Monday, November 23, 2009

A Building to Behold: Yale’s Beinecke Library

I was visiting Yale University last weekend when I came across a building that blew me away. From the outside, it’s a formidably modern structure...

...that contrasts with the (literally) old-school architecture of a university founded in 1701.

Lest we judge a book by its cover, let’s look inside. In the middle of the interior is a six-story glass tower. It contains 180,000 rare books.

To protect the books from direct sunlight, the exterior panels are translucent white marble. During the day, subdued light filters through the veined marble.

The platform around the glass tower is an exhibit space that includes an original Gutenberg Bible from 1454.

If you are ever at Yale, visit this building. It is called the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In form and function, it is an impressive monument to the preservation of human knowledge.

[The images are from Wikipedia’s Beinecke Library page. Clicking an image takes you to the original, full-size version from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blind Man’s Bluff by Sontag and Drew

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union played a continuous game of cat and mouse under the seas. Submarines prowled the depths, each seeking to be the spy rather than the spied-upon. In Blind Man’s Bluff, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew compile first-hand accounts of secret U.S. sub missions that could qualify as thriller fiction but actually happened.

For example, in the early 1970s the surveillance sub Halibut was operating in the Sea of Okhotsk. It was on a mission to tap a Soviet undersea cable, when...

A storm above began boiling beneath the surface. The divers were trapped outside, unable to climb back into the DSRV chambers as Halibut strained against her anchors one moment and slammed into the seafloor the next....Then there was a loud crunch. Both steel anchors snapped at once, broke so easily they could have been rubber bands.

Outside, the divers watched as Halibut began to drift upward. The men were still linked to the submarine through their air hoses. They knew that they would die if Halibut pulled them up before they could decompress. If they cut themselves loose, they would suffocate. Inside, the officer of the deck was well aware of the danger when he shouted a desperate order: “Flood it!” 

He said it a second time. Valves were rolled wide open, and Halibut began to take in tons of water, filling her ballast tanks in a matter of seconds. Belly first, she crashed into the sand. The divers scrambled into the DSRV chamber. 

The horrendous ride was over. But there was no guarantee the submarine would ever be able to break free of the muddy sand.

The book has many such stories of harrowing underwater action. The authors also cover intellectual stories, such as the problem-solving that located Scorpion, a sub that had sunk somewhere along a 3,500 mile swath of ocean.

In sum, Blind Man’s Bluff is interesting and gripping history. I bought it for a long flight and read it straight through.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Popularity of Words for Numbers

I came across a list of the 15,000 most common words in the English language. The list is from the British National Corpus (BNC), a 100-million-word compilation of spoken and written (British) English from the late twentieth century. The top 15,000 words each had a word frequency, the count of how many times the word appeared in the BNC.

Given such a nice data set, I couldn’t resist asking it a quick and fun question: Do the words for numbers rank the same as their numerical order? That is, would one be more frequent than two, and two be more frequent than three, and so on?

For one through nine, the answer is yes. However, ten through twenty is a different story.

Because ten through twenty includes words with very low frequencies relative to one, let’s redo the above chart with a logarithmic scale for frequency. Now we can better see the relative differences of the lower-frequency words.

Ten, twenty, and fifteen are roundish numbers, so we shouldn’t be surprised by their breaking the pattern. We can also give twelve an exemption because of its prominence in various units (twelve months to the year, twelve inches to the foot, and so on).

Excluding those, eleven and thirteen continue the pattern established from one to nine. But then fourteen and sixteen go the wrong way, exceeding thirteen in popularity. Seventeen gets back in line, with frequency less than thirteen.

Is it only the prime numbers that can remain well-behaved teens? No, the next prime, nineteen, has a higher frequency than not just seventeen but also thirteen and eleven. I suspect that nineteen’s popularity stems from its use in dates, which might also explain eighteen’s place.

I could go on, but suffice to say, multiple factors are at play. So, in the name of stopping while this exercise can still be classified as “quick and fun,” I hereby stop.

For those in need of even more obscure numbers about words, I direct you to The Prime Lexicon, a list of words that are prime numbers when expressed in base 36.