Making Connections: The Washington Monument and a Grain of Salt

If you took two random objects and then were asked to make connections between them, how would you proceed? This is the basis of this post — to explain some things I think about when making connections. I hope you will find them useful. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the mad hatter asks Alice during a tea party, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” This is the same kind of question as “Why is the Washington Monument like a grain of salt?” Think of it as a game. Any two objects, or indeed more than two, can be used in this game. What are the relationships between, or among, objects? How can we connect?

There may not be any obvious connections when considering people, objects, and places. Some connections may require specialist knowledge in a field, such as geology, art history, or computer science. But that is what makes the game both fun and educational. Deliberately dwelling on connections taps into our creative juices and causes us, like Alice, to go down the rabbit hole of possibility.

A few ways the game can be played can be found in popular media outlets. The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon highlighted social networks before they become ubiquitous. The goal was to determine your Bacon Number by determining how close you were to Kevin Bacon in terms of working in Hollywood. Did you work on a film with someone who worked with Kevin? The Erdos number is similar, but in terms of co-authoring papers with that prolific mathematician. Bucket Hat Guy was on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in 2015. He takes a long string of phrases and connects them together through the existence of syntactic or semantic linkage. The Wiki Game starts with a start phrase and the asks you to navigate web pages, using the least number of hyperlinks, to an end phrase. For example, how are Telephone and Crocodile connected? Wikipedia’s vast interconnected collaborative knowledge base can be used to document connective chains. Many popular games involve word association.

Museums and Curation

If you think about museums and contrast them with schools, there is a big difference. Museums are centered on objects — lots of them, with only a very small number being displayed at a time. Schools are centered on topics. When teachers impart their knowledge of a subject area, they do so while focusing on that subject. The subject is divided into sub-subjects, components that when combined together comprise the area of study. In school, the teaching and learning of geometry involves a tree of knowledge.

Free Preview image represented courtesy of VectorStock and artist Kudryashka

The school approach dives down into a subject area. In museums there are also subject areas, but there is no getting around all of those cool objects that represent the museum’s jewels. The museum way of organization fosters a way of thinking that is object-based. We can relate objects together in novel ways because it is as if the museum is encouraging us to do this.

I’ve made some contacts with museums and personnel since arriving in at the University of Texas at Dallas as part of the new School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC). One of them, whom I met online before even stepping foot in Dallas, was Bonnie Pitman. Bonnie and I hit it off in this idea of making connections. An early collaborative project, called Models of X, involved making connections to Liz Larner’s sculpture called X. Bonnie was instrumental in creating an official part of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). The part is called the Center for Creative Connections, or C-cubed. Her most recent interest is in connecting art to medicine. So, we had a common thematic interest — thinking about how art can be a catalyst for forging new connections.

In 2016, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, I created a talk entitled “Seeing Science in Art.” I worked with Anna Smith, Kristen Cochran, Avi Varma, and Lynda Wilbur. The idea was to show connections between some of the art objects in the Nasher and areas of science such as geology and mathematics. Learning science, as well as art, in a sculpture garden — through curious connections.

During this past summer (2018), while a Leverhulme Trust Fellow at the University of Exeter, with my host Nav Mustafee, I was fortunate to meet three staff from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM): Camilla Hampshire, Julien Parsons, and Rick Lawrence. There was a lot of discussion of what to do next to promote the idea of making connections using RAMM as a major cultural repository. We kicked off some ideas with the general public in July 2018 with my talk “The Giraffe and the Harpischord: Modelling the Museum.” The RAMM has the idea of making connections as an integral part of the museum’s philosophy. Gerald the Giraffe is really towering over a harpsichord. What to make of it? I used that talk as a way to introduce modeling as one means of making connections:

A modeling toolkit composed of brown circles and bars. A model (shown above) from this toolkit can be used to simultaneously model the giraffe (which has a body/neck and four legs) and the harpischord (which has the same overall topology as the giraffe).

Every museum is interested in making connections. This is true for the curators as well as the other staff. In 2011, the Metropolitan in New York City created a repository called “Connections.” If you go to your local museum, you’ll find examples of the curators and staff identifying connections between people, objects, place, and time. When you are dealing with objects, rather than academic subjects, connections are a logical byproduct.

Literature and Media

Herman Hesse wrote “Magister Ludi”, or “The Glass Bead Game” in 1943. The nature the game was all about making connections. The purpose of the game is “a kind of synthesis of human learning.” Even though the game’s mechanics were not explicitly enumerated in the book, Hip Bone Games provides numerous examples of game play. The resulting game play will remind some readers of the world wide web. Those in cognitive science and artificial intelligence may be reminded of semantic networks, concept maps, or mind maps. Social networks, and network science broadly, are more recent areas that formalize connections.

I was highly influenced by James Burke’s Connections television show, and the accompanying books. Burke makes connections involving technological innovation over time. Show number 7 entitled “The Long Chain” is where Burke traces the connection between the 17th century development of tar pitch, from coal, to the creation of nylon in the 20th century. Burke’s explanations involve long, and often intricate, chains of association involving, often accidental, innovation.

What is the Point of This?

We can create wild associations between things. What is it good for? There are two immediate possibilities that spring to mind:

  1. Improved Cognition: forming associations may demonstrate underlying activation networks in the brain responsible for abstraction and relational memory. Can making a habit out of forming connections improve our ability to abstract? Abstraction represents a key way to connect. If concepts A and B both map to the same abstraction (think of the giraffe and the harpsichord example), then this becomes a connection model. Can making connections stave off memory problems associated with older adults?
  2. Improved Learning: If your goal is to teach someone something then connections can be used to emphasize a less trodden path. I’ll show an example to get this discussion going.

I took this photo of the north end of the ATEC Building about a month ago.

A boring scene. Or is it?

What do you see in the photograph? There is a tree-a magnolia-on the left. There are lots of interesting pebbles on the bottom. There is a drainage pipe also on the left. In the right side of the picture, there is a wall with a small light embedded in it.

In the Modeling class I teach, I am focused on students learning how elements from formal computer science can be found in real-world experiences. The idea of connections is central to the class. What part of computer programming is reflected in the photograph? The bricks are interesting. Their structure involves a stack of bricks where are in a common offset pattern. Finding out how to build a brick wall is a good start. This is a set of instructions. Instructions map to control flow in programming. Therefore, how to make a wall is a program. The program is connected to the wall. A good exercise is to take the wall in the photo and sketch out programs that, when executed, result in a complete (synthetic or virtual) wall.

The wall can also be though of as a data structure. The type of structure is open to creative choice — binary trees anyone? One possibility is to create an array (a computer term for a mathematical matrix) but to make the array a finer level of granularity by extending the mortared vertical lines. Take the photo and wherever you see a vertical space or line, extend it to the top and bottom of the photo. You will end up with a regular array whose values can reflect the horizontally offset bricks. How is a brick wall like a drum sequence?

Drum sequence using Drumbit using Indian percussive instruments.

For this musical sequence, I chose Indian instruments to create a percussive looping sequence. Music is full of these sorts of tools — some of which are in software and others in hardware. The north wall is like a drum sequence. They are connected.

The pebbles offer possibilities for studying data science and statistics. How can one formalize the pebbles? You’d need to get out a measuring device and an Excel spreadsheet. Are there more smaller pebbles than larger pebbles? What is meant by small and large? What does the frequency or probability distribution look like? While such questions may seem abstruse, such data handling is done routinely in science. Consider the following diagram.

Figure 5 from The Pebbles/Boulders size distributions on Sais: Rosett’s final landing site on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Pajola et al. 27 June 2017.

This figure documents the size distributions of pebbles and boulders on a comet. While the ground pebbles next to the ATEC building are not as exciting as those found on a comet, the way of seeing the pebbles as data is similar. As for the magnolia tree, one might use L-systems to model the tree or its flowers. The light could be connected to a somewhat unusual way of filtering part of the array. Where the light shines, those bricks that are lit and returned. Reorienting the light creates a different data filter.

There is mathematics, and computer programming everywhere in what seems like a pedestrian photograph of a wall and nearby objects. The key is to think about what you see through making new connections. One needs to observe, first and foremost, to make connections.

What about the Salty Monument?

In returning to where we started, the Washington Monument is dedicated to George Washington who had a salt house on his property. Preservation of food, such as fish, was of paramount importance before the days of refrigeration. Salt is a natural food preservative. It is still in wide use today for that purpose.

Interior of salt house at Mount Vernon.

This is not the only connection between the monument and salt. One might take the atomic-level crystalline structure of NaCl and note similarities to the geometry of the monument.

Making connections is downright fun. It has potential to improve aspects of cognition — through lateral and divergent thinking — and it represents a way to link objects and academic subjects together.