Looking back: 2009


Washington, DC in June 2009

In 2009, I had the privilege of visiting the United States twice (in June and November).

This was the year that saw the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (which imaged, among other things, the Apollo 11 landing site), the Kepler space telescope (designed to look for exoplanets), the Herschel space observatory (an infrared telescope studying star formation), the Planck spaceprobe (which studied the cosmic microwave background), and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (an infrared telescope looking for minor planets and star clusters).


Apollo 11 landing site, imaged by the LRO (with photographs from 1969 inset)

More metaphorically, Bitcoin and the programming language Go were also launched. US Airways Flight 1549, on the other hand, was skillfully landed in a river. In archaeology, hoards were discovered in Staffordshire (gold and silver metalwork) and Shrewsbury (Roman coins). Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, torpedoed in 1943, was discovered off the Queensland coast.

Books of 2009 included Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (set in 1500–1535; a TV series of 2015), The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (dystopian science fiction; Nebula Award winner), and The Maze Runner by James Dashner (young adult dystopian sci-fi; a film of 2014). Books that I later reviewed include The Lassa Ward by Ross Donaldson and God’s Philosophers by James Hannam.

Movies of 2009 included Avatar (rather disappointing), 2012 (a little silly), Angels & Demons (a travesty), Up (Pixar/Disney), Coraline (designed to give children nightmares), District 9 (designed to give adults nightmares), Julie & Julia (a film about cooking), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (a film about mirrors), and Sherlock Holmes (a lot of fun). On the whole, a good year for films.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009.


Looking back: 2004

In 2004, I was privileged to visit Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) with a colleague and to present the paper “Network Robustness and Graph Topology.” A major event of that year was the landing of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Intended to operate for 90 Martian days (92 Earth days), Spirit kept going until 2010 (as xkcd remarked on in the comic above) and Opportunity set a record by operating until 2018. Also in 2004, the Stardust spaceprobe collected some comet dust.

On a more sombre note, 2004 saw the Boxing Day Tsunami. In the field of technology, Facebook and Gmail both launched in 2004, and Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn shared the Turing Award (for having invented the Internet).

This was an excellent year for cinema. Examples from different genres include National Treasure, Troy, Van Helsing, Man on Fire, Hotel Rwanda, The Village, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Passion of the Christ. I certainly have memories that I treasure.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006.


The demise of the Western?

I recently came across a discussion on the demise of the Western genre. Where did all the great Western novels and movies go?

But has there actually been a demise? For data, I turned to rottentomatoes.com, who have a list of the top 66 Western films, based on movie critic reviews. Their list is headed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), True Grit (2010), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Unforgiven (1992), and Sweetgrass (2009).

This histogram shows an increasing number of Western films over time:

But this is not the full story. Being based on movie reviews, the list is biased toward recent films, plus some “greats” of the past. In the histogram, colour shows film rating, with dark colours indicating higher ratings. Many of the recent films are clearly mediocre. Plotting the top 20 films tells a clearer story – there are about 2 good Western films each decade (except for the 80’s), with a peak of 8 during the 60’s:

The 60’s peak contains 3 Sergio Leone films, being composed of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the original True Grit (1969), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Perhaps that was a golden age for the genre.


Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.


The Man Who Knew Infinity: a book review


The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel (1991)

I recently, and somewhat belatedly, read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A partly fictionalised film based on the book was released in 2015 (see Scott Aaronson’s review of the film here).


Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, where Ramanujan lived when he first arrived in England in 1914 (photo: Cmglee)

Ramanujan had one of the greatest mathematical intuitions of all time (he himself credited his insights to the goddess Namagiri). However, his brilliant guesses were as likely to be wrong as right. Furthermore, Ramanujan often neglected formal mathematical proofs, so that the work of separating the many diamonds from the occasional paste was frequently left to collaborators (like G. H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to England, and who wrote several joint papers with him). There are still results in Ramanujan’s journals which have neither been proved nor disproved (see this perspective on Ramanujan by Stephen Wolfram).


One of Ramanujan’s formulae for π

Interest in Ramanujan seems to have peaked at around the year 2000, according to Google Ngrams (although this does not include the influence of the recent film):


Google Ngrams search for Ramanujan’s name in books

I found Kanigel’s book a very enjoyable read. There is extensive biographical detail, albeit with a few misquotes, and with apparent confusion at times about the language of a century ago (e.g. the word “cult,” used in a technical sense to mean “a particular system of religious belief,” referring to the Brahmin version of Hinduism which Ramanujan followed). Kanigel does not quite succeed in fitting Ramanujan into a larger context – I would have liked a bit more discussion of Ramanujan by other mathematicians. And I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had illness (probably chronic hepatic amoebiasis, although Kanigel suggests tuberculosis) not killed Ramanujan at the tragically young age of 32. I guess nobody can imagine what further mathematics we might have seen.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.


The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel: 3.5 stars


Aliens: A Study in Leadership

The upcoming World Solar Challenge has turned my mind to teamwork and leadership again – since good leadership is essential to success in that event. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is an excellent film for illustrating different leadership styles:

Lieutenant Scott Gorman, the incompetent leader

Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) is completely out of his depth leading the mission in Aliens. Not because of any personal flaws, but simply through inexperience:

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty-eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Unlike incompetent leaders suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect, however, Gorman is at least aware of his limitations, and of the fact that his lack of experience is a problem – that is why he is nervous. In the film, he was chosen as leader precisely because of his inexperience, in order to facilitate…

Carter J. Burke, the sociopathic leader

Carter J. Burke (played by Paul Reiser) has an immoral hidden agenda. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, to sacrifice the innocent, and to risk the human race itself. Such sociopaths are not unknown in the workplace. Fortunately, in the film, Burke is forestalled by…

Ellen Ripley, the emergent leader

Emergent leaders can be good or bad. When there are rewards to be had, the incompetent and/or sociopathic are often quick to volunteer:

Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people eagerly respond,
even unasked, and shout: I’ll take it on.

(Dante, Purgatorio VI:133–135, tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Incompetent leaders can turn victory into defeat by persuading an entire team to choose the wrong course of action, or by turning a team into a crowd of uncoordinated individuals. In moments of crisis, however, quietly competent individuals often step forward to fill a leadership vacuum. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of these good emergent leaders. She has both the technical knowledge and the interpersonal skills needed to turn the survivors into a unified team, fighting against an almost indestructible enemy. Eventually she hands over to…

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the designated leader

Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn) holds just about the lowest possible military leadership position, but the rules require him to step up when the commissioned officers and more senior NCOs have died. The buck stops with him.

Ripley: Well, I believe Corporal Hicks has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks has…?
Ripley: This operation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in chain of command. Am I right, Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah… yeah, that’s right.

Hicks reveals his leadership abilities by the way he remains calm in the crisis, by his interactions with others, and by the way he relies on Ripley’s advice.

For a team to achieve success, either the powers that be must designate a competent leader like Hicks, or a competent emergent leader like Ripley must step forward. Otherwise, even though the team may not be eaten alive by hideous aliens with acid for blood, failure is nonetheless assured.


Chaotic dinosaurs?

In the comic above, XKCD is objecting to Jurassic Park (21 years after the movie was released):

MALCOLM: You see? The tyrannosaur doesn’t obey set patterns or park schedules. The essence of Chaos.

ELLIE: I’m still not clear on Chaos.

MALCOLM: It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

No, Ian Malcolm, XKCD is right. That doesn’t really clear things up. And I’m pretty sure that topological mixing is actually more fundamental to the concept of Chaos:

Wired also has a piece on the anniversary of the film (concentrating on the special effects).