About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Mona Lisa speaks?
The idea is that one can go from an analysis of the two-dimensional image in the painting to a three-dimensional reconstruction of her skull, and from there to a computer-assisted simulation of her voice, since there is obviously a relationship between the exact positions of the mouth parts and the sound of the human voice. Indeed, the Japanese scientist who led the group claims that the process is “90% accurate,” though it would be nice to know how on earth he got that number, especially considering that this is certainly one hypothesis that cannot be tested (heck, we don't even know who Lisa was!).
It is bad science because although it is certainly true that the sound of our voice depends on the characteristics of our skulls (as well as, of course, the cultural influences we are subjected to throughout our lives, not to mention a variety of imponderables that are difficult to measure, for example the possibility of getting a bacterial infection that attacks our vocal cords), it simply doesn't follow that one can scan a painting and obtain a reliable estimate of what that particular human's voice sounded like. Going from a painting to a 3-D reconstruction introduces a variety of errors due to the approximation of the estimates, and these errors are compounded when one moves from the 3-D reconstruction to vocalization, because we don't know anything about the exact internal positioning and shape of crucial structures such as the voice box. I bet dollar to donut that the “accuracy” of such reconstructions is far less than the touted 90%.
This is also an example of entirely irrelevant science: who cares what the Lisa sounded like? What insight do we gain about the natural world, the human condition, or even the art of Da Vinci? The whole exercise becomes a farce when one realizes that the Japanese team's first attempt was to have Lisa speak, well, in Japanese! And even now, she speaks in modern Italian, not Renaissance Florentine (or was it Milanese?). This sort of crap certainly makes headlines on the tail of Brown's mediocre novel, but it doesn't do science itself (or the public) any favor.
Besides, what if Leonardo painted a mute?