Category Archives: Features

How to Teach a Computer to Write Stories

This is part of a three part series detailing the computer science senior thesis projects. 

While computers writing stories from scratch may sound like something from science fiction, Melanie Subbiah disagrees. For her senior thesis in computer science, Melanie is teaching computers to write new stories on their own, a cutting edge field called open narrative generation. She’s always loved creative writing and has taken many Williams College literature and writing courses.  While struggling to decide on a thesis topic she says,  “it suddenly occurred to me, why not study creative writing from a computer science standpoint?”
Working with Williams Professor Andrea Danyluk, an expert on machine learning, she has developed a process to guide computers through the creative steps. First, she gives the computer a collection of stories written by regular authors to analyze. Computers require inspiration in the same way humans do! She has the computer identify the paragraphs, sentences, words, and parts of speech. With all these notes the existing stories can be broken down into patterns, something computers are adept at handling. 
In the rectangles are two short and unique stories. While they may seem very different, they can be broken down into the same pattern below. Melanie uses a large collection of human stories to identify these kinds of patterns and then automatically generate a new story by using portions of the pattern of different stories.
Good stories have a moving plot filled with impactful events. So, Melanie has designed algorithms the computer can use to identify the events of the stories. Then, it’s time to generate a new plot. She uses an increasingly popular machine learning tool called a neural network. A neural network mimics the human brain by using many neurons. Each neuron might be responsible for a very specific pattern, or in the case of our brains a memory or function. When they receive the right stimulus, e.g. a phrase or event, they fire and produce a new result. Her neural network uses the collection of events it learned from other stories to create a new plot. 
As any writer can attest, storywriting does not stop when you come up with a plot. What parts of the plot do you tell the reader? From what perspective? With what details and emotion? Melanie builds on existing work to transform the computer’s plot into sentences that we can then enjoy. 
By the end of the year, she will have several stories authored by computers as well as evaluations on how logical  and original they are. She’s very excited to continue this work, and it’s helping her decide if and where she wants to attend graduate school.
Melanie’s process, her pipeline, starts with human written stories and breaks them down into patterns. Then, she builds up a new story by taking bits and pieces from all the patterns the computer has learned.


Melanie Subbiah, Class of 2017












The splash image for this post is from this site and is not owned or originally produced by The ScientEphic. 

The Beinecke Stand: Williamstown’s Hidden Old-Growth Forest

By Sophia Schmidt ’17

I’ve never seen old growth forest. As Hopkins Memorial Forest manager Drew Jones leads me to the Beinecke Stand, it is not massive tree trunks I notice first – it’s the ground. The forested earth pitches sharply downward. Fallen leaves, loose sticks, and scattered stones coat this thirty-five degree slope, so we choose our footing carefully, grabbing saplings when we inevitably begin to slide down the hill. I immediately realize why this swath of forest escaped clear-cutting even during Williamstown’s agricultural peak in the 1830s – this is no place for a plow.

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Chapin Rare Books Library Unites Science and History

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16

The first time I visited Chapin Library was for my Astronomy 102 class. All the notable books in the history of astronomy, from Euclid to Newton, were arranged on a square of tables. We admired the fascinating geometry of the sketches, recognizing some from our textbook. The books were a leathery tan, opened to illustrations of Galileo patiently listening to Copernicus and Ptolemy argue, a giant bull adorned with stars leaping across the sky, or Kepler’s attempts to chart the heavens on the musical staff. In the center of the room was a large book, its pages a couple of feet across. It detailed the elegant but inaccurate Earth-centered system, tracing the paths of the planets in pink and blue corkscrews around Earth. At last a lean man with a soft voice and owlish glasses said, “I’m Wayne Hammond, curator here at the Chapin Library.” And in a few more soft words, he began to spin the tale of astronomy’s history, slowly orbiting the room and leaving a trail of facts floating in his wake.

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Words of Wisdom from 3 Grad School Bound Seniors

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Hector Trujillo, Jacob Kim, and Dylan Freas are three talented Williams scientists planning to go to grad school and pursue research after graduation. All are working on theses this year – Hector and Dylan in chemistry, and Jacob in biology – and are actively involved in the Williams science community.

I chatted with them to learn what drew them to science, what advice they have for underclassmen, and how Williams science has shaped them. Read on to hear their valuable insights!

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Turner Whitted and Virtual Reality: From Promise to Practical

Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA.
Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA.

The text you are currently reading is crisp and clear thanks to Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA. While working at Microsoft in 2000, he invented the ClearType algorithm that uses shades of grey to smooth text pixels and make letter boundaries clearer. Modified versions of this algorithm are used practically everywhere from mobile phones and smartwatches to laptops.

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Williams Hosts Astronomy Symposium

Image: Williams College students who attended the 2015 KNAC symposium. L to R: Allison Carter ’16, Michael May ’17, Sarah Stevenson ’17, Emily Stump ’18, Anneliese Rilinger ’17, Ross Yu ’19, Becky Durst ’16. Gillian, and Prof. Karen Kwitter. Not Pictured: Tina Seeger ’16, MeiLu McDermott ’16, Hallee Wong ’18, Marcus Hughes ’18, Tim Nagle-McNaughton ’18

Why didn’t the Dog Star laugh at the joke? If you were in science quad last weekend (October 17th) and asked one of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) presenters, you would likely have gotten a chuckle and a response that “it was too Sirius.” KNAC, a collaboration of eight liberal arts colleges in New England (Colgate University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, Wesleyan University, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, and Williams College) funds summer research opportunities for astronomy students. The annual symposium, which rotates between the eight institutions, was hosted at Williams this year with 32 student speakers and 9 poster presentations.

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5 Things Williams Pre-Med Students Should Know

5 Things Williams Pre-med Students Should Know

By Meagan Goldman ’16

“Pre-med” is a loaded term at Williams. It comes with tough classes, stress about maintaining a high GPA, and more stress about getting into med school. Countless freshmen start off on the pre-med track but decide it’s not for them. At the same time, those who do go to med school often find a deep passion for their work. I decided to speak with four pre-med seniors with very different stories – Chanel Zhan, Tendai Chisowa, Lacey Serletti, and Katie Westervelt – to figure out what they think about pre-med at Williams and what advice they’d give to younger students. Here’s what I learned.

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Student Committee Builds Community Spirit Among Biology Majors

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16

It’s an exciting time to be a biology major.

This year the Biology Majors Advising Committee (BMAC) is redefining what it means to be a Biology major or prospective Biology major at Williams. BMAC hopes to build a unique sense of community among those interested in biology through an academic year of biology-related social events.

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Ask a Biology Student: What is Energy?

This post concludes the “Ask a Science Student” series. For previous responses, see chemistry, physics, and astronomy.

Ask a Science Student, Part 4: Biology

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Biology deals with energy on both a macro level – the cycling of energy through ecosystems – and a micro level – the energy required for biological processes. Energy in an ecosystem comes initially from the sun. Primary producers, plants and cyanobacteria, convert the sun’s electromagnetic energy into chemical energy, stored in the bonds of compounds like glucose and ATP. Energy is then passed to consumers and eventually, when organisms die, to decomposers.

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Ask an Astronomy Student: What is Energy?

This is the third installment in  our “Ask A Science Student” series. For the previous responses, see chemistry and physics.

Ask a Science Student, Part 3: Astronomy

By Marcus Hughes ’18

Astronomy deals with a tremendous scale of energy, from the Cosmic Microwave Background – the 2.7 kelvin echo left from the Big Bang – to hyper-luminous quasars – compact centers of galaxies related to black holes that release 4 trillion times as much energy as our Sun. Astronomy even has not yet understood types of energy like dark energy, a repulsive energy causing the universe to expand faster, literally changing the fate of the universe. When most people think of energy in astronomy, they think of stars, but dark energy makes up 70% of the total mass-energy in the universe. At its simplest, energy is just the capacity to do work; i.e. the capacity for a force to displace an object.

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