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Measuring the average foot

5 minutes

Do spoilers actually ruin stories?

4 minutes

Dan Tepfer’s player piano is his composing partner

5 minutes

Someone else’s war

29 minutes

Pas de deux

14 minutes

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Before modern measurement standards, finding the length of a foot took a village

The foot is a most easily accessible tool and it had a lengthy history as a means of measuring before the introduction of national and international standards. So how were earlier standards created? In this short video from 1981, the British physicist Reginald Victor Jones demonstrates a clever methodology for finding the length of an average foot illustrated in a 16th-century German geometry book. The video is excerpted from Jones’s 1981 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series ‘From Magna Carta to Microchip’, a marvellously dated and humorously English account of the history and principles of measurement.

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Spoiler alert: does knowing how it ends make fiction more fun?

‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.

Video by Fig. 1

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Meet the jazz pianist who improvises in tandem with a piano that plays itself

‘How can I be free in this particular cage?’

From synthesizers replacing real instruments in the studio to the rise of musical compositions written entirely by AI, it’s not surprising that many professional musicians have been resistant to the ascendent role of technology in the music industry. However, the French-American jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer has developed a creative way of leveraging the rise of musical machines using what he calls ‘improvisational algorithms’.

On his digital player piano, his notes are sent through a computer, which then automatically plays back notes that correspond to commands he’s written. And although the idea of predetermined ‘rules’ might on its surface seem to cut against the spirit of musical improvisation, Tepfer finds that they actually fuel his playing, leading him down paths he wouldn’t otherwise find. This video from NPR’s Jazz Night in America series details how Tepfer mines new musical ideas from his improvisational algorithms, which culminated in his album Natural Machines (2019) and a series of performances with visuals generated from the compositions. Read more about Dan Tepfer at NPR’s website.

Producers: Alex Ariff, Colin Marshall

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What motivated three young Britons to join the deadly fight against ISIS in Syria?

As of 2019, some 20 British nationals have left home to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. Eight have died in the process. What’s leading Britons – mostly young civilians – to abandon the relative comforts of home and fight on the frontlines alongside people with whom they had no prior affiliation? Someone Else’s War tracks the journey of three sets of bereaved parents as they travel to Iraq to meet the Kurdish soldiers who witnessed their children’s last months. A nuanced and frequently heartbreaking psychological portrait, the film finds the parents grasping for the meaning of their children’s choices. As the parents’ own views evolve through the process of digging deeper into the stories of their children’s deaths, the documentary explores not only the need for closure, but also the tendency to seek heroism in those who die fighting. 

Directors: George Cowie, Tom Huntingford, Martin Armstrong

Producer: Superfolk Films

Website: Guardian Documentaries

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Classical ballet transforms into a dance of the surreal in this duet from 1968

In classical ballet, a pas de deux (‘step of two’ in French) is a duet that showcases the skills of masterful dancers. This BAFTA-winning and Academy Award-nominated short from 1968 marries two distinct kinds of virtuosity – the innovative cinematography of the late Scottish-Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren and the movements of the Canadian dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren – to dazzling effect. Accompanied by a shimmering arrangement of Romanian folk music, a woman dances alone until she is joined by a man. Impressions of their bodies splinter off or move alongside them before disappearing or resolving into a single form. McLaren created the aesthetic in an age before digital effects by superimposing the high-contrast footage over itself with a slight time disparity, up to 10 times. The result is something akin to a wonderfully surreal dream – and one that you hardly need to be a ballet lover to find utterly entrancing.

Director: Norman McLaren

Website: National Film Board of Canada

Aeon for Friends

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Before modern measurement standards, finding the length of a foot took a village

The foot is a most easily accessible tool and it had a lengthy history as a means of measuring before the introduction of national and international standards. So how were earlier standards created? In this short video from 1981, the British physicist Reginald Victor Jones demonstrates a clever methodology for finding the length of an average foot illustrated in a 16th-century German geometry book. The video is excerpted from Jones’s 1981 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series ‘From Magna Carta to Microchip’, a marvellously dated and humorously English account of the history and principles of measurement.

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Essay/
Earth science and climate
Flash!

It ignited life on Earth, propelled evolution, and now signals climate change. Yet what sparks lightning remains a mystery

Sidney Perkowitz

Essay/
History of science
Natural philosophy redux

The great split between science and philosophy must be repaired. Only then can we answer the urgent, fundamental problems

Nicholas Maxwell