012

Iceberg Imager

Camille Seaman photographs icebergs and storm clouds. With an exhibition of her work opening in January in San Francisco, California, she talks about stalking supercell storms and watching hungry polar bears destroy a bird colony... [pdf]

January 17, 2013

Walking the Edge at Sundance

The film industry has long been preoccupied with the leading edge of technological research — from Metropolis to Transformers — and with the ethical and social ambiguities that surround it. A range of movies tackle those grey areas at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah... [pdf]

Hot Tickets for 2013 in Science and Art

This is your year if you want to rub shoulders with canine cosmonaut Laika or astronomer Galileo Galilei; travel through time, oscillate, get lost in a fog sculpture or ponder extinction; or listen to sound projected through liquid nitrogen... [pdf]

February 7, 2013

Chronicler of Conflict

Historian Richard Rhodes writes on the roots of violence and warfare, in particular the development of nuclear weapons. He talks about Reykjavik — his play on nuclear disarmament — and his upcoming book on the Spanish Civil War, That Fine Place...[pdf]

March 27, 2013

Knowledge Liberator

Robert Darnton heads the world's largest collection of academic publications, the Harvard University Library system. He is also a driver behind the new Digital Public Library of America. Ahead of its launch in April, he talks about Google, science journals and the open-access debate... [pdf] [link]

April 11, 2013

The Digital Knitter

Genevieve Dion works at textile engineering's cutting edge at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ahead of the Smart Fabrics conference in San Francisco, California, she talks about knitting robots, permanently pleating silk and charging mobile phones from shirts. [pdf]

July 4, 2013

Sound Chaser

Audio sculptor Bill Fontana creates recordings of particle generators as artist-in-residence at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Ahead of his opening lecture, Fontana talks about probing the links between the speeds of sound and light, and chasing vibrations in gases, liquids and solids... [pdf]

December 30, 2014



I've done many interviews with artists and scientists for the science journal Nature. Most of them are behind a paywall; if you'd like a PDF, you can email me here.

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