Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bound To Happen

For the origin of this quote, see The Simpsons episode "Simpson Safari". The use is truly ironic, because the term was used to described something of mind blowing unlikeliness. However, I have come to use it to describe something that everybody knows is going to happen, but is still surprised. Today, someone tried to tell me it is ironic that a person who eats cheeseburgers every day eventually has a heart attack. That's not ironic, that causality.

This term has come to describe a number of statistical phenomena, including selection bias, where people misinterpret the world around them. Take Alanis Morisette's man who was afraid to fly, and when he finally did, he died in a plane crash. This is a crazy coincidence, right? Actually, this is bound to happen.

Say 1 in 25 people is afraid to fly, and 1 out of 10 people on a plane are on their first trip. Add to that that a person who is afraid to fly is 5 times more likely to come with an alternative to flying, and ignoring small aircraft, the average plane holds 150 people. 25 * 10 * 5 / 150 = 5, so there should be a person who is afraid to fly on their first ever trip once out of every 5 plane crashes! Obviously a specific person crashing their first time up is rare, but so is that person winning the lottery! Given a large enough population, it would be absurdly unlikely for their to be coincidences. Therefore, the man dying in the song is not ironic, it's bound to happen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tetrahedra of Space

I was recently reading, Before the Golden Age, Book 1, a collection of classic SF tales from the 1930s, edited by Isaac Asimov. There is a 1931 story called Tetrahedra of Space, by P. Schuyler Miller, which is ruined by the fifth to last word.

The story is about several scientists in the Amazon. They discover alien lifeforms, which they eventually determine to be from Mercury. These lifeforms thrive in a dry climate, and since it is the dry season, they are able to spread. There are several battles between the humans and aliens, and eventually the aliens seem destined for victory. Then it starts to rain. The aliens are driven back, and severely injured. Finally, when the rain stops, the scientists are able to cleverly communicate to them just exactly how wet Earth is, and convince them to leave for Mars. A clever story, and while it doesn't quite hold up to modern SF, for 1931 it is very impressive. However, the last line ruins it for me.

Water and Earth seemed to be synonymous, and we were perfectly at ease in that dangerous element. For all that, they, the tetrahedra of Mercury, could "kill" it, which by inference, we could not. They weren't going to admit defat, by Man of water, but this was a big Solar System. We could have our soggy Earth! They were going to Mars!

Up from behind the wall of "killed" water rose two great, glorious pearls, marvelously opalescent in the rays of the setting sun - up and up, smaller and smaller, until they vanished into the deepening blue above the Andes. Ironically, it began to rain.

Now, had they ended with, "It began to rain", "Fittingly, it began to rain", "and as they vanished into the deepening blue above the Andes, the Earth began to weep", "seemingly on cue, it began to rain". He could have left the last sentence off entirely, and it would have been a better ending.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Proof of a German's theory by British Scientists

Below is a quote from Stephen Hawking's , A Brief History of Time , talking about an experiment designed to prove special relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905.

It is normally very difficult to see this effect... it is possible to do so during an eclipse of the sun... it was not until 1919 that a British expedition, observing an eclipse from West Africa, showed that light was indeed deflected by the sun, just as predicted by the theory. This proof of a German theory by British scientists was hailed as a great act of reconciliation between the two countries after the war. It is ironic, therefore, that later examination of the photographs taken on that expedition showed the errors were as great as the effect they were trying to measure.

This is an interesting usage, because there are actually two layers going on here. This experiment is probably one of the most famous experiments of the twentieth century, and I've cited it any number of times, not knowing that it was in error. Where is the irony here? Thinking you are right, and then finding out you are wrong is often considered ironic. The bigger you are, the harder you fall, and likewise, the righter you think you are, the more ironic it is considered. And since this experiment contributed to a revolution in physics, this can't have been much bigger. Still, relativity was verified by countless other experiments, and this one experiment doesn't really hurt this.

The real meat of this statement is the symbolic nature of the British scientist supporting a German scientist. This was apparently seen as a reconciliation between the two powers after the Great War. Of course, there wasn't really a reconciliation, the Germans were treated poorly, and that led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. So combining that the experiment being wrong, and this symbolism, it actual foreshadows the rise of the Third Reich. Einstein, of course, was not really German, he was a German Jew, the distinction of which was made stark during the next decades. Britain did support Jewish scientists in relocation during the 1930s, so their support of Einstein in 1919 foreshadowed this as well.

Clearly, this is a nuanced situation, and the English language (probably all languages) have no words to succinctly describe this complex situation, so irony, as the catchall term, is used. Really, this is a combination of foreshadowing and the validity of something being overturned.

Verdict: Not ironic, but incredibly nuanced and interesting.