Imagine that whenever you hear violins, you taste cheesecake. Or that your dad’s voice is a pale green. Or that whenever you see the letter “B”, you feel a tickle in your right hand. Sounds crazy right? Actually, this can be the way that a small percentage of the population experiences things. The condition they have is called synesthesia. It’s a rare neurological condition, affecting approximately four (4) percent of the population, in which one sense is joined with another. Synesthesia combines objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or words with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. Every synesthete (someone with synesthesia) has their own unique perceptions. Natalia Feldman is someone who has synesthesia. For her, numbers have colors as well as personalities. Feldman graciously agreed to an interview so that we can get a personal look at just what living with this condition is like.
When did you first find out that you had synesthesia?
My synesthesia is so innate to me that I never really thought to question it. However, I guess you could say that I realized I was different in my first year of middle school, when my teacher mentioned synesthesia. She said that certain people see colors when they hear music. It was then that I realized that numbers don’t have colors and personalities for everyone. It has made things like math and physics a bit challenging because when I have numbers and colors that I like more, sometimes I’ll want to use answers that aren’t necessarily correct because my brain prefers their colors.
Can you please tell me a bit about your synesthesia?
The number one is red. For me, one is powerful and confident, a leader. The number two is yellow. It’s bubbly and cute, kind of like that dorky friend you have that trips on air, super sweet and friendly. However, it can also be a little aloof at times. The number three is a burnt orange. It’s more serious. Three can be happy and outgoing, but also has some darker aspects to it. The number four is a nice fuchsia. I feel like I associate myself the most with the number four. Four is bright, bubbly and excited to meet people. Four is also sassy and outgoing, and knows what it wants. The number five is green. It’s kind of quirky and pretty calm by nature, because it’s always between 1 and 10. So, as the middle point, it has to be pretty neutral. It’s very humble and reserved (like a teacher who’s trying to be as objective as possible). The number six is a lovely lilac-lavender color. Very soft-natured and sweet, like a little old lady. The number seven is more of a spunky teal or turquoise, very bright and vibrant. It really wants to be something else, like an eight or a nine. When I think of tests I’m never really happy with a seventy- I’d prefer an eighty or ninety. As a result, I see seven as trying to compensate for that. The number eight is this beautiful royal blue, sometimes a soft blue. Eight is the kind of person that you don’t fully understand, but you enjoy their presence nonetheless. It’s cool, neutral, and noble. Whenever I think of royalty, I think of blue. The number nine can be fuchsia. I feel like it takes elements of four a lot, but it’s more of a darker purple. In terms of personality, think Ursula from The Little Mermaid. She’s very clever, but only has her own interests in mind. A bit like number four’s evil twin. Zero’s color really depends on what it’s next to. It tends to take on the color of other numbers. On its own, however, it’s a white or peach. Some numbers look nice together, but some don’t.
Do you have any favorite numbers?
I like the number four, number one, number five and number eight. Six too, sometimes.
Do you find that this affects your interactions with other people in any way?
No, not really. Sometimes I’ll think things like “Oh, that’s major number one energy”, a little like what people do with the zodiac signs, but I never say it out loud.
How do you “see” the color? Do you actually see it in front of you or is it just in your head?
A bit of both, I would say. Sometimes when I look at the numbers, I’ll see them in a very cartoonish way (with a black outline all around). However, most of the time, it’s in my head.
Does your synesthesia make things difficult in any way?
Sometimes! Which is due to the number favoritism that I described earlier. For example, on a multiple-choice test, if I don’t really know what the answer is, I’ll be inclined to pick the one that has the colors I like better.
Does anyone else in your family have synesthesia?
I don’t think so, however, I’ve never really asked.
What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered about your condition?
Some people assume how I experience the conditions of synesthesia based on an article that they’ve read, so I have to explain to them that every synesthete has their own unique perceptions. With that said, what they read won’t necessarily match up with the way that I experience things.
How does your synesthesia affect you on a day-to-day basis, like when buying groceries or doing the laundry?
When I go shopping, sometimes I won’t mind paying more for something if I like the colors or the numbers, so I may not be buying the cheapest option! The washer and dryer that I use have a number two (2) on them, and so whenever I do laundry I always get really happy. But it’s funny because the number is actually written in green.
Does that bother you?
No, I just feel like they did things wrong, and they should have hired me to do it! (Laughs) Thank you!
Mathematics students unveil formula for the perfect pancake.
HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?
Have you ever been in this situation? You stand in front of your stove as black smoke begins to rise from the skillet resting on the stove-top? Charred remains of what was once pancakes have now turned black. You throw up your hands in despair! Defeated by breakfast’s greatest food. Or, have you ever found yourself with pancakes so flat that they might as well have been one-dimensional? Have you ever wished that you could achieve the perfect pancake with a little less work? Well, wish no more, because science is here to save the day.
THERE IS A FORMULA FOR EVERYTHING
There’s a formula for everything, perfect pancakes included. What do you mean, you ask? Well, in honor of Pancake Day (which is Tuesday, February 25), mathematics students from Sheffield University’s Maths Society came up with what they consider to be the formula for the perfect pancake.
THE PERFECT FORMULA
With help from the Meadowhall Shopping Center, and some trial and error, the students worked out the formula. It takes several variables into account, such as the size of the pan used, how many pancakes you’d like to make, and how thick you want them to be.
Gaby Thompson, president of the University of Sheffield’s Maths Society (SUMS), says, “cooking is full of scientific and mathematical formulas, so when Meadowhall approached us to see if we’d like to join in the fun, we jumped at the chance.”
“Cooking is a fun and innovative way to demonstrate how maths can be used and explored in everyday life and we hope by developing this formula it will encourage more people to engage with the subject and help to combat maths phobia.”
Gaby Thompson, president of the University’s Maths Society
The formula has been chef-tested and goes as follows:
It turns out that science and math have a wide range of applications that are not solely limited to your kitchen appliances- they can be applied to food, too!
Disclaimer: the author has not tried out this formula. Any imperfections are at the reader’s discretion.
If you give a monkey a typewriter, and leave it for a million years, will it eventually bang out a word-for-word copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? From a purely mathematical point of view, the answer is yes, given either an infinite amount of time or an infinite amount of monkeys. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean writer, was inspired by this idea. He wrote a short story called “The Library of Babel”, where he imagined a vast library that would contain every possible permutation of the alphabet and some punctuation marks. In addition to almost endless amounts of unintelligible gibberish, it would have everything ever written- from Shakespeare to scientific articles- as well as everything that can possibly be written. Nothing is new; anything you come up with, no matter how random, already exists somewhere and has been there all along. Intrigued by this concept, computer programmer and author Jonathan Basile set out to create a digital version of the library. I spoke to him for the chance to find out a little more.
Q: I think the concept of the Library is a really fascinating one, but it can be a little hard to grasp. Can you explain what the Library of Babel is?
A: Sure. I first encountered the idea in a short story by Jorge Louis Borges, an Argentinean writer. The idea, as it occurs in his story, is that you have a library that would have every possible permutation of a basic character set. He described 22 letters, in addition to the space, comma and period, as being enough to express all the things that it is possible to express. With every possible 410-page book, you would have a library that contained everything that had been written and everything that could be written, ranging from things we consider masterpieces, like Shakespeare, to things that we haven’t discovered yet, like the cure for diseases. Everything like that would be there, but it would be impossible for us to find because it would be drowned out by endless amounts of texts that are completely unintelligible.
Q: You’ve created a website based on the short story. How does it differ from the library described in the short story?
A: My goal was more or less to recreate the short story in the form of a website. I had to make some concessions to the form of the internet. The website, as it stands right now, has every possible permutation of the twenty-six lowercase letters of the English alphabet, as well as the space, comma, and period. It has every single possible page, not every single possible combination of those pages in the form of a book. I used the same proportions as Borges did, so one page of text in the library has 3200 characters, 40 lines, and 80 characters per line. So it’s just a matter of making the computation happen quickly enough.
Q: How does that work, exactly?
A: The number of pages that are possible to encounter on the website is greater than the number of atoms in the universe! So it would be impossible to store those on disc. The website actually uses a relatively simple algorithm to generate pages. Every page of text has a locating number, which is essentially the URL of that page. The locating number is the input of a random number generator that produces the page of text that you’re looking for. So every time you go to a URL you’ll find the same page of text there. Rig1ht now, there’s a discreet URL for every possible page of text.
Q: So the website doesn’t contain every possible book, but it contains every possible page, correct?
Q: How many pages would that be?
A: About 104680.
Q: How many books would you have if you chose to compute every possible combination of those pages?
A: Well, it depends on how many pages there are in a book. If you gave the proportions that Borges imagined for his library, which was 410-page books, the number of books is around 101000000.
Q: How long did it take you to create the website?
A: About six months altogether. I made an early version that took about three months and the current version took about three more months.
Q: What were some challenges you faced when working on the website?
A: Well, I didn’t expect that it would end up working at all! I didn’t know much about programming when I started out, and most of the advice I got from people who knew more about programming were things like “Why would you do that”, “That’s impossible” and “You’ll never be able to do it”. So I was operating without a lot of guidance. With a combination of sticking to it and just asking for more help when I needed it, I managed to ultimately get something that worked.
Q: Did you learn anything new while you were at it?
A: I definitely got a more accurate sense of the magnitude of what Borges is imagining. When I started the project I thought that you would, if you went through the pages every now and then, maybe find a couple of words on it, but that’s a very unrealistic expectation.
Q: Are there no limits to language? Can you find anything in any language, as long as you know how to interpret the way it’s written?
A: There are a lot of different ways of looking at that. Borges writes that it contains everything possible to express in all languages. So it is possible to translate or transliterate any text in any language, or even treat it as a cryptographical puzzle in order to convert it into the alphabet that the Library uses.
Q: Has anything changed now that we have access to the things contained in the Library?
A: I don’t think that the Library gives access to any more or less of the things that we had access to before. It’s not a functional compendium of all possible knowledge, because you find even less typically than you would in a normal library.
Q: What do you think the importance of the Library of Babel is?
A: I think it’s more of an opportunity to reflect on the nature of language than it is a way to compile existing data. It’s not a very practical way to try to do things, like finding the cure to diseases, but I think it’s a way to think differently about the nature of language and our relationship to it. We tend to think of language- of all the things that we say, and the things that people say- as spontaneous ideas that we are generating out of our free will. But one of the things this story reminds us of is that in order for ideas to be communicable at all, they have to be able to fit a communicable form of language. So, in a certain sense, they have always existed wherever we imagine that spontaneity and that spark of free will. What appears in our frame of reference to be a form of invention and self-creation is actually a discovery of things that are pre-formed and ready-made.
Q: So anything that people say, or write, including this interview, are rearrangements of things that already exist?
You’re probably familiar with the geometric shapes you learned in school: Circles, triangles, squares, and the like. These are the shapes that make up the world around us, and we encounter them every single day. Some of the shapes that make us up though, can be downright bizarre.
Researchers at the University of Seville in Spain have recently discovered the existence of a new shape: The scutoid, (phonetically pronounced scoo-toid).
The new shape was discovered while studying epithelial cells. Epithelial cells are the body’s natural barriers, protecting your insides and your out. Your skin is made of them and they also line your throat, intestines, organs, and blood vessels. Epithelial cells have to be tightly packed in order to form an effective shield. They also have to be shaped in a way that allows them to stick together when various tissues and organs begin to twist and curve. Scutoids’ unique shape allows groups of cells to remain packed tightly while still being able to bend.
HUMANS HAVE NO FLAT SURFACES
On a completely flat surface, prisms have no trouble staying squeezed together. However, the human body has almost no flat surfaces! Until now, scientists thought that epithelial cells were shaped like frustums. (A frustum is a prism with two flat bases, one wider than the other.)
WHAT ARE THEY MADE OF?
The researchers used a computer program to figure out what happens to epithelial cells in curved tissue and discovered that what actually happened was not what they expected. As the cells stretched, they also developed a flat, triangular surface along one side. Imagine you have a prism-shaped tent. It has a pentagonal roof and floor and zippers down all five sides where two points meet. You unzip one side from the bottom and fold the flaps back so that they form a triangle. The tent floor is now a hexagon. If you find that hard to visualize, don’t worry! The research team also had trouble, until one of them made a clay model with his daughter.
HOW DID THEY GET THIS NAME?
The researchers weren’t sure what to call this new shape. They asked mathematicians, who told them that they weren’t sure either; This was a geometric shape that they had no idea existed! The scientists were able to confirm the existence of scutoids by studying fruit flies and zebrafish.
LAYS THE FOUNDATION FOR MUCH MORE
Now that we have a better understanding of how epithelial cells arrange themselves, this paves the way for potentially exciting advances in medicine and the growth of artificial organs. “We believe that this is a major breakthrough in many ways,” says Luis Escudero, one of the researchers. “We are convinced that there are more implications that we are trying to understand as we speak.” Welcome to the world scutoids.