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10 Things You Should Know About the Discworld Books

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Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2003, the BBC asked 140,000 Britons to come up with the nation’s top 100 novels. Just two writers had five works that cracked the top 100: Charles Dickens and the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett, who was born in Buckinghamshire on April 28, 1948, wrote or co-wrote more than 70 books during his lifetime. His debut novel, The Carpet People—a slightly-altered version of a fantasy serial Pratchett wrote while working at his local paper, the Bucks Free Press—was published in 1971, followed by the bestselling Discworld series. Set on a magical, disc-shaped world supported by four elephants who in turn ride atop a gigantic turtle, these masterworks of comic fantasy have collectively sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Here are 10 things they won’t teach you at Unseen University.

1. PRATCHETT WROTE THE FIRST FOUR INSTALLMENTS WHILE WORKING AS A SPOKESMAN FOR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS.

In 1980, Pratchett left the Bucks Free Press to take a job as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where his responsibilities mainly involved reassuring the public about the safety of this organization’s nuclear power plants. (It was no easy task; the CEGB hired him just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.) On the side, Pratchett wrote and published the first four Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, and Mort. Following their success, he resigned from his CEGB post to write full-time.

2. RINCEWIND’S NAME WAS LIFTED FROM A NEWSPAPER COLUMN.

Many Discworld inhabitants go by peculiar names (just ask Moist von Lipwig or Carrot Ironfoundersson), but many of them don't come from thin air. “A lot of what people think of as weird names in my books are real names,” he told an interviewer in 2011. Granny Weatherwax, for example, shares her last name with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained several of the Lassie dogs that appeared in various films and television shows.

But not all of Pratchett’s characters were named after real people. Take the bumbling wizard Rincewind, whose name comes from “By the Way,” a humorous newspaper column that ran in The Daily Express from 1919 to 1975. Written for most of that time by J.B. Morgan under the pseudonym “Beachcomber,” this series featured a number of recurring fictional characters, including a red-bearded dwarf named Churm Rincewind.

As a boy, Pratchett was an avid reader of “By the Way,” and while penning The Colour of Magic, he used the name Rincewind without realizing that he’d borrowed it from Morgan’s columns. A Discworld fan later pointed this out to the novelist, at which point Pratchett “went back through all the [published ‘Beachcomber’ anthologies] and found the name and thought, oh, blast, that’s where it came from. And then I thought, what the hell, anyway.” (His argument is slightly weakened by Rincewind saying in the Colour of Magic, “I suppose we’ll take the coast road to Chirm.”)

3. THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A POPULAR STAR TREK BOOK.

The Science of Discworld novels combine fantasy and hard science. In the first of these books, a mishap at Unseen University creates “Roundworld,” a bizarro universe laden with strange, spherical planets governed not by magic but by the laws of physics. The school’s faculty experiments with and explores their creation over the course of the four-book series and the action is interrupted periodically by non-fiction chapters that break down real scientific topics. Written by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart, these asides tie into the narrative while educating the reader about everything from evolution to quantum mechanics.

The series had its origins in a meeting between Pratchett and Cohen at a science fiction convention in the Netherlands. At the time, Cohen was co-authoring a book about the evolution of the human intellect with Stewart. Cohen recalled in an interview that the two were having trouble getting “the chapters to gel” and asked Pratchett to advise them; later on, the trio got together at a Mongolian restaurant in Berlin, where Pratchett offered up some tips that made their way into the book’s final draft.

Since all three men were big sci-fi fans, the conversation soon turned to Star Trek. Specifically, they expressed a profound disappointment with Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek, a 1995 bestseller that offered insights on the TV show’s scientific underpinnings. The book did not impress Pratchett, Stewart, or Cohen, the latter of whom called it “bloody awful.” Still, Krauss’s project got Stewart thinking. “I raised the possibility of something similar related to Discworld,” he remembers. At first, the idea was shot down because, in his words, “there is no science in Discworld.”

Still, the concept seemed too good to throw away altogether—and after a while, the three men made a narrative breakthrough. “It took only a few months to find the obvious answer: since there was no science in Discworld, we had to put some there,” Stewart explains. “Instead of producing a scientific commentary on existing events in the Discworld canon, we had to write a fantasy/fact fusion in which an unfolding story of some wizardly brand of science was interlaced with a popular science book. Terry would have to tailor a genuine Discworld short story.”

Tailor one he did. Pratchett put together a 30,000-word short story that was seamlessly punctuated with essays that Stewart and Cohen authored. Once they finished the manuscript, Ebury Publishing agreed to put out The Science of Discworld in 1999. Apparently, some company higher-ups didn’t like the book’s chances. “The editor there was made to understand that if it sold less than 10,000 copies, he’d lose his job. If it sold more than 25,000 it would be a miracle. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year,” Cohen recently told The Guardian. Three sequels were released between 2002 and 2013.

4. PRATCHETT WITHDREW GOING POSTAL FROM HUGO AWARD CONSIDERATION.

Discworld books have received plenty of accolades: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents took home the Carnegie Medal in 2001; Night Watch won a Prometheus Award two years later; and Pyramids earned the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. In 2005, Pratchett’s bestseller Going Postal was nominated for a prestigious Hugo Award. The awards, handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, are seen as some of the highest honors that a sci-fi or fantasy writer can hope to attain. Multiple Hugo categories exist, with “best novel” being the one that usually attracts the most fanfare. (Past winners have included Frank Herbert’s Dune and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.)

Naturally, when an author receives a “best novel” nod, he or she generally doesn’t even consider withdrawing the book in question from Hugo consideration. But that’s exactly what Pratchett did in ’05. The WSFS selects its Hugo winners at Worldcon, the society’s annual convention. Pratchett was in attendance at the 2005 gathering and, as he later explained to his bewildered readers, he chose to pass on a potential best novel award for Going Postal because he felt the selection process would keep him from enjoying the Worldcon. Pratchett thus became only the third writer in history to take his book out of the running in this particular Hugo category. (In the past, authors Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree Jr., had done likewise.)

5. IN 2011, TWO BELOVED DISCWORLD CHARACTERS APPEARED ON SOME NEW POSTAGE STAMPS.

Great Britain is—for all intents and purposes—the birthplace of the modern fantasy genre. To celebrate this contribution to popular culture, the Royal Mail postage service company issued a set of eight commemorative stamps featuring some of the most popular fantastical characters to ever emerge from the UK, including Merlin and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, Voldemort and Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Aslan and the White Witch from Chronicles of Narnia. The Royal Mail didn’t forget about Discworld’s inhabitants: Rincewind rounded out the set along with the wise old witch Gytha “Nanny” Ogg.

6. THE LAST FEW NOVELS WERE WRITTEN VIA VOICE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE.

In 2007, Pratchett announced that he’d been diagnosed with a kind of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The disorder severely weakened Pratchett's memory, rendered certain fonts unreadable, and took away his ability to type. But despite all those major setbacks, Pratchett kept on writing. Once he lost the capacity to operate a keyboard, the author started using voice recognition computer programs in their place. Pratchett dictated manuscripts for entire novels—including the Discworld books Snuff and Raising Steam—through this kind of software. “It really isn’t a problem,” he declared in a 2013 NPR interview. “I’m a bit of a techie anyway, so talking to the computer is no big deal. Sooner or later, everybody talks to their computers—they say, ‘You bastard!’”

7. PRATCHETT RECEIVED THE OCCASIONAL LETTER FROM A TERMINALLY-ILL FAN WHO LOVED DISCWORLD’S VERSION OF DEATH.

Though He’s clad in dark robes and wields a scythe, the Death who appears in all but two Discworld novels isn’t your standard-order Grim Reaper. For one thing, He rides a white horse named Binky. He also likes physics, adores cats, and has a sort of benign fascination with the human experience. Unlike most literary embodiments of death, the figure who graces Discworld comes off as mild-mannered and somewhat compassionate. In 2004’s The Art of Discworld, Pratchett wrote about the fondness that many fans have expressed for the character. “Sometimes,” Pratchett wrote, “I get nice letters from people who know they’re due to meet [Death] soon, and hope I’ve got him right. Those are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time…”

On March 12, 2015, Pratchett died peacefully in his Broad Chalke home. In a way, Discworld’s Death helped announce the sad news to the world. The author had written a short story in the form of four planned tweets; when Pratchett died, his assistant Rob Wilkins logged onto the author’s Twitter account and posted them:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The end.”

8. THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN WAS SUPPOSED TO END ON A DIFFERENT NOTE.

Five months after Pratchett’s death, the 41st entry in the Discworld series was published. The Shepherd’s Crown features the apparent demise of Granny Weatherwax, whose mentee, Tiffany Aching, is left to unite her fellow witches against a grave threat. According to Gaiman, Pratchett’s good friend and occasional collaborator, the novel was supposed to end with a poignant epilogue. “[It] would have made the book,” Gaiman told The Times, “but he never got to write it.”

The author of American Gods explained that, before Pratchett died, he’d had a conversation with the novelist about how The Shepherd’s Crown was going to wrap up. “When I talked to Terry about it, there was one little beautiful twist that would have made people cry,” Gaiman said. The big surprise involved Weatherwax and a cat named You. Apparently, Pratchett’s unwritten chapter would have revealed that the former didn’t actually die, she’d merely channeled her consciousness into the feline. “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now,’ and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good,” Gaiman revealed.

9. SONY TRIED TO MAKE A WEE FREE MEN MOVIE.

“I’m allergic to Hollywood,” Pratchett once joked. So far, no Discworld novel has ever been adapted into a theatrically-released film. Still, this isn’t to say that nobody’s ever tried to make one. In 2006, Sony obtained the movie rights to The Wee Free Men, a Discworld story aimed at young adult readers. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was set to direct, but the movie never passed the development phase because Pratchett wasn't a fan of the script. “It contained everything that The Wee Free Men actually campaigns against,” he said. “Everything about [the book] was the opposite of Disney. But the studio had kind of Disneyfied it, to make it understandable to American filmmakers.”

Speaking of Disney, rumor has it that the directors of Aladdin were working on a movie version of Mort—the fourth Discworld book—as recently as 2011. Allegedly, the idea was shelved for some reason, which opened the door for another project called Moana.

10. A NEW DISCWORLD TV SERIES HAS BEEN IN DEVELOPMENT SINCE 2011.

Discworld may never have graced the silver screen, but a few novels have been adapted for other mediums. In 1990, playwright Stephen Briggs became the first person to ever dramatize one of Terry Pratchett’s novels when he wrote a stage adaptation of the Discworld book Wyrd Sisters for the Studio Theatre Club in Abingdon, Oxon. The show premiered in 1991, and it had no trouble finding an audience: Wyrd Sisters sold out almost instantly, as did Briggs’s subsequent adaptations of Men at Arms, Making Money, The Fifth Elephant, and many other Discworld classics. There have also been radio dramatizations of Discworld: Beginning in 1992, BBC Radio 4 aired six serials based on Guards! Guards!, Wyrd Sisters, Mort, Small Gods, Night Watch, and Eric.

Television has seen its fair share of Discworld stories, too. Sky Productions, for example, has released made-for-TV films based on Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal. And we may soon be in for a CSI-style Ankh-Morpork drama. Although Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, has declared that she’ll never give anyone—including herself—permission to write a new Discworld novel, she’s been working on an original “crime of the week” TV series that will follow Sam Vimes and his fellow city watchmen on some original adventures. Titled The Watch, the show’s development began in 2011 with Terry Pratchett’s enthusiastic blessing.

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literature
5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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science
10 Award-Winning Optical Illusions and Brain Puzzles
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"The Spinning Disks Illusion"
Used by permission of Johannes Zanker

When the new book Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles arrived at the Mental Floss offices, we couldn't flip through it—and flip our brains out—fast enough.

Created by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, professors of ophthalmology, neurology, physiology, and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, the book is a fascinating compilation of award-winning images from the Best Illusion of the Year contest, which Martinez-Conde and Macknik first created for a neuroscience conference in 2005. Since then, the contest has produced some truly mind-bending mind tricks that challenge our sense of perception of the world around us. As the authors write:

Your brain creates a simulation of the world that may or may not match the real thing. The "reality" you experience is the result of your exclusive interaction with that simulation. We de­fine "illusions" as the phenomena in which your perception differs from physical reality in a way that is readily evident. You may see something that is not there, or fail to see something that is there, or see something in a way that does not reflect its physical properties.

Just as a painter creates the illusion of depth on a flat canvas, our brain creates the illusion of depth based on information arriving from our essentially two-dimensional retinas. Illusions show us that depth, color, brightness, and shape are not absolute terms but are subjective, relative experiences created actively by our brain's circuits. This is true not only of visual experiences but of any and all sensory perceptions, and even of how we ponder our emotions, thoughts, and memories. Whether we are experiencing the feeling of "redness," the appearance of "square­ness," or emotions such as love and hate, these are the result of the activity of neurons in our brain.

Yes, there is a real world out there, and you perceive events that occur around you, however incorrectly or incompletely. But you have never actually lived in the real world, in the sense that your experience never matches physical reality perfectly. Your brain instead gathers pieces of data from your sensory systems—some of which are quite imprecise or, frankly, wrong.

It's never been so fun to be wrong. Here are 10 of our favorite images from Champions of Illusion, accompanied by explanations from the book of how and why they work.

1. "THE COFFER ILLUSION," ANTHONY NORCIA, SMITH-KETTLEWELL EYE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, U.S.A., 2007 FINALIST

coffer illusion by Anthony Norcia, Stanford University
Used by permission of Anthony Norcia, Stanford University

Information transmitted from the retina to the brain is constrained by physical limitations, such as the number of nerve fibers in the optic nerve (about a million wires). If each of these fibers was responsible for producing a pixel (a single point in a digital image), you should have lower resolution in your everyday vision than in the images from your iPhone camera, but of course this is not what we perceive.

One way our visual system overcomes these limitations—to present us with the perception of a fully realized world, despite the fundamental truth that our retinas are low-resolution imaging devices—is by disregarding redundant features in objects and scenes. Our brains preferentially extract, emphasize, and process those unique components that are critical to identifying an object. Sharp discontinuities in the contours of an object, such as corners, are less redundant—and therefore more critical to vision—because they contain more information than straight edges or soft curves. The perceptual result is that corners are more sa­lient than non-corners.

The Coffer Illusion contains sixteen circles that are invisible at first sight, obscured by the rectilinear shapes in the pattern. The illusion may be due, at least in part, to our brain's preoccupation with corners and angles.

2. "THE ROTATING SNAKES ILLUSION," AKIYOSHI KITAOKA, RITSUMEIKAN UNIVERSITY, JAPAN, 2005 FINALIST

"The Rotating Snakes Illusion" by Akiyoshi Kitaoka
Used by permission of Akiyoshi Kitaoka

This illusion is a magnificent example of how we perceive illusory motion from a stationary image. The "snakes" in the pattern appear to rotate as you move your eyes around the figure. In reality, nothing is moving other than your eyes!

If you hold your gaze steadily on one of the "snake" centers, the motion will slow down or even stop. Our research, conducted in collaboration with Jorge Otero-Millan, revealed that the jerky eye motions—such as microsaccades, larger saccades, and even blinks—that people make when looking at an image are among the key elements that produce illusions such as Kitaoka's Rotating Snakes.

Alex Fraser and Kimerly J. Wilcox discovered this type of illusory motion effect in 1979, when they developed an image showing repetitive spiral arrangements of luminance gradients that appeared to move. Fraser and Wilcox's illusion was not nearly as effective as Kitaoka's il­lusion, but it did spawn a number of related effects that eventually led to the Rotating Snakes. This family of perceptual phenomena is characterized by the periodic placement of colored or grayscale patches of particular brightnesses.

In 2005, Bevil Conway and his colleagues showed that Kitaoka's illusory layout drives the responses of motion-sensitive neurons in the visual cortex, providing a neural basis for why most people (but not all) perceive motion in the image: We see the snakes rotate because our visual neurons respond as if the snakes were actually in motion.

Why doesn't this illusion work for everyone? In a 2009 study, Jutta Billino, Kai Ham­burger, and Karl Gegenfurtner, of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, tested 139 subjects—old and young—with a battery of illusions involving motion, including the Rotating Snakes pattern. They found that older people perceived less illusory rotation than younger subjects.

3. "THE HEALING GRID," RYOTA KANAI, UTRECHT UNIVERSITY, THE NETHERLANDS, 2005 FINALIST

healing grid illusion by Ryota Kanai
Used by permission of Ryota Kanai

Let your eyes explore this image freely and you will see a regular pattern of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines in the center, flanked by an irregular grid of misaligned crosses to the left and right. Choose one of the intersections in the center of the image and stare at it for 30 seconds or so. You will see that the grid "heals" itself, becoming perfectly regular all the way through.

The illusion derives, in part, from "perceptual fading," the phenomenon in which an unchanging visual image fades from view. When you stare at the center of the pattern, the grid's outer parts fade more than its center due to the comparatively lower resolution of your peripheral vision. The ensuing neural guesstimates that your brain imposes to "reconstruct" the faded outer flanks are based on the available information from the center, as well as your nervous system's intrinsic tendency to seek structure and order, even when the sensory in­put is fundamentally disorganized.

Because chaos is inherently unordered and unpredictable, the brain must use a lot of energy and resources to process truly chaotic information (like white noise on your TV screen). By simplifying and imposing order on images like this one, the brain can reduce the amount of information it must process. For example, because the brain can store the image as a rectilinear framework of white rows and columns against a black background—rather than keeping track of every single cross's position—it saves energy and mental storage space. It also simplifies your interpretation of the meaning of such an object.

4. "MASK OF LOVE," GIANNI SARCONE, COURTNEY SMITH, AND MARIE-JO WAEBER, ARCHIMEDES LABORATORY PROJECT, ITALY, 2011 FINALIST

mask of love by Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber
Courtesy of Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber. Copyright © Gianni A. Sarcone, giannisarcone.com. All rights reserved.

This illusion was discovered in an old photograph of two lovers sent to Archimedes' Laboratory, a consulting group in Italy that specializes in perceptual puzzles. Gianni Sarcone, the leader of the group, saw the image pinned to the wall and, being nearsighted, thought it was a single face. After putting on his eyeglasses, he realized what he was looking at. The team then superimposed the beautiful Venetian mask over the photograph to create the final effect.

This type of illusion is called "bistable" because, as in the classic Face/Vase illusion, you may see either a single face or a couple, but not both at once. Our visual system tends to see what it expects, and because only one mask is present, we assume at first glance that it surrounds a single face.

5. "AGE IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD," VICTORIA SKYE, U.S.A., 2014 FINALIST

age is all in your head illusion by Victoria Skye
Used by permission of Victoria Skye

The magician, photographer, and illusion creator Victoria Skye was having a hard time taking a picture of a photo portrait of her father as a teen. The strong overhead lighting was ruining the shot, so she tilted the camera to avoid the glare, first one way and then the other. As she moved her camera back and forth, she saw her father morph from teen to boy and then to adult.

Skye's illusion is an example of anamorphic perspective. By tilting her camera, she created two opposite vanishing points, producing the illusion of age progression and regression. In the case of age progression, the top of the head narrows and the bottom half of the face expands, creating a stronger chin and a more mature look. In the case of age regression, the opposite happens: the forehead expands and the chin narrows, producing a childlike appearance.

Skye thinks that her illusion may explain why, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we sometimes see our parents, but not always. "I wonder if that is what happens to me when I look in the mirror and see my mom. Do I see her because I tilt my head and age myself just as I did with the camera and my dad?" she asked.

6. "THE ROTATING-TILTED-LINES ILLUSION," SIMONE GORI AND KAI HAMBURGER

rotating tilted lines illusion by Simone Gori and Kai Hamburger
Used by permission of Simone Gori and Kai Hamburger

To experience the illusion, move your head forward and backward as you fixate in the central area (or, alternatively, hold your head still and move the page). As you approach the image, notice that the radial lines appear to rotate counterclockwise. As you move away from the image, the lines appear to rotate clockwise. Vision scientists have shown that illusory motion activates brain areas that are also activated by real motion. This could help explain why our perception of illusory motion is qualitatively similar to our perception of real motion.

7. "PULSATING HEART," GIANNI SARCONE, COURTNEY SMITH, AND MARIE-JO WAEBER, ARCHIMEDES LABORATORY PROJECT, ITALY, 2014 FINALIST

Pulsating Heart illusion by Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber
Courtesy of Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber. Copyright © Gianni A. Sarcone, giannisarcone.com. All rights reserved.

This Op Art–inspired illusion produces the sensation of expanding motion from a completely stationary image. Static repetitive patterns with just the right mix of contrasts trick our visual system's motion-sensitive neurons into signaling movement. Here the parallel arrangement of opposing needle-shaped red and white lines makes us perceive an ever-expanding heart. Any other outline delimited in a similar fashion would also appear to pulsate and swell.

8. "GHOSTLY GAZE," ROB JENKINS, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW, UK, 2008 SECOND PRIZE

ghostly gaze illusion by Rob Jenkins
Used by permission of Rob Jenkins

Not knowing where a person is looking makes us uneasy. That's why speaking with somebody who is wearing dark sunglasses can be awkward. And it is why someone might wear dark sunglasses to look "mysterious." The Ghostly Gaze Illusion, created by Rob Jenkins, takes advantage of this unsettling effect. In this illusion, twin sisters appear to look at each other when seen from afar. But as you approach them, you realize that the sisters are looking directly at you!

The illusion is a hybrid image that combines two pictures of the same woman. The overlapping photos differ in two important ways: their spatial detail (fine or coarse) and the direction of their gaze (sideways or straight ahead). The images that look toward each other contain only coarse features, whereas the ones that look straight ahead are made up of sharp details. When you approach the pictures, you are able to see all the fine detail, and so the sisters seem to look straight ahead. But when you move away, the gross detail dominates, and the sisters appear to look into each other's eyes.

9. "ELUSIVE ARCH," DEJAN TODOROVIC, UNIVERSITY OF BELGRADE, SERBIA, 2005 FINALIST

Elusive Arch illusion by Dejan Todorovic
Used by permission of Dejan Todorovic

Is this an image of three shiny oval tubes? Or is it three pairs of alternating ridges and grooves?

The left side of the figure appears to be three tubes, but the right side looks like a corrugated surface. This illusion occurs because our brain interprets the bright streaks on the figure's surface as either highlights at the peaks and troughs of the tubes or as inflections between the grooves. Determining the direction of the illumination is difficult: it depends on whether we consider the light as falling on a receding or an expanding surface.

Trying to determine where the image switches from tubes to grooves is maddening. In fact, there is no transition region: the whole image is both "tubes" and "grooves," but our brain can only settle on one or the other interpretation at a time. This seemingly simple task short-circuits our neural mechanisms for determining an object's shape.

10. "FLOATING STAR," JOSEPH HAUTMAN / KAIA NAO, 2012 FINALIST

floating star illusion by Joseph Hautman, aka Kaia Nao
Used by permission of Joseph Hautman, aka Kaia Nao. Copyright © Kaia Nao

This five-pointed star is static, but many observers experience the powerful illusion that it is rotating clockwise. Created by the artist Joseph Hautman, who moonlights as a graphic designer under the pseudonym "Kaia Nao," it is a variation on Kitaoka's Rotating Snakes Illusion. Hautman determined that an irregular pattern, unlike the geometric one Kitaoka used, was particularly effective for achieving illusory motion.

Here the dark blue jigsaw pieces have white and black borders against a lightly colored background. As you look around the image, your eye movements stimulate motion-sensitive neurons. These neurons signal motion by virtue of the shifting lightness and darkness boundaries that indicate an object's contour as it moves through space. Carefully arranged transitions between white, light-colored, black, and dark-colored regions fool the neurons into responding as if they were seeing continual motion in the same direction, rather than stationary edges.

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