I Spy a Black Hole

Let’s tackle the mystery of the title right now instead of threading it subtly throughout the post. Black holes are noble and majestic – remnants of collapsed stars that strive to make this harsh, ever-expanding universe warmer by extending a generous welcome to all who venture within its gravitational field. At least that’s what I presume based on my Earth Science knowledge from 7th grade… and a rose-colored figment of my imagination, since I’ve never actually encountered one (thank my lucky stars). A quick Google search reveals that black holes are, in fact, quite photogenic.  A starry spiral spreads outward, punctuating the profundity of the enigmatic core that is soul-less-ly black. It’s hard not to wax poetic about black holes, but one quibble remains. If they are trying not to attract attention, they should reconsider their color choice, or at least think about how their effects on their surrounding give away their position. This aside, what’s not to like about the enigma of black holes, except the fact that our very attraction to them comes from their ability to elude extensive study?

Smooth transition coming up.

In the compact 90-linear-ft universe of the Student Publications Collection in the Archives in A Level of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, there too exists a black-hole. It has earned many affectionate names from the DSSI interns and generated many a fruitful conversations:

A glimpse into the life...
Fear the Literary Magazines

As you can see from this snippet, I am venturing into dangerous, unknown territory. Putting the juicy metaphorical significance aside for a moment, literary magazines do make up roughly 40% of the collection (disclaimer: no actual calculation has been done), so it seems careless to disregard this size-able chunk that managed to remain a staple of student publications for almost 200 years. We do not know how these publications were received in their time and how large the readership was, but there is something to be admired in the resilience of literary magazines to pop up in almost every decade of Amherst history.

Newspapers, editorials, and journals of thought tell us directly about the conditions and issues of the time. Literary magazines, on the whole (although there are a few peculiarities), seek to showcase student work by providing a space for creative expression through multiple mediums (poetry, short stories, photography etc.). What can creative expression reveal other than the polished brain scribbles of some person’s imagination? In a way, fiction is a paradox: it transcends time while remaining firmly a product of its generation. How does a lowly intern even begin to capture this paradox through digital tools?

One option is topic modeling and textual analysis, which would reveal trends in topics that occupy students’ imagination through the years. In addition to the enormous data ingestion that this requires, it also seems counterintuitive: doesn’t the power of fiction lie in the uniqueness with which each author approaches a universal topic? These tools can reveal patterns through similarities, but how can they display the range of differences? The pieces that I have read so far range from personal to mystical, from piercing to eccentric, from emotionally draining to confusing. They straddle that threshold of the real in the bubble of the imaginary.

Research at this point is simply to read. And then read some more, all the while praying for serendipity. If I never end up working with literary magazines for this internship, at least they have earned an acknowledgement in a modest blog post.

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Other notable accomplishments this week:

  • Detective work for Visualization Deliverables: discovered a mystery man whose fate in WWII turned out differently in three publications
  • First time reading a senior thesis in an attempt to find some numbers on Amherst students during World War II
  • Pictionary with publication titles- totally educational
  • Teaching a Gephi workshop in a responsible, critical manner without completely roasting the tool as we were originally inclined to do
  • Creating a Group Proposal document that went bonkers with a certain three letters (no worries, a properly academic one was created the next morning, just in time for its presentation)
  • Beginning to construct a timeline of Student Publications (all ~120 of them!)

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