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February 21 2007

Buffy + physics - Science interpreted by local author. Seattle Times article previewing "The Physics of the Buffyverse" by Jennifer Ouellette.

"But why Buffy? Of all occultish, cultish pop-phenomenon, why use vampires and demons and ditzy blond cheerleaders to explain, say, String Theory?

"Because Buffy flaunts the stereotype, Ouellette explains. Buffy is both high-school hottie and a smart, science-savvy, martial-arts-wielding take-no-prisoners girl. She likes the mall and she's smart."

Maybe she should enter the Dark Horse contest . . .

She gave a talk at CUNY Grad Center a couple of weeks ago that I attended and it was a mixed bag. She used martial arts, and a martial arts demonstration, to explain how Buffy can be used to demonstrate Newton's Laws. It was pretty bare bones and simple for anyone who has taken a decent high school physics course, and Buffy itself didn't really come into play narratively.
I asked her to elaborate more on the use of String Theory in Angel, for example during questions and answers, but she really didn't say much other than that "Angel" did a good and accurate job of dealing with physics in the "Supersymmetry" episode.
Also she directed me to her chapter on the physics of magic in her book. I haven't read it yet, but I might pick it up at the library to skim. I think it's less an analysis of physics in the series' which I personally think is more interesting, than using aspects of the series' to explain physics to a very basic audience. This review doesn't make it seem any more substantial to me, either.
CUNY ? Man, you have to be pretty careful typing that (look at your keyboard if you doubt it ;-).

Erm, Buffy, science savvy ? Not so much methinks. You could certainly make a great case that she isn't stupid but book smart might be a harder sell.

And though it's hardly a tough concept I wouldn't call Schrodinger's cat "the basics of physics", it goes right to the heart of the measurement problem in quantum theory. Also, given that there really is any such thing as a stupid person, how basic should the physics be before you actually are stupid for not knowing it ? I wonder because it's a pet peeve of mine that innumeracy is treated a lot more lightly than illiteracy. Imagine if someone said "Not knowing the basics of reading doesn't make you stupid,". True or false ?

(also, i'd have to express doubts about someone claiming to be very educated who hasn't even heard of Schrodinger's unfortunate moggy. To me that's like a science major who hasn't even heard of Chekhov, they might be clever but are they truly educated ?)

Not sure about this one though I might check it out. Reckon it's pretty hard to make a solid scientific case for Buffy's world although it'd make as good a jumping off point as a lot of shows.

[ edited by Saje on 2007-02-21 19:27 ]
"CUNY ? Man, you have to be pretty careful typing that (look at your keyboard if you doubt it ;-).

New York is all about taking risks, Saje.

"To me that's like a science major who hasn't even heard of Chekhov, they might be clever but are they truly educated ?"

There is a joke in there somewhere about Star Trek bringing together science majors and Theater/English Majors...but I am at work right now and just can't think creatively. Blast!
I think it's kind of interesting that she's, as they imply, using pop culture to teach physics to girly girls but that the pop culture is of the pretty geeky variety.

However, it seems like a lot of these pop-culture intro to physics or philosophy books are kind of pushing it sometimes. (Not that I can knowingly accuse this book of it based off anything but the article.)

I am a bit curious though, what tear in the universe are they alluding to? I sort of assume it's a mistake on part of the reporter rather than necessarily the author, but the only thing coming to mind that fit would be her second death. (Oh wait, or Cordy getting an alternate universe, or that power thing with the First Slayer.)
Another "Science of..." book? Ugh. They're all basically just the same stuff recycled over and over. This one might even be as bad as "The Science of Harry Potter".

Ridiculous.
I agree, Resolute, but it's interesting that, ten years after Wecome to the Hellmouth first aired a publisher still feels it is possible to make money out of a popular science book by linking it to the Buffyverse.
Aren't most "Science of [blah]" books trying to explain the way [blah] works, rather than using [blah] to teach science? I actually like this way better. I'm not sure how well it would work with Buffy, but I love the Science of Discworld books which use Discworld to illuminate the Roundworld.
Imagine if someone said "Not knowing the basics of reading doesn't make you stupid,". True or false?

True. Most people don't know even the basics of writing in most of the languages. The only reason why most people know how to read is because they are taught from a young age. Someone who was taught how to read and still can't read may be considered stupid.

There is a lot of physics talk on Angel, not just in Supersymmetry, for example when they explain portals and explaining Illyria's power drain. It would be nice to know how much of it is close to real.
On buffy I remember Willow explaining that magic is physics.
Hmm, magic is physics if it didn't have to adhere to the laws of, err, physics ;).

(conservation of energy for instance didn't usually seem to bother Dark Willow particularly)

... but I am at work right now and just can't think creatively.

Yep, it'll do that to ya ;).

Aren't most "Science of [blah]" books trying to explain the way [blah] works, rather than using [blah] to teach science ?

KernelM, i've read a few ('The Physics of Star Trek', 'The Science of Doctor Who', 'The Science of the X-Files' etc.) and they all just used the ideas in the show/genre as a jumping off point to talk about science in general. E.g. TPoST (which, of those i've read, had most to do with the actual show i.e. it seemed to be written by someone who'd at least seen it) would talk about the transporters and then go on to explain about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (which makes them sort of impossible), the Doctor Who one had chapters based on ideas in the show (time travel obviously as well as interstellar travel, regeneration etc. though the quarries of southern England were strangely absent ;) but each one would open with a brief Who related paragraph and then have basically nothing else to do with the show.

I don't mind that approach, it might teach a little science to people that ordinarily would run a mile from it but sometimes, as posters above have mentioned, it'd be nice to go on a 'down the pub', Marvel 'No-prize' style wander about how e.g. a TARDIS could really work. Recently bought 'The Physics of Superheroes' and, flicking through it, noticed it actually has *gasp* maths in it ! Like, equations and stuff ! So i've higher hopes for that one.
I found the article to do little to fuel my desire to read the book. I would prefer to see something using physics to explain the Buffyverse, rather than the other way around.

And just to chime in with my opinion, illiteracy and stupidity are two very different things. Many people with elevated education are quite frankly stupid. And many people with less functional education are quite smart.

I know a young teen with severe dyslexia who can explain quite complex mathematic theory and science to just about anyone, and whose brain functions at a much higher speed and intelligence than most adults I know. And she's extremely intuitive, and has more common sense than most. She's smart. Very smart. But she has great difficulty reading due to her dyslexia, despite someone teaching her the basics of reading. I don't know of anyone who would call her stupid.
I think intelligence is more a matter of personality than simple processing ability. We probably all have more processing abilily than than we've learned how to use. That's not a slight on people who have problems between their senses and the brain places that are supposed to use them, like Irishrose said. With systems that complex there are obviously many things that could go wrong, and do all the time.

And just to chime in with my opinion, illiteracy and stupidity are two very different things. Many people with elevated education are quite frankly stupid. And many people with less functional education are quite smart.

I agree once again. The purpose of books like this is for people who are interested by these stories to go deeper into what science can tell about them. That would seem to be useless, and yet there keep being more of these books and there wouldn't be more if they weren't selling. I haven't read any of them, but maybe I should.
And just to chime in with my opinion, illiteracy and stupidity are two very different things. Many people with elevated education are quite frankly stupid. And many people with less functional education are quite smart.

Ah, but IrishRose, your example is of someone with a disability (i've a friend who's dyslexic who's also clever and intuitive which I sometimes find extremely frustrating cos he'll come to conclusions which he then can't explain his reasoning for. I wonder if that's a common thing in dyslexics since enumerating reasons seems symbol based - either words or 'actual' symbols in the case of maths ?).

My point is more about people who've reached adulthood and have managed to avoid even a basic science education (again i'm talking about folk with good access to learning opportunities and no learning difficulties). The way scientific illiteracy and innumeracy are treated is closer to an adult who "can't be bothered" to learn to read and then just shrugs and smiles when called on it. Worse still those around them also just shrug and smile. Maybe 'socially tolerated, even tacitly encouraged, ignorance' is a better way of putting it than 'stupidity'.

Agreed though, illiteracy which is not the "victim's" fault has nothing to do with intelligence, nor is education necessarily related to cleverness (in fact, sometimes I wonder if they might be inversely proportional ;).

dreamlogic, not sure what you mean about the 'personailty' aspect but I think there's certainly more to intelligence than IQ and standardised testing since, to me, those only measure a particular kind of smarts (and also, speed. I once read an article by someone who knew him talking about how Alan Turing would probably have done quite badly on an IQ test because he was a 'deep thinker' i.e. he liked to mull all aspects of a problem over and wasn't particularly gifted with snap insights).

Re: reading 'Science of ...' books, in my experience you're not missing much. Up to yourself obviously (FWIW, 'The Physics of Star Trek' was probably the most worthwhile one i've read) but it's all usually pretty basic stuff, often not well written, sometimes very tenuously linked to the show. They're usually quite thin though so quick reads at least ;).
I've always hated that 'magic equals physics' line of Willow's.
"My point is more about people who've reached adulthood and have managed to avoid even a basic science education (again i'm talking about folk with good access to learning opportunities and no learning difficulties). The way scientific illiteracy and innumeracy are treated is closer to an adult who "can't be bothered" to learn to read and then just shrugs and smiles when called on it. Worse still those around them also just shrug and smile. Maybe 'socially tolerated, even tacitly encouraged, ignorance' is a better way of putting it than 'stupidity'."

Saje, I understand your point, but I have to say that the fact that people can read is more similar to the fact that people can do arithmetic than math or science. People are taught to read so they can function/survive in a society of the written word and learn whatever subject they want to. Only a certain number use it to learn literature for instance, any more than science. People are taught arithmetic to function/survive in a money based society and to learn other subjects that require it, such as math and science. "Educated" people can be as closed minded as the rest of society about anything that is not in their field whether science, literature, or anything else. Yes, people accept the whole "ewwwww, math" thing too willingly, but they also accept the whole "ewwwww serious music/literature" etc too willingly as well.

That said, I don't know a lot about science...especiallly names of things. Why? Partially because the science classes I took in school sucked, and also because I had to choose, theater class or another science or math class. I was going to be majoring in theater so that kind of took care of that. At the same time I was walking through the halls in high school reading Issac Asimov's books of collected science essays...but I remember concepts, not names, just like I do with everything else, and that was many years ago. I should not be writing this now because I don't have the time. When am I going to keep up with a subject that I have only passing interest in?

Just a thought.
Yeah, that's a fair point about reading/arithmetic. I'm struggling to find a decent analogy, maybe there isn't one, but i'm not talking about the sort of thing you have to 'keep up with', I mean the sort of thing you learn once then apply many times (e.g. as an old physics teacher of mine used to say 'correlation is not causation' i.e. because two things are related doesn't mean one caused the other. Obvious, right ? Yet the great unwashed, including journalists, politicians etc. make this mistake all the time).

The thing is, most of us are pretty good at detecting verbal BS. Conversely, most of us are absolutely awful at detecting numerical BS to the extent that even highly educated people just resort to 'decision apathy', a "Well, you can say anything with statistics so I won't trust any of it" type of attitude.

To me that stems from the widely accepted (IMO) idea that an educated person must read, preferably 'high' literature but doesn't need even basic alegebra or so much as a vague idea about maths and its applications to the world (e.g. the aforementioned stats and how they can be abused, often by the people we've put in charge of big guns, nasty chemicals and freedom of speech).

Agreed though, of all the maths/science averse people i've known, all of them, without exception have had a bad maths/science teacher or suffered through a seemingly deliberately dull syllabus usually fairly early in their school careers and that's certainly not their fault.

[ edited by Saje on 2007-02-22 16:18 ]
"The thing is, most of us are pretty good at detecting verbal BS. Conversely, most of us are absolutely awful at detecting numerical BS to the extent that even highly educated people just resort to 'decision apathy', a "Well, you can say anything with statistics so I won't trust any of it" type of attitude. "

Well, part of that may be because our casual communication is usually done in words rather than numbers so we get a little more practice even if we are mathematicians. That said, when I think about what politicians, salesmen, cult leaders etc put over on people verbally, I think it is the other way around. People are comfortable enough with words that they think they know what they mean and beleive them way too easily sometimes. ...and are you sure you want to use statistics as something that people don't believe in? What was the uproar years ago when statistics showed that a woman past a certain age had a better chance of (insert very unlikely thing here) happening than getting married.

I am not math/science adverse, but that half a year spent in Chemistry class learning the SLIDERULE really turned me off to how much they thought non-science majors could learn. (Yes, they had invented the calculator when i was in High School. Too make matters worse, my father had been a Math teacher and taught me the slide rule in grammer school. The Chem teacher didn't like the fact that I knew how to use it already, so he insisted that I was moving the slide in the wrong direction and would stand in front of me during quizzes to make sure I did it his way.) And I think that is a big part of the problem.

Non-science majors are told that this is hard and are not expected to understand it. Science teachers do not expect non-science majors to understand it. (I got a graduate Ornothology class credited as my lab science because the dean of the science dept was so stunned that an undergrad English major had gotten a "B" in the class. I think she wanted to put me under glass.) The fact that verbal communication is by definition not the science/math person's forte, makes it that much more difficult to get concepts across to people without a natural inclination to understand the subject.

Which brings us to this book trying to use Buffy to get people to read about science. Issaac Asimov used to say that his big talent was explaining complex concepts in such a way that a layman could understnad them. He was right. That is the talent that many of the authors of these books are trying to make use of rather than it being a book for scientists trying to brainstorm ideas about how these things could be explained scientifically. Some are going to be better than others. Some will have a clear understanding of what they are doing and some not. Some will just be trying to make a buck and get something published.

I could go on, but luckily for everyone I am at work and the bosses are calling us in to explain the timeframe in which all of us are going to lose our jobs. I guess I am going to get the chance to think creatively again sooner than I thought.
Jeez, really sorry to hear that newcj, hope everything works out as well as these situations ever do and you get something else as soon as you need/want it.

On the off chance that you'd rather not spend the remainder of today/tonight with your feet up and a glass of whatever's yer poison in your hands instead of getting involved in trifling "arguments" with the likes of me ;-) ...

and are you sure you want to use statistics as something that people don't believe in?

Your example is just one of good old fashioned bias IMO. People will believe statistics that support their perspective and disbelieve those that don't (likewise they'll believe politicians/salespeople/cult leaders that are telling them what they want to hear and i'm certainly not claiming no-one is ever conned verbally just that more people have more trouble discerning the truth of numerical data than, err, wordal (? ;) and I agree with you that it's most likely because we use words more and earlier in life).

My point is more, of those that disbelieved that statistic, how many asked questions about sample size, sample selection, base-rate errors etc. and how many just shrugged and said "Well, you can make numbers say anything you want" ? I'd bet on the latter way ahead of the former.

(and my ultimate point is and that'd be just fine with almost everyone. Guess i'm saying, if you met a scientist, no-matter how clever or accomplished and they said "Oh, I never read anything unrelated to science" you'd think them - quite rightly, IMO - deficient in some way but a non-scientist can get away with "Oh, i'm completely hopeless with maths/science, never bother with it" and nobody even bats an eye. Does that seem right to you ? ;)

Your chemistry teacher sounds like a right dick, BTW. No wonder so many are maths/science ignorant (seems like averse was the wrong word, guess I went too far trying not to offend ;) with that sort of idiot supposedly teaching them.

Totally agree with your comments about this book too. As I said originally I may check it out (even if i'd rather it was more about the science of Buffy than the science in Buffy). Could be she strikes a decent balance though, I can't really judge it fairly yet.
Thanks, Saje. I thought I was handling it really well because against all sense I am more excited about finally getting out of here and having the possibility of using my brain again than I am terrified of being unable to support my son. Then I talked to my medical carrier, was reminded how crappy this company is, and I found myself getting overly angry about it. (Geez, I just realized that I forgot I was on hold while I was writing this and took off my headphones. They didn't notice, but I guess it is affecting me.)

"On the off chance that you'd rather not spend the remainder of today/tonight with your feet up and a glass of whatever's yer poison in your hands instead of getting involved in trifling "arguments" with the likes of me ;-) ..."

So I can't do both? ;-)

"My point is more, of those that disbelieved that statistic, how many asked questions about sample size, sample selection, base-rate errors etc. and how many just shrugged and said "Well, you can make numbers say anything you want" ? I'd bet on the latter way ahead of the former."

I agree, but also wish to ask how many people who are told that a certain politician voted to make devil worship manditory in schools, murder and sexual abuse legal or whatever, asked the questions and did the research to find out what the truth was?

Do a majority of people's eyes glaze over when people start talking statistics, higher scientific concepts etc.? Yes. Do a majority of people's eyes start glazing over when you start discussing in depth tax law, medical benefits, insurance, ancient history, how great your favorite TV show/movie/book that they have never heard of is, etc.? Yes, again.

You are right that we are undereducated in math and science. You are right that people should not be able to wear their ignorance with pride. But people should not wear any ignorance with pride and they do it about all kinds of subjects. How many times have I been given attitude because sometimes "big words" inadvertently slip out of my mouth? Lots. And the attitude is that there is something wrong with me, not the person who went around the office checking to see how many people knew what a "kiosk" or some other word I used was. If most people did not know what the word meant, that would "prove" I shouldn't be using it, even if I have gotten into the habit of automatically rephrasing the statement as casually as possible without the word that I belatedly realize might be offensive. (sigh)

The other day I actually had a discussion with a friend about what I might have to do to interview better. First suggestion was dumb myself down. The discussion of how to do that included everything from not using big words through not sitting up so straight to dying my hair blonde. (Did I mention, sigh.)

I don't know about Britain but the USA is not really crazy about people appearing to be too smart about anything and I think that is the crux of it all. I'm thinking that if a book connects something that seems frivolous like BtVS with something serious like science it almost gives people permission to read it. It won't make them seem too smart.

"Your chemistry teacher sounds like a right dick, BTW."

Yeah he was, but hey, I have to give credit where credit is due. I only find the chemistry I picked up useful for cooking, keeping myself from getting blown up with household cleaners and such. The slide rule however...com'on. (He was still teaching there when I went by a couple decades later.)
Aye, it'll take a while to get your head around that kind of news. If (as you seem to be) you can see it as an opportunity though then I reckon your battle's half won.

(does that mean you'll lose your health benefits ? Can't imagine what a shadow that must cast on the horizon. When are you guys gonna get universal health-care sorted out ? It's not as if you couldn't afford it if you wanted to)

Get what you mean about people also not applying themselves to find the truth in verbally presented information but I think we may have to agree to disagree over the extent. I still feel like it's much more acceptable to be innumerate than it is to be, for instance, inarticulate.

Can't begin to say how depressing I find your friend's interview advice. Unless you're constantly being told you're overqualified for jobs you want then I just don't see what's to be gained by appearing less clever than you are. That said, i've obviously never been to an interview as a woman, I can (sadly) see how that might make a difference to how you're seen and should act.

Over here there's maybe an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism depending on context. If you're "with the lads" down the pub you're liable to get a good natured (but still telling) ribbing if you go overboard on the big words especially if it starts to seem pompous, there's not much the Brits like better than pricking pomposity with a well placed "Ooh, la de fuckin da, your highness". Apart from tea, obviously ;). At work no-one (in my experience) cares, again as long as you don't become overbearing or act superior. Also, 'kiosk' FFS ? It's not exactly obscure is it ;).

(I remember a few years ago talking to a Yank who'd just seen Tony Blair on, I think, "Question Time", a political panel show, where he appeared in a special as the sole panelist and this American chap could not believe the way the audience were laying into him over hospital waiting lists, crime figures etc. And of course there's "Prime Minister's Questions" every Wednesday, wherein the PM has to answer questions from normal MPs of all parties. If you're ever bored enough to listen to one you'll hear that the general tone (ha ;) is usually quite far from humble respect. Struck me odd given you guys' emphasis on equality etc. that there's apparently no Presidential equivalent and that, despite the whole monarchy and small-c conservatism thing, we might actually be bit less respectful of authority than our cousins over the pond ;)
"Get what you mean about people also not applying themselves to find the truth in verbally presented information but I think we may have to agree to disagree over the extent."

I do agree to disagree, with the comment for the record that I do not think we are that far apart on the issue. ;-)

As far as the worth of books of this type, the other thing I forgot to mention is that there is disliking a subject and thinking you dislike a subject. I sometimes think that these books are trying to woo people who think they dislike the subject into giving it a chance. People who truly dislike the subject are hopeless as an audience for this kind of thing, but others might be won over.

"(does that mean you'll lose your health benefits ? "

In my company health care will continue until the end of the month in which I terminate. That is when COBRA will be available for 18 months. COBRA is a government mandated extension of health benefits that the company can charge you 102% of cost for. It is very expensive. Unfortunately health insurance is actually the thing that makes working anything other than a full-time job with benefits out of the question if you have any responsibilities such as children. As to when we are going to fix the problem, not anytime soon that I can see. :-(

"... I just don't see what's to be gained by appearing less clever than you are. That said, i've obviously never been to an interview as a woman, I can (sadly) see how that might make a difference to how you're seen and should act."

I have often wondered if it is being female that is the problem. People sometimes seem to find me intimidating. I have also been criticized for looking like I was in charge when I was just quietly sitting in the room. I have wondered if that would be such a problem if I were male.

"If you're "with the lads" down the pub you're liable to get a good natured (but still telling) ribbing if you go overboard on the big words especially if it starts to seem pompous,"

Well there is always the pompous and condescending problem, where ever you are. They are not my favorite traits under any circumstance. It is sometimes unfortunate that simply using uncommon words, or big numbers, in normal conversation can be confused with being pompous. ;-) When I was waitressing, a bartender friend of mine used to like to tease me whenever I said that we needed to "replenish" something, but it was in good fun.

"despite the whole monarchy and small-c conservatism thing, we might actually be bit less respectful of authority than our cousins over the pond ;)"

When it comes to the Presidency, that is probably true. At the beginning of our history Congress was very concerned about the President being confused with a king and there was debate about how much courtesy should be afforded the person in office. How the President is treated by Congress and the citizenry has ebbed and flowed over the years. I am no expert but I think a lot depends on what is going on in the world, in the country and what the personality of the President in question is. IMO one thing that has always affected it was the fact that from the beginning our upstart nation was saying that our President should be treated by Kings and Queens as an equal because he was our leader and the top representative of our country...and that was in the days when Kings and Queens generally had real power. That is why the White House was built and a certain amount of trappings were put in place. If a man who was a tradesman, lawyer, or farmer was going to demand respect from the heads of state of the 18th and 19th century world, he was going to need all the help he could get...especially if he had no navy to speak of. (Even so, some chose to play it the other way, go all common man on them.) It seems like that is just a different situation than a PM in a monarchy, even now that most monarchs are figureheads. I am not sure the anti-intellectual thing comes into it except when our President and elected officials run on the platform of elect me because the other guy is way too smart, therefore untrustworthy and not one of "us folks."
I tried and failed to respond much earlier in this discussion, because of of my much-more-out-than-in-lately wireless connection. I'm kind of glad I failed, because what a great discussion you two (who I know both look back occasionally) had!

Well, in case you're still actually looking - Saje, by personality versus intelligence I meant personality versus intelligence. I have met many people with obvious mental sharpness who used it only for (from my perspective) predatory. power-grabbing reasons, and had no intellectual curiosity beyond what they could potentially take and dominate. I've also met some who confided to me that they knew things that other people didn't know, or had reached unpopular positions through analysis, but lacked the courage to express them publicly.

newcj, I agree with your analysis of anti-intellectualism in American politics. From my personal perspective, it's as if, though I left my hometown as soon as I could, its culture and politics have spread all around me, swallowing the nation. The fear of intelligence is because it's an outside force in this culture, coming in my hometown sometimes in the form of the Texas Rangers (the state police, not the baseball team, and not itself a notably progressive force) once again to force an indictment of the sheriff or the mayor or one of the county commissioners. There wasn't so much the townspeople could do about the outside forces back in the day, but they could focus much wrath on the inside growth of the cancers intelligence and honesty. I know I must sound like I'm exaggerating.

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