This week, we’re presenting stories about unexpected friendships in science, whether they’re formed in the field or at Burning Man.
Part 1: Looking to connect with new people, mathematician Seth Cottrell sets up an ‘Ask a Mathematician’ booth at Burning Man.
Seth Cottrell earned his PhD in mathematics from the Courant Institute at NYU. His research is in quantum information and he teaches at New York City College of Technology. For ten years, Seth has talked to complete strangers about math and physics and written about it at
askamathematician.com. His new book is “Do Colors Exist?: And Other Profound Physics Questions.”
Part 2: When herpetologist Joseph Mendelson gets his an opportunity to do fieldwork in Guatemala during his first year of graduate school, he struggles to connect with the locals.
Joseph R. Mendelson III has been studying amphibians and reptiles for more than 30 years, concentrating mostly on Mexico and Central America. Most of his work has involved evolutionary studies and taxonomy―including the discovery and naming of about 40 new species. Other studies have included ecology, biomechanics, and natural history. Formerly an Associate Professor in Biology at Utah State University, Mendelson transitioned his career to balance his energies between research and conservation, while still teaching at the university level. Currently he is Director of Research at Zoo Atlanta and Adjunct Associate Professor of Biology at Georgia Tech University, where he teaches regularly. He also is Past-President of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, the world’s largest professional herpetological society. Joe has published more than 100 technical papers in peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Biology Letters, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Experimental Biology, Journal of Herpetology and Molecular Ecology. He has also authored a number of articles and essays. His work has been featured in media outlets such as National Public Radio, National Geographic, Nature, New York Times, CNN, and Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Additionally, Joe is a guitarist in the Atlanta-based science punk-rock band Leucine Zipper and the Zinc Fingers.
Part 1: Seth Cottrell
A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of the desert desperately trying to answer the simplest question anybody had ever asked me. The guy asking the question, he had these long dreadlocks and he was wearing an old beat-up t-shirt and nothing else. And his question was, “Why?”
Now, listen. I know exactly what you're thinking. That’s a really good question. At the time, I couldn’t answer it immediately. I was a little, let’s say I was distracted. But what I'd like to do tonight is maybe put that question in a little bit of context and take another running leap at answering it again.
Now, if you've ever heard of Schrödinger’s Cat or Spooky Action at a Distance or entanglement, the really weird stuff from quantum mechanics, that’s what I do and it’s a lot of fun. I’m a quantum information theorist. I got started down this dark and treacherous road because one of my deepest passions all my life has been finding somebody who’s an expert or just knows more than I do about whatever and just pelting them with questions. My dentist, the dentist who still returns my phone calls is a saint.
Then when I was in high school I figured that all expertise were kind of equivalent, so when one of my school counselors asked if I'd like to join her and a group of students for a spirit vision I said, “I got a lot of questions.” She claimed that you can enter a meditative trance and then you could talk to just about anything and they, whales and wolves, will be able to answer your questions about the universe at large.
Now, the first claim turned out to be pretty true. You really can enter these states of mind where you feel like you're talking to dogs and whatnot. The second claim turned out to be just totally false. I mean, coyote never knew anything that I didn’t know, and I mean basic stuff, like what’s for lunch or where did I lose my keys. I mean nothing at all. I was a little disillusioned after that.
So when I started hearing about all of the crazy predictions of modern physics, if something goes fast it shrinks and particles can be in multiple places at the same time, I was a little incredulous. But it turns out that physics is a little bit different from spirit visions. You can keep asking questions.
And if you're asking a physicist, and they're even decently responsible about it, they'll never say things like, “You must search within yourself,” or, “Trust me.” They'll say, “Well, listen. Just try it yourself.” And that is too damn tempting to pass up.
Now, many of you may realize this already. It turns out that one of the difficulties of physics is you got to learn how to speak math. At least at first that’s a difficult thing. You see, math is how our mental reach can exceed its grasp. It’s how we can take lots of tiny little insignificant things and build them up into something that’s so profound it doesn’t fit into our heads all at once. So I studied math, obviously.
Studying math ended up landing me in New York where I met my extremely New York friend Spencer. Now, he and I shared an office together and we learned math for a couple of years and so naturally we got to be pretty close. So when he was invited to Burning Man, it just made sense that he would invite his most California friend to come along.
Now, I cannot begin to describe how massively unprepared we were. I knew that it was in the desert and there were some hippies and that story from a minute ago about spirit animals might go over well, and while that is not untrue, it’s really not a complete picture at all.
When we were driving out, Spencer kept leaning his head out the window and smelling the air and saying, “You know, it smells like flowers and sugar out here.” And there is nothing, I mean it is a salt flat, there is just nothing at all. And I’m smelling exactly that. Nothing.
Then something occurs to me that I’m pretty sure what he was smelling, for the first time in a long time, was not New York. If you've ever seen a native New Yorker in a Walmart for the first time, it’s amazing. You can almost hear David Attenborough in the back of your head. Suffice it to say we were massively unprepared.
But our lack of preparedness really complemented each other. For example, I remembered to bring instant coffee, which turned out to be very important. And Spencer remembered to bring food and shelter and water. I would have figured it out after a couple of days but it was really good that he was there.
Now, Burning Man has a longstanding tradition of giving back to the community. They call it a gift economy. Basically, you show up and you give stuff to whoever happens to be wandering by, usually services instead of stuff. Now, we couldn’t fix your car, we couldn’t cook a meal without a can opener, but what we could do is talk for a really long time about our research and what we have been studying. I've been harassing people with questions for my entire life. I figured, hell, maybe other people want to do the same thing.
So we picked a particularly empty patch of nothing, nailed some wooden stakes into the ground and duct taped a rug/piece of cloth to it for shade and nailed up a little sign that said, ‘Ask a Mathematician, Ask a Physicist’ and just sat there to see if anything would happen.
The environment out there is exactly as unpleasant as you imagine it is. There's a hell of a lot of sun. Every time the wind blows it kicks up these stinging dust storms so everyone is wearing goggles and these gas mask filters. It’s awful. But despite that, we had just this constant stream of people showing up at the booth and asking questions.
We met this massive variety of people. We met geophysicists, engineers, a couple of naked people, some shamans, just ran the gamut.
The very first person who showed up, first person, first day had this amazing juxtaposition of this very festive happy hat and the saddest face I've ever seen in my life. This guy saunters up and he says, “You guys, how do I find the love of my life?”
I had not seen that coming. The obvious answer, the correct answer is, “Dude, you got to go out and meet everybody on earth. Now, presumably, one of those people is going to be the love of your life.”
He was a pretty reasonable, rational fellow so he decided that that seemed a little bit unfeasible so we did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Crazy, I know. It’s probably not the best idea. But, luckily, we had some math in our corner. There's a very old math problem called the Secretary Problem or, in this case a little bit more applicably, the Fuzzy Suitor Problem. It allows you to find the best of n things when you encounter them sequentially when you don’t necessarily know what ‘best’ is. By the way, ‘thing’ could be anything. It could be pogs or Beanie Babies or human beings with souls and life stories. Anything at all.
It turns out that there is an optimal solution. You pick out n people, doesn’t really matter who, pick out n people, date the first n over e of them, that’s the about the first third, and then immediately marry the first person after that third who you like better than any of those first people. This doesn’t come up a lot but it turns out that this algorithm works a hell of a lot better, firstly, if they say yes and if they don’t find out about the algorithm.
The thing is this is not an ideal solution. It is merely the optimal solution. It works about a third of the time so I thought this was kind of a disappointing answer. I expected him to be like, “Okay,” and just wander off, but he just lit up. I guess it’s nice to know that the problems you have, other people have been thinking about them for hundreds of years and have come up with terrible answers. But they're still answers and it warms your heart.
We had some questions we find have been haunting people for just decades, I mean keeping them up at night and driving wedges into their marriages and turning bar bets violent. One woman came riding by in her bike and, when she saw the sign over the booth, she was so excited she got off of her bike without slowing down. She ran up and sat down with us before the bike even fell over. She just slides to a halt and just freezes.
She gets her thoughts together and she goes, “Okay. If the universe exploded out of a pinhead, why can we still see light from the Big Bang?”
That’s a profound question. It was a good question.
So the light she's talking about is the cosmic microwave background. It’s this kind of dull glow that’s coming at us from every direction all the time. And her friends have been giving her shit about this for years and making fun of her. Like, “It’s established science. You just don’t get it. Get smarter.”
But she had a solid logical point. Her thinking was this. If light is the fastest thing in the universe then if everything exploded out of a pinhead then the matter in the universe right now should form kind of a ball and a center of the sun and whatever we can see is kind of floating around in there somewhere, and the light, the initial light should be forming a shell around that and moving out. It’s moving away from us. We shouldn’t be able to see it. Solid reasoning.
Well, it turns out that the resolution of this is the Big Bang didn’t happen in some particular place. It happened everywhere. And that expansion isn’t because things are flying away from an explosion, it’s because the space itself is expanding, which is freaky enough. That’s a lot harder to convey that ‘bang’.
Unfortunately for you, but fortunately for us, we had a bunch of dirt on the ground and some sticks and we could draw pictures and diagrams and debate it for a while. Once she had a solid grip on the idea and she was so excited, she was ecstatic, she immediately started making lists of all the I-told-you-sos she was going to be doling out. She gets on her bike and rides off.
Learning something new and profound and true about the universe, it’s good for your soul but it feels so much better when it means that somebody else is wrong. Honestly, that’s why half of people go into physics is just so they can win bar bets.
A couple of years ago, we had a psychic come up to the booth, and I mean the whole nine yards psychic. She was the kind of person you could see her coming from a mile away and somehow you just know she was psychic. She had the scarves and the bangles and the little eyeball tattoos all over the place. I mean, super psychic.
And came up and she said, “Listen, how do vibrations heal people?”
I said, “I’m glad you asked. You can use a sonogram to look inside of people and see what’s wrong and there's some procedures for pulverizing kidney stones without surgery using sound.”
Now, you're a California crowd so you're probably already aware that she did not mean ‘sound’. She meant vibrations in the ‘good vibes’ sense. Of course I didn’t mean healing energy when I was talking about sound. But the thing is we got to sit down and have a conversation. It was actually really nice. She got to learn a little bit about sound, and who’s that going to hurt, and I got to learn a little bit about crystal healing which is shockingly involved.
She had twelve rings. For those of you who understand the Pigeonhole Principle, you know why that’s funny. She had twelve rings with twelve different stones on them that all did something very specific that I can’t begin to reconstruct for you right now.
But I really like talking to people that I just categorically disagree with, if it’s a friendly conversation. It really underscores the fact that what is true almost never has anything in common with what sounds true or even what’s reasonable. I personally, fervently believe that an incomprehensibly long time ago, the earth was populated by giant bird monsters that all died out in a fiery death when a mountain fell on Mexico.
And the things I've learned about quantum theory are so massively bat shit I don't even bring them up in public anymore. So compared to that, believing that the tiger eye grows wealth and the I think it was a fractured quartz does a good job of storing positive energy, that’s pretty tame.
So when a conversation starts to swerve vibrational, so to speak, it’s nice to be able to say, “Well, here’s an experiment that demonstrates such and such and here’s the thinking behind this.” In other words, try it yourself.
To actually circle back to my naked friend’s question why, well, I like to wander around in public and just talk to people about math and science and physics in public parks or subway cars or in the middle of the desert, if the case may be. I do it because it humanizes the whole experience. We’re not talking about these wild Eldric symbols and abstraction. We’re talking about here now, this stuff where we are. And it’s not information that’s being handed down from on high. It’s a bunch of people, regular people walking around, arguing with each other about this big, crazy world.
Now, all of us have questions. Most of us feel a little bit embarrassed to ask them because we always feel like we’re going to be stupid, but the people around you have questions and you have questions and you may as well turn to them, not right now, but you may as well turn to them and ask. And even if you don’t know the answers, hell, you're talking about them and that’s pretty nice.
But don’t trust me. Try it yourself. Thank you very much.
Part 2: Joseph Mendelson
Well, as you heard, I’m a herpetologist. It appears that around first grade I figured that out and nothing ever, ever changed. So I had a lifetime goal at age eight or whatever that was and a plan around the age thirty. Something like that.
So I grew up obsessed with these things and learned about them, caught them, all that sort of thing. And by the time I’m high school and college, I’m reading these monographs written by these people that knew so much about a group of lizards or a group of frogs or an area on the planet or something. And I knew I had to be that person. I had to be that person that documented a part of the world that people hadn’t documented before, to find species unknown to science.
Then I got my opportunity after college. So my first year of graduate school in 1989 my adviser arranged to send me to a remote coffee plantation in Guatemala to do exactly that. The Mayans had been living there for millennia, of course. The place was populated but the entire slope of the mountain range called the Sierra de las Minas had never been documented biologically before, so my job was to document and the reptiles and amphibians. This was it. This was my dream come true.
So I spent the entire winter studying the biology of everything I could find about Guatemala and especially that area. Of course there wasn’t much about that. Then the day before the trip, literally day before the trip, my adviser comes up and hands me some paper topographic maps of the area.
I said, “These are great. I've looked everywhere. I haven't been able to find anything like this.”
He goes, “Yeah, they're illegal.” And he said, “Don’t let anyone know you have these because they're going to assume that you're going to give them to the insurgents in the war. There's a war going on. So don’t let anyone know you have them, don’t let anyone see them and, when you come back, don’t bother bringing them back. Just burn them.”
Then as he walks out of the room, the last time I saw him for four months, he points to my boots, he goes, “Oh, and get rid of those military looking boots you always wear. They look too much like military. Go get something like a tourist would wear.”
So hours before my flight, I went to REI and bought these brightly colored hiking boots, assuming they would fit well for the entire summer.
I fly down there with all my gear, long, awkward conversation how I got out to the coffee plantation, and I got there and I wasn’t expecting a parade to welcome me or anything like this but I assumed that somebody knew I was coming. The truck stops and I look around and the driver kind of goes like this…
Oh, I forgot a really important point about all this and that is I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. What could go wrong, right?
The driver kind of pointed and I thought, “Okay, this is it.” I started taking my stuff off and I’m like, “Here?”
He's like, okay. Then they drove off. Then a woman that I assumed was a cook for a main house kind of thing I saw was the only one who seemed to have any idea who I was and she pointed to this… it wasn’t a room. It was like a cinder block alcove and that was my space. It didn’t have a door or anything. That was my home for the summer.
And that was it. I sat around expecting someone to say hi, maybe show me around a little bit, something like that, nothing. Nothing. So the next day I start just wandering around this coffee plantation looking for snakes and lizards and things like this. That’s what I do. I found a few things.
I realized real quickly that speaking Spanish wasn’t the problem, because most of the people there also didn’t speak Spanish. They spoke Kekchi Maya, the local dialect, which of course I didn’t speak either and they didn’t speak Spanish either, so I’m double-lost here on communication.
So I’m trying to be as friendly as I can and I’m pantomiming grabbing things, looking for things. When I had something in a container, I would show them a lizard or a frog or a snake or something and say… like pantomime looking for these things.
Aside from the obvious communication fiasco, the other problem I realized real quickly is that virtually no one would talk to me or even look at me. I would walk down trails and I would see people coming down the trail and invariably the same thing would happen. They would stand to the side and stare straight at the ground and wait until I passed. If I stopped and tried to say hello in Spanish or anything else, they would just stare at the ground until I left, and then they would get on the trail and walk again.
So nobody would talk to me. That was unnerving, to say the least. This went on for a month.
Then I was finding animals and doing the best I could doing this sort of thing, unnerved the entire time, and I finally realized, I said, “I've got to get off of the plantation and get higher up on the mountain for my surveys,” for the work I’m supposed to be doing. I couldn’t figure out how to get up there and when I tried to ask people I got the impression that you can’t go up there.
Then one day I found a trail that I hadn’t seen before. So I took the trail up and I go up and it goes straight up the side of the mountain so it’s perfect. I get up there and there's a village up there I didn’t know about. It wasn’t on my illegal maps.
There was this little encampment village that ended this trail and the second I saw it I could tell these people aren’t from around here. I didn’t know where they were from but they were wearing the traditional, super brightly-colored, hand-woven Guatemalan indigenous clothing that no one down at the bottom at the coffee plantation was wearing.
Then the most amazing thing happened. They were nice to me. They came up and we couldn’t speak at all, of course, but they were smiling and pointing at things and I’m showing them things and realized everybody in rural Guatemala has a machete, so everybody has a machete. I had a machete.
So we’re comparing machetes and things like this and I somehow got across that I would like to come back here. I felt welcomed and then I went back down the mountain and I packed up all my gear and I came back up the next time I possibly could. I somehow got their implied permission that I could set up a little camp outside of their village. I didn’t want to bother them. So outside their village I set up a small tent and a stove.
The first night I’m making my dinner, I boiled some rice, and I had this whole cluster of men and boys standing uncomfortably close to me. I’m sitting on a stump with my boiled rice trying to offer rice. No one wanted any rice. And they just sat there staring at me the entire time. I ate my rice and then when I ate all my rice they all went away.
Then one of them came back and gave me two snakes that he'd killed in the cornfields with this ever present machete that day. Tragic end for those snakes but really important specimens for my collection so I was really grateful. These were interesting snakes. They're not something you see every day.
Then I sat down and everything was beautiful for the first time ever. I’m sitting on the stump and, literally, someone down the village was playing a marimba inside the hut. So there's music going, I watched the sunset, and I realized this is the first time I've been relaxed and happy. At this point I was at the two-month mark.
So I went out at night with my headlamp looking for frogs. That’s what I do. And I was finding really interesting things and came back. The next night they brought me more dead snakes from the cornfields and stood around me uncomfortably while I ate my rice. Then I ran out of food so I had to go back down.
So I go back down the mountain. I left all my camping gear up there assuming they would be okay, and I go back down the mountain. All of a sudden the plantation manager who had not said a word to me in two months, the only reason I knew who he was is because he rode around in a truck with a phalanx of machine gun-armed bodyguards. That’s how I figured he must be kind of the manager guy.
As soon as I got back down to my alcove, he cornered me and starts yelling at me in Spanish. The gist I got out of this was that, “I know where you've been. You've been with the rebels on the mountain. Those are bad people.”
“Mala gente. Mala gente.” He kept saying that.
“Don’t have anything to do with them or you'll get killed.” That’s what he was telling me.
Now, I’m conflicted, right? Those people were nice to me. And now this guy who hasn’t said a word to me in two months is yelling at me about the people that were nice to me.
So he finished yelling at me. I’m sure I missed a lot of important details. I go and I sit down and start packing for my next trip up the mountain. So the next day I packed even more food so I could stay for longer. I go back up the mountain and I get up there and my tent, my stove and everything is perfect. No one had touched anything and there wasn’t anybody there. I couldn’t find anybody.
Finally, I saw someone kind of run between two huts or something. I said, “Okay, there's someone over there.”
No one brought me dead snakes. I ate my rice all by myself. Dark came and I went out and looked for frogs. Then the next morning I woke up and looked around and still no people, except once more I see someone zip between the huts.
And I spent the day out walking around. While I was hiking I realized, I said, “Something changed. I think somebody told these people that I wasn’t who I said I was.” That’s what it felt like. I kept thinking about it by myself, just thinking, and I finally realized. I said, “You know, maybe I’m a CIA agent with the lamest cover story ever. ‘Looking for frogs’, right? I’m pretty sure they haven't tried that one in Syria.”
Then I suddenly realized, I said, “Okay, but I've got to go.” I was, of course, uncomfortable and unnerved but also I realized I was also being completely disruptive to this village. Clearly, they were hiding from me. The whole time I was there they wouldn’t come out. They had either gone or they wouldn’t come out of their huts. I didn’t know where anybody was. So I realized this is just not okay.
Reluctantly, I decided I've got to leave this study site and go down the mountain and not come back up here. It took me three trips to get all my stuff up there, I went down in one trip so I left everything that I thought naively might be useful to people. Maybe it’s still sitting there thirty years later. I don't know.
And I’m walking down the mountain all day thinking about this and realizing, I said, “Something is going on here. People are scared of something. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than me.” And I started thinking back to other things that had happened in the summer that I hadn’t been able to figure out.
Like on the drive out to the plantation, the machete-hacked body that was on the side of the road that no one stopped for, including our truck or the truck behind us, I thought no one stopped and that’s a horrible thing to see.
And I thought about one day the trail stopped at a river and I came out the river opening and there was a whole group of women standing in the river washing their laundry. As soon as they saw me, they bolted out of the river, the ones that had babies grabbed the babies up the bank and ran, letting all the family’s clothing wash downstream. I thought, “That’s not okay. That’s unnerving.”
Then while I’m thinking about this, and I’m still very close to the village, I decided it was too late to try to make it down the mountain. So I’m going to spend one more night there. I’m definitely leaving the next morning.
So I’m still trying to figure out where the village is on my illegal map and so I go up into the cloud forest and I’m trying to look out and get my view on this big lake that I thought I might be able to see. If I could see the lake then I could draw an angle and figure out where I was at the mountain.
So I climb up on this big, huge, fallen tree trying to look out through the foliage, and while I’m looking, the rotting bark on this tree slipped, sloughed off of the trunk and I fell a really, really bad fall.
I fell down and I’m laying in the leaf litter doing a mental check to see kind of what’s broken. Amazingly, as far as I can tell, nothing was broken.
Then I thought, “But I had a machete in my hand and I don't know where it is right now.”
So I sat up slowly and looked around. I found my machete. I went to pick it up and this big gash on my hand, my entire knucklebone popped out of my hand. And like the expedition leader, swashbuckling hero I wanted to be, I passed out, boom. Instantly fainted like a cadaver in the leaf litter. Rip Van Winkle, the whole thing.
I don't know how long I was passed out but it probably wasn’t very long, but it shook me up pretty badly. I woke up and I said, quite literally, I can’t over emphasize this, “Nobody in the world knows where I am right now,” and that’s not a good idea.
So I went back to my camp, sitting in there and now really badly shaken up and realizing I got to get out of this village. Then it started to rain right at sunset. There was no marimba, of course. Nothing like that was happening, but it’s raining. It’s like, “Dude, the frogs are out. I got to go and catch frogs.”
So I put my wrecked hand in a plastic bag and kind of tied it off with something. I figure I could kind of baseball mitt some frogs with that. And I go out with my big powerful headlamp and I’m looking for frogs and found some interesting animals. On the way back, it really started raining super hard. Like 1:00 in the morning or so now. And if you're wearing glasses, you know, when it’s raining you can only look straight down, even with a hat.
So I’m looking straight down and along the way I missed a fork in the trail that I didn’t really know about. So instead of going to my camp, it took me right down smack into the middle of the village. So there I am at 1:30 in the morning with this big powerful headlamp looking around and shining through the wooden slats of all these huts. I could hear people inside becoming disturbed and I thought, “Oh, I’m waking everybody up. This is so rude.”
Then I started to hear the nervous tinging of machetes, which is not a pleasant sound. Then I heard a gun cock and I saw a barrel come through the slats. I realized, “Okay, this is beyond weird here. This is a whole different problem.”
So the only thing I could think of to do, and I will never forget this for the rest of my life because I’m convinced it saved my life, was to scream at the top of my lungs, “Gringo perdido. No hay problema. Gringo perdido. No hay problema. Larana, sapo, culebra.”
That translates into, “Lost white dude. Not a problem. Frog, lizard, snake.”
That’s all I could say and then I turned and ran through a space between two huts and clawed my way up in the rain through this cornfield and finally found my tent and lay there just absolutely petrified at this point, convinced that the villagers were going to come kill me in my tent. My hand is throbbing and all messed up, and the next morning I bolted down.
I started thinking again about the body on the side of the road and the women in the river and what everyone was so afraid of. When I got back at the end of the summer, I was there for three months, when I got back at the end of the summer I realized maybe instead of just reading about the biology of this area, maybe I should read about the sociopolitical history of Guatemala, which I had not done.
This war that had been mentioned casually I was in the middle of it. I thought wars looked like World War II. Where’s the tanks? Where’s the frontline. No. I didn’t know what genocide looks like and I was in the middle of it the entire time.
So I got my herpetological expedition. I got my adventure. I got everything I asked for, but I also learned a whole hell of a lot more than I bargained for on that trip.
I’m gringo perdido. Nice to meet you.