The Error Cone and Visualizing Uncertainty

Tropical Storm Karen Advisory 3

The National Hurricane Center’s 3rd advisory issued for Tropical Storm Karen.

When we’re kids, one of the first subjects in which we learn the concepts of probability and uncertainty is the weather. It’s perhaps the only area of our life in which we all use probabilistic models on a daily basis to guide our decisions—decisions that can come back to bite us. It’s one thing when Nature decides to deliver on that 10% chance of rain; it can be catastrophic when a hurricane makes good on a 10% chance landfall.

In a post last week, I wrote about conveying uncertainty in exoplanet detection—a matter of curiosity. But conveying uncertainty in a hurricane’s predicted track is a matter of public safety. So it would make sense for the National Hurricane Center to take great pains in communicating uncertainty to the public. Its method of visualizing it is known as the “error cone.”

Originating at the current location of the hurricane’s center, it expands along the predicted path to show how the forecasted path becomes more uncertain in the longer term. To be specific, the edge of the cone represents a 67% chance that the hurricane remains inside the cone based on the accuracy of the past five years of forecasts.

But there are some well-known issues with the error cone. For starters, it can give the false impression that it represents the extent of the storm itself, not the extent of its predicted track. Interpreted that way, it seems that the storm expands over time. Another is that by drawing a hard line in the sand at the 67% contour, it gives people just outside the cone a false sense of security, despite the fact that there’s a 1-in-6 chance the hurricane will deviate outside of the cone towards them. (If you’re wondering why it’s not 1-in-3, it’s there’s also a 1-in-6 chance it goes outside the cone on the other side.)

The issue is that a hurricane’s predicted path isn’t a probability—it’s a probability distribution. Some places are more probable than others to lie along the path, but there’s no clear-cut boundary. Choosing an arbitrary 67% contour is convenient, but it’s an awful way to convey the full distribution of possible tracks.

A team of scientists led by Jonathan Cox of Clemson University recently published an alternative method of visualizing a hurricane’s predicted path that looks like this:

What they’ve done is simulate the hurricane’s path hundreds of times, but rigged the simulation’s settings so that it should have the same statistical distribution as the error cone. It’s a bit like loading dice. There’s an element of randomness in each track, but after generating hundreds of tracks, they cluster around the original, predicted track. They also check after each track to make sure the overall set is similar to the error cone. If they’re making too many tracks outside the error cone, they reset the simulations so it will make more inside of it. It’s another application of Monte Carlo models.

The authors don’t claim to have evidence yet that this method leads to a more accurate public perception. (I can think of one possible objection: since the tracks must necessarily diverge, the decreased density makes the tracks appear fainter, which could give a false impression that the storm will get weaker.) But they do report results from a small focus group in their study and found that almost all preferred their new method: in addition to giving a better sense of the dynamic nature of hurricane tracks, it was also simply more visually interesting.

Why auto racing is a geek’s dream sport

Hello, geek.

Hello, you science nerd, you technology aficionado, you analytical thinker, you.

Do you like watching sports?

I ask because there is a sport that will appeal to every aforementioned aspect of your personality, although judging from American TV viewing figures, you are probably not paying attention to it—even though its competitors are geeks, just like you. It is the pinnacle of automobile racing, the league known as Formula 1.

A Ferarri and Red Bull scream around the streets of Singapore in 2011. Photo: Chuljae Lee / CC

When it comes to adrenaline, these cars have no match. They’re screaming, winged rockets of carbon fiber cradling a driver with no roof over his head at top speeds exceeding 200 mph. There are no fenders to protect the wheels and suspension as they strain under the 5 Gs of stress that these cars exert as they scream around corners.

But despite that, forget the notion that modern racing is an exercise in pure sensation and blind bravery. Nor is it the gentlemanly pastime of European princes, hobbyist mechanics, and thrill-seeking rascals that it once was many decades ago. Today, more than any other sport, F1 is driven by design and data. It’s engineering. It’s technology. It’s physics soup for the scientific soul.

It’s no wonder that when Ron Howard began production on his 1970s-era F1 pic Rush, he described the world he found as a “combo of engineering brilliance and fearless courage [that] reminded me of people I met at NASA while directing Apollo 13.”

The workings of an F1 team are relentless, iterative, like a computer algorithm designed to obtain a minimum value: for a race distance of 305 km, solve for the shortest time possible.

Watching a race on TV, it’s almost startling to hear the quantitative way in which the most competent commentators analyze the race as it unfolds—the cars are going over 200 mph and the guys on TV are calculating fuel loads and tire wear. It’s a bit like that epic moment in Apollo 13 when astronaut Jim Lovell is struggling to convert the gimbal angles from the stricken command module to the lifeboat lunar module and everyone in Mission Control whips out their slide rule.

To see a bit of this strategy and how F1’s geeks solve it, consider the quandary teams face when planning pit stops to change tires. A typical race might last between 50–80 laps, but the tires on an F1 car wear quickly, and each successive lap takes a tenth of a second longer on average, or more. Changing to fresh rubber means the drivers regain their speed, but a total of about 20 seconds is lost as the team swaps tires and the driver obeys a 100 km/hr speed limit on pit lane. (This is called the “bogey time” and is measured by the teams at each track.) So how often should a driver sacrifice those 20 seconds to gain back the most time on fresh rubber?

The math works out to be 1 to 3 times during a race, depending on the rate of wear, trading 20 to 60 seconds in the pits for the consistently quicker lap times on fresh tires.

But when? Imagine you’re the leader of the race. If you time it too early, you may emerge from the pits in the middle of the swarming peloton of cars, fighting with them for position. That would cost you precious time. Perhaps you should wait a handful of laps and let the cars behind you pit first.

But wait. If they pit first, they will have fresh tires while you are running around on worn rubber, bleeding time each lap. By the time you pit, the other cars may have leapfrogged you as you sit in pit lane. (This tactic is called the “undercut”.)

Now perhaps, my geeky race strategist, you have determined the perfect laps on which to pit to minimize your time (and made sure that your team is free of moles who might leak your strategy—a very real danger). But here’s the thing: the other teams can calculate their numbers just as well as you can. What are they likely to do? Well, it depends. Does that change what should you do? Maybe.

No computer could find a single perfect solution for this kind of problem. It’s mathematically impossible; there are simply too many variables. Instead, the best method is to simulate tens of thousands of races, randomly trying as many different strategies as you can to see which ones result in you winning the race the most times.

This kind of technique is called a Monte Carlo method, named since every simulation is like a gambler’s roll of the dice. It was enabled by the rise of computers and pioneered on the primitive ENIAC. Today, it’s ubiquitous. It’s the same probabilistic math that Nate Silver uses to predict elections and that scientists use to forecast the paths of hurricanes—the rolling of multitudes of virtual dice to see which outcomes are most likely to come true, down which branches of reality the river of time will meet the least resistance. And it’s why the top F1 teams have squads of statisticians and data analysts working in Mission Control-style computer rooms back in their factories during a race, conducting their simulations, feeding their teams the latest model runs and dictating race strategy.

So what does this mean for you, dear geek? For one, the raw timing data is available to view at Formula1.com during races. Observing the lap times and the gaps between cars will allow you to see strategies unfold faster than the TV announcers can comment on them. If you want to go even further, there is an open source API project to intercept the data, allowing you to write your own code and make your own predictions.

F1 isn’t just about watching a competition—it also gives fans the chance to experience the joy of watching an outcome emerge from a sea of data. That’s something every geek can appreciate.

The FAP trap

rendering of Alpha Centauri system

In this artist’s rendering, the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb looms in the foreground, with the Alpha Centauri binary system in the background.

Almost one year ago, a team of astronomers announced a detection of a rocky exoplanet right next door in the star system Alpha Centauri, the closest to our own solar system. Yes, Alpha Centauri—that near-mythical system that has such a hold on our imagination, its fictional appearances have their own Wikipedia article.

Ok, ok, so this planet, named Alpha Centauri Bb, wasn’t actually habitable. It was too close to its star, more like a scorched, oversized Mercury than Earth. But the fact that a small rocky planet was right next door boded well for the likelihood that rocky planets were everywhere. Debra Fischer, a Yale exoplanet researcher, told the New York Times it was the “story of the century.” If Joe Biden were an astronomer, he’d have called it a big fucking deal.

Except…the detection wasn’t quite a slam dunk. The team, based in Geneva and led by astronomer Xavier Dumusque, found the planet by detecting the wobble that its gravity exerts on its star. But that wobble was so small that its signal was buried deep, deep within the noise of the data. They had to attempt to control for 23 different effects that could have thrown off their measurements—things like the star’s pulsations and magnetic spots. It was only after stripping them away, one by one, that a signal started to emerge. Here’s what it looked like:

alphacenbb

Dumusque et al. (2012), Figure 5

All those scattered little dots that seem almost random—that’s the post-analysis data. But the red dots are what you get when you group data points that are close together and average them. That’s how the team was able to recover their signal. They reported that the odds that the data in the plot could have been a fluke of nature (a statistic called the False Alarm Probability, or FAP) were pretty slim: one in a thousand.

This was a key point that many journalists picked up on and quoted the authors repeating it in a press conference to bolster the case for the planet. To wit:

Mike Wall at Space.com: “Udry, however, said that the team’s statistical analyses show a ‘false alarm probability’ of just one in 1,000 — meaning there’s a 99.9 percent chance that the planet exists.”

Ian Sample in The Guardian: “The astronomers told a press briefing that the chance of their discovery being false was about one in 1,000…”

And Camille Carlisle in Sky & Telescope: “Study coauthor Stéphane Udry (Geneva Observatory) noted in a press conference earlier this week that there is one chance in 1,000 that the signal his team sees is a fluke.”

Well, that sounded like pretty good odds to me. That is, until early this summer when exoplanet astronomer Artie Hatzes published a paper in which he did his own analysis of the same data, and found nothing. In fact, he concluded that if you assumed the planet was there, he should have found it with a confidence of 99%.

So hang on a second. According to the Geneva team, they have only a 1/1000 chance of being wrong. But Hatzes finds the opposite, and says there’s only a 1/100 chance that Geneva are right. So who’s “correct”? What do those numbers even mean?

So I asked Debra Fischer. Her answer confirmed my thinking. That False Alarm Probability of 1/1000? That’s the probability that the data in that plot is a fluke—but remember, that’s the data after all of their analysis. In other words, the 1/1000 figure holds only if you assume that their analysis of those 23 parameters is absolutely perfect. It’s a comparison of the signal against the flukey nature of reality, but says nothing about the confidence in the analysis that led to that signal in the first place!

Yikes. That’s a difference with a big distinction, and one that got very little play in the media. (And it’s a point I didn’t call out when I wrote about Hatzes paper for Sky & Telescope.)

Now, that doesn’t mean the analysis is junk. Dumusque and his team weren’t trying to hide anything about their analysis—quite the opposite, in fact. They released their data publicly, inviting scrutiny; that’s what enabled Hatzes to do his independent analysis. And Dusmusqe’s team did a check of their analysis as part of their original study to see if it might introduce a false signal and concluded it did not. So Alpha Centauri Bb is not dead—not by a long shot. Both Dumusque and Fischer are currently analyzing fresh observations to try to get that slam-dunk confirmation. (Peter Edmonds has written an excellent blog post taking a look at the whole saga.)

But it does mean that it’s difficult to quantify how convincing the data are as they stand, and that the FAP is not the entire story. For a journalist, that is difficult to explain to the public. It’s yet another example of how tricky it can be to communicate probability and uncertainty—both from scientists to journalists, and from journalists to the public. That False Alarm Probability might be alluringly small, but we better make sure we know what it means.

Now, this may seem like an esoteric case. Alpha Centauri Bb winking out of existence would be a big disappointment, but not, say, hazardous to anyone’s health. But it’s not hard to see how the latter case is problematic. Perhaps the biggest shift wrought by our era of Big Data isn’t the sheer amount of data but that the nature of reality and our predictions of the future are increasingly described in probabilistic terms—in everything from election results to climate change. When we communicate this, we all have to work hard to get it right.

Binland Lee, ocean reporter

BinlandLee_screenshot

On this beautiful past Sunday morning at 6:30 am in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, a Boston University senior named Binland Lee, who was about to graduate next month with a degree in marine sciences and had a passion for science communication, died as her house burned around her.

The 18 other residents of the house either escaped along with three visitors present or were not in the home at the time of the fire. Of those in the home at the time, nine suffered injuries, as did six firefighters.

I never knew Binland Lee. It’s always sad to hear that a fellow student here at BU has died no matter who it is, no matter what they study. But when I read an article early this morning in BU Today, the university’s daily newspaper, I will admit my heart sank more than usual:

A self-described devotee of “all things science,” Lee was also drawn to photography and writing and was minoring in journalism.

For a 2012 College of Communication class, Lee completed a multimedia project, referring to herself as an “ocean reporter,” accompanied by a shot of her in snorkel gear, mask pushed to her forehead, winking playfully at the camera. In addition to entries about her research at Stellwagen, the BU Marine Lab, and Wee Wee Caye Marine Lab in Belize, Lee included in the online portfolio profiles, photos, and interactive multimedia components that she shot and wrote.

At the time, Lee told her teacher, Michelle Johnson, a COM associate professor of journalism, that she took her class to better present marine science through multimedia. “I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t a journalism student, because she seemed so engaged,” says Johnson, describing her student as soft-spoken and smart. “She always participated in class discussions, and she was very interested in photography and photojournalism.”

Her website boldly proclaims: “We are the voices of the ocean.” Her portfolio has tabs for writing, photography, video, and research. On her CV, under “Skills,” she lists: “ArcGIS, PAM Fluorometer, stable isotope analysis, micro-CT imaging, water quality analyses, CTD, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro X, Audacity, SoundSlides, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, ThingLink.”

Scientific analysis and media production. Technical ability and social media savvy. That is exactly the kind of scientist this world particularly needs—one with the passion and skill to share the joy of science with others. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the world needs good scientists of any kind. But for the world to lose the passion for science of someone who loved so dearly to share it, who had the commitment to minor in journalism and take classes to hone her communication skills—that, somehow, seems particularly cruel.

Binland Lee died two streets over from me, while I slept in my bed on Sunday morning. That morning, when I woke up, I found messages from worried friends wondering if I was ok. I’ve lived in Allston multiple times in my time as a BU graduate student. The neighborhood is notorious for its student population living in buildings they can afford that are often nowhere near code. This winter, an old Allston roommate of mine who moved to another house in the same neighborhood leapt out of its second floor in the middle of the night in order to escape a fire that eventually burned it to the ground.

We don’t know what caused this fire. We do know that the landlord “dropped the ball,” as authorities put it. The building has apparently never undergone a rental re-inspection as required by law. But we don’t know if it was a cause, if anything that an inspection could have caught would have changed this tragic outcome.

It hasn’t been a particularly joyful couple of weeks here on campus at BU. Flowers still line the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on Marsh Plaza, in memory of Lu Lingzi, the BU grad student killed in the marathon bombing. The desire to seek answers has been, at times, overwhelming.

All I know is this: Lee has lost her life. Her friends and family have lost someone who was “always positive,” who was “loved by everyone.” And the world has lost a promising young scientist who was also a passionate science communicator, photographer, and journalist.

I never knew Binland Lee, and now I’m sad that I never will.

My friends, the helpers

I’d had two shots of fruity vodka and was working on a beer for breakfast on the afternoon of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off.

At that particular moment, I was at a friends’ house party on Beacon Street. Outside, the tens of thousands of runners were streaming past a cheering crowd filled with friends, family members, and hordes of drunk Boston University students. This, after all, is the traditional way Boston celebrates the holiday marked on calendars as Patriot’s Day, but which everyone refers to in real life as Marathon Monday.

DSC_2540

My friend and I were putting some overheated chicken wings into the freezer to cool when her phone rang. A minute later, I overheard her on the phone to her sister at the finish line. “Just calm down,” she kept saying. “Take it easy. You said there were explosions?”

We corralled her when she got off the phone. What had her sister seen? “Explosions, two of them.” We were confused. My head was throbbing. Was this real life? We ran outside into the sunlight. Nothing had changed. Runners were running, the cheerers were cheering, the drunken college students were drinking. “Let’s check Twitter,” I said. We whipped out our phones, punched in #bostonmarathon, and stared in disbelief as our feeds refreshed.

“Large explosion, on the Boston Marathon route,” read one tweet, sent 1 minute earlier. “Possibly 60 people injured.”

As we watched, another came in reporting lost limbs:

I retweeted.


Near the finish line, two miles away, a phone buzzed, belonging to one of my best friends. She was volunteering for the marathon, working the communications tent linked to other ham radio stations along the race course. She doesn’t have a smartphone and still gets her friends’ tweets sent to her via text message—something that I often tease her about.

The explosions had gone off minutes earlier, sounding like cannon shots. But inside the tent, nobody knew yet what had happened. For her, too, the tweets were the first information she had about the explosion. She switched her radio to the medical channel.

Chaos.

Calls for ambulances and wheelchairs to help the injured—the casualties.

I was alone amongst her close friends in having no idea she was there. Without her smartphone to post to Facebook, she texted her parents.

Minutes later, her phone died.


An hour earlier, I’d been sitting in a chair on the grassy lawn of my friend’s apartment building, sharing a blanket with her, sipping a beer, watching the race go by. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The cheers of the crowd around us never wavered. With our chairs at the edge of the sidewalk, we supposed we were technically not drinking on public land—but only just. At one point, a cop walking down the sidewalk had approached me with a stern look, reached out to grab my beer, then smiled, winked, and kept on walking.

DSC_2520

Marathon Monday is like that. After my first one upon moving to Boston three years ago, I explained to my friends back home, “It seems to exist because by mid-April, Boston has gone an entire month since St. Patrick’s Day and decides it’s about time for another drinking holiday.”

DSC_2524

But that’s being glib. What I couldn’t quite describe was the crowd—at least half a dozen people deep for every inch of Beacon Street and for miles into the western countryside, cheering the runners on not with polite clapping and occasional shouts, but with a constant roar, the kind you hear from blocks away. The support for the runners is genuine. The marathon is an annual celebration, a small town gathering of half a million people.

And outside, nobody seemed to have told them that today was turning out to be otherwise. But inside, we were in a state of disbelief. We huddled around the TV, waiting for news. A daytime soap opera was on. Marathon coverage was off the air; the winners had long since crossed the finish line. We were impatient, at a loss for information, not quite yet willing to believe the horrific tweets. But one linked to a local CBS affiliate’s online stream of the finish line. There, we saw the first images—ambulances, empty grandstands, a crowd around what looked like a fell field of debris.

We started texting our families.

text

I walked outside to the sidewalk, through the cheering crowd, where a policeman stood calmly on the side of the road, watching the runners. “What do you know?” I asked him.

“I know a lotta things,” he drawled in his thick Boston accent. “I can cook, I can clean, I can read…”

“What do you know about Copley Square?”

“In Copley Square? There were two explosions. I don’t know anything else. Watch the news—they know more than me.”

And he turned back. Behind him, the runners kept running, with just over two miles to go to reach the finish line where people and parts of them lay on the blood-streaked sidewalk.

Inside, we stood around the laptop and filled the heavy vacuum of information with our own speculation. Was this deliberate? Was it—a bombing? It had to be. It didn’t look like a gas explosion from underground. Besides, the timing and location of it—at the finish line of the marathon? Two in a row? What else could it be? And yet, I still didn’t want to believe it.

After what seemed like an eternity, the local news cut in. We watched in a daze as the first replays of the explosions were shown. My heart sank. Jesus, I said.

Holy shit.

For a long time, we wondered why. Not why would someone attack innocent people—sadly, we took that as a given. Rather, why Boston? After all, we’re not a big city—we just pretend to be one! And why hit the party that is Marathon Monday? What’s the symbolism in that?

We sat down. We refreshed Twitter. We started getting phone calls from friends and family. Within minutes the mobile networks were buckling. “Texts are better,” someone said. When those failed, too, we resorted to a laptop and Facebook.

And we waited.


After about half an hour, group of people, including my friend’s sister, returned from the finish line. They sat in a dark stairwell, decompressing. We didn’t dare ask them what they saw. Instead: “How close were you?”

“We saw it happen.”

“There was blood everywhere. Everywhere.”

“We walked over a guy’s feet lying on the ground.”

There were no tears—just shock.

Crowding around the TV and watching the replays for their first time, they started pointing to people on screen that they had just seen, wondering if they had made it. My friend started to put more chicken wings in the microwave and pizzas in the oven. “I’m just gonna try to make everyone feel relaxed,” she said. “We could all use some food.”


When the food was done, I decided to head downtown. My friend came with me for a little ways. As we walked out down the stairs and turned up the sidewalk towards Kenmore, we were instantly stopped by a policeman. Even two miles away from the finish, the race course was on lockdown. We turned down a side street instead.

We walked in silence for a couple minutes. When she turned back, she said, “I better make sure everyone’s ok. Make sure my sister’s ok. Keep everyone fed and comfortable.”

I nodded and gave her a hug. “Good luck,” she said.


I took the long way around Fenway Park and cut through the Back Bay Fens. There, people walked past the geese in the water, not glancing at the trees sprouting spring’s first buds, lost in conversation with their friends or within their own thoughts. One man walked across the park alone, on his phone. There, away from the carnage, it could have passed for a beautiful day.

back bay fens

When I emerged by Symphony Hall and crossed the Christian Science Plaza by the reflecting pool, I came upon the police perimeter, a long queue of ambulances, and a somber crowd. Evacuated hotel workers stood around in their uniforms. A musician with a violin on his back tried to get by. Everywhere, people were texting, calling their family. Beyond that, nobody seemed to know what to do.

DSC_2653

Further down at St. Botolph Street, a small crowd gathered as police unrolled yellow tape to block the route to Copley Square. Runners sat with their families against buildings, wrapped in their thermal blankets, unable to get to their hotels. Some snacked on energy bars; a group of Japanese runners talked quietly amongst themselves; some just gazed into space. Families evacuating their hotels emerged at ground level at Ground Zero, disoriented, the parents wheeling their luggage past silent runners. Where they were going, if they had a place to go, I don’t know.

DSC_2658

One man was texting as he tried to walk past a policeman. “My family has no idea where I am,” he pleaded as the cop motioned for him to move away so he could put up yellow tape.

“My family has no idea where I am, either,” replied the cop, gently moving the man aside.

“What time will this area be open again?” the man asked, as I raised my camera to take his picture.

DSC_2643

“What time?” the policeman cried. “It could be weeks! Look around you! This is an emergency!” A crowd of photographers gathered and began clicking away. But it was not a nasty confrontation. The emotion in the cop’s voice wasn’t anger—only frustration, and sadness. The man slowly nodded and walked away.

Approaching Copley Square, the site of the blasts, the city became ever more deserted. An unnatural silence hung over downtown, bathed in afternoon light, pierced only by emergency sirens. The beating heart of Boston was deathly still. On an unpatrolled side street leading directly to Copley, a man walked his dog alone.

walking his dog 2

Copley itself was practically abandoned, with only a dozen or so police and firemen standing around Boylston Street.

empty Copley Square

What looked like NBC Sports camera equipment sat covered in plastic tarps, abandoned. The injured seemed to have been long since evacuated from the medical tent, where I couldn’t see any activity at all. On the steps of Trinity Church, a woman sat and texted, out of sight of everyone.

woman at Trinity Church

Here, in Copley Square, you could feel truly alone.


On the other side of the square, thousands of yellow bags of clothes sat in the middle of the street, waiting to be claimed by runners who never reached the finish line. A few who had wandered downtown around the police perimeter were wading through them, looking for their belongings. As they walked back through the gates onto Newbury, they hugged the volunteers who were still at their posts.

picking up clothes

When my phone died, I decided to head back to my friend’s apartment, joining a small stream of people heading outbound on Commonwealth Avenue. At one point, we passed a BU fraternity. A beer pong table, red Solo cups, and hot dogs were outside—they were offering what had been their party supplies to people returning from the explosion. “Do you want anything to eat or drink?” they asked as we walked by. I shook my head. I certainly wasn’t in need. “Can we give you anything?” one asked, almost desperate to help.

offers of fraternity


Two summers ago, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wandered down to the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square to meet people and take pictures. One of them was this:

#OccupyBoston 2011 Oct 16 Alex Arredondo's Helmet

I took the picture purely as a response to the emotion of the scene, not knowing who it belonged to or who had placed it there. When I saw this photo again on Tuesday, I realized: it was the helmet of Alex Arredondo, a marine killed in action in Iraq. His father is Carlos Arredondo. He was, I had read, a Boston-area native, and a familiar figure around the camp as a passionate anti-war activist.

And on Monday, when the bombs detonated and the smoke rose and the blood coated the streets of Boston, he became known to the world as the man in the hat wheeling a man with no legs to safety.

I’d had no idea I’d ever come into contact with his story before. But by pure chance, here in Boston, I had.


When we say that the spirit of Boston is strong, that Boston is a tough city and will bounce back, what are we really saying? Do we mean to claim that there is there something special, something empirically distinguishable about Bostonians (besides, of course, their wonderful accents)? Is there something about Boston that breeds a certain kind of people? Perhaps, but that’s not really what we mean. We would say the same about Oklahoma City, or Minneapolis, or Tel Aviv, or Baghdad, and we have. Maybe by saying it, we mean to point to Boston as an example that affirms our belief that humanity is capable of wonderful, compassionate things.

But if the response to help others and to display resilience in the face of adversity is human nature, then what is the role of the city?

What is a city? Is it a geographic location? A collection of buildings? A group of people agreeing to be bound by a common society? To borrow a metaphor from Ray Kurzweil, I think it is more like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past rocks in its path. A city’s citizens come and go, entering and then departing either the region or life itself. A city is completely turned over within the span of a human life. It consists of a completely different set of people than it did a generation ago. What remains is the pattern, the organization of that stuff.

A city is a pulsing, powerful, beast of a thing, and the last three days have changed how I look at this one. I feel more woven into its tapestry than ever before, more connected to the people who live here—even if we are all only rushing by the rocks in our path.


When I got back to my friend’s apartment on Monday, the sun had set and the living room was cast in darkness. Everyone was lying on the floor or on the couch watching the news—except my friend. She was fast asleep on the couch, having hosted everyone in her apartment all day, feeding them, keeping them relaxed. She was exhausted.

Inside the medical tent, my friend at the finish line was still there, her dead phone in her pocket. She’d spent the entire afternoon directing emergency vehicles as they sped into Copley Square, loaded victims, and flighted them to area hospitals. I only found this out at 10 pm that night, when I checked Facebook, saw the frantic wall posts from her friends, and chatted with her myself to reassure myself that she was fine. She was exhausted, too.

As Mr. Rogers said, and as has been retold countless times since, on the darkest days and cheerless nights when we most need a reminder of our common humanity, we look for the helpers. And when I look for the helpers, I know I only need to look for my friends.

man and candle

Revisiting Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park cover

I was six years old when Jurassic Park, the movie, was released, and I had dinosaurs on my brain.

I begged my parents to let me go to it. They refused, on the grounds that they had read in USA Today that many children older than me had been scared—even some 12 year olds! Nightmares, they said. I was indignant. Me? Nightmares?

But my parents held firm, and every time we drove past the mall on 28th St throughout the summer of ’93, the marquee sign tortured me, the block letters spelling out JURASSIC PARK, and then that dreaded code: PG-13.

JURASSIC PARK   PG-13

And so while my friends’ parents took them to see it, my parents, in a fit of protectiveness, bought me what they perceived to be the safer option: Jurassic Park, the book, by Michael Crichton.

This was, of course, completely misguided.

Jurassic Park was a kids’ movie—a whimsical tale of a mystical land filled with wondrous creatures gazed upon by worshipful faces in gentle dolly shots, accompanied by with John Williams’ strings and brass fanfares that sound equally at home underneath images of Santa Claus’ sled bounding into the air behind his reindeer.

The book is another animal. Within twenty pages, escaped procompsognathuses are running amok on the mainland—found in a nursery room, chewing chunks of baby in their jaws.

I was hooked. I read the book in three days flat, under the covers, late at night, every gruesome death a thrill to my senses: “Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly down to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick slippery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands.”

I was eight years old, and I loved it.


Jurassic Park was the first “adult” novel I ever read. My parents believed that while movies would give you nightmares, books could do no harm. And so I plowed through Michael Crichton’s back catalog: Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain, and so on. I felt like I was getting away with murder—or at least reading about it. Like generations of kids before me, books became my refuge, my playgrounds, where I learned about the world. And none had more of an influence on me than Jurassic Park.

I re-read Jurassic Park this week for the first time since then, and it was like an extended experience of deja vu. It was eerie how much I recalled across eighteen years. At times, entire passages came streaming back to me, like restoring an old file from some corner of my brain. Other times, tiny phrases, combinations of words would ring bells in my mind and I would realize that my memories of them were so pure and so strong, they represented the very first time I had ever encountered them. And the emotions the characters felt struck me even harder. Fear, powerlessness, melancholy. When I first read them, these were emotions I’d never seen articulated, although I would recognize them soon enough. It’s not a terribly large exaggeration to say that Jurassic Park formed the foundation of my understanding of the adult world.

Yes, Jurassic Park was a world where dinosaurs ruled the Earth, where chaos theory reigned, and people got their guts slashed out. But it was also a glorious world where lucid scientific explanations of genetics, chaos theory, and fractals flowed from the tongue of every scientist, programmer, and systems engineer like liquid chocolate from a liquid chocolate spout. In its way, Crichton-dialog is as artificial and stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing walk-and-talks, but I didn’t know that. I simply assumed that was how highly intelligent people spoke about complicated ideas—clearly, dramatically, and perfectly understandably.

The world of Jurassic Park was also one where the adults, when they weren’t speaking about science, spoke in clipped, 1980s-era dialog, liberally pre-punctuating their remarks with that ever-faithful interjection, “Jesus”.

“You look hot. Want a beer?” “Jesus, yeah.”

“Jesus,” somebody said.

“Jesus,” Gennaro said.

“Jesus,” Malcolm said.

“—Jesus, if an animal like that gets out,”

“Jesus,” Ed Regis said.

“Jesus, hang that up,” Nedry said.

“Jesus!”

“Jesus,” Muldoon said.

“Jesus,” Arnold said.

“Jesus.”

And so on.


These things I learned from Jurassic Park:

That Crays were the most powerful computers in the world.

That needing a quorum meant people were going to make an important decision.

That prescriptions drugs were expensive to develop, and so why shouldn’t the drug companies be able to charge $1000 a pill, $2000—whatever the hell they wanted?

That morphine was something that made sick people say things that sounded really smart.

But even more fundamental than that—I learned not so much how to write, but that it was possible to write. I learned that characters could speak without quotation marks and think in italics. I learned that a carefully placed em dash and an exclamation point could make my heart leap and my blood rush.


I wondered, before I began re-reading, if I was giving Crichton too much credit, if my eight-year-old self had been taken in by a mediocre writer and seduced by the novelty of “an adult novel” alone. The debacle of his 2006 anti-global science screed State of Fear left a bad taste in my mouth.

But no. As I read, my eyes flowed over the words like quickening rapids, and I sank into the text, submerged and speeding through. I was just as entranced as I had been as a child. It was good writing.

Not all of the content holds up. I winced at Malcolm’s rantings and ramblings, which read to me now as a pitch-perfect parody of a pseudoscience peddler. It would be brilliant, if it weren’t so  obvious that he is a vessel for Crichton’s true feelings.

But oh, the craft and construction. I still marvel at how the science serves the story, and the different strategies he uses to seamlessly weave it into the narrative—not just by providing crucial exposition, but using it to propel the plot forward. Often, he inserts the science as characters’ inner monologues that are then interrupted by a cliffhanging plot device. The science doesn’t serve the plot, it is the plot. It’s the setup, a pause in the pacing.

Other times, he dumps scientific jargon in front of the reader and then decodes them in the dialogue. For example, this little snippet of conversation comes a bit after he’s already discussed Cray supercomputers:

“You know who did their algorithms?”

“No,” Nedry said. “This company is very secretive.”

“Well, my guess is they’re doing something with DNA,” Barney said. “What’s the system?”

“Multi-XMP.”

“Multi-XMP? You mean more than one Cray? Wow.”

He didn’t need to slip in the XMP model designation, but doing so adds a little bit of color, and he manages to explain it unobtrusively in the dialogue.

He uses this to aid his characterization, as well. When we meet Ian Malcolm, Ellie’s curiosity at his all-black attire in the Dallas desert heat prompts a classic Malcolm quip that’s half science, half personality: “As a matter of fact, black is an excellent color for heat. If you remember your black-body radiation, black is actually best in heat. Efficient radiation.”

Crichton builds his world out of these scientific anecdotes, bringing Jurassic Park to life as a world where, in the middle of a ferocious raptor attack, there is time for the geneticist to assert to himself that behavior is only a second-order effect of DNA, and muse upon the distinction between empirical and theoretical work.


Indeed, the world of Jurassic Park, the Book, is nothing like the world of Jurassic Park, the Movie. This stuck out even more at me as I reread the book. Yes, the tone is darker—I knew that. But the characters are also so much more interesting.

Spielberg’s players have archetypal story arcs thrust upon them almost apologetically—perfunctory penance to offset the campy thrill of the dinosaurs, whom we all know are the real stars. Thus, we get the dopey subplot in which Grant has a hatred of children that is never motivated, but then—surprise! comes to love them. We also get the mushy Grant–Sattler love plot, and hints of a subplot revolving around Lex’s adolescent crush on Grant.

But in the book, Ellie Sattler’s character is a progressive portrayal of a woman in STEM. Instead of being Grant’s contemporary and love interest, she is his 24-year-old graduate student. Grant regards her completely on a professional level. And interestingly, none of the scientist or technical characters (excepting Malcolm) objectify her—but the nonscientists do. One after another, in throwaway moments, Bob Morris (an EPA investigator), Gennaro the lawyer, and Muldoon the hunter gaze upon her with astonishment or condescension—and each time, she either ignores them or stands her ground.

In Crichton’s world, she’s a woman who really does have it all. Not only is she on track for her PhD, “she’s marrying a nice doctor in Chicago sometime next year”—and she can outrun, outclimb, and outsmart velociraptors just as well as the men. Ellie is not a love interest for the men to fight over, and she’s not a Rambino, a Sigourney Weaver-in-Alien. She is simply, a scientist who is a woman. What could be more refreshing than that?

When I was 8, I saw the characters as either kids or adults—there was nothing in between. But now I can see how Crichton has a cast of research scientists at various stages of their careers, using them to portray the rigors and stresses of academia. At 40 years old, Alan Grant is a fledgling star in his field, probably recently tenured. 33-year-old Henry Wu is a desperately ambitious scientist with a funding crisis, for whom the role of Jurassic Park’s lead geneticist was an industry position he couldn’t refuse. (Before accepting, he asks Hammond: “Will my work be publishable?”) And at 24, Ellie is a PhD candidate—brilliant and undaunted.

And then there is 12-year-old Tim.

Tim is the beating, emotional heart of the novel. He’s intelligent, quiet, and vulnerable. In the movie, he’s an insufferable little snot. He talks Grant’s ear off, and for a while, seems to exist only to justify Grant’s otherwise odd hatred of children.

In many ways, in the novel, Tim is an honorary adult. He analyzes the dinosaurs in his head, comparing them to what he’s read in books. Are they nocturnal, he wonders? The famous T-rex attack is written from his point of view, and you see his thought process as he’s the first to realize the electric fences are down.

Tim knows who Grant is, respects him, and is nervous. When he first meets him, he mentally scans his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs to recall Grant’s theories and published work. He tells him a poignant story about visiting the Museum of Natural History with his disinterested dad. He’s a kid who has read about his passion for his entire life and is now finally getting a chance to meet his heroes in real life.

This resonated with me. That same feeling crosses my mind every time I meet someone in the worlds of science and writing whose work I’m familiar with.

And as I read, I realized: Tim was the twelve-year-old my eight-year-old self wanted to grow up to be.