How can a blind man cheat you at cards? What's at the intersection of neuroscience, Las Vegas, and top hats full of rabbits? Alex Stone's life as a magician + an Ivy League M.A. in physics = one fascinating book:
Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Power of the Mind. Math geeks mean numbers, and numbers mean data, which Stone delivers gracefully and in small doses, in this spellbinding trip into the rather secretive world of magicians. Stone became involved with magic as a child. While living in New York City as an adult (that masters in physics is from Columbia University), he started investigating the vibrant, creative underground of modern magicians. From pizza shops to tourist-rip-off three-card-monte games to the World Championship of Magic to math geniuses, Stone takes readers on a world tour--and a journey into their own mind via neuroscience and psychology, which is what, really, makes magic "work."
Recently, a physicist friend named Ofer asked me about scientific data: not its validity, but rather its singular or plural nature. Data is or data are? There's certainly a plurality of opinion on that one!
First of all, Data is an android. No, wait. That's only if you are watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Data is an English word that means "facts" or "statistics"; it can also refer to the symbols or characters (often numerals) that computers process. As our old friend Merriam-Webster notes about data, it's a "noun pl but singular or pl in constr, often attributive."
Basically, this means data is a plural. But it doesn't end in an -s, as many English plurals do. That's because data is also a Latin word. The plural is data; the singular is datum. Now, I'm not going to get into the declension of Latin nouns, much as I would dearly love to, but the singular and plural of datum/data follows the same pattern (second declension, neuter--argh, I couldn't resist!) as the Latin noun agendum/agenda. Agenda means "things having to be done," and it's a Latin gerund, a noun form of the Latin verb agere, to do. (Data is the past participle of dare, to give, and means that which is given.) I sure might know a lot about Latin, but I don't speak it. No one does.
We speak English, not Latin, and we talk about items on an agenda. We generate agendas. What's my agenda here? We use agenda as a singular noun. But data is different. Copyeditors and grammar geeks can get very, very exercised on the topic. One can google "data is or data are" and find a host of discussions and opinions, including Grammar Girl's very thorough treatment of the question of whether data is a mass or count noun as well as an eminently sensible British take on the subject from the Guardian.
As for my friend Ofer and I, we were discussing the Higgs boson data, which is what CERN's Large Hadron Collider was designed to produce, because physicists want to observe a Higgs boson. If it exists. No one knows. Physicists might have totally made that one up.
Physics is an old, old science, despite its science-fiction-esque tools today. But if you were sitting under an apple tree, apocryphally, with Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century, you'd both be fluent in Latin. And if you are writing about physics in Latin, as did the great Newton, data sunt pulchra*.
If you are using data in English, the data is inconclusive. Espeically regarding the Higgs boson. Are Higgs bosons magic, like the tricks Alex Stone describes? Do some believe in them because they want to, as we do with so many magic tricks? Who knows. But I think Higgs bosons are beautiful. Whether they exist or not.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.
*[data are beautiful]
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