Know Your Culture

Analysing film and music reference in “Nature Magazine” headlines.



Culture, noun:
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.

Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.

But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).

SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London

Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.


Title: Science, lies and video-taped experiments.

Subject: Discussion of manipulation and fabrication of results in science, and how the onus should be on the researchers to prove that their data is solid—by recording their work.

Reference: The film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). Note that the film’s title refers to a single videotape. To me that feels wrong, as I suppose it must have done to the sub-editors of Nature.

Verdict: I haven’t seen the film, but I formed an instant association—although I’m not sure to what end.

Title: Subclone wars.

Subject: The study of cancerous mutations in pluripotent stem cells grown in vitro. Subclones are subsets of cells. The wars refer to how cancerous mutations confer growth advantages to the subclonal populations, which may expand and overtake the normal slower-growing healthy cells.

Reference: Clone Wars in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) or alternatively the TV series that came afterwards.

Verdict: Relevant title, good reference, but you have to know Star Wars.

Title: A licence to print glass.

Subject: A method for 3D printing of high-quality glass with complexity limited only by the resolution of the printer (tens of microns).

Reference: First James Bond film not based on an Ian Fleming book: Licence to Kill (1989).

Verdict: Tenuous connection (perhaps I’m wrong and there is no connection at all?), but it feels like an ingrained reflex to associate anything that includes licence to with the film. From the film’s description I see Bond blows up a tanker—so perhaps the relation is via high-temperature furnaces and sintering processes.

(Update since publication: A more likely reference is: “a licence to print money”—thank you to martinmerry for pointing this out. See his comment below.)


Title:  Guns and roses.

Subject: A review of Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, which studies why we are driven to violence, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other. Quote from the review: We learn [from the book] how metaphors can dehumanize in ways that can lead to atrocity (such as reframing a despised human group as ‘cockroaches’).

This is true in general—and described in detail in Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphor’s We Live By—the metaphor we use to talk about a certain phenomenon determines our approach to it. Essentially, the metaphor structures our thought process and attitude.

For example, if we say:

  •  my argument is stronger than your argument,
  • or my argument beats your argument,

we are thinking of our exchange in terms of war and we are more likely to be combative.

However, if we say:

  • my argument builds on yours,
  • or my argument is another side of your argument,

we are thinking of our exchange as a building, and we are more likely to be constructive.

Reference (?): band Guns N’ Roses. Origin of their name is a conflation of two previous bands (L. A. Guns and Axl Rose).

Verdict: Article title is relevant to its content, but the content isn’t related to the band name, and therefore the title is free-riding the resonance.

Title: Ice, ice maybe.

Subject: Notion that an ice shelf in Antarctica will not disintegrate, because the dangerous meltwater will be drained by surface rivers.

Reference: Song Ice Ice Baby, by Vanilla Ice (1989).

Verdict: free-rider, like above.

Title: The bitter-sweet symphony.

Subject: Study of pathways that relay tastes such as bitter and sweet from the tongue to the brain of a mouse.

Reference: Song The Bitter-sweet Symphony, by The Verve (1997).

Verdict: free-rider.


What do you think of headlines that co-opt song titles only as a way of hooking the reader?

N.B. Title commentary and article summaries are my own—I have no evidence of intent from the editors of Nature, nor am I an expert in the various scientific fields. I welcome alternative interpretations or insights.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

4 thoughts on “Know Your Culture”

  1. For me, “a licence to print glass” resonates with “a licence to print money”: specifically, when the UK government decided that the BBC wouldn’t have a monopoly on television any more and legalised commercial television in the UK, the person who went on to run commercial television in Scotland described a commercial TV franchise as a licence to print money.

    This comment would have been made around 1955; the first James Bond book (which, I assume, would have used the phrase “licence to kill” ) was published in 1953. So it’s quite plausible that the original inspiration for the quote was Ian Fleming anyway…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brilliant! I didn’t know that. And the Bond connection—ha!—would love to find out whether whoever came up with the “licence to print money” was inspired (consciously or subconsciously) by the film title.


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