A Love of Language and Letters

by Kathryn on March 9, 2017

A very special article just came out in Muse magazine: “Communing with the Letter Spirits.” This piece is about Douglas Hofstadter’s Letter Spirit project, which was an attempt to model human creativity through a computer program that created its own fonts. But for me, the meaning goes much deeper.

My alphabet

The alphabet for the language I invented

When I was a teenager, I invented my own language. Granted, I didn’t come up with a very extensive vocabulary or grammar. But I made up an alphabet, and wrote several poems in the language, all for use in a fantasy book I was working on at the time. It turns out I had more fun working on the language than on the book!

Also in high school, I read a book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. This book remains one of the top three most influential books I’ve ever read. It changed the way I thought about math and language. It revealed new ways of thinking and expressing thoughts that had never occurred to me before. I was so blown away, that I went on to read everything else Hofstadter had written.

I also continued to invent alphabets all through college. Usually these were just doodles besides whatever notes I was taking. I took a course on Sanskrit one semester, mostly to learn the script, which is still used in Hindi today. My quizzes and tests for that class looked like a secret code, but I could decipher them. In another class in college, a reading assignment included Chinese writing alongside the English translation. I spent hours puzzling over the characters, trying to figure out each one’s meaning, just for fun.

I also completed a senior scholar project — a sort of a thesis — called Thought Made Visible. The project focused on linguistics, creativity, and expression, and it took up all of my time for an entire year.


Examples of a few fonts from the Letter Spirit project

After college, I seriously considered a couple of different paths. One was going on to graduate school in cognitive science — I specifically wanted to study with Hofstadter. But in the end, I decided to join the Peace Corps. My two requests for my destination were: 1) somewhere cold and 2) somewhere with a different alphabet. I wound up in Kyrgyzstan, which is definitely cold and uses Cyrillic writing.

But I always regretted a little bit not pursuing cognitive science. I’ve always considered Hofstadter to be an important role model, but I figured I’d never get to work with him. But then the opportunity to write this article came along, and I got to talk to him. He’s in his eighties now, so I was lucky to get this opportunity while he’s still taking interviews.

It was a special conversation for me, and I’m so happy to see the article out in print! I hope some other young person who is obsessed with languages finds the article and gets the same joy out of discovering Hofstadter’s work as I did.

Letter Spirits


Climate Change vs Fracking

by Kathryn on February 13, 2017

Fasten Your Seat Belt

Four years ago, I attended a fascinating talk by Richard Alley about melting ice and climate change at the AAAS conference in Boston. Read my post about it here.

When I found out that Muse magazine was going to focus an upcoming issue on climate change, I immediately remembered that talk and pitched an article based on some of its themes. Here’s my favorite line in the article:

“Arguing that we shouldn’t do anything to prepare for climate change because disaster is unlikely is like arguing that you shouldn’t wear a seatbelt because you probably won’t get into a fatal accident.”

A few weeks after this article came out, I received author copies of my latest book: Special Reports: FrackingAt first glance, it seems as if these two projects oppose each other. After all, fossil fuels (such as the natural gas extracted with fracking) are to blame for climate change. In order to limit the negative effects of climate change, we have to stop fracking, right? Probably.

Actually, the book on fracking attempts to take a fair look at both sides of the controversy surrounding this drilling technique. And climate change is one of the most interesting aspects of the debate because the two sides claim opposite things! Pro-fracking folks (the ones who actually believe in climate change) claim that natural gas provides a cleaner, more climate-friendly alternative to coal and oil. Natural gas emits much less CO2 when burned. That is true. Anti-fracking folks say that cheap natural gas slows the adoption of cleaner energy choices (like solar and wind). Also, natural gas extraction, transportation, and storage sometimes leaks methane into the air, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Also true.

While working on this book, I enjoyed walking a line between the extremes of the environmentalists and the energy companies. Both groups have many fair points to make. The more everybody educates themselves about the issues, the more productive conversations about climate change can be. And maybe we can get that seat belt buckled in time!


PS. I also wrote another book: Bad Days in Exploration. This one isn’t one of my all-time favorite projects. It’s mainly a compilation of silly and strange facts. But I’m still happy it’s out!



How to Make a Dream Journal

November 21, 2016

I had the most awesome college job ever. I worked in the library repairing books. An elderly gentleman named Chuck taught me how to reinforce spines, replace covers, and repair torn pages (with a tiny iron and special fabric – never scotch tape!). I even learned some binding techniques. I loved that job. For Muse’s [...]

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Happy Halloween

October 28, 2016

Ever since I first learned that a fungus can turn ants into zombies, I’ve wanted to write about it. I finally got the chance! My editor wanted a piece on “real zombies” in time for Halloween. This was a dream assignment for me. I love bugs, especially spiders. Ants are pretty cool, too. Here are [...]

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October 25, 2016

Hooray! Author copies of my most recent book arrived over the weekend: The Science of Dinosaurs, part of the Super Awesome Science series from ABDO publishing. The book is aimed at grades 3 to 6, a much younger age range than my usual audience. And it’s about dinosaurs. My son (almost 2) loves dinosaurs. So [...]

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More Video Games

October 14, 2016

Well, I guess I’ve found my niche in children’s nonfiction: video games. My husband used to work as a software engineer on games (like, 5 years ago), and conversations with him way back then led me to propose an article on video games to Odyssey magazine. Well, that article eventually landed me my first book [...]

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From Brainwaves to Mind Reading

September 26, 2016

My latest article was just published on Science News for Students: One day, computers may decode your dreams Along with it, I wrote this explainer: How to read brain activity When I set out to write this article, the only real guidance I had was to write something about the science of brainwaves, including what [...]

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Thinking Differently

September 7, 2016

I’ve been fact checking every issue of Muse magazine for a little over a year now. This job requires carefully reading every word of every issue. As a result, I feel a small sense of ownership for all of the articles, not just the ones I wrote. (I still contribute regularly, and someone else fact [...]

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Chili Pepper Science

June 7, 2016

Sometimes, an article just seems to write itself. That was the case with my most recent piece, “The Cool Science of Hot Peppers.” Usually, my articles for Science News for Students go through at least three rounds of substantial edits. It can be a long, painstaking process to make the article the best it can [...]

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News Reporting: Teen Health

April 25, 2016

A couple of months ago, I started reporting on news stories for Science News for Students. My first few topics ranged from nuclear energy to sea otters. Recently, though, I seem to have stumbled onto a theme: health news. My last few stories have looked at obesity, acne, and tooth decay. Health has never been an [...]

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