Would you rather have a rare or common name? Mine has been both.

No, that's not me with US President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Inauguration Day, January 20, 1997. (White House photo)

Every year, the Social Security Administration and other authorities release rankings of popular names. Most of the attention goes to the highly ranked names: Noah and Sophia were tops in 2013, the last SSA list released. Last week, however, the City Room blog of the New York Times highlighted some of New York City’s least popular names. Names given to just a handful of Big Apple babies in 2013 include Sincere (19 boys) and Nashley (10 girls).

Those Sinceres and Nashleys could just have weird names their whole lives. But there’s an alternative. As unlikely as it may seem, those names could get caught up in the lifecycle of popular baby names, in which newly coined names get uptake among a few and then explode into public consciousness, rising high in the rankings before falling off precipitously. I think it was the Freakonomics folks who first found that the early adopters in this cycle tend to be elite, but by the time the name reaches its peak popularity, people in the elite groups (as measured by wealth, education, or celebrity) are no longer using it. As Steve Levitt said on the Freakonomics podcast:

One of the most predictable patterns when it comes to names is that almost every name that becomes popular starts out as a high-class name, or a high-education name. So in these California data we had, we could see the education level of the parents. And even the names that eventually become the quote “trashiest” kinds of names, so the Tiffanys and the Brittanys, and—I’ll probably get myself in trouble—and the Caitlyns and things like that start at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of 20 or 30 or 40 years they migrate their way down, becoming more and more popular among the less-educated set. And as names become popular among the less educated, the higher-educated parents absolutely abandon these names and don’t want anything to do with them.

Many prospective parents stress about whether they should give their kid an unusual name or a common one, but the Freakonomics analysis points to a third possibility: It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to inadvertently give your kid an unusual name that later becomes common. As it happens, my parents did just that for me (and then, as it turns out, repeated the trick for my brother). Originally, Chelsea was a place name meaning “chalk port”—most famously among the neighborhoods of New York, Boston, and London (London’s Chelsea also giving its name to the (in)famous football team). When Chelsea was (rarely) used for people, it was given to boys—there is a conductor named Chelsea Tipton II who is older than me, and whose father was presumably also named Chelsea. It’s hard to know why Chelsea took off for girls. Some trace it to Judy Collins’s beloved song Chelsea Morning. That’s the reason given by the Clintons for giving their daughter the name, I believe. (She’s younger than I am, by the way—a fact that is weirdly important to me, since it means I had the name first. My father tells me that it’s an important fact to him, too.)

Chelsea popularity graph
A graph of my name's popularity from BabyNameWizard.com

When I was born, the name Chelsea was vanishingly rare, but it was already getting caught up in the popularity cycle, though my parents didn’t know that. My parents (in the well-educated demographic, as predicted by Levitt) had never known anyone with the name. In fact, they had never even heard of it until they read a report in the newspaper about a hockey player (a sort of celebrity, also as predicted) with a daughter named Chelsea. As far as my parents were concerned, it wasn’t a totally unique name—in that they hadn’t invented it—but it was one that would make me special.

The bad thing about having a rare name was that hardly anyone where I grew up knew how to pronounce it by looking at it. (Mostly I got Chel-SEE-ah.) That was a minor hardship, but I never wished for a more phonetic spelling, like Chelsey. Fortunately, people didn’t make fun of it, and they often told me that my name was beautiful, so I loved it. I also felt special for being the only one who had it. So it was jarring when Bill Clinton ran for office and his daughter was named, of all things, Chelsea. Then the worst started happening: Everybody who met me would say, “Oh, Chelsea, like Chelsea Clinton!” (Funnily enough, people still do this, especially abroad, but I’ve come to enjoy it and use it as a launching point for conversation.) A hair braider at a Renaissance festival, upon learning my name, commented on my curly blond hair and proximity to DC and asked if Chelsea Clinton was my sister. After a moment’s further consideration, she retracted the question, but I couldn’t unhear it. I was no longer the special Chelsea; Chelsea Clinton was. That people could now pronounce my name didn’t make up for that painful truth.

Soon, however, Chelsea Clinton and I found ourselves sharing our name not just with each other, but also with a horde of Chelseas, Chelsies, and Chelcis more than 10 years our junior. The popularity of the name peaked in 1992, the year Clinton was elected, at number 15 on the SSA charts. (Based on the trend prior to 1992, I think Chelsea may have grown popular even without the Clintons’ influence, but that certainly helped.) I started hearing my name everywhere, especially near playgrounds. All of a sudden, my unique name was a fad. I even feared that some people would label it with Levitt’s ugly word from the quote above, “trashy.” As a teenager and young adult who actively didn’t participate in fads and aspired to have good taste, I was bummed.

Then, just as the models predict, Chelsea’s popularity plummeted. People got sick of the name, and they moved on to something fresher. In 2013, it ranked number 271 (just 611 Chelseas born in the United States), and one prediction algorithm declares “it will decline as a baby name every year from now through 2027.”

So Chelsea will become a relatively uncommon name once more. But the consequences of Chelsea’s moment in the sun will live on. For example, since the name’s popularity was so concentrated in time, I assume that most people who see my name without my face (which they do a lot, since I’m a writer) assume that I’m 10 to 15 years younger than I am—part of the Chelsea boom. (My mother points out that I may not mind this in a few years.) It may also be that, as I and the other Chelseas age, the name is going to start to seem like a middle-aged lady’s name and then an old lady’s name (like I thought of the names Betty and Barbara in my childhood). I once saw a description of the name Chelsea that called it “timeless”; that’s unfortunately about as far from the truth as it could be.

Names are central to identity, and I found the shifting fortunes of my name disorienting at a sensitive time. So you can probably guess that, if I were to give advice on naming a baby today, I would suggest avoiding a name that’s riding the name cycle. But that may be harder than it would seem, even with all the data and algorithms available. After all, we don’t know if Nashley and Sincere are just getting traction in New York, or if they will remain a few kids’ oddball names. Plus, there are lots of unforeseeable factors that can instantly affect the popularity of specific names, like the name of the next president’s child (um, Chelsea?) or, on the other hand, of the next serial killer.

Fortunately, we can all take solace in the Freakonomicists’ conclusion, based on the numbers, that one’s name does not have any bearing on one’s success. So if people do make untrue assumptions about me based on my name, it doesn’t matter one bit in the end. I will succeed and fail at life based on other factors, some of which I can control and some of which I can’t, and so will all the world’s children. That’s reassuring.

So while I’ll probably be forever coming to terms with fact of all the other interloper Chelseas in the world, I’ve never been tempted to change my name. Learning to share it has been part of the process of growing up, finding my place in the world, and becoming a responsible resident of Planet Earth. After all, there are more than 7 billion of us here. None of us is all that special, and we’re gonna have to share most everything.

Meet Oven Dog and Oven Cat

Dog Looking in Oven
Photo: Ttrentham on Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/thechunk/2242959404)

Have your pets met Oven Dog and Oven Cat? These myterious beasts apparently inhabit many homes, as I learned when I asked for peoples' stories about animals reacting to mirrors, which I've collected on a special page. Here's Oven Cat, as remembered by Matt:

My wife and I have two cats, but for a year, we lived with a third animal who we named "Oven Cat." The house we were in at the time had an oven with a very reflective door, and when one of the cats, Rosie, would walk by, she'd often catch her reflection in it. Sometimes, she'd just sit and stare at it. Sometimes, she'd get closer to inspect the mystery cat. Sometimes she would paw at the door, giving Oven Cat a sort of high five. Our older cat, on the other hand, paid is reflection no mind.

And here's Oven Dog, from a reader on Slate:

One dog maintained a perpetual growling match with Oven Dog, an unpleasant canine who apparently lived in the oven and was always showing house dog her fiercest expression. The match was usually a draw with both parties wandering away in boredom.

The page also has fun videos from YouTube and links to my stories on what animals think they see when they look in the mirror, so enjoy, and submit your own.

A Magnificent failure: The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna

The main entrance to the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. (Photo by Michael Frankenstein via Wikipedia.de at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weltausstellung_1873)

The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna was widely considered a colossal failure — it lost the equivalent of 160 million euro because of a devastating combination of the world’s first truly international financial crisis and Vienna’s last cholera epidemic. In many ways, this is all you need to know to understand the crucial time in history at which the World Exhibition was held: At the beginning of a new era of science and public health, as well rapid communication that enabled rampant speculation and its inevitable consequences.

Educational exhibits were part of the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition. This was an example of an American rural schoolhouse. (via the LOC http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004676913/)
The interior of the schoolhouse. (Also via LOC at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004676913/)

A Wien Museum exhibition recently elucidated this period, and the role of the World Exhibition in it, with a fascinating collection of photographs and artifacts. That fast-changing world was trading old scourges for modern ones, and the World Exhibition sat at the fulcrum of that transition. Despite the dark circumstances surrounding the event, it optimistically promoted the world's progress in industry, art, and agriculture, and highlighted foreign lands that were freshly accessible because of new transit options. Built from scratch in Vienna’s enormous city park, it was five times larger than the previous exhibition in Paris, making room for 53,000 exhibitors from 35 countries in 194 pavilions. Almost none of it is left today.

The plan of the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna from Jutta Pemsel: Die Wiener Weltausstellung von 1873, Verlag Böhlau, 1989 via Wikimedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montage_Plan_Weltausstellung_1873.jpg

Although the World Exposition itself was a financial disaster, it managed to welcome some 7 million visitors, and the exhibitors themselves left happy: They made money, and the exposure benefited them for years to come. The event also helped inaugurate the era of mass tourism in Vienna some 20 years later than in London and Paris. Today, it’s still possible to wander the streets downtown and see what the World Exhibition’s visitors saw — except then, the buildings were brand new symbols of Vienna’s aspirations, not relics of a time long past.

The machinery hall at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition via http://www.ndl.go.jp/site_nippon/viennae/data/10028.html

Scenes from a Louisiana oyster boat



At the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting, I got to go out on an oyster boat operated by John Tesvich and his nephew, Luke. We learned about the challenges to oyster reefs, including Katrina, the BP oil spill, the low-oxygen "dead zone" along Louisiana's coast, and the proposed freshwater diversions that will build up wetlands along the coast.

Above all, oysterers want to preserve their lifestyle, and it's clear why. It's not an easy life, but it's a special one.

(All photos are my own.)


P1020356 P1020358 P1020369 P1020365 P1020392 P1020405


News: SEJ Award

The breeding area in Burghausen in 2012; my first visit. That's my tent in the background.

Thanks to the judges of the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment for honoring The New Flight of the Ibis with third place in the Outstanding Feature Story category. This is what they said about the story:

At a time when so much reporting on the environment is discouraging, if not downright depressing, along comes a feature story that lifts the reader off the ground with hope.  Writer Chelsea Wald introduces a determined scientist who teaches himself to fly so that he can train a flock of northern bald ibises, nearly extinct, to migrate again. And while Wald's story covers many years and much frustration, she does it with a light touch. The story of this unusual conservation project is not without tragedy, but the overall takeaway is refreshingly sweet.

I don't think the third prize winner gets to make an acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, so I'll use this opportunity to say that this story exists because of the vision and thoughtful editing of Nautilus editor Kevin Berger. And of course because of the Johannes Fritz, the Waldrappteam, and the northern bald ibises, who generously let me hang around and answered questions for hours.

I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and making new at the SEJ conference in New Orleans. If you are reading this and will be there, too, please let me know so that we can meet.

Northern bald ibis resources

Ibis flying
A northern bald ibis flying home to its nest in Burghausen, Germany (credit: C. Wald)

If reading my stories on the northern bald ibis in Nautilus, BBC Wildlife, Science, Nature, and Earth Touch is not enough, here are some resources where you can learn more, keep up to date with developments, or just look at beautiful photos. If you have suggestions for others, let me know.

Taking a Turn on the Space Curl

I get to do a lot of cool things thanks to my job as a science journalist, but this is something that anyone can do at the Vienna Technical Museum, where I spent Yuri's Night (April 12). The Space Curl, in the museum's SPACE exhibition (until January 6, 2015), puts you inside of a gyroscope. In case it's not clear in the video, I'm controlling the Space Curl's movement, although not really expertly. According to the museum's website, it simulates the disorientation experienced in space, and NASA uses it as a training device for astronauts. I thought it was great fun, and I would love to do it again.


Thanks to Christy Reed for taking the video. I didn't know she was going to do that.

Paul Robeson: An unlikely Passover hero, waiting in the seder's wings

Robeson singing
The original caption to this 1942 photo read: "Paul Robeson, world famous Negro baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, here at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: `This is a serious job---winning this war against fascists. We have to be together.' Robeson himself was a shipyard worker in World War I."

“Go Down, Moses,” a traditional African-American song, is widely sung at American Jews’ Passover seders, including my own. Although that may be a little bizarre (as is beautifully pointed out in this piece in Tablet), the song’s subject matter makes it the perfect match for the seder’s raison d’être: to tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It also links the Biblical story to the relatively recent American historical events of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, reminding us of our responsibility to continue to fight for freedom wherever it is in short supply. 

It feels triumphant to sing “Let my people go!” at seder after a few cups of wine, I can tell you. But there’s a major buzz kill lurking in the song’s past: the troubling story of Paul Robeson, the singer who first made it popular. He was on a trajectory to be enshrined in history books as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, until he found himself on a collision course with anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Because he used his fame to advocate for the oppressed, Robeson ended up vilified and muzzled.

It is a sobering story, but one that I would argue is a perfect fit for the seder, reminding us of the harsh price of freedom, especially for those like Moses and Robeson who try to lead us there. In case you aren't up to speed on Robeson's story, let me amaze you: An extraordinary Renaissance man, Robeson rose to fame in 1915 as Rutgers University’s first African-American football player, and also graduated as its valedictorian. He went to Columbia Law School, but left legal practice due in part to racial discrimination. In the 1920s and 30s, he moved to London and turned to acting on stage and in film, gaining worldwide fame, especially for his role in "Show Boat." His Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway’s history, and his kiss of Desdemona during that show was the first time a black man kissed a white woman on a major American stage.

Paul Robeson, Go Down Moses

But it was his singing that reaches through the years to touch us today. With his resonant bass-baritone, he recorded many traditional African-American songs, bringing some, like “Go Down, Moses,” to a broad white audience for the first time. He felt a deep affinity for the message in many of these songs: freedom for the oppressed. Touring the planet, he spoke out unapologetically about social and political issues, and connected the struggles of African Americans to those of poor and minority people around the world. Ultimately—like many Jews at that time, it should be noted—he embraced the ideals of communism (although he never joined the Communist Party) and publicly supported the Soviet Union, where he felt there was no racial discrimination. “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.” 

Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44

The FBI began surveillance on Robeson in the 1940s as the Cold War developed. In 1949, he gave a speech at a peace conference in Paris, and a reporter quoted him as saying that black Americans would never take up arms against the Soviet Union. It was out of context, he later clarified without apology, but the damage was done. Americans turned on him; even the black American leadership distanced itself from him. His concerts were cancelled; concert halls and recording studios banned him. When he did hold a concert in a small New York State venue, concertgoers were attacked while police stood by. It was one of the largest riots in U.S. history. One friend and contemporary, Lloyd Brown, later said Robeson was “the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.” 

Robeson was called in front of McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, where he passionately defended both his patriotism and his loyalty to the Soviet Union. (The transcript is astounding.) A Moses to McCarthy’s Pharaoh, his passport was revoked for 8 years, so he couldn’t perform for his still-adoring fans abroad. Recordings of old media appearances were destroyed; his Broadway record was removed from the books; his films were banned from television. He still toured in churches and union halls, but his voice had been effectively silenced.

It was a silence that, in many ways, lasted decades after he got his passport back. Robeson began to tour again, but his career was cut short by a mental breakdown that included hallucinations and depression. His son later accused the CIA first of drugging Robeson with LSD and then later ordering extreme, disabling treatments in a psychiatric hospital. Whatever happened, Robeson was never the same again. He died in seclusion in 1976. 

It seems that Robeson is still much better known abroad than in the United States (and I’ve noticed that's the case in Vienna, Austria, where I live), but Robeson’s legacy has been largely recovered at home. He has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and his name graces many libraries, schools and cultural centers. But, like Moses, Robeson is not a hero without flaws. His unwavering support of Stalin remains problematic, since he surely knew of Stalin’s crimes. When Robeson was in Moscow in 1949, he demanded to meet with his friend, Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who was released from jail for the occasion. According to Robeson’s son’s account, Feffer desperately informed Robeson about the imminent execution of many Russian Jews, including himself. Devastated, Robeson closed his last concert in Moscow with a direct reference to Feffer and a Yiddish rendition of the Song of Resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Portrait of Paul Robeson by American painter Betsy Graves Reyneau

But when Robeson returned to the United States, he denied having seen any problems. Nobody knows why exactly, because his attachment to his friends and his declared admiration for Jewish culture always seemed deep and sincere. Maybe he thought that he had done all he could, and that speaking out in America would hurt his friends. Maybe, as some have claimed, he feared lending support to anti-Soviet political forces, and possibly starting the war he so feared. Maybe, like many, he simply couldn’t reconcile his loyalty to communism’s ideals—the ideals that he thought would bring equality to his people and to all people around the world—and the reality of the Soviet state. Whatever his reason, it must have been a difficult decision, and one that weighed on him. Maybe we can find our way to compassion and forgiveness by remembering the seder’s teaching that the fight for freedom always comes with a high moral cost: After all, we spill drops of wine in recognition of the innocent suffering caused by the plagues. The seder also reminds us that if we demand that our heroes be perfect, we will be left with no heroes at all.

I’m no rabbi, but there’s got to be room for one more fascinating and flawed hero in the already large American Passover pantheon. In fact, I think Robeson’s been there all along, subtly making himself known when we sing “Go Down, Moses.” We can make his presence explicit by telling his story, and glean deeper understandings by contrasting it with Moses’s. After all, our ancient stories do their heaviest lifting when they help us make sense of the present. So here are some observations to start: Whereas Moses stuttered, Robeson had a voice that captivated the world. Whereas Moses was a reluctant leader, Robeson didn’t hesitate to use his fame for social good. But they both tirelessly repeated their demands for freedom. And neither got to enjoy the Promised Land: Moses died at the border, and Robeson in a country that had far from—has still far from—perfected the freedom and democracy its leaders preached.

Chag sameach. Happy Passover.

If you would like to learn more about Paul Robeson, I was moved by this radio report from Australia. It features the author of the first new biography of Robeson to come out in a long time. (I haven’t read the book yet, but the reviews are solid.)

Dictionary Review: Oxford Collocations Dictionary

Collocations dictionary2
Dictionaries and fruit: Not a common collocation

I’m disappointed that the subtitle of this dictionary is “for students of English.” That is, unless they mean that we are all, in our ways, students of English. Perhaps as a writer, I’m a student of English more than most, and that’s why I wish it had come into my life a long time ago.

OK, back it up. What is a collocations dictionary? No, further. What is a collocation? No, further. What is a dictionary review? Right.

Ah! This blog post is greatly much profoundly deeply indebted to Helen Fields, who invented the genre of dictionary reviews (as far as we both know) for her blog. She also invented Bug on my Window, so you can see she is a genius. The idea is that I’m going to write a little bit about why this dictionary is awesome and then, at the end, I’ll give you some relevant stats, like what some of the entries look like and whether there are obscenities in the dictionary (spoiler alert: No.).

So, back to collocations. A collocation is something you use all the time when you speak: a combination of words that go well together. It’s nothing so complex as an idiom; indeed, it requires no thought at all for native speakers. It’s how you know you can get caught in a heavy rain but not thick rain, or how you know to order a light beer but not a diet beer—you just know.

But as anyone who has spoken known understood used learned taught mastered studied a foreign language knows, this is one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to learn. I get collocations in German wrong, like, 99 percent of the time. When I use a German dictionary, very often it’s to find the right collocation, but that’s for writing. (Maybe you’ll get a review later about the awesome dictionary I use for that.) When I’m speaking, I’m saying the equivalent of thick rain and diet beer nonstop. Luckily, people can often understand me, but it sounds extremely fairly very incredibly terribly sehr awkward.

But I’m going to argue that the Oxford Collocations Dictionary goes well beyond its subtitle and is also useful for native speakers, at least native writers. Once I saw it, I realized that almost every time I reach for a thesaurus (or google for one), what I really want is a collocations dictionary. That’s because whenever I find choose pick look up a word in the thesaurus, it’s not because I’m trying to diversify my word use—that always leads to finding the wrong word when you already have the right one, a absurd bad mistaken ridiculous stupid crackpot crazy mad outlandish wild terrible idea. No, it’s because I can’t find the precise very exact word I want, and that word is very often part of a collocation. With a collocations dictionary, all you need is one word, and it will give you the other.

Take a recent story I wrote for Nature. It was about scientists who had accurate reliable comprehensive detailed extensive preliminary raw oh to heck with it data showing that birds in V-Formation coordinate their flapping in order to save energy. We didn’t want to say it was proof that they save energy—that was too strong—so we went with compelling evidence. If we didn’t want to use compelling for some reason, we could look up the word evidence in the collocations dictionary and find a slew of adjectives that go perfectly well with evidence: clear, conclusive, convincing, decisive, definitive, good, hard, incontrovertible, irrefutable, overwhelming, persuasive, positive, powerful, solid, striking, strong, unambiguous, unequivocal. Obviously, not all of these would work in context, but they are more appropriate than the words you would find if you looked up compelling in a thesaurus (for the record, from Thesaurus.com: fascinating, constraining, coercive, compulsory, forcible). Come to think of it, I’m pretty fond of persuasive and striking—hold on a second while I make a note of them.

There are two drawbacks to this dictionary: There aren’t enough collocations in there. Just from this post, I tried to look up go + together (under together, where you should also be able to find, say, fit) and invent + genre (under genre, which has lots of collocations), and neither were there. To really be useful for writers, it needs to be bigger, MUCH BIGGER. Do you hear me, Oxford University Press?

The other downside is that it is not mine. I have to return it to my librarian husband’s library, where the international staff at his office frequently use it. I will miss you, Oxford Collocations Dictionary. I say wish you bid you a emotional tearful sad silent fond farewell.



Title: Oxford Collocations Dictionary

Subtitle: for students of English

Date: 2009

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length: 963 pp.

Guide word on p. 50: await verb
ADV. Anxiously, breathlessly (AmE), nervously She is anxiously ~ing a decision on her future. | eagerly, keenly (BrE), with interest (esp. BrE) ◇ The outcome of the appeal is ~ed with interest. | patiently | impatiently
PHRASES long ~edher long ~ed return to professional tennis

Guide word on p. 106: catastrophe noun
ADJ. absolute, big, complete, great, major, terrible, total | minor | national | global, international, world | ecological, economic, environmental, financial, human, humanitarian, natural, nuclear The country is on the brink of a humanitarian ~. | imminent, impending, potential
VERB + CATASTROPHE be | cause, lead (sth) to These policies could lead us to environmental ~. | have We had a few ~s with the food for the party. | be faced with, be heading for, faceThe area is now facing economic ~. | avert, avoid, head off, preventmoves to avert a national ~
CATASTROPHE + VERB happen, occur, strike, take place 

Introduction: Very short. Once you grasp the idea of collocations, the dictionary and its entries don’t need much explaining. If there’s some abbreviation you don’t understand, you can of course look it up in the guide in the introduction (e.g., esp. BrE means that a collocation is used particularly in British English). 

Thematic pages: There’s a page on fruit. It covers collocations related to growing fruit, tasting fruit, preparing and preserving fruit, parts of fruit, and more. There are only ten of these thematic pages. I find it depressing that one is on meetings (circulate an agenda—gah!).

Study pages: Really for students of English as a second language, these are for practicing common collocations on various topics. For example, fix the incorrect collocation in this sentence: Police carried out a raid on the premises early this morning and did two arrests. (Most of you won’t need the study pages, but they’re a good reminder of how hard it is to learn to speak English in a way that sounds natural. Max props to those people I know who have.) 

Obscenities: Sadly, no. Would be so great to see the list of collocations for some four-letter words. But nothing, not even bloody. (Update: Hell is in there, but bloody is not one of the suggested collocations.)

How I would fix that scene in Gravity with the questionable physics

Letgo_mobileI know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw Alfonso Cuarón’s space movie Gravity last night. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson and nearly everyone else, I really enjoyed it. That’s why it’s gnawing on me that a pivotal scene relied on some dubious physics.

It’s the one in the promotional image to the left. (If you’ve haven’t seen it yet, I’m shocked, but SPOILER ALERT.) Astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney) are in space suits, trying to board the International Space Station. Unfortunately, they approach it at high speed and ricochet around, at the risk of bouncing or sliding off into space, never to come back. Fortunately, some cable catches Stone’s ankle, and she in turn catches a loose tether attached to Kowalski’s suit, forming a chain. They stop in this position to have a conversation, but it’s clear that Kowalski is being pulled out into space, and he eventually releases his tether in order to let Stone survive and return to the ISS.

As many have pointed out, the question is: What the heck is pulling Kowalski out into space? In many, many, many, too many movies, this scene appears like so: Character 1 is hanging over an abyss, with only character 2 to hold him or her, usually by the wrist. Gravity is pulling down, and character 2 either is or isn’t strong enough to hold character 1, so either saves or drops him or her. (In a twist, sometimes character 1 lets go as a self-sacrifice to save the other person, as Kowalski does.)

But in the movie Gravity, the force of gravity is not in play, since it takes place in space. So there’s no reason that Kowalski, once stopped, should float out into space once released. He should just stay where he is. In fact, it’s worse, as Tyson tweeted:

ClooneySome have argued in favor of the physics in this scene, but even if there is some reasonable explanation having to do with momentum or centrifugal force, there’s clearly something wrong when smart people like Bad Astronomer Phil Plait is in the audience wanting to scream, "'CLOONEY DOESN’T HAVE TO DIE!’"

I’m with Plait, of course, but I’m not content to just scream silently in my head. I want to fix this, dammit. As I lay awake after watching it, this is what I came up with as an alternative to this scene:

We start in the same configuration as in the promotional image, with a cable insecurely looped around Stone’s ankle. It has stopped her from floating out into space. She is holding Kowalski’s tether, arm extended, and he has also stopped moving. (I would venture to say that it’s highly improbable that they would actually end up in this position, but the movie is built on improbabilities that are physically possible, so I’ll allow it.)

It appears they are saved. Now all that’s needed is for her to pull him to her, and for them to use the cable to get back to the ISS. But as she pulls, her leg makes a stray kick, accidentally releasing the cable; worse, kicking it just out of reach. Instead of Kowalski coming to her, she and Kowalski move together.

BullockNow they are floating within spitting distance of the ISS (especially in space, where the spit would fly forward forever), but with no way to get there. He has no fuel in his jet pack, and she is quickly running out of oxygen. There’s only one thing to do: He will push her toward the station so she can board it. As a result, he will go flying off in the other direction, never to be seen again. Just like in the original, he sacrifices himself to save her, but in a way that makes physical sense. As he floats away, they have the same touching conversation as in the film.

So that’s my solution. I think it both makes the physics more realistic and avoids the clichéd cliffhanger scene that I have come to resent.

But, gosh, I could be wrong, either from the standpoint of physics or of dramatic integrity. As I was doing the necessary thought experiments to reimagine the scene, I realized that it’s harder than it would seem to work out cause and effect in zero gravity. (I kept going back to the cool frictionless sleds we had in teacher Aaron’s physics class at the fabulous Edmund Burke School in Washington, DC.) That gave me all the more respect for the rest of the film, which gets it really right a very large portion of the time. Seriously, it’s spectacular.

So I very humbly submit this alternative to the interwebs, not so much in the spirit of a movie critique as in the spirit of fan fiction.