Last night’s Categorically Not! – Inside Out event was just great. The three topics contrasted really nicely, were very well presented as individual topics in their own right, and there were resonances between the different topics through the main umbrella theme – “Inside Out”.
Science writers Sandy Blakeslee and her son Matt Blakeslee did a sort of tag team presentation, taking turns to build up several aspects of the subject (covered in their new book “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own”) of one’s sense of self and that all-so-important division between inside (ourself) and outside (the rest of the universe) that we make with our minds. It’s very dynamic, of course – you extend it a lot when you use tools, from a fork when eating to the car you’re driving in (everyone grunted in recognition when Sandy mentioned how you have the instinct to duck when driving under a low ceiling in a parking garage….). One of the things that I think resonated most with the audience is the description of the work on showing how many celebrated “out of body” experiences that people get have a foundation in neurobiology, resulting from interfering with the part of the brain that helps create the maps of the world that include the location of our place in it. Similar effects can disrupt the construction of the sense of self self-worth and well-being. Here’s a New York Times article Sandy wrote on some of this. (I recall another NYT article from longer ago, but can’t find it yet.)
Mathematician Danny Calegari gave a rather nice description of some of the things you might stumble upon in asking questions about the difference between inside and outside in a mathematical context, motivating rather nicely some aspects of the study of topology. He showed some simple diagrams, arriving very skillfully at the idea of a topological “invariant”. He then went on to give some examples of how you can change one space into another space (if they have the same invariant), and how you can’t (if they don’t have the same invariant). (The clickable images left shows how to turn a certain squiggle into a straight line as a result of them having the same invariant – you can get rid of the kinks without creasing the curve.) That you can’t turn a circle inside out in two dimensions (without such creases) while you can turn a two-sphere inside out in three dimensions was his final example. I recently showed you a video describing these last two examples, by the way. A major point of resonance with some of the audience (it was remarked) was that in his explanations, various concepts involved adopting different points of view to build up the whole picture – for example, the winding number of a curve from an observer at a given point can be thought of in terms of how many times your head has to turn around in watching a driver doing a circuit of the curve. People seemed to like that a lot, interestingly – getting something considered so mathematically precise from something that seems so everyday. I was rather pleased that people could see that it is not so big a leap from the everyday to interesting mathematics.
(A provocative remark that he made at one point was (I paraphrase) “Mathematics can be a bit like 20th Century Literature – there’s a lot of playing of games”. Well, the author Aimee Bender happened to be sitting next to me, so I could not resist leaning over and mischievously suggesting that she register her objection during the question and answer session. She smiled and said “Well, there’s some truth to it”. I nodded, and thought about telling her that from a pure mathematician, “playing of games” is not at all a derogatory remark, but decided that she probably knew that, especially since her last novel “An Invisible Sign of My Own” was in large part about the pleasure of mathematics.)
Artist, playwright and theatre director Nancy Keystone brought some of the actors from the Critical Mass Performance Group with her to talk about aspects of inside and outside in acting and performance. She spoke about how they develop pieces collaboratively, with lots of spontaneity and improvisations in building on a specific concept, often by internalizing a given idea and then expressing it (letting the context help shape the expression), or internalizing an aspect of something external for later use. (Later on in the questions and answers, one of the actors, Chris Shaw, talked a bit about how actors sometimes invoke feelings during a performance by drawing on something they’d internalized from elsewhere (he used the example (both humourous and serious) of the death of a pet dog). Also in the questions and answers, Sandy Blakeslee mentioned the fact that actors are aided in their craft by the audience’s system of mirror neurons when they evoke various feelings (sympathetic reactions and empathy) in their performances.)
Nancy used as her primary example some scenes from the upcoming Apollo (Part 3: Liberation) which has as its subject matter several intriguingly woven together elements, including the Apollo space program, Nazi Germany, Jules Verne, the Civil Rights Movement, Slavery, Cotton, and much more. In the photo you can see her (by way of illustration) working with the actors (Chris Shaw, Angie Browne, and Valerie Spencer) to invoke various emotional responses to pieces of cotton as it takes on various properties. I’ll be talking more about this fascinating piece later. I was lucky enough to go to a 15 minute preview/extract from it a couple of months ago (alongside several other pieces in an intriguing late-night showcase to theatre program directors near downtown) but never found time to blog about the event. There’s a new showing and workshop coming up soon that I hope to go to later on and so I will try to report.
The evening ended with some questions and answers and also comments. This included, in addition to questions and comments from the audience, the sharing and exchanging of ideas between the different presenters (I’ve given examples above). I also added a comment about the work of Charles F. Stevens (I’ve talked about it here before) in response to a comment and a question about connecting the worlds of biology and mathematics in this context – his work on quantifying and modeling aspects of the architecture of our brains and making sense of (for example) the structure of the visual cortex in terms of the tasks it must perform (forming an accurate representation or map of the visual world) seemed relevant. (See references at this page by scrolling down.)
(Below: During the Q&A. Left to right, Nancy Keystone, the three actors Valerie Spencer, Angie Browne, and Chris Shaw, and the science writers Matt and Sandy Blakeslee. Unfortunately, I did not get a good picture of the mathematician Danny Calegari.)