Shakespeare’s words

Shakespeare often behaved less like a writer, and more like a chemist combining elements. He conducted word experiments—smashing words together, combining them. As a result, he invented many new words that had never been used before in print or on stage. Many of these new word combinations stuck and are still used today. Some examples are words like “uncomfortable,” “unreal,” and “eyeball,” as well as phrases like “what’s done is done,” “dead as a doornail,” “it’s Greek to me,” “love is blind,” and the classic joke-starter “knock knock, who’s there.”

Somehow, Shakespeare was able to create new phrases that stick in your mind, and now it seems as if they have always existed.

Check out this video in which Christopher Gaze goes through some of the MANY words and phrases Shakespeare created that live on in modern English. How many of them do you recognize?

 

The Real Don Quixote

Have you ever wondered if the world you see around you is actually real? What if you and everyone you know are just characters in someone else’s book or movie, and you have no idea? How can you be sure that what you think you are seeing and feeling is actually real? We know from physics and chemistry that our bodies and minds are really just a bunch of atoms and molecules that undergo chemical reactions. So do you, as a person with your own thoughts and feelings and ideas, really exist?

Anne Davis 773/Flickr
Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773/Flickr

One of the first people to play with these questions of what is real was Miguel Cervantes. In 1605, he published his most famous work Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Previously, books generally told a story, and that was it. Everyone knew they were stories and nothing more. But, Miguel Cervantes changed that.

Don Quixote begins with a narrator telling the reader that he is about to tell a story gathered from other authors and historical documents—so he’s not really the author. Right away, the story makes us question what is real. Is this all just a story? Or is the narrator telling us something that happened in history? Furthermore, how can we know whether the story the narrator tells matches what “actually” happened? Or if the multiple historical documents agree with each other? And where does that leave Cervantes in all of this?

To make things even more complicated, Don Quixote, the main character in the book, often mixes up what is real and what is in his mind. His imagination can get the best of him, leading to many misunderstandings between him and the other characters.

RadioLab, a podcast produced by WNYC studios in the United States, explored these questions in an episode about “The Real Don Quixote.” Listen to their conversations to have your mind blown by the literary genius that was Miguel Cervantes and to gain some insight into why Don Quixote, published at the start of the 17th century, remains so popular today.

The Real Don Quixote

 

Las Meninas—Nearly 400 years ago in Spain

As you may know, this year marks the 400th anniversary of both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes’ deaths. Check out our last post showing what London looked like in 1616, compared to today. Now, let’s turn our attention to Spain.

Nearly 400 years ago, renowned painter Diego Velázquez painted Las Meninas, one of the most widely analyzed paintings ever created. Take a look at this video explaining some of the mysterious aspects of the painting to get a sense of how artistic mindsets were changing at that time, and to gain a better understanding of the historical context soon after Cervantes’ death.

You can go see Las Meninas in person at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Next time you visit the painting, look at it from the vantage point of the big door opposite the painting. The sensation you get is that you can actually walk between the characters.

Two very influential authors

We are approaching the 400th anniversary of the death of two of the world’s most influential authors: William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. Legend has it that both of them died on the same day: April 22nd, 1616 (though people often forget that at the time of their death, Spain and England used different calendars…but we can keep that a secret for now). As a result, today we celebrate “Book Day” on April 22nd.

Over the coming week, we will be posting some interesting articles, videos, and pictures that tell us more about who these men were, why their works were so important, and what life was like when they were alive.

To start, check out this article from the Guardian that shows images of an engraving made by the artist Claes Jansz Visscher in 1616 depicting the city of London. Visscher finished the engraving in the year of Shakespeare’s death, and this year, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, artist Robin Reynolds has updated the classic engraving to show views of present-day London. Use the sliders to move between the old images and the new ones to get an idea of what has changed, and what has remained the same.

London 1616
One of the images of Visscher’s engraving showing London in 1616.
London 2016
One of the images of Reynolds’ engraving showing London in 2016.

Happy Pi Day!

piHappy Pi Day! Every March 14th (3/14 using the day/month format used in the U.S. to write dates) mathematicians and students around the world celebrate pi, which is a very special number. Pi (the Greek letter “π”) is the symbol we use in math to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which is equal to approximately 3.14. That’s why we celebrate pi day on March 22—the date 3/14 has the same digits as the first three digits of pi! But the number pi actually goes on for quite a while. It’s more like 3.14159265358979… the numbers after the decimal point continue forever, without any pattern. In fact, pi has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond the decimal point. I’m glad I don’t need to memorize that for an exam!

Physicist Larry Shaw celebrating the first pi day in San Francisco in 1988.
Physicist Larry Shaw celebrating the first pi day in San Francisco in 1988.

The first large-scale pi day celebration took place in 1988 in San Francisco, my hometown. It was organized by physicist Larry Shaw, who was working at a science education museum called the Exploratorium. The staff of the museum, as well as visitors from the public, celebrated by walking around in circles and eating fruit pies—because pies are round, like circles, and because in English “pie” and “pi” are homophones. That means the words, when spoken, sound exactly the same.

Many people eat pie on pi day.

Today, pi day is still celebrated by eating pie, reciting as many digits of the number pi as you can remember, and solving math problems that involve the constant pi.

Physicist Albert Einstein
Physicist Albert Einstein

And one additional fun fact: Albert Einstein’s birthday is also 3/14. So in some places, people also hold contests to see who can dress up to look most like the famous physicist!

 

International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day! Since the 1970s, the United Nations has been celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th to honor the achievements of women all around the world as well as to raise awareness about how women still face many unjust challenges simply because they are women.

This year, the theme of the day is “Planet 50-50 by 2030,” which is in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs include numerous goals related to reducing gender inequality (in addition to other issues) that all the countries of the world have committed to achieving by 2030.

Check out these three inspiring videos related to International Women’s Day. The first one gives some statistics about the current status of women and girls around the world and the challenges that many still face today. It then shows how the SDGs will hopefully improve the situation of women and girls around the world by 2030.

The second video celebrates the working women of the world, especially since not long ago, it was rare to find women in the workforce. It also highlights some of the many inventions and innovations women have pioneered over the years.

The third video, on the homepage of Google today, celebrates the women engineers, educators, leaders, movers and shakers of tomorrow. Google visited 13 cities around the world (San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Lagos, Moscow, Cairo, Berlin, London, Paris, Jakarta, Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tokyo) and asked 337 girls and women to complete the sentence “One Day I Will…” Then, they made this video.

Today, try to find a time to show your appreciation for the women and girls who have inspired you and influenced your life!