Author: Jennifer Noonan

Jennifer Noonan is the author of "No Map to This Country." She lives in Austin with her husband, four children, and their pet tarantula, and can be found online at jenniferisacommonname.com.

The Colors of Numbers

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which certain sensory concepts are strongly linked to each other in seemingly random but persistent ways. Though the pairings are unique to each individual and can cover any type of sensation from sound to touch to emotion, the most commonly-reported type is grapheme-color synesthesia, or connecting letters and numbers to particular hues. A patient with synesthesia may associate the number 3 with the color blue, for example, to the degree that he or she reports seeing all 3s as blue regardless of what shade they may actually be written in.

Opponents, however, have argued that these may be nothing more than accidental mnemonics, or simple memory associations of a forgotten origin. Toddlers often play with magnetic alphabet sets, for example, and who can say whether the capricious color choices of a toy manufacturer are not really at the root of an adult who claims to see the letter A as red? Modern fMRI scans have allowed researchers to visualize the activated areas of the brain and prove the existence of synesthesia, but the expense and time for these scans is still prohibitive for large-scale studies. Instead, one of the foremost synesthesia researchers, Jamie Ward, has created a number of simple tests to quickly identify true “synesthetes,” who are now known make up a little over 1% of the population (though not all of those are of the grapheme-color variety.)

Consider the image to the right. It is immediately obvious to the average person that the “number 2s” in the upper picture are arranged roughly in a triangle shape, even when the picture is only flashed in front of his or her eyes for as little as half a second. This is due to the visual cortex’s extremely refined ability to distinguish color. Take away that distinction, as in the second version of the image below, and it becomes nearly impossible to pick out the 2s among the 5s, certainly not with anything approaching the same reaction time. But if, Ward reasoned, a supposed synesthete were truly seeing numbers as colors, and not just remembering some faint echo of childhood, then the visual cortex should be activated, and the black-and-white numbers should jump off the page as easily as they do for the average individual when colored. A synesthete should always see each 2 as clearly as the rest of us see a red apple among a pile of greens.

It worked. With tests similar to this, Ward and his colleagues have been able to confirm grapheme-color synesthesia in a large number of individuals. The subjects’ ability to discriminate between impossibly jumbled symbols within fractions of a second is well above the 99th percentile, and proves their extra neurological wiring without the need for expensive brain scans. Armed with this information, researchers have been able to focus on more targeted studies, such as the heritability of synesthesia and the fluctuations in sensation over the lifetime of the patient, without worrying about the integrity of their patient population.

Fire and Dice

Downstairs in the casino, little remained of the MGM Grand Hotel’s former glory. In the early morning hours of 21 November 1980, a fire had broken out in the Las Vegas landmark, ripping through the lounge in an explosive wave that instantly killed everyone in the area. Bodies sat frozen in front of what had once been slot machines, now no more than blackened pillars jutting upward from a flow of melted slag along the floor. The room’s plastic and chrome-plated decor, it turned out, had been as much a facade as its promises of riches.

Fortunately, the Clark County Fire Department had responded immediately, and the blaze never spread beyond the first floor. From where David Demers and his fire investigation team stood on the 23rd floor, no one would have even felt the temperature rise. Why, then, were they surrounded by corpses?

The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known

As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Thus, by a coincidence of his shopping schedule, Achleitner happened to rescue the Missa Salisburgensis, or Salzburg Mass, known today to be the largest surviving composition from the Baroque era. It would come to be recognized as one of the most important historical works of music, and it would certainly cement its composer’s place as a master at the forefront of the era…if experts could figure out who wrote it.

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