Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 3

Environment, Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This week’s recommendations stick with the emphasis on ecohorror introduced last week. Instead of presenting monsters like Godzilla or crocodiles, though, these two films find both wonder and horror in exploring the agency of the nonhuman world. How do other species communicate? How do they act upon us and shape our actions?

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 2

Environment, Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

Horror movies are often defined by their monsters. Sometimes these monsters are terrifying beasts that give us nightmares (like Guillermo del Toro’s Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or Pennywise from Stephen King’s It), sometimes they’re kind of silly (like the rampaging rabbits in Night of the Lepus), and sometimes they’re surprisingly sympathetic (like Frankenstein’s Creature).

In any case, monsters demonstrate something about both the world we live in and what we fear. In the 1950s, people feared nuclear war; now, we fear climate change. The two horror movies I’m recommending for this week directly address those fears, presenting viewers with monsters that embody the harm of nuclear warfare/testing in one case and that are the direct result of climate change’s superstorms and unpredictable weather patterns in the other.

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 1

Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

October means cooler temperatures, cozy sweaters, falling leaves – and scary movies. Horror might not be where you turn for your STS-related entertainment, but the genre frequently addresses science, technology, and humanity’s relationship to both. In Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre, Jason Colavito writes that “horror cannot survive without the anxieties created by the changing role of human knowledge and science in our society” (4). These anxieties are also a big part of what we study in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), and they can shape the kinds of technologies we embrace or reject, both as individuals and as a culture.

In the spirit of Halloween, then, this is the first post in a series where I will recommend horror movies that address STEM topics, broadly defined. Each week until Halloween, I’ll suggest one classic and one contemporary horror movie that provide opportunities both to think more deeply about the relationships we as humans have with science/technology and also to have a little fun.

National Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Hispanic Scientists

history, race, Representation

By Christy Tidwell

National Hispanic Heritage Month spans September 15 to October 15 and is a time to, as the official Library of Congress website says, celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” This includes important historical and contemporary contributions to STEM fields, despite the ongoing underrepresentation of Hispanic people within those fields.

Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican American astronaut, conducting work on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo credit: NASA via Flickr.

Is it Hispanic or Latino or…?

The language used to refer to people “whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America” is complicated. Not all people included in this list would call themselves Hispanic, despite the name given to the month. Some prefer Latinx (or Latino/a or Latine), some prefer Chicano (or Chicana or Chicanx), and some prefer a more specific reference to their families’ nationality (e.g., Mexican American, Cuban American). And none of this addresses the question of indigeneity and the distinctions between histories of Indigenous peoples and colonizers in these regions. Nevertheless, given the lack of a consistent umbrella term and the name of the month, I will use the term Hispanic generally and will use other terms for individuals if they identify themselves in another way. (For more on this issue, see Vanessa Romo’s NPR piece “Yes, We’re Calling It Hispanic Heritage Month And We Know It Makes Some of You Cringe.”)

Running the Numbers

South Dakota Mines’ Hispanic student population has hovered around 5% of the total student population for the last 5 years, meaning that there have been approximately 120-140 Hispanic students enrolled in each of those years. This is not a high proportion of the overall student body, but Hispanic students still represent the largest group of students of color at Mines. (If you are a Hispanic student at Mines or if you’re interested in supporting Hispanic students at Mines, you can check out the Mines chapter of Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).)

Source: South Dakota Mines Diversity Report, 2020-2021, compiled by Jesse Herrera.

Music, Horror Movies, and Racial Politics: Bringing the 1970s into the 21st Century

Events, Humanities, music

On Tuesday, September 21, 2021, at 11 am, Christy Tidwell will present a Brown Bag on the connections between 1970s horror film, 1970s racial politics, and recent songs by Clipping. This free presentation will be held in-person on the South Dakota Mines campus in Classroom Building 309.

Experimental hip hop group Clipping’s recent work revisits and revises 1970s horror narratives in new media and for new audiences. “Nothing Is Safe” (2019), for instance, draws on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978) to update 1970s critiques of authority, institutional forces, and suburbanization for the 21st century, while “Blood of the Fang” (2019) combines Bill Gunn’s Blaxploitation vampire film Ganja & Hess (1973) with the radical Black politics of the 1970s to comment on 21st century racial politics.

Clipping’s commentary on contemporary issues like police brutality is clear in other songs that do not connect directly with 1970s horror and politics, however. So what is gained by connecting these two periods specifically? How do the politics and horror media of the 1970s resonate with the moment we are currently living through? In this presentation, Christy Tidwell will both introduce the audience to Clipping and explore these larger questions about politics and media.

Humanities & Technology: Defining Terms and the Complexity of STS

Classes, Humanities, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

Today marks the end of the first week back to class for South Dakota Mines, and the STS faculty are hard at work in their classes and enjoying meeting students! We are teaching classes on Environmental Ethics & STEM (HUM 250 with me), Computers in Society (HUM 375 with Dr. Erica Haugtvedt), E-sports (HUM 376 with Dr. John Dreyer), History and Philosophy of Science (PHIL 335 with Dr. Michael Hudgens), Terror & Horror (ENGL 392 with Dr. Laura Kremmel), and Licit and Illicit Drugs (SOC 411 with Dr. Kayla Pritchard) – plus many others! As this list of courses indicates, STS covers a lot of ground. It needs to, given its promise to study science, technology, and society, and there are countless ways to approach the field and the topics it includes.

In addition to Environmental Ethics & STEM (mentioned above), I am also teaching Connections: Humanities & Technology (HUM 200) this semester, which is a great illustration of what the STS major is all about. Since the course description and title are pretty broad, I’ve narrowed things down to focus on the following big questions:

1. How do we communicate with each other?
2. How do we design and build the places we live?

In response to these questions we will explore communication technologies from paper and books to social media, film, and robots, and we will consider urban design issues like curb cuts and plumbing, historical and contemporary ideas about what a home looks like, and what the city of the future could look like.

A laptop with html code and the word Poetry on the screen.

Does Poetry Require Humans?

computers, Poetry, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?

Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:

Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
And ribbons.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Give pleasure.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.
Enthusiasm.

Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.

Bluegrass band plays in the background, camera focuses on pipe, wallet, and a small in on a weathered wooden table.

Technology and Bluegrass: More Than Just the Electric Banjo

history, music, Technology

By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach

After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.

Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?

Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.

One of Bill Monroe’s first appearances on the Opry.

CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?

MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.

The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.

I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.

Big Problem, Small Form: Climate Change Poetry

Environment, Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.

Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.

Understanding as Comfort: “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I noted in my earlier discussion of Robert Kelly’s “Science,” poetry and science are not as separate as we might often think: they are both creative, and they both challenge us to see the world in new ways. In “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye” (2007), Albert Goldbarth illustrates another similarity between science and poetry by personifying the sciences (specifically physics, geology, astronomy, zoology, psychology, biology, and history) and imagining them as comforting figures.

Geology says: It will be all right.

Albert Goldbarth, “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

It is comforting to think, as Physics tells us, that our atoms will “dance / inside themselves themselves without you,” or, as Geology says, that “All of the continents used to be / one body. You aren’t alone.” Meanwhile, Astronomy comforts the reader with a reassurance that “the sun will rise tomorrow” while History hands us “the blankets, layer on / layer, down and down.” In other words, the processes of our bodies and of the world will continue, even without our attention. And science is what provides the evidence of this continuation.