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Small World

Musings on serendipity

David Schoonmaker

Click to Enlarge ImageI recently had the pleasure of attending a dinner at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University prior to Henry Petroski delivering the Semans Lecture there on Alexander Calder. (See Engineering, July–August 2009.) Henry’s talk was in celebration of the recent opening of a display of Calder mobiles titled Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, of which Sigma Xi and American Scientist are sponsors. It turned out that the person who sat to my left had been an assistant editor at American Scientist in the 1970s, a position she held for a short time after receiving her undergraduate degree and before going on to law school.

It being the magazine’s centenary year, all of us here have been most attentive to the heritage that precedes us. When I mentioned that, our conversation naturally migrated to topics from that time, and one article she recalled in particular was Lorraine L. Larison’s “The Möbius Band in Roman Mosaics” (September–October 1973). Fortunately, managing editor Fenella Saunders had brought that one to my attention while she was researching cartoons for this issue’s Classic (see pages 206–209). It came as a complete surprise to me that the shape had been depicted in the third century, although it was left to Möbius himself to describe it mathematically some 1,600 years later. Small world, indeed.

The subject of this issue’s Classic feature, “The Soap Film: An Analogue Computer,” by Cyril Isenberg (pages 243–247), also brought a sort of small world moment. The last Classic feature was from the 1950s, so this time we were specifically looking for something from the first decade after the magazine adopted its current format in 1970. We selected Isenberg’s article not only because it’s fascinating but also because its publication year (1976) marks a pivotal period in computation—a time when the personal computer began to emerge, making the capabilities of the digital age considerably more egalitarian. An exchange of letters in a subsequent issue highlighted such changes (the letters are republished online); some of the questions the author considered were already in the process of succumbing to computational power.

When I first looked at “The Soap Film,” I remarked to the art director, Barbara Aulicino, and Fenella that it was amazing how much it resembles a current feature article. Those of us very close to the subject notice dozens of differences, but in general they are subtle refinements. This led Fenella to fire up her search engine again and determine just how contemporary the piece is. Much to my surprise, at least, Cyril Isenberg remains at the University of Kent and continues to present his soap-film demonstrations about 50 times per year. Fenella e-mailed him to advise him of our intentions, and he replied most graciously. Greetings, professor!

In one way, Brian Hayes’s Computing Science (pages 186–191) in this issue also takes a look backward. Brian’s first column for the magazine described what the computer could tell us 20 years after the publication of The Limits to Growth. This time he reviews the situation with 40 years and petabytes of perspective. And for a thoroughly modern look at the biological world, be sure to check in on “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” by William G. Eberhard and William T. Wcislo (pages 226–233). They review recently gathered compelling evidence that even the tiniest of animals hew to Haller’s Rule, wherein brains as a proportion of total body mass increase markedly with miniaturization. The ways in which such small creatures manage the feat will amaze!

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