Author Archives: Mike White

Sunday Science Poem: The Number Pi

“The Number Pi”, Wisława Szymborska (1976)

While in Chicago for the Drosophila genetics conference last weekend, I managed to visit some Polish bookstores. My haul included a volume of poems by the late Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. Many of Szymborska’s poems engage with scientific ideas and their connection to our experiences of the world, and as it turns out, she wrote a poem about the number Pi.

The poem grapples with the mind-blowing idea of an infinite sequence of digits. Pi is woven into the poem, where it interrupts the narrator’s effort to draw comparisons to snakes, bird nests, comets, and stars. These comparisons fail as the number flows on, and they are replaced with numbers and fragements of the real world, including phone numbers, pocket change, and quotes from the Polish poet Mickiewicz and the bible.

And so, to finish off Pi day weekend, here is probably the only poem about this number by a Nobel Laureate.

The Number Pi

Admirable number Pi
three point one four one.
All its following digits are also initial,
five nine two, because it never ends.
It won't allow itself to be embraced six five three five by sight
eight nine by calculation
seven nine by imagination,
and even three two three eight by jest, or by comparison
four six to anything
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth, after a dozen or so meters peters out.
Likewise, though a little later, do fairy-tale snakes.
The procession of digits that make up the number Pi
doesn't halt at the margin of the page,
it manages to pull itself over the table, through the air,
through the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, the clouds, straight to heaven,
through the entire inflated and bottomless heaven.
O how short, downright mouse-like, is the braid of a comet!
How frail the star beams, that bend around the bounds of space!
And here two three fifteen three-hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size
the year nineteen seventy three the sixth story
the number of residents sixty-five grosz
hip circumference two fingers a charade and a code,
in which my little nightingale, fly, crow
as well as you are requested to keep calm,
and also heaven and earth shall pass,
but not the number Pi, no way no how,
it is continually its still not too bad five,
that no mean eight,
the not final seven,
urging, yes, urging a slothful eternity
to persist.

Translated from the Polish by Michael White

Indy SF Month: M.J.A. Watney’s Kybernos

KybernosLately I’ve been reading enough SF from small independent presses for a review series. And so over the next few weeks it will be Indy SF Month here at The Finch and Pea, which will include one of the recent nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick award, a fascinating, non-horror zombie apocalypse from one of my new favorite small presses, and a collection of fascinating stories by a long-time local (St. Louis) SF author.

First in line is M.J.A. Watney’s Kybernos, a self-published work that was a quarter-finalist in 2014 Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Watney provided me with an ARC of this intriguing work, which, like a good fraction of the indy SF we’ll discuss in the upcoming weeks, is better described as speculative rather than science fiction.

Kybernos is part of a tradition of SF stories that play with the direction of time, not time travel so much as questions of reversibility and causality. Hard SF usually comes to mind when we think of this theme – Gregory Benford’s great classic Timescape explored the idea of trying to change the present by sending messages to the past via tachyons, faster-than-light particles that travel backwards in time. Unlike Timescape, Kybernos is not hard SF, but it explores some of the same questions about alternate time trajectories and the reversal of cause and effect. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1912: A Naturalist End of the World

Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912)

ScarletPlagueWe’re all familiar with classic scenes of a brutal post-apocalyptic world like this: A group of refugees from the pandemic is holed up in an abandoned building with a cache of food and arms, firing on a gang of assaulting raiders. Or, a former professor of English Literature, clad in goat skins and huddled around a fire, is telling his dirty, illiterate grandsons about life before civilization vanished.

Today these scenes are standard fare in post-apocalyptic fiction, from The Road to The Walking Dead. But when Jack London wrote them a century ago, they weren’t. The genre itself had been around for a long time, and many of the classic themes, settings, and catastrophes had already been introduced. However, nobody before Jack London had described a collapse of civilization so violent or an aftermath so squalid. In the century since, images of a gritty and brutal world in ruins have become almost a requirement in this genre. Continue reading

On Beauty in Technical Science Writing

Via Chris Woolston at Nature, I ran across last week’s discussion about the role of beauty in technical scientific prose. Writing over at The Tree of Life, Stephen Heard offers several examples of beauty in scientific writing, and he calls on the community to encourage beauty in scientific writing:

[E]xamples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known. I don’t think it has to be this way. W could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.

I’ll second the idea that we should encourage beauty in scientific writing, but with a big caveat: we absolutely shouldn’t try to do this by making our technical writing more belletristic. We don’t need to drop in hokey metaphors or cloying phrases — that’s what would happen if you encouraged most scientists to write beautifully. Continue reading

Some gene conceptions and misconceptions

Any geneticist who has discussed genes with friends and family knows that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there. This is understandable – genetics involves some tricky concepts, and sometimes we use confusing linguistic shortcuts to talk about genes without using jargon. Sometimes scientists get confused as well (although that’s a topic for another day).

One of the big misconceptions is that there are genes ‘for’ specific traits — you’ll often hear that we have a gene ‘for’ X, X being some phenotypic trait. (If X is not a trait, but some sort of molecular player, than the language is correct, e.g. we do in fact have a gene — actually multiple genes — for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.) This language is often rightly condemned as being misleading, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits: traits are the product of multiple genes, while any given gene will contribute to multiple traits.

But you only need to tweak the ‘gene for X‘ language slightly to get at a correct and important concept in genetics: variation in a single gene is often responsible for important differences in X (in a particular population). This is usually what we mean when we say there is a ‘gene for X‘, but this clarification is rarely noted when people knock the phrase. Continue reading