Science Behind the Dance – Autobiography by Wayne McGregor

Auto-Bio-Graphy = Self-Life-Writing or how your body and life look as told through choreography.  This is what Wayne McGregor imagined as he began working on Autobiography with the McGregor Company Dancers.  The Science Writing and Communication club (SWAC) and Carolina Performing Arts recently sat down with the dancers to discuss how science and dance intersect.

SWAC learned that McGregor has been collaborating with scientists for many years regarding different facets of dance.  For example, his dancers have worked with Professor David Kirsh at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied creative cognition with the dancers and how dance content is created and remembered between dancers and choreographer.

Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Company Wayne McGregor dancers perform Autobiography. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.

When McGregor began working on Autobiography, inspired by having his DNA sequenced, he gave his dancers ideas, or what they call tasks, to demonstrate different concepts with their bodies through dance.  For example, at the beginning of creating Autobiography, the dancers were paired into groups of 4 and given the letters A,T,G, or C.  He then asked them to create choreography together.  Then McGregor and the dancers visited The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge UK, a world leader in genome research, and learned what the letters A,T,G,C meant biologically as the building blocks of DNA. After visiting the sequencing facility, McGregor asked the dancers to repeat their choreography tasks.  During our conversation, the dancers said that with their new understanding of DNA biology, the choreography tasks took on a new meaning.

The dance Autobiography is broken down into 23 different choreographed segments that are assigned an order randomly by an algorithm to mimic the randomness of DNA recombination.  This aspect of the choreography is complicated for the dancers, who don’t know the order of the segments until a couple days before the performance.  This meant that sometimes they would be dancing for long periods of time, whereas other times their performances would be broken up into smaller segments throughout the night.  Sometimes the dance segments flow into the next piece of choreography seamlessly, and sometimes they end quite abruptly.  In our conversation, the dancers said they envisioned this re-ordering and occasional abrupt stopping as being very similar to the chaos of life.

An interesting moment from our conversation evolved as both dancers and scientists alike realized that we both strive to achieve communication through our bodies.  It is easy to imagine how dancers do this, but not as easy to imagine how scientists communicate with body movement.  As scientists, we realized that we attempt to communicate concepts visually through use of our bodies, whether it be through gesturing with our hands to emphasize points during a presentation, or through mimicking with our bodies what we believe is happening, invisible to us, inside a cell during DNA damage, repair, or replication.  Another moment in our conversation where science connected easily to dance was when the scientists and dancers discussed how both published scientific findings and performed choreography are both put into the ether for others to interpret using their personal lenses.  We all interpret data differently based on our own experiences, and as scientists and as dancers we hope that people find use in our work and can apply it to their own lives.

Peer edited by Adrienne Cox.

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Lacking Nobel-ity

Adapted by Kaylee Helfrich.

Do you want to learn about how the material of pants affects the sex life of rats?  Or about the different personalities of rocks? How about someone who invented prosthetic limbs to mimic the movement of goats?

These are only a few examples of hilarious research studies that received this year’s Ig Nobel prizes. The Ig Nobel awards are presented by the Improbable Research group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who awards these prizes in order to “first make people laugh and then make them think.”

“The Stinker,” courtesy of Improbable Research.

The most recent Ig Nobel awards ceremony was held this past September, making this the 26th year of the Ig Nobel awards. Each year, 10 prizes (of a small money award and recognition) are awarded in subjects such as economics, physics, medicine, peace, literature, and math. Maybe the most interesting part is that real Nobel Laureates are at each ceremony to hand out awards. The Ignoble awards even have their own mascot, “The Stinker,” which is based on the famous statue “The Thinker,” except that theirs has fallen off of its pedestal.

While looking through past Ig Nobel Awards, I selected 5 favorites to share with you: Ponytail Physics, or “Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles.” This research investigates the “bending elasticity, gravity, and orientational disorder” of the hairstyle beloved by grad student girls (and boys) everywhere during rushed mornings.

2. Doggie Bathroom Habits, a.k.a. “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s field.” These Czech researchers observed 70 dogs from 37 different breeds defecate and urinate over 7,000 times, ultimately discovering that dogs prefer to align their bodies with north-south geomagnetic lines while relieving themselves. Maybe you can make some observations of your own the next time you take your dog on a walk! “Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton.” This dedicated researcher ate a dead shrew (without chewing) so that it would pass through his digestive system, and he could discover which bones his body would dissolve and which bones it would not. Who else is committed enough to research to swallow an animal whole and then pick through feces to find the bones? “Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion.” In this study, researchers tied weighted sticks to chicken butts in order to simulate how dinosaurs probably walked. Creative!

5.“On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound*t”.  Beyond the amusing title and the fantastic opening line (“Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception…has not…been subject to empirical investigation.”), the research is actually interesting and applicable to everyday life – everyone knows at least one person who can expound at length on a topic without saying anything at all!

And… a bonus one: The Art of Procrastination.  This is an essential topic for graduate students (and anyone else who has work to delay).  John Perry lays out his theory of “structured procrastination,” a technique in which you accomplish certain tasks while avoiding other tasks.  A must-read for anyone who has work they don’t want to finish!

Besides the Ig Nobel awards, the Improbable Research group also runs a blog, publishes the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) along with an associated newsletter (the mini-AIR), has a podcast and video series, and (maybe most interestingly) has a club called “The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists”.  They even have a cookbook!  However, they are quick to point out that they are not mocking scientific achievements but rather celebrating the often absurd nature of science.  Personally, I believe that they wish to enliven an often humorless, stressful, and dry field of study with science humor.

So the next time you have an urge to find the chemical recipe for unboiling an egg, check out some Improbable Research!

Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Deirdre Sackett

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Perseid Meteor to Light Up Night Sky

The Perseids are here! This annual meteor shower is one of the best and brightest, but this year it’s predicted to be even more spectacular. So, if you’re in a dark place tonight, look up. You may see a 4.5-billion-year-old remnant from the solar system burn up in our atmosphere.

Astronaut Ron Garan took this picture from the International Space Station. It shows a Comet Swift-Tuttle particle burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Credit: Ron Garan, NASA

Astronaut Ron Garan took this picture from the International Space Station. It shows a Comet Swift-Tuttle particle burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Ron Garan, NASA

Comets are conglomerations of ice and dust leftover from our solar system’s formation. A lot of the material that swirled around our young sun developed into the eight planets and numerous dwarf planets and asteroids. Some of the smaller bodies that formed were forced into elongated orbits by gravitational interactions with the larger planets. These trajectories take them out to the extreme edges of our solar system, then the Sun’s gravitational embrace usually pulls them back in for a warm hug.

In 1992, Comet Swift-Tuttle passed through Earth’s orbit as it came in for a visit. As the comet approached the Sun, the rise in temperature vaporized some of the ice, leaving a trail of small chucks of rock and ice. These icy particles still remain in the inner solar system today.

Every year, between mid-July and mid-August, the Earth slams into the debris trail left by Comet Swift-Tuttle at 67,000 mph. As the ice and rock enters our atmosphere, it burns up, and a meteor shower occurs. The streaks of light appear to originate from the constellation Perseus — hence the name Perseids. Earth will pass through the densest part of the trail on August 12th , and this year’s shower is predicted to be more amazing than previous years.

Computer simulations of Jupiter’s gravitational influence on the icy trail show that the gas giant has caused the material in Earth’s path to bunch up. This means that instead of the normal peak activity of 60 meteors per hour, it could double to 120 meteors per hour! Even though more meteors are predicted this year, the debris that makes them is incredibly small — about the size of the grain of sand. This means you need to find a dark place, away from city lights, to get the best views.

In order to see the most meteors you need to give your eyes about 30 minutes to adapt to the dark. Use a flashlight with red photography gel over the beam to help keep your eyes dark-adjusted. You also need to put down the cell phone. Any concentrated light will undo all the sensitivity you gained by letting your eyes adapt. There are apps you can download that filter out the bright blue light emitted from your screen, but it will still take some time for your eyes to readjust to the darkness every time you check your Facebook.

The constellation Perseus rises in the northeast between 9 and 10 PM local time. On August 12th, the Moon will be three-fourths illuminated, meaning it will be pretty bright. If you want to get the most out of your Perseid viewing experience, wait until the Moon sets around 1 AM in Chapel Hill.

Even if you can’t catch the peak, Earth will be passing through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle through August 24th. So, there’s a good chance you can watch 4.5 billion years of history burn.

Peer edited by Caddy Hobbs.

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