April 3, 2008

Samuel R. Delaney’s “Babel-17”

Posted in Books tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:26 am by myrlinn

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, but I’d never even heard of Samuel R. Delaney until I found his 1966 Nebula award-winning "Babel-17" while browsing in my local library.

How could I have missed reading his work all these years! I just finished the book, and I loved it.

Coincidentally (there you go, I’m pointing out another coincidence!), reading the book brought me back to a recurrent theme of my blogs the past few weeks — memories of my past. This book is based heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language determines thought and perceived reality. As this was one of the more interesting topics when I was studying linguistics at university, this book definitely brought back memories of my student days.

Of course, today, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is largely discredited.So, the science behind the plot is dated.* However, as I was reading the story, I was really impressed that the characters and the setting could have been written today.

Delaney imagined this world back in the 1960s, drawing for us an underground gritty cityscape more like the cyberpunk worlds of 1990s science fiction. Even his characters are modern. We get more of an insight into their psyche (within the limitations of the book, which is not very long). And he gave his characters body modifications and implants. These are features that we started to see more of only in more recent science fiction. Amazing!

p.s. I also just finished reading Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”. I must admit I rushed through the last half of the book — couldn’t wait to read the ending! So I’m not finished finished, if you know what I mean. I’m definitely going back to read the book more carefully. But I just want to say: GET IT!!! It’s such a good primer on philosophy. It makes the subject so interesting, and so much less intimidating. And the plot cleverly illustrates philosophical points. My only complaint now that I’ve read it: I wish there was a similar book on eastern philosophy!!!


* There is some evidence, though, for the idea that our language influences how we think and perceive reality. For example, to Eskimos, snow is not just snow. They have names for different kinds of snow, and are therefore able to differentiate snow in greater detail than someone who doesn’t know their language.

March 13, 2008

Mona Lisa, the Parthenon and coincidences

Posted in Books tagged , , , , at 4:23 pm by myrlinn

In my previous blog, I mentioned how it seemed quite coincidental that after many months of not stepping into even one movie, I went to two within a week.

This week, it happened again. This time with books. I came across the passages below within a week of each other, and being the geek that I am, was complete fascinated.

About Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa:

…In 2003, Harvard neuroscientist Professor Margaret Livingstone attempted to solve scientifically the mystery of perhaps the most famous smile in art… For years, people had noticed that Mona Lisa‘s smile was far more apparent to people when they looked at her eyes, and appeared to vanish when they looked directly at her mouth… Professor Livingstone discovered that the illusion was due to the fact that the human eye sees the world in two very different ways. When people look at something directly, the light falls on a central part of the retina called the fovea. This part of the eye is excellent at seeing relatively bright objects, such as those in direct sunlight. In contrast, when people see something out of the corner of their eye, the light falls on the peripheral part of the retina, which is much better at seeing in semi-darkness… Leonardo’s picture is using the two parts of the retina to fool people’s eyes…the great artist had cleverly used the shadows from the Mona Lisa‘s cheekbones to make her mouth much darker than the rest of her face. As a result, the Mona Lisa‘s smile appears more obvious when people look at her eyes because they are seeing it in their peripheral vision. When people look directly at her mouth, they are seeing the dark area of the painting more clearly with their fovea, and so the smile looks far less pronounced. (Source: Richard Wiseman (2007) Quirkology pp 67-8)

About the Parthenon in Athens, Greece:

The huge marble structure does not have a single straight line; all four sides are slightly cured to make the building appear less heavy. In spite of its colossal dimensions, it gives the impression lightness. In other words, it present an optical illusion. The columns lean slightly inwards, and would form a pyramid 1,500 metres high if they were continued to a point above the temple. (Source: Jostein Gaarder (1995) Sophie’s World p 58)

The first passage caught my eye probably because as someone who was in advertising some years, I foundĀ  the science behind the art interesting. When I finished Quirkology, I went back to Sophie’s World, and right about where I left off, I came across the second extract about the Parthenon.

Of course, it may just be that the second passage jumped out at me because I was already intrigued by the first one. Kind of like how when you learn a word, suddenly you start seeing that word everywhere! Still, I think it is more in keeping with my ‘crooked turret’ universe to think of this as a ‘coincidence’ — a mysterious conjunction of events. So that’s what I will believe, at least while in the universe of this blog;)