Notes & Lines discusses the
intersection of math, science, and technology with performing and visual arts.
Topics include bizarre instruments, technically-minded musicians, and cross-pollination of science and art.
This coming summer marks the 200th anniversary of one of
the most severe weather anomalies in modern history. The Year Without a Summer,
as it's now commonly known, wreaked havoc on much of the Northern Hemisphere. In
upstate New York and New England, in the vicinity of CR4 headquarters, snow
fell in June, frosts were common from May through August, and temperatures
sometimes swung violently between normal summer highs of 90° F or more to
near-freezing in a matter of hours.
The climatic conditions of 1816 also resulted in
unseasonably low temperatures and heavy rains as far east as China. In Europe famine
was widespread and riots, looting, arson and demonstrations were common
occurrences. Throughout the hemisphere, farming became nearly impossible, and
grain prices increased exponentially. In an age when subsistence farming was
the norm and commoners worked their hands to the bone to feed their families,
crop failures often meant the possibility for starvation.
Contemporary observers were almost completely perplexed as
to the disappearance of the summer of 1816, but scientists now believe it was
the result of a few interrelated factors. The most significant of these was the
April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Tambora
was likely the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history, with a
column height of over 26 miles and a tephra volume of over 38 cubic miles. Over
70,000 Indonesians were killed following the blast. The enormous amount of
volcanic ash that spewed into the atmosphere reflected large quantities of
sunlight and lowered Northern Hemisphere temperatures.
To compound the effects of the ash, modern scientists also
believe that solar magnetic activity was at a historic low in 1816, the
midpoint of a 25-year solar period known as the Dalton Minimum. By studying the presence of carbon-14 in tree rings, solar astronomers have concluded that
sunspot activity was abnormally low, reducing the transmission of solar radiation
to Earth. Ironically, the Tambora eruption often caused a dry fog to settle
over the Northern Hemisphere, producing a reddened and dimmed Sun and causing
sunspots to become visible to the naked eye. With little knowledge of the
eruption, 19th-century Americans and Europeans often blamed the red,
spotty Sun alone for the abnormal weather conditions, while in reality
Tambora's ash played a much more significant role.
A third less-studied factor is the possibility of a solar
inertial shift. These shifts, occurring every 180 years or so due to the
gravitational pull of the largest planets in the Solar System, cause the Sun to
wobble on its axis and possibly affect Earth's climate. Scientists point to
three of these shifts--in 1632, 1811, and 1990--that correspond to major climatic
events: the solar Maunder Minimum from 1645-1715, the Dalton Minimum discussed
above, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo with corresponding global cooling in
1991. This association remains largely hypothetical, however.
The Year Without a Summer produced some interesting and
long-lasting cultural effects. Thousands left the American Northeast and
settled in the Midwest to escape the frigid summer; Latter-day Saints founder
Joseph Smith was forced move from Vermont and settle in Western New York, the
first in a series of events that culminated in his writing The Book of Mormon. German
inventor Karl Drais may have invited the Laufmaschine,
the predecessor of the bicycle, in 1818 in response to the shortage of horses
caused by the 1816 crop failure.
That summer may have influenced contemporary art as well.
The high concentrations of tephra in the atmosphere led to spectacular yellow
and red sunsets, which were captured by J.M.W. Turner's paintings of the 1820s.
(If you've ever wondered about the vivid red sky in the more widely known
painting The Scream, some modern
scholars believe Edvard Munch may have viewed a similarly vivid sunset as a
result of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.) Trapped inside their Swiss villa due
to the excessive rains in June 1816, a group of English writers on holiday
passed the time by seeing who could write the most frightening ghost story.
Mary Shelley came up with the now-famous Frankenstein
which she would finish and publish in 1818, while Lord Byron's unfinished fragment
The Burial inspired John William
Polidori to write The Vampyre in
1819, effectively launching the still-healthy field of romantic vampire
The advancement of agricultural technology more or less
ensures that we'll never have a comparable subsistence crisis to that of 1816,
despite any further severe weather anomalies. Even so, it's chilling to examine
that year's events and attitudes toward them, as expressed by surviving
journals and works of art.
There are few more polarizing issues than environmental
ones: climate change, the feasibility of alternative energy, and, in recent
news, Earth Day. My 2016 Earth Week was spent scrounging for recyclables for a school
project in which my son built a robot statue out of milk jugs, cereal boxes,
and empty yogurt cups. From where I sit Earth Day is a good thing, a message of
"don't be so anthropocentric that you think you can just throw your crap
anywhere and let Mother Nature take care of it."
The original 1970 Earth Day was by contrast marked by
apocalyptic predictions and fear-based thinking. Americans were surrounded by
grim reminders of industrial pollution, such as the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire,
the labeling of Lake Erie as a "gigantic cesspool," and heavy smog in urban
areas. The original Earth Day saw the prediction of mass starvations, worldwide
famines, the extinction of 80% of all living animals, the reduction of ambient
sunlight by 50%, 45-year lifespans, and the elimination of all crude oil, all
by the year 2000.
All of these predictions fell well short, of course. The
1970 prognosticators were concerned about pollution and fossil fuels but were
mostly anxious about overpopulation, a topic that arouses little fear 46 years
later. If anything, our world is looking to be in better shape. We're seeing
significantly higher crop yields using the same amount of land, lower staple
food prices, and no more DDT; we have at least as much fossil fuel to last us
for about another century, maybe; and population looks to level off within the
next few decades. The Earth Day doomsters, particularly Paul Ehrlich and John
Holdren, exercised faulty and outdated logic in assuming that Negative Impact = (Population)(Affluence)(Technology).
What they didn't plan for is that technology has the power to boost positive
inputs like food production and medicine, and we've learned effective strategies
to reduce pollution along the way.
The problem with predictions is that for every correct one,
there are countless more that are dead wrong, even those based on rigorous data
and scientific extrapolation. So-called futurists predict like it's their job,
often assigning a target date to the year, and are typically wrong. Consider,
for example, Arthur C. Clarke's
predictions for the 21st century. The occurrence of a
technological singularity is still a hot topic in AI communities, and most
thinkers--building on the assumption that Moore's Law will continue unabated--agree
that self-improving artificial general intelligence will occur within the next
50 years or so. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong acknowledged
the uncertainty in predicting advanced AI by stating that his "current 80%
estimate [for the singularity] is something like 5 to 100 years." Now that's how to make a prediction...
This isn't to say that long-term thinking isn't valuable or
honorable. In grad school I became intrigued by the Long Now Foundation, a non-profit working to
foster slower/better thinking rather than the prevailing faster/cheaper
activities of modern times. Aside from hosting seminars and advocating a five-digit
date structure (ie, 02016 for 2016) to anticipate the Year 10,000 problem,
the group keeps a record of long-term
predictions and bets made by its members for fun and accountability. They're
also constructing a clock designed to run for 10,000 years with minimal
maintenance using simple tools, and are working on a publicly accessible
digital library of all known human languages for posterity.
While the Long Now's activities may seem radical, most
examples of true long-term thinking are, given our blindly rushing existence. Shortly
before his death, Kurt Vonnegut proposed a
presidentially appointed US Secretary of the Future, whose sole duty is to
determine an activity's impact on future generations. The Great Law of the
Iroquois famously mandated that current generations make decisions that would
benefit their descendants seven generations (about 140 years) into the future. The
difficulty, of course, is satisfying ourselves in the now as well as in the
future. As environmental skeptics point out, it's nearly impossible to plan out
our fossil fuel dependency and use for the next decade, let alone for the next
Perhaps our best bet is to view the future in terms of
possibility. To paraphrase Clarke's first law of prediction: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist
states that something is possible,
he's almost certainly correct."
From 2008 to 2009 I worked for HSBC Bank, one of the more
interesting workplaces to be in during the Great Recession. A disgruntled
non-customer, whom I believe was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion
like so many of us, once pointedly asked me what the hell HSBC stood for,
anyway. I told him that it was just an acronym*...that the actual name of the
business was HSBC Bank--nothing more, nothing less. "But you're like, a Chinese
bank, right? Isn't the 'H' for Hong Kong?" I assured him it was not, making him
even angrier at the situation.
While I may have been coy about (playfully) screwing with
this man, HSBC is a British company; it was
originally based in Hong Kong and the acronym once stood for Hong Kong and
Shanghai Banking Corporation. In 1991 it reorganized and from then on legally
existed as HSBC Holdings plc. I can't say I know why the company disassociated
from its Far Eastern roots, but the point is that language and acronyms change
for various reasons: falling in and out of common usage, to avoid certain
stereotypes or associations, or just because they become too verbose or
[*As a CR4 editor
pointed out to me after reading this post, HSBC might be more accurately termed
an initialism before 1991, and a pseudo-initialism since. Acronyms are "pronounced,"
like NATO and JPEG, while initialisms are strings of initials.]
A few weeks ago the Associated Press made a major announcement: the 2016 AP Stylebook will lowercase both "internet" and "web." In
line with past stylebook changes, it's safe to assume that the AP believes that
these two terms are now generic enough to merit lowercased usage. Pro-lowercase
activists look to the origin of the word to make their point: the "internet" of
old was simply an internetwork of smaller networks using the same protocol. So
when we speak about the modern Internet--the one I'm using to research this blog
post and connect remotely to my office computer--we're referring to the largest
and best-known example of an internet. Also, they say lowercasing is more
efficient, saving thousands of Shift-key strokes, and that capitalized nouns
are a strain on the eyes, introducing roadblocks into neatly flowing text.
The other side of the battle, on which I sometimes side, takes
issue with the word "the." Think about the star at the center of our solar
system. A star at the center of some other distant solar system could be called
its "sun," but we call the most local and best-known example to us on Earth the Sun, capitalized and all, for
clarity. I know of no other significant internets other than THE Internet--if
you know of one feel free to comment and enlighten me. And regarding the web,
what if we're trying to describe researching spider webs online? Would we look
up webs on the web? Isn't the Web
clearer? Call me antiquated (my wife
does on a daily basis, so I'm used to it), but I like my Internet and Web, even
if I'm too lazy to click Shift and actually capitalize them most of the time.
These technologically related style changes happen pretty
frequently. For example, AP changed their usage of Web site to website in 2010,
and e-mail to email in 2011. These make more sense as generic terms, in my
opinion: we surely no longer think of email as "electronic mail." With the slow
demise of postal mail, perhaps email will one day be referred to as just
"mail," and postal mail will become oldmail or cismail, maybe.
The fluidity of technical terminology is also easily seen in
anacronyms, or words that were formerly acronyms but have fallen into common
usage. Lasers were originally "light amplification by stimulated emission of
radiation," for example. Treating "laser" as a common noun allowed us to back-form the verb "to
lase," meaning to produce laser light. Ironically for me as a technical writer
and editor, even the verb "to edit" was back-formed from "editor," the original
The possibility for confusing variation and evolution in the
English language is endless. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years our descendants will
just switch on their computers and internet.
My sister-in-law works as an archivist, and from what I hear
her daily work is pretty much what you'd expect of the job. She spends a lot of
time in dark basements, has frequent attacks of dust-triggered sinusitis,
sometimes wears white gloves, and most importantly preserves and catalogs old
books and papers so they can be accessed by future researchers.
Preserving physically readable materials like books is
relatively straightforward, but archivists have run into well-documented
problems preserving system-dependent materials like computer files or sounds. In
the case of the latter, the earliest examples of recorded sound are becoming
more and more difficult to access and play back. Disc records are now generally
limited to hi-fi enthusiasts, and maybe 0.5% of the population has ever seen a
cylinder phonograph in person, so archivists have been concerned that early
recordings may be lost forever.
The US Library of Congress is fighting against that tide
thanks in part to IRENE, a device developed at Berkeley Lab by researchers
recycling particle physics methodologies. IRENE uses high-res optical technologies
to take millions of images of a grooved recording medium and converts the
grooves into a sonic waveform. Using optical rather than audio technology has
two primary advantages: avoiding further wear on 100+ year old grooves by
limiting contact, and the ability to reconstruct sound from broken or
unplayable discs or cylinders.
IRENE's name is derived from
the first audio extraction performed, a Weavers recording of "Goodnight,
Irene," but its name has since become a backronym for "Image, Reconstruct,
Erase Noise, Etc." The machine made a splash in 2008 when it reconstructed
audio from an
1860 phonautogram recording of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune." Prior to this discovery, researchers figured
Edison recordings of the 1870s to be the earliest surviving recorded sounds. (True
to internet fashion, the entire experimental discography of Édouard-Léon Scott
de Martinville, who invented the phonautograph, is on YouTube.)
IRENE has been successfully employed in extracting audio
from a wide variety of media since 2008, including Alexander Graham Bell's
Volta Labs experiments. The beauty of using optical technology is seen in the
last of these examples, an artifact consisting of a wax disc still attached to
a primitive recording machine. Researchers simply placed the scanner's beam
over the disc and used an external drive to rotate the machine, preserving both
the disc and machine.
In a more recent sound preservation effort, the Library of
Congress held a Radio Preservation Task
Force symposium in late February, part of a larger collaborative effort to
preserve early radio recordings. That conference was inspired by a 2013 LoC
report that found that many important historical broadcasts were either
untraceable or had been destroyed entirely, and that unlike other archival
areas, "little is known of what still exists, where it is stored, and in what
condition." Seeing as how radio was once the dominant medium for real-time news
broadcasts and discussion about niche topics, rediscovery of historic
recordings, although it rarely occurs, is a big deal.
Archivists have had perhaps more pressing issues on the
digital front as well. Although digital files take up significantly less
physical space, they're prone to system compatibility issues resulting from the
exponential growth of computing equipment. Whether it's wax cylinders, radio
broadcasts, or digital files, sound archivists continue to dutifully perform
important, and often thankless, preservation work.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has thrown lead
contamination (as well as poor government oversight and possibly corruption)
into the public spotlight. While lead was once common in numerous products and
situations, its associated hazards are now universally well-known and it's
rarely used except in specialized applications.
One of these applications is organ pipes. Pipes manufactured
in J.S. Bach's time were (supposedly) pure lead, but premium modern ones are
made of a mixture of lead and tin known as "spotted metal." Pipe manufacturers
use a tin/lead mixture for both tonal and practical reasons. Lead is pliable
and prone to greater vibration when an air column passes through a pipe,
resulting in a warm sound, but a pure lead pipe of even a short length of eight
feet or less will collapse under its own weight. Tin provides the pipe with mechanical
stability and lends a balanced brightness to the tone as well. Because each
pipe is handmade and hand-voiced, the tin-lead composition is also soft enough
that it can be easily cut and manipulated.
Pipes take on a spotted appearance when the tin:lead ratio
exceeds 45% or so, due to the different melting temperatures of the two metals.
As the liquid metal passes through its eutectic point, the metals separate and
crystallize into small pools on the surface. (This video provides a nice basic overview of the manufacturing process.) These spots become more prominent
as the amount of tin increases. Whereas spotted metal is the Rolls-Royce of
pipe metals in terms of tone and stability, organ builders use other ratios and
metals as well. "Common metal" pipes are also made of tin and lead but with tin
concentrations of less than 45%, so that spots do not form. These pipes are
cheaper due to the lower tin concentration, but don't sound quite as pure as
spotted metal ones.
Organ pipes are often made using pure metals as well. Pure
tin pipes are often used on audience-facing façade pipes because they boast the
best aesthetic appearance and a bright sound. However, tin pest, a
deteriorative condition affecting tin at temperatures lower than around 13° C, can
spoil pipes if proper climate conditions aren't maintained. Pure zinc is strong
and cheap and is used for long, low-pitched pipes, which consume more material
than higher-pitched ones. It's generally accepted that zinc sounds duller than
other metals, but its physical characteristics and low cost have made it useful
to the present day.
As mentioned above, pure lead pipes were relatively common
in many ancient organs, but even large ones have held up to this day. In the
late 1970s organ builder John Brombaugh got his hands on some pure lead pipes
from a Dutch organ manufactured in 1539. Surprisingly, his shop's analysis found that 16th and 17th century European lead contained impurities comprised of about 1% tin, .75% antimony, and trace amounts of
copper and bismuth. These impurities provided enough stability to make the pipe
feasible and enabled the rich, warm sound of an almost-pure lead pipe.
While they tend to get short shrift among some modern music
lovers, pipe organs are marvels of engineering, most of them using antique
technology with the vast majority of parts made and assembled by hand. Large
organs contain thousands of pipes and a vast array of mechanical, pneumatic,
and electrical control systems. Stay tuned for more organ discussion in future
Notes & Lines posts.