A few nights ago I had one of those weird dreams that includes particular moments that are vividly memorable on waking. In this one, I dreamed that I had the number 17051 tattooed on my left hand, near the knuckle of my forefinger. In the dream, I had never noticed the number there before. This is the kind of thing that happens in dreams, although as you might remember there have been happenstances in my waking life where I’ve noticed for the first time something almost as unsettling on my hand.

This number’s main claim to fame appears to be that it is the zip code for Pennsylvania – a fact of which I had no previous (conscious) knowledge. It is also the ChEBI (Chemical Entities of Biological Interest) number of fluoride and the number of a main belt asteroid called Oflynn. It isn’t even a date or a prime number, which is quite disappointing.

I’m particularly interested in unusual words or word combinations and odd numbers that appear in dreams. Yours?

Haeckel Illustration 1

For our first wedding anniversary (traditionally considered the ‘paper’ anniversary), Violet Towne gave me a beautiful book: Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel.

Haeckel was a biologist and artist and an early subscriber to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Although he famously made many erroneous assumptions about evolution,* his detailed naturalistic drawings, particularly his intricate observations of the microscopic sea creatures called radiolarians, are entirely accurate and strikingly beautiful.

Haeckel Illustration 2

Haeckel was also fascinated by the obvious mathematical influences that he observed in life-forms, and documented many of their geometrical characteristics in his drawings.

Haeckel Illustration 3

His ornate organic renderings were almost certainly one of the influences that came to bear on the Art Nouveau movement. It’s not hard to understand why – take a look at this beautiful collection of high quality pdfs of some of Haeckel’s astonishing work.


*Haeckel was a staunch believer in the outmoded ideas of Lamarckism and the now discredited recapitulation theory. Creationists love to wave Haeckel’s name about in reference to errors he made in embryonic illustrations that fulfilled his wishful speculation that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In doing so they are demonstrating (once again) the profundity of their ignorance; Haeckel was never a believer of Darwin’s idea of natural selection, and in his zeal to advance his own preconceptions, some of his drawings became a little more ‘inventive’ than they had any right to be. Haeckel’s fabrications were never endorsed by Darwin, and in time succumbed to the scrutiny of rational examination, as all bad science necessarily must.


Monty Loses

The correct answer to The Monty Hall Problem is: Yes, you should definitely change your choice when Monty gives you the opportunity. You will improve your odds of walking away with the car from your initial 33.3% to an impressive 66.6%.

Those of you who said that your chances remain the same as they were to start with, or improve to an even 50/50, are in error. I know, it seems bizarre on the face of it: if you change your mind, your chances of winning the car are not just better, but substantially better. But how can that possibly be?

I think the best way to approach the Monty Hall Problem is like this:

First of all, remember that Monty knows what’s behind every door. This is critical.

When you make your initial random choice from Doors A,B & C, there is a 2-in-3 chance that you will pick a goat. That is, two times out of every three your first random choice would give you a goat. Are we agreed on that point? Good. Therefore, on those two times out of every three, after Monty knows your choice, he will have no option but to open the door where the other goat is (presuming, of course, that he doesn’t want to show you the door with the car). Logically, therefore, Monty Hall allows you to know two thirds of the time where the car is† (that is, behind the door you didn’t choose). So you should always change your choice when he gives you the opportunity to do so.

It’s infuriatingly counter-intuitive. When I was first presented with the Monty Hall Problem I was convinced the choice was a mere 1/2 and therefore it made no difference if I changed or not. But the maths don’t lie. If the Word of the Cow isn’t good enough for you, go to the maths department at the University of California & San Diego and conduct yourself some practical trials. If you always change your choice when given the opportunity you will walk away with the car more often than not. You can also see the accumulated trials of everyone who has done the experiment before you: it’s inarguable – the best strategy is to swap doors when Monty gives you the choice!

Why do we have such difficulty with the Monty Hall Problem? I think the answer is twofold – firstly our brains are not naturally great at interpreting statistics, and secondly, The Monty Hall Problem is not strictly a problem of maths.

Statistically we can all see quite clearly that the chance of choosing the car initially is 1-in-3. We then tend to think that by being shown an ‘irrelevant’ door and given two remaining options there is an equal chance that either may hide the prize. This is in fact true; in a strict statistical sense, taken in isolation, the prize may indeed be behind either remaining door. But Monty (unwittingly, we must suppose) is not giving you that kind of choice. He is instead giving you the opportunity to change your mind about your first choice which is an entirely different thing altogether. And that opportunity is informed by the fact that Monty knows something about what’s behind the doors that you don’t.

In other words, a purely statistical experiment is muddied up by the fact that the experimenter knows something about the outcome and stirs that into the experiment, irrevocably removing the random element.

Or, put another way, if Monty doesn’t know what’s behind each of the doors (or, alternately, if you don’t tell Monty which door you’ve initially chosen) then the Monty Hall Show plays out exactly as your intuition might suggest. (Of course, if Monty doesn’t know what’s behind the doors, in all possibility he may reveal the car when he opens a (necessarily) random door to show you what’s behind it, immediately increasing your odds of walking away with the prize to 100%).

The Monty Hall Problem is a good reminder of how easily it is for the human brain to be lead astray, and why our intuitive grasp of things is not a reliable indicator of the way they really are…


†Of course, on the one-in-three times you choose the car on your first go, Monty can show you either of two doors with a goat, in which case your chance of getting the car if you swap doors is merely 50/50. But that’s only for one out of every three times you randomly choose correctly on the first pick!

Correction courtesy of din.


Insincerity Invite Small

Halloween 2006 sees the launch of my new image exhibition ‘Insincerity – The Icons of Mistrust’. All Cow readers are, of course, invited!

If anyone has any ideas on promotion for my show I’m open to suggestions – I’m trying to spread the news as far and wide as I can. Along with that, I’m also thinking of webcasting the opening, so if any of you have experience with that, please let me know!

You can see all 17 images in the exhibition here. The final works are printed on high quality heavy weight rag paper with fully archival inks, and are 700mm (27.5in) square. They look spectacular.

Book Review: The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell by Luca Turin.

Hey! What’s this? A book review on The Cow? I thought you didn’t do that kind of thing. It must be a very special book…

Oh yes, it truly is.

Secret of Scent Cover

Those of you who have been long-time readers of The Cow (or who have browsed the Perfume category) know already about my interest in the field of perfume and scent. You might even remember that I have mentioned previously the name of Luca Turin in reference to Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, a book that elevated Turin from esoteria into the relative mainstream of that very successful contemporary publishing niche ‘Popular Science’.

In that book, Burr went some way towards illuminating a radical idea by Turin that challenges the conventional scientific wisdom behind the perplexing mystery of how we smell things.

Now, Turin turns his hand at telling his story in his own words. And what beautiful words he has at his command. I think it would be almost impossible for any reader of this book not to be infected by Turin’s obvious passion for scent. Here, let me just snip out a bit at random* (he’s talking about his first experience with Shiseido’s Nombre Noir):

The fragrance itself was, and still is, a radical surprise. A perfume, like the timbre of a voice, can say something quite independent of the words actually spoken. What Nombre Noir said was ‘flower’. But the way it said it was an epiphany. The flower at the core of Nombre Noir was halfway between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly background of cigar-box cedar notes. At the same time it wasn’t dry, and seemed to be glistening with a liquid freshness that made its deep colours glow like a stained-glass window.

I don’t know about you, but I really want to smell this right now. Turin’s words swirl and bound and cavort on the page. He can barely conceal his verve and great enthusiasm for perfume and his need to make your nose plead to just have one tiny hint of that scent. More than once the visual and even aural images are so strong that I found myself wondering if Turin isn’t at least a little synaesthetic.

And Turin spins his tale in the manner in which you could infer he might design a beguiling perfume, beginning with an immediate and alluring top note that entrances the reader with a flitting precis of perfumes and perfumery, drawing you deeper into the secondary notes of how individual fragrance families are related to one another and then finally settling into the real substance of the drydown – his controversial hypothesis about how scent is detected by our olfactory organs.

It has to be said that when the story gets to this stage it doesn’t exactly make for light reading, as eloquent and illuminating as Turin is. You do need some science to get through. Refreshingly (as far as I’m concerned anyway) Turin doesn’t talk down to his (presumably) lay audience. He makes the science as easy to understand as I suspect anyone could, and rapidly moves on through his ideas. But you need to keep in mind that this is a big concept; he’s challenging an entire branch of science, and accordingly, the rationale for investments of billions of dollars by the huge perfume companies. If pictures of molecular structure and the big broad brushstrokes of grand thinking scare you, he’ll leave you behind.

Behind is not where you want to be though; this is the kind of thinking that needs to be wholeheartedly embraced. Turin thinks, in my opinion, how scientists ought to think, but often don’t. He collates information from obscure sources, re-examines decades-old research with new computer tools, reads what other scientists have speculated, riffing and elaborating on their ideas, and jumps to and fro across his subject with breathtaking flashes of insight. And, most of all, he quite literally follows his nose. When he says that boranes – big molecule chemicals used mostly in rocket fuels (and which are famously so olfactorily debilitating that scientists keep them in complicated corrales of glass tubing and sealed beakers) – smell like sulphur†, you know that he didn’t just take someone’s word for it.‡

It might be of some advantage, if you’re not already familiar with Turin’s work and his theory, to read Burr’s earlier account before you embark on this book. It probably does help make some of the more esoteric stuff (Do we have some kind of spectroscope in our noses?) a little easier to fathom, and also gives a good basis for understanding where Turin fits in the scheme of things. Even so, Turin’s journey is not too difficult to follow, and his sheer delight in his subject certainly makes you want to try.

Turin’s ideas, purely theoretical at the time of Burr’s writing of The Emperor of Scent, are currently much more substantial – he is now one of the key players in the scent creation company Flexitral, and has designed for them a number of new and novel scent molecules using his concepts. If ever anything speaks for the success of new science these days, it’s commercial endorsement.

Ultimately though, commerce is the farthest thing from Turin’s mind. In the most profound sense of the word, he is an artist. An artist whose medium – mysterious, evocative, sensual, sexual, nostalgic and joyful – is perfume.

Buy this book. Read it at least twice. And then keep it on your shelf so that you can say, in decades to come, I was there when they discovered how our sense of smell works.

*Dear Mr Turin’s Copyright Lawyer: I’m not sure about the legality of quoting stuff from a book in a review, but I plead dedication to Turin’s vision, and I intend to forever and a day commit myself to urging anyone who will listen to spend their money on his book, if that helps at all.

†This single fact is a major key to Turin’s argument. It’s too complicated to go into, but it’s really a sweet piece of reasoning.

‡He has also, at some stage or other, whiffed hydrogen cyanide, a fact that he drops as a careless aside. HCN is the kind of gas that you don’t go around casually sniffing, since it can cause you to sort of DIE.

23 Occurrences of the Number 23

Radioactive Jam was recently detailing his exploits concerning a certain number, and it brought to mind my ongoing entanglement with #23. Wherever I go 23 haunts me. Now it can haunt you too.

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