The Science of Fahrenheit 451

Have you ever memorized an entire book? For Kenosha’s Big Read of “Fahrenheit 451” on Thursday, Oct. 16th, three Parkside professors addressed a few scientific concepts that Ray Bradbury illustrated in the novel Fahrenheit 451,” such as: Is it possible to memorize an entire book?, Is there such a thing as a mechanical hound?, What is the auto ignition temperature of paper? One can’t help but propose these questions because when Bradbury first wrote “Fahrenheit 451” he had predicted a number of scientific and technological concepts that have been developed successfully over the years. So can he be right once again?

Dr. Gary Wood was the first presenter. He earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Dr. Wood addressed the question: Does paper really start to burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? For those of you who haven’t read “Fahrenheit 451,” it’s a fictitious story about how books are banned from society and burned. The title alludes to the plot of the story and refers to the auto ignition temperature of paper, 451 degrees Fahrenheit. What is auto ignition? The auto ignition temperature is the temperature at which something gets hot enough to ignite by itself without being exposed to a spark or flame. When Bradbury was writing the book, he called the physics and chemistry department at the University of California, Los Angeles, along with the local fire department to determine the auto ignition temperature of paper. But is it really 451 degrees Fahrenheit? Dr. Wood explained that there’s actually a range of auto ignition temperatures of paper that runs from about 424 degrees to 475 degrees. The temperature depends on what type of paper it is, the composition, moisture content, and other variables.

Dr. Lori Allen presented next. Dr. Allen attained her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She answered the question: How close are we to making a mechanical hound? In the novel, Bradbury created a robot dog that could smell criminals (those who owned books), and was programmed to track down and kill the guilty with its electronic nose. So how close are we? Well, Allen showed that scientists and engineers have already created several robots and many which are very animal or dog-like, such as the “Cheetah,” “Little Dog” and “RHex.” They are able to move quickly, maneuver well and conquer large physical obstacles. So engineers have successfully developed robot dogs, but what about an electronic nose? Scientists have been already working on it, but have not completely developed it yet. There is one accomplished electrical nose out there that detects prostate cancer by smelling urine. It has a 76 percent accuracy rate, but does have some false positives. Dr. Allen also elaborated that the mechanical hound in the novel would not only have to be able to smell, but be able to differentiate the smell of one person from the next in order to track the correct guilty person. That means it would have to be able to detect a human chemical signature. Such a thing does exist and scientists have been working to uncover them, but currently not much is known about human signature smells.

The last presenter was Psychologist Dr. Ed Bowden who acquired his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. In “Fahrenheit 451,” in order to preserve the knowledge and information in books, some of the characters claimed that they had memorized entire books. So Bowden answered whether it is possible for a person to memorize an entire book. To answer this, he first addressed what memory is. Memory is the encoding, storage and then retrieval of information. It is stored in the brain and encoded between connections of neurons. Bowden also explained that everything you experience is not created as a permanent memory. We all have a short-term memory and a long-term memory, and information must get through the short-term memory in order to get into long-term to store it. So can you memorize a whole book? Bowden explains that many can easily memorize the gist of a book, but it is possible to memorize the verbatim as well, and there’s real life examples of such feats. In ancient times, the Romans used to memorize epic poems, like Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” to recite to audiences. This is possible by working off of repetition, the structure of the story and honing in on cues within the story. Most recently, 2006 Memory champion, Akira Haraguchi, memorized 100,000 digits of Pi. Dr. Bowden explained that Haraguchi did this by converting each digit into its consonants and then into words. He would then make a story out of the the words.​

Article by Liv Gripko

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