The Fourier transform

Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow includes a great discussion of the scientific uses of the Fourier transform. Most amusingly: “The side-to-side waving of the urine trail on the road was presumably produced by the long [elephant] penis acting as a pendulum (it would be a sine wave if the penis were a perfect, Newtonian pendulum, which it is not) interacting with the more complicated periodicity of the lumbering four-legged gait of the whole animal.” (p. 73)

This video provides an accessible visual explanation of how this mathematical tool breaks down a complicated curve into its constituent sine waves, and some of the useful applications for that transformation:


I saw the 70mm film version of “Dunkirk” last night and found much to appreciate about it. The production values are excellent, and it generally seems an unusually realistic depiction of history and combat, with less of the spectacle and fewer of the implausible dramatic storylines that often dominate the genre. The non-linear storytelling adds to the sense of chaos, and perhaps adds a bit more dramatic tension to a story where — for anyone who has taken high school history — the broad outlines of the ending are known in advance.

The film is unusual in part because almost no characters have names which are mentioned or emphasized. Rather, most of the storytelling is visual and told in overlapping vignettes: sinking ships and air combat, and repeated portrayals of the men of the British Expeditionary Force waiting on the beach for its evacuation.

In some ways, I felt the film consciously subverted some of the tropes of spectacular high budget war films like the notorious “Pearl Harbor“, and even the more unified and neatly structured storytelling of classics like “Saving Private Ryan“. For instance, a successfully tense scene centres around whether an oil slick from a sinking ship would catch fire; in a “Pearl Harbor” type film, the leaking ship probably would have exploded in the shot when it was first shown. Only two moments struck me as transparently unrealistic: when the senior officer on the beach somehow knew exactly how many people had been rescued just as the last boats were leaving, and an odd scene in which men trapped in a sinking ship somehow believe that throwing a man or two overboard will address the problem of bullet holes below the waterline in the hull.

All told, the film was evocative and memorable, as well as generally non-moralizing (though the heroic Winston Churchill quotation in the closing minutes might have been usefully tempered with some reference to his disastrous involvement in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16). The absence of well-known actors (though I certainly recognized Mark Rylance from the excellent “Bridge of Spies“) added to the sense of watching a plausible historical reenactment more than a standard Hollywood drama.

Recommended for those with an interest in history, real-world sets in place of heavy CGI, and perhaps seeing very expensive ship sets being rotated and submerged. I’m curious about whether some genuine WWII aircraft were used in the air combat scenes that linked together the disparate bits of the plot.

“Sanctuary” dedication

At Massey College today a magnificent new sculpture was unveiled in the quad: a bronze cast of birch branches made by Camilla Geary-Martin.

The artwork is dedicated in part to Ursula Franklin — a remarkable Senior Fellow of the College — as well as the late Boris Stoicheff.

The Harperman imbroglio

This little song, written by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner, has received a lot of media attention:

CBC: Harperman case: Can public servants be political activists?

The Guardian: Canada government suspends scientist for folk song about prime minister

Both the song and the public responses point to one of the big unsettled questions about the appropriate conduct of the public service. What are citizens who are employed to serve the public interest meant to do when the country is badly governed by their political bosses?