The Open Laboratory 2013

The Best of Science Writing on the Web

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Online

by Scott Huler

Regarding blogging,  I was late to the party. A practicing journalist, I fell victim to the early -- and once at least somewhat true -- image of the blogger as someone who wasn't good enough to get his or her work into print through more traditional means.

Well, you see where we are. Science blogging is so important that it generates collections like this one, and here I am editing this one. 

But I allow myself significant defense for being a late adopter. For one thing, though two of my books have been about scientific topics, calling myself a science writer represents a stretch. So I didn’t inhabit the ecosystem of science communication in which, during the early years of this century, the Cambrian explosion of trustworthy, dependable, professional, and fascinating communication was taking place. For another, until the last five years or so, outside that remarkable -- and at the time, I still maintain, exceptional -- environment, public perception of blogging still recalled the year 2000, when according to a citation in Blogging as a Journalistic Practice there were 23 blogs on the Internet.

Now, according to equally compelling statistical evidence, there are at least seventy skillion blogs. And, at least in the science arena, an enormous portion are not only worth reading but all but required. If you kept up with all the science blogs you wanted to keep up with you would not have time to do anything anybody would pay you for -- and I should point out that when I was asked to consider all the scientific blogs for this collection, this briefly looked like a paying gig. As it shakes out, I’m getting paid to edit this collection exactly what most bloggers are paid for their work. Which, ultimately, seems perfectly fair. And I’m not complaining.

But it brings up what is most amazing about science blogging. Given that blogging is not much of a way to make a living, one is not surprised to read in many blogs -- outside the sciences -- work that is worth exactly what the reader paid for it. Nonscience blogging can be forgiven for being what it often is -- sloppy and hurried, a quick stab at something that will eventually find a longer or more thorough treatment elsewhere. But most science blogs run exactly counter to that notion. Good science bloggers link to sources; they transparently correct errors; they share opinions expecting -- overtly asking for -- contradiction, further evidence, clarification, correction.

Science bloggers -- good ones, that is -- communicate the way in a perfect world everyone would communicate. They try very very hard to get the facts straight, and they admit it when they’ve failed -- and usually thank those who set them straight. They try to make the story work, though without giving up on the facts. And they recognize that communication is a two-way street -- hence the active comments threads (still going despite some pushback about incivility), and the growing consensus that people speaking unkindly, obnoxiously, or in all caps on comments threads are trolls and should be treated as such and ignored.

This rosy portrayal is optimistic, of course, but I think of it as a genotype rather than a phenotype: the species wants to achieve its highest potential, but each individual exhibits its own specific characteristics. Your mileage, as one says, may vary.

All of which has made judging these -- more than a thousand! -- entrants for this year’s Open Laboratory a delight. The dozens of judges were asked to each read 35 or more of the nominated blogs of their own choosing. That is, once the number of nominees climbed so high, instead of dealing each blog to a judge familiar with its subject area, we decided that simply having judges from different branches of science was sufficient. That part of the job of a blog, as of any piece of writing, was to get a reader to open it up and begin reading. That seems somewhat Darwinian -- or, okay, wiseacres, Spencerian -- but reasonable. The wilder the communications ecosystem becomes, the more commonly unexpected characteristics of the included species emerge as existential. Especially when most blogs are self-titled, this seemed fair. Is it likely that some of the thousand nominated blogs never got read by a judge? Yes; yes it is. Given that some 30 judges, each of whom chose 35-plus blogs to read, had to overlook those blogs for that to happen, does that seem unfair? No; no it does not.

Each judge got to choose three finalists. And from those finalists I and Karyn Traphagen chose the winners you see here. Winners get as reward nothing more than the honor of being chosen by their peers as writers of truly fine blogs. Which, given how well most online communication pays, seems entirely fitting. The proceeds of this collection go to support the ScienceSeeker website, which indexes science content on the web. That seems fitting too.

The collection is a delightfully mixed bag. We have drawings; we have essays, short and long. We have straightforward results sharing, and we have storytelling of the highest order. We have stories addressing things you have always heard and wondered whether they could really be true (do you really make millions of red blood cells every second?) and things you never knew but once you hear them make perfect sense (when people give up meat for religious reasons, hyenas give up eating their garbage). We have stories of the most personal nature -- about the illness of a child -- and stories that cut right to the heart of things like naked mole rat super powers.

In short, we have here what I think is a wonderful cross-section of what science communicators working at the highest level are doing these days. I trust you will enjoy this online -- or will appreciate the irony of picking up a highly physical, if electronic, book of these pieces of writing originally created to live online. Though one of the joys of the online world is its capacity for immediacy, one of its counterbalancing pleasures is permanence: a blog comes out the moment its author is prepared to send it on its way, but it remains online for as long as this Internet of ours remains. Which as we all know has been a source of both pleasure and discomfort.

In any case, we have uncounted electronic means of sharing information, and if you’re reading this collection thereupon, that seems appropriate and good. Just the same, a book fixes a piece of writing in time -- and shows its age. Read it now and enjoy it. Then later pull it back out for a glimpse at what science types were writing about online in 2012 -- and publishing in 2014. If you are one of those who feels that the book as a form is on its way out or is in some way outdated, you may make such snide comments as you please. Incredibly successful solar-powered tools for information storage and random-access retrieval, books are not going anywhere, even as ebooks like this one find their own niche. Still, say what you like -- you cannot be any wronger about books than I was about blogs.

Above all, enjoy. Given the contents, I defy you to do otherwise.


Proceeds from the sale of this book will be used to support the ScienceSeeker website, which indexes science content on the web. The 2014 edition of Open Laboratory will be a part of the annual ScienceSeeker Awards process. Cover art by Mari Chijiiwa, courtesy of Talk Science to Me Inc.,

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1. Plastic Lessons

By Shara Yurkiewicz

I always feel awkward when I talk to plastic patients.  The simulation mannequins are impressive: their eyes blink, their chests expand as they breathe, they have pulses, they bleed, they burn.  A screen monitors vital signs: I administer a pressor and a dipping blood pressure perks up, or I order a beta blocker and a racing heart rate slows.  A physician in the next room lends her voice to play the patient, responding to what I do and say.  A physician in the same room becomes a tech, relaying results of my tests and nudging me through the next steps when I veer off course.

The situations are designed to be overwhelming.  I look helplessly at the “tech” when he asks me how many liters of saline I want to give the patient.  When the patient asks what’s happening or when fear enters her voice, I give automated reassurances while my mind wanders through differentials.  When the patient begins deteriorating for reasons beyond my comprehension, I pause for too long: listening to the beeping of the monitor, watching her oxygen saturation plummet, and waiting for the scenario to be over so I can be rescued.  During simulations, the student usually needs as much rescuing as the patient.

That morning’s mannequin was distraught.  She was bleeding profusely from her vagina and was terrified that she was miscarrying.  Her blood pressure dropped.  She wouldn’t stop crying.  She was asking a lot of questions.  The tech wanted to know what he should tell her boyfriend outside.  I used about 5% of my mental capacity in an attempt to soothe her and deflect her boyfriend’s worries.  The rest I reserved for piecing together the tiny bits of information I had gleaned so far on my ob/gyn rotation on how to diagnose and manage miscarriages.  I stabilized her blood pressure and admitted her for surgery, but she was still crying as the scenario ended.  In my eyes this was success.

Excited to get away from plastic people, I re-joined my team on the floor that afternoon.  I found our next patient in the surgical waiting area.  She had had a miscarriage.

There are eight beds in the waiting area, each separated by a few feet and three quarters of a curtain.  In a span of twenty minutes, the patient meets a slew of personnel: surgeons who explain what recovery will look like, anesthesiologists who verify medications and allergies, nurses who update physicians on the patient’s recent changes, and translators when necessary.  The room is busy but not chaotic; animated but not loud.

And there my patient sat, crying in her bed.

Everyone around me had a task.  Each person gave the patient words of sympathy–which eerily echoed mine from only a few hours before–and moved on to the next aspects of her care.

Although I was technically part of the surgical team, I was also technically useless at that point.  Unlike simulations during which I had to balance medical management with verbal comfort, this time I could allocate my entire brain to the latter.

I only wished it were merely as uncomfortable as it was with my plastic patient.

After introducing myself and uttering the requisite situational apology, my face molded itself into an expression of glum empathy.  I was amazed by the nurses’ facileness in switching their expressions as they moved from bed to bed.  Within my patient’s fifty square feet, they held her hand and lowered their voices.  Then, with their backs turned and sixty seconds behind them, they bantered with the next patient.  The physicians busied themselves writing notes, looking up records, and explaining to the patient what dilation and curettage meant.

With nothing to do but nowhere else to be, I stood silently by the patient’s bedside, unwilling to interrupt the medicine taking place, even when the medicine wasn’t being spoken aloud.  I was convinced that she perceived me as some sort of creepy extra during one of the worst days of her life.  But still, I didn’t speak.  I knew she’d remember a stupid or hurtful comment more vividly than no comment at all.

She seemed to sense that her doctors considered her impending procedure relatively short and safe.  (At twenty minutes and only somewhat invasive, it was.)  Through her tears, she tried to justify her questions.  ”I know you do these things every day, but for me it’s new and I’m terrified.”

I desperately wanted to tell her that I wasn’t like the rest of them.  It was new for me too.  Just as she would always remember this surgery, so would I.  But I remembered my superiors’ advice (approaching an order) not to let on to patients how inexperienced I was.

I needed her to know.  As she looked more miserable, my judgment waned.  During a lull in the preparations, I very quietly said to her, “I’m not going to do anything at all during the surgery; I’m only watching.  But it’s my first time too.”

“First time?  Join the club,” she repeated, too loudly.  I knew my intern had overheard. I could only hope that she wouldn’t be the one writing my evaluation.

Did I have anything at all to offer?  ”I’m just a student so I won’t know all the answers to your medical questions.  But I have a lot more time than these guys”–I gestured with my head to the rest of the team–”which means I have a lot more time to help you in any way I can.  If you need anything, please let me know and I’ll try to get it for you.”

She nodded, and I realized I had finally found my place.  It wasn’t big–about fifty square feet.  In fact, it was precisely the size of my patient’s world.  A bed.  A curtain.  An IV line and a monitor.  People who faded in and out of their own ever-shifting worlds.  A patient and her mother.  And me.

I thought back to the simulation of a few hours ago.  It was useful, but not immediately so.  With plastic patients, I am learning how to be a doctor and feeling overwhelmed with medicine.  With real patients, I am on the cusp of learning how to be a doctor-in-training and feeling underwhelmed with myself.  At some undetermined time, I hope the two paths will find a way to meet.

As we wheeled her bed out of the holding room and toward the operating room, her mother asked how long before she could see her daughter again.  I was the only one who heard.  Frustrated, I couldn’t even answer that.  I nudged my intern and repeated the question.

“An hour.”  Her mother nodded.

In my eyes this was success.

Originally published 9 May 2012 on This May Hurt a Bit.

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11. Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

By Meera Lee Sethi

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.


It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.

Originally published 14 December 2011 in The Science Essayist.

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22. The Science of Mysteries: Leave Us the Counterpoint

By Jennifer Ouellette

Note: Last November, a Twitter exchange revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors (including your humble cocktail party blogger), also have a shared taste for classic murder mysteries. They thought they would co-post, on their respective blogs, various takes on the science of classical mystery writers. And they had so much fun, they decided to do so again! A full list of links can be found at the end of this post, but be sure to check out the new offerings in particular.

“This kind of thing is the body and bones of music. Anybody can have the harmony, if they will leave us the counterpoint.” — Peter Wimsey, Gaudy Night

Every great literary detective needs his muse, and for Dorothy L. Sayers’ creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, that muse is mystery writer Harriet Vane. They first meet in Strong Poison, when he clears her name (and saves her life) after she is tried for murdering her former lover with arsenic. It’s love at first sight — for Wimsey. Harriet, having been badly burned romantically, proves far more reluctant (and even occasionally hostile).

In Gaudy Night, Harriet has returned to her alma mater, Oxford University, to help the dons at the (fictional) women’s Shrewsbury College solve a mystery — not a murder, but a “poison pen” who has been sending hateful, harassing notes to various targets. (Poison pens were the Internet trolls of 1930s Oxford, apparently.)

Eventually she calls upon Wimsey for aid, despite some awkwardness arising from the fact that she’s spent the last four years rejecting his many marriage proposals. The novel’s subplot — fans might argue it’s the main plot, cleverly shrouded in the poison pen mystery — revolves around Harriet’s struggle to reconcile her feelings for Wimsey, and desires as a woman, with her fear of losing her hard-won individual identity and independence… a not-insubstantial concern for women of that era, especially those, like Harriet (and Sayers herself), of high intelligence.

That tension finds the perfect musical metaphor in a scene set in a small antiques shop, where Harriet has allowed Peter, for the first time, to buy her a gift (a set of antique ivory chessmen that has captured her imagination). Wimsey spots an old spinet piano in the shop, and knocks out a couple of tunes, finally getting Harriet to sing along for a rousing rendition of Morley’s Canzonets for Two Voices — “tenor and alto [twining] themselves in a last companionable cadence.” It is here that he makes his famous observation about preferring counterpoint to harmony. (Pardon Jen-Luc Piquant for a moment while she swoons. Swooooon.)

What does he mean? Well, Wimsey is the epitome of the urbane, cultured aristocrat, particularly when it comes to music. (There are references to a youthful dalliance with a Viennese opera singer, courtesy of his rather louche nephew, St. George.) Among other things, Wimsey understands the importance of “texture,” which Wikipedia defines as “the way the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials are combined in a composition.”

“Counterpoint” derives from the Latin phrase punctus contra punctum, or “point against point,” and that’s exactly what it means. It’s used to describe an intricate inter-twining of two or more “voices” in a musical dialogue (whether human or instrumental is irrelevant), that are harmonically related, but don’t share the same contour and rhythm.

Which is really just a fancy way of saying, if you’ve got two lovely examples of melodies that sound different, and progress independently rather than in perfect sync, and yet somehow they sound harmonious when you combine them — why, then you’ve got yourself some mighty fine counterpoint. It’s quite difficult to pull off, as University of Washington music professor John Rahn explains in Music Inside Out: Going Too Far in Musical Essays:

“It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is…’counterpoint’.”

The result, when done well, can be breath-taking.  Consider Harriet’s ruminations as she watches Wimsey during a performance of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor (for two violins):

He was wrapt in the motionless austerity with which all genuine musicians listen to genuine music. Harriet was musician enough to respect this aloofness; she knew well enough that the ecstatic rapture on the face of the man opposite meant only that he was hoping to be thought musical, and that the elderly lady over the way, waving her fingers to the beat, was a musical moron. She knew enough, herself, to read the sounds a little with her brains, laboriously unwinding the twined chains of melody link by link. Peter, she felt sure, could hear the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and through, ravishing heart and mind together.

Ahem. Jen-Luc is now wondering why it suddenly got so warm in here. This, for those unfamiliar with Bach’s masterpiece, is what Wimsey hears:

Bach Double Violin Concerto

You can listen to the second movement and third movement as well. And as you listen, savor how the two violins each play their own melody, and yet somehow what emerges is this gorgeous interplay between the two instruments, two equal parts coming together to form a complex whole. It’s the perfect metaphor for how two strong, independent and intelligent people can maintain their individuality and yet, together, form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In romance, as in music, it is no mean feat to achieve this, but Wimsey’s preference for a strong, equal partner — because of, rather than despite, the challenge — is what makes him a thinking woman’s heartthrob. He likes his music, and his women, polyphonic.

Bach, too, was a master of counterpoint, particularly of the fugue (and not so bad with the ladies, either: he married twice and fathered 20 children, although only 10 survived to adulthood). In fact, the opening movement of Concerto in D Minor that you heard above has a fugal lead-in. His most famous work, The Well-Tempered Clavier,  is comprised of two volumes, each with 24 prelude and fugue pairs, corresponding to each major and minor musical key.

It’s worth taking a moment to explain what is meant by being musically “well-tempered.” For centuries (i.e., before the 15th century), the preferred system for tuning instruments was that developed by Pythagorus: it was based on frequency intervals in perfect fifths (or a ratio of 3:2).

Bach Fugue Manuscript
Bach Fugue Manuscript

Mathematically, the fifth was deemed the most “pure,” and hence the most ideal, but as is often the case, the practical applications were less than perfect. Other musical intervals, like the major third, would end up so badly out of tune, in comparison, that a major chord (normally consonant) would be unbearably dissonant. This is colorfully known as a “wolf interval.”

This preference for Pythagorean tuning limited musical expression to the most simple harmonies, and to pieces that didn’t change key (modulate) very much. Anything that didn’t fit this narrow mold just didn’t work musically. But, well, that kind of simplistic perfection can be boring for those who like a bit more complexity in their music (or their relationships).

Later composers (beginning around the 17th century) liked to play with their melodic themes, transposing and modulating keys with wild abandon to explore every possible nuance. They needed a different tuning method to do so: specifically, they needed “well-tempered” instruments, in which the 12 notes in an octave on a keyboard, for example, were tuned in such a way that one could play in most major and minor keys without the jarring dissonance of the “wolf intervals” ruining everything.

Freed from the constraints of Pythagorean tuning, new musical compositional techniques flourished, including the fugue. The defining features are two or more voices, each building on a theme (or subject) that is introduced at the beginning and keeps recurring throughout until the two voices come together at the end. Much like the three-act structure of a story, you’ve got three sections: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation, where one returns to the original theme.

For instance, here’s Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier (the fugue kicks in about midway through):

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue n.2 in C Minor BWV 847 (WTC I)

Note that it begins with a simple declaration of the main “subject” (theme), using one “voice” in the primary (tonic) key. The second voice soon chimes in with an “answer.” Essentially, the answer is a restatement of the subject, transposed into a different (but related) key, often with slight alterations to accommodate that key change (a tonal answer versus a “real” answer that is identical to the stated subject). That initial call and response is the exposition. In the development, the musical dialogue continues by adding new variants on the original statement and answer (middle entries) as a counter exposition. Finally, in the recapitulation, we hear a restatement of the exposition and counter-exposition.

That’s the most basic structure for a fugue, although there are many, many more complex variants. Incidentally, the word fugue is derived from the Latin fuga, which is related to both fugere (“to flee,” like Harriet) and fugare (“to chase,” like Wimsey). Coincidence? Perhaps not. One suspects Sayers knew her Latin.

Bach was known for entering contests whereby he would improvise a fugue on organ or harpsichord based on a suggested musical theme. But fugues aren’t just for Baroque composers, nosiree! There’s tons of videos on YouTube featuring hit pop songs reworked into more  elaborate forms. True, the structure of your average pop song is fairly simplistic: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus is the standard form. And its texture is dominated by chords and harmony, with very little in the way of polyphony (i.e., little counterpoint); there’s usually only one main melody, not two or more weaving in and out as the song progresses.

But if there’s one thing popular music knows how to do, it’s fashion a catchy “hook.” A really good improvisor, in the spirit of Bach, can easily transform a relatively simple pop song into, say,  a fugue, taking that hook through a series of intricate twists and modulations, making it truly polyphonic.  For instance, here’s Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” reworked into fugue form by Giovanni Dettori, and performed by a full orchestra:

Fugue on a Theme by Lady Gaga

But if there’s one thing popular music knows how to do, it’s fashion a catchy “hook.” A really good improvisor, in the spirit of Bach, can easily transform a relatively simple pop song into, say,  a fugue, taking that hook through a series of intricate twists and modulations, making it truly polyphonic.  For instance, here’s Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” reworked into fugue form by Giovanni Dettori, and performed by a full orchestra:This seems a particularly apt choice, because the original tune opens and closes with a brief segment of synthesized harpsichord — designed to evoke that telltale Baroque counterpoint. It’s also in keeping with the song’s lyrical theme of lovers engaged in an intricate series of fugue-like maneuvers to establish the balance of power in their relationship. The imagery in Lady Gaga’s original video is one of a rich and powerful man who “buys” a strong, sexy woman, presumably for his pleasure — except she doesn’t want to be chattel (“I’m a free bitch, baby!”), and ultimately her own power consumes him.

That’s the danger of opting for complexity over simplicity: the fugue form is not for amateurs, and more than one hapless composer has wrecked him (or her) self on the rocks of this demanding compositional technique. If one melody is stronger than the other, if the timing isn’t perfect, if the modulated keys aren’t chosen carefully, ultimately, you’ll get jarring dissonance instead of the thrilling polyphonic interplay that makes for a successful fugue.

Which is why Harriet is so reluctant to give into her feelings for Wimsey. As the aseptic Oxford scholar, Miss DeVine cautions her, a marriage between equal intellects is inherently risky: “You can hurt one another so dreadfully.”

“Polyphonic music takes a lot of playing,” Harriet tells Peter during an interval in the Bach concert, approaching the thorny issue of her fears of yet another bad romance within the cloaking metaphor of counterpoint.

“You’ve got to be more than a fiddler. It needs a musician.”

“In this case, two fiddlers — both musicians.”

“I’m not much of a musician, Peter.”

Peter, to his credit, recognizes the difficulty. “I admit that Bach isn’t a matter of an autocratic virtuoso and a meek accompanist. But do you want to be either?”

That, really, is the heart of the matter. Harriet tried to be the meek accompanist in her first, failed relationship, with disastrous results. She is equally uncomfortable in the role of autocratic virtuoso, having bored very quickly of an amorous younger suitor whose intellect and abilities were too far below her own. That leaves her with the options of celibacy — losing herself in her writing and/or scholarship — or risking an even more painful romantic ruin by entering into an elaborate fugue with Wimsey. Pull off that delicate balancing act, however, and the result is a bright and shining love for the ages.  Fortunately for Sayers’ readers, Harriet finally succumbs to the allure of the counterpoint, accepting Wimsey’s final proposal in appropriate Latin:

“Placetne, Magistra?”


So You Want to Write a Fugue

And now Jen-Luc Piquant is a weepy pixelated puddle on the floor because it’s just so beautiful! (sniff)  We leave you with Glenn Gould’s classic tongue-in-cheek composition, “So You Want to Write a Fugue,” in which he exhorts us all not to be daunted by the polyphonic challenge, but to embrace it. Like Wimsey and Harriet.

Check out these related posts!

Originally published 3 February 2012 on Cocktail Party Physics on the Scientific American Blog Network.

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