‘A Portable Cosmos’ by Alexander Jones

More than 100 years after it was first discovered, and following on from decades of research by scientists and theologians alike, author Alexander Jones reveals a new and unknown approach to understanding the mysterious Antikythera mechanism.

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Since the dawn of society, mankind has striven to understand the forces that dictate history. Ancient Greeks found answers in fate, with shrouded white beings, known as the Moirai, depicted alongside the gods as the bringers of destiny.

It would be easy to suggest that fate was at play in 1901, when sponge divers off the coast of a small Greek island stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient shipwreck, which just happened to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.

The contents of the wreck, dating back as far as 60 AD, revealed untold wonders of the lives of the privileged in Ancient Greece. The vessel was laden with artistic masterpieces in the form of bronze and marble statues and intricate glassware and ceramics. Most important of all, though, was the unique Antikythera mechanism – the crumbling remains of an ancient gear-driven device, since dubbed the first analogue computer.

‘A Portable Cosmos’, written and researched by Professor Alexander Jones, from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, attempts to unpick the murky history of the Antikythera mechanism. The book presents the device as a gateway to the understanding of scientific thought in Ancient Greece, where the divine and the methodical were inextricably entwined.

Jones takes the reader on a journey through the various years of research into the mechanism’s background, as well as into the device itself, affording a glimpse beneath the corroded surface and into the interior gears and cogs.

Since its discovery more than 100 years ago, scholars and scientists have dedicated years of research to uncovering the secrets hidden beneath the mechanism’s corroded exterior. The symbols, writings, gears and cogs uncovered by years of investigation have revealed that the mechanism is some kind of advanced astronomical calculator, with dials given over to tracing cycles of time and the movements of the sun, moon and planets.

Various theories have arisen as to the machine’s true function, with it being labelled as both an astrolabe and a planetarium at various stages throughout the 20th century. It was not until Derek de Solla Price began researching the object in the 1950s that the word ‘computer’ arose and with it the idea that the device could have been used to determine certain predictions and calculations.

For Jones it seems unlikely that the mechanism was created to compute data in any practical way, but rather, was more likely created as a reflection of certain beliefs and aspirations in Ancient Greece. Navigational and other purposes would have been much more easily supplied by other, cheaper means, whereas the range and breadth of information expressed by the mechanism is far and beyond the realms required by any merchant ship.

Instead, Jones poses the idea that the device may have served as vessel for teaching the ‘educated layman’ how astronomical phenomena were interwoven with the natural and social environment. Take a glimpse at Ancient Greek texts and one can see the presence of mechanical thought within the understanding of astrological forces. Vitruvius described the heavens themselves as spun about mechanically – viewing astrological revolutions as driven by a system of invisible, interlocking parts. For some, this theory went further, into the very nature of fate itself.

Within the Antikythera mechanism, each astrological and chronological function had a rich context in Ancient Greek life and as such serves as the perfect gateway to understanding astronomy and scientific technology within society at the time. Just as fate and serendipity fascinated and guided the hands of ancient scholars, so too has it dictated the journey of the Antikythera mechanism, from a corroded piece of rubble to one of the most important discoveries of modern times.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘What to do when machines do everything’ by Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring

There are plenty of predictions out there for what a future world filled with artificially intelligent machines might look like, from utopian visions of technological miracles and marvels, to dystopian predictions of man enslaved by robotics. In a world where such systems are becoming the norm, how do these visions relate to reality?

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Last week, I was struggling with a problem with my hard drive when a member of IT came over to help. He saw a book, ‘What to Do When Machines Do Everything’, lying on my desk and smiled. “What will we do?” he asked, “go on holiday!” I countered this argument quite quickly – “but you won’t have a job, how will you afford to go on holiday?” I asked. “When machines do everything, everything will be free,” he assured me.

It’s a nice thought, but perhaps a little optimistic.

Whatever your opinion on artificial intelligence and automated machinery, there is no doubt that these products and systems are now a reality. The last few years have seen many intelligent systems escape from the experimental cages of the past, outgrow industrial testing labs, and enter the world of work. For some, that’s exciting, for others terrifying, but for all, it’s inevitable. This new publication from Wiley, written by thought leaders from IT services company Cognizant, takes a closer look at the rise of intelligent machinery and robotics within the industrial sector, to analyse how such systems are revolutionising the world of work, and how businesses and industries can ensure they make the most of the situation.

As leaders of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, authors Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring are well placed to discuss this subject. After three years of intense research, and no doubt a little bit of philosophical head-scratching, they have produced a book for thought leaders and business owners at all levels, which serves as an action plan for success in the new era of industrial production. This isn’t a look at what might happen in the next 25 years, they assure the reader, but rather an in-depth look at what will happen in the next five. It’s a book for those who want to make the most of the digital revolution, to help them to survive and thrive in a world where machines do everything.

According to the authors, we are living in a time of the ‘know-it-all’ business – brought on by systems of intelligence or ‘thinking machines’ – in which leaders and managers can and should have a continuous awareness of what is going on in the company’s operation. The primary means of the digital industrial revolution is data, a resource that is cheap to gather, cheap to distribute, infinite, unique, exponentially valuable, and as such far superior to those that came before. Data has the potential to transform workplaces and increase productivity, but must be handled carefully.

With this in mind, the authors encourage industry leaders to think practically. While it is OK to take inspiration from the Facebooks, Amazons, Netflixes and Googles of the world, it is important to remember the role of industry as fundamentally different from those companies born of the digital revolution. Complete digitalisation is an impossibility within industry, a sector which will always require processes, systems and factory floors. The key to success is in careful blending of digital and industrial.

Taken at face value, ‘What to Do When Machines do Everything’ is a helpful ‘how to’ guide to succeed in a world of automation, intelligent systems and robotics, which outlines what you should do, why, and what will happen if you don’t.

According to the authors, the good news, or perhaps bad news where my friendly IT technician is concerned, is that when machines do everything, there will still be plenty for us humble humans to do.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

 

‘Time Machine Tales’ by Paul J Nahin

 

A blend of science and philosophy teases out the paradoxes surrounding whether it will ever be possible to slip back and forth between the ages.

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Time travel is a curious thing. Imagine having the whole of history at your very finger tips; it would be easy to travel back to the day when JFK was shot, to discover if it really was Lee Harvey Oswald behind the assassination and reveal the identity of that troubling ‘Babushka Lady’, or to hop over to ancient Egypt to watch the pyramids being made, or discover the meaning behind Stonehenge. The possibilities are endless, but so is time, and any talk of time travel, or travelling backwards in time at the very least, opens up all sorts of troubling questions and complexities.

In ‘Time Machine Tales: The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel’, Paul J Nahin delves into questions surrounding time travel as presented through the world of science fiction. A science writer by trade, Nahin takes a philosophical seat here, leaving behind the dreary equation-filled technical notes of the past in favour of colourful anecdotes from favourites including Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, interjected with thoughts and theories of leading physicists. Quite fitting, perhaps, as not so long ago, talk of travelling through time was relegated solely to realms of science fiction.

As excited as many sci-fi fanatics might get at the thought off hopping forward or backwards in time, for the most part such ideas have been dismissed as implausible. After all, the basic premise of travelling backwards in time inverts the cause and effect paradigm by which we all understand life, by demanding backwards causation. Today though, talk of time travel is a much more respectable business. As Nahin points out, the only reason time travel seems so implausible is because there is no rational scientific theory to explain it.

To put this into context, in 2013 Professor Brian Cox announced that time travel is theoretically possible, but only into the future, and that once in the future, it is impossible to go back. This is due to Einstein’s special theory of relativity (hypothesised in 1905 – it’s old news now), which states that when an object approaches the speed of light, time within the object slows down. The idea being that the closer a rocket ship travels relative to the speed of light, the slower the seconds pass by on a watch worn by an astronaut compared to that of an identical one back on Earth. Of course, no technology exists today that would be able to take someone very far into the future – the energy required would be astronomical – but it has already been done, albeit on a very small scale, by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who spent 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes in space and returned to Earth 0.02 seconds into his own future.

With the right explanation, time travel doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all. Not so, though, with the idea of travelling to the past.

Backwards travel conjures up far more issues, not least the cumulative audience paradox. This is the idea that, if backwards travel were possible, there would be untold numbers of time tourists present at the crucifixion of Christ, the assassination of John Lennon, the battle of Battenberg, the birth of Prince George and any other historic event that anyone could ever have even the slightest interest in. Of course, as Nahin points out, the absence of temporal visitors is an objection to the actuality of time travel, and not the possibility of it. It could be, as many science fiction writers have suggested, that in the future, there are certain rules forbidding time travel to the past.

If it seems impossible, though, why are we so obsessed with talk of time travel? The answer is simply because, although we believe it to be impossible, it has not yet been proven to be impossible, and many are simply not satisfied with this. Professor Stephen Hawking has said that he believes there is new physics yet to be discovered that will forbid would be time travellers from travelling up and down the centuries – but until such a discovery is made, and proven, the conversation is likely to continue.

This is an unusual book, falling somewhere into the murky depths between philosophy and physics. Nahin approaches the science fiction of the past using current discussion from leading physicists and philosophers, to create a book which will make you pause, think, and quite possibly probably scratch your head as you try to contemplate the reality of time machines crashing into themselves, the implications of the bootstrap paradox, and the mind-bending characteristics of a Möbius strip.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of all kinds

Edited by David H Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert

There are some books which, regardless of their age, continue to resonate with audiences, and of none is this so true as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From its origins as a ghost story written by an intelligent yet rebellious teenage girl on the shores of Lake Geneva almost 200 years ago, the book has gone on to become a defining pillar of English literature, one which has much to say about the way we as humans imagine science and its moral, societal and technological consequences.

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Over the years Shelley’s text has become standard comparison for every scientific attempt to harness the power of nature, be it in the form genetic engineering, stem cell cloning, or even the creation of artificial intelligence. Yet despite its clear relevance to science and engineering, the study of Frankenstein has often been left solely to students of the arts and humanities.

This new publication from The MIT Press strives to change this, by directly applying Shelley’s classical text to the modern, scientific world. The original 1818 edition of Frankenstein is paired with annotations discussing the ethical aspects of scientific creativity and providing additional background information on the period in which the novel came to life including references to industrialisation, and scientific studies in alchemy and galvanism.

The comparisons to our own situation are clear: Shelley’s society was caught up in a tumultuous network of changes, experiencing for the first time the wonders of steam power and industry, and today, we find ourselves caught up in a similar situation – though travelling in very different directions – and still with many of the same concerns. The editors present the idea of a modern day Victor Frankenstein creating a form of self-replicating nanotechnology – not unlike the ideas we explored last year in our Frankenstein special edition of E&T – highlighting the continued significance of Shelley’s warning.

While the book is written as a companion to those of scientific thinking, it also drives up discussion about the importance of literary thinking within science and technology, and of incorporating art into STEM subjects. The editors encourage a scientific respect of the humanities as offering a valid means of defining and even improving the world. Indeed, the factors driving scientific imagination are not so far removed from the literary mind as one might imagine. Shelley’s work speaks of an interest in the scientific and technological discoveries occurring in the early 19th century, but was no doubt also inspired by nature, and the tumultuous rainfall the girl experienced at Lake Geneva. In much the same way her creation, Victor Frankenstein, experienced his first sparks of creativity after witnessing a tree smashed to smithereens during a thunderstorm. Both occurrences, though literary, are not so far removed from Edison’s inspiration for the study of gravity coming from an apple falling from a tree.

To give further context and encourage thought and discussion, the annotated book is accompanied by a chronology of scientific developments throughout the life of Shelley, as well as several essays by leading scholars which explore the social and ethical aspects of scientific creativity and discovery within Frankenstein. Questions emerge surrounding the responsibility behind scientific creation, the place of science fiction as an influence rather than a predictor, of the future, and the changing conceptions of human nature, and their relevance and emergence within the text – providing food for thought for STEM and humanities students alike.

Interestingly enough although the book has been edited by men, the idea for the project itself came from a woman, the colleague of Guston, Finn and Robert, Cajsa Baldini. The irony of group of middle aged men following in the footsteps of a teenage girl is not lost on the editors, and they take the time to confront the issues of gender in Frankenstein, as well as pay homage to the author, for whom writing and publishing a novel without the support of her family, and with open disdain from society, was no mean feat. In this way, the book serves not just to represent how Shelley’s work provides an opportunity to reflect on how science is framed and understood by the public, but as a commemoration of all that Shelley achieved.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Infinity: A Very Short Introduction’ by Ian Stewart

Infinity is all around us. It helped to send man to the moon and underlines the very basic principles of mathematics, but remains a hugely misunderstood concept.

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Picture this: I have a hotel and infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied. If a new guest were to turn up wanting a room for the night, how could I accommodate them? If you don’t already know the answer to this, then the latest release Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series is sure to be of interest. ‘Infinity: A Very Short Introduction’, by Ian Stewart is, somewhat paradoxically, a quick and simple introduction to what is, quite literally, the biggest subject ever. Intrigued? Read on to find out more.

Let’s get back to my hotel and the matter of how I might accommodate this new and troubling guest. If I had a hotel with a finite number of rooms, the poor chap would be out on his ear, but a hotel with an infinite number of rooms is much more flexible. Instead, I simply need to move the guest in room one to room two, and the guest in room two to room three, and so on, so that each guest has been moved from his current room n, to n+1. Once each guest has been moved, room one will be empty and free to accommodate the new guest.

Confused yet? The hotel’s skills don’t stop here. If in an infinite number of new guests turned up I would also be able to accommodate them. To do this, I would simple need to move the person in room one to room two, and the person in room two to room four, and three to room six, and so on, until each odd numbered room (of which there are an infinite amount) is empty, and ready to be filled by the new guests. I could go on and try to explain how an infinite number of coaches each filled with an infinite number of guests could be accommodated, but my head is starting to hurt.

This hotel, hypothesised by German mathematician David Hilbert in 1924, goes to illustrate the counter-intuitive nature of infinity, by showing that infinity plus one, and infinity plus infinity, are both equal to infinity. More than this, though, Hilbert’s infinite hotel paradox highlights that infinity is paradoxical, so don’t be put off by the paradox of a ‘short’ introduction to a huge subject because when you think about it, illogically it starts to make sense.

Unlike infinity itself, infinity as a concept does have a beginning: it was first hypothesised by Anaximander, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from around 580BC. He used ideas of infinity, what he called ‘apeiron’, in the search for the origin of life. Since this time, countless philosophers, theologians, psychologists and mathematicians have delved into the black depths of infinity in search of meaning and explanation.

It might seem strange to think so deeply about a concept that we never physically encounter, but infinity actually comes into play in far more situations than you might imagine. Stewart highlights the example of 1/3 expressed as a decimal – 0.33333 recurring. The recurring number of the decimal goes on forever – it is infinite. In the same way, ideas of space and time are often thought of in terms of infinity, as, of course, are numbers. In fact, infinity has an intrinsic role in all manner of subjects – it underlines the very basis of calculus, has taken man to the moon and is used by mathematicians every day.

Infinity is not a thing, it is a concept, a way of understanding tangible things, and, as Stewart goes to highlight, has a very important role to play. The pattern-seeking nature of the human mind dictates that is preferable, or perhaps easier, to think of certain things as infinite than in attempting to think of a boundary. The mere mention of time having a ‘beginning’ will bring up the question of ‘what came before?’. ‘Nothing’ is an incomprehensible answer.

With ‘Infinity: a Very Short introduction’, Stewart has taken an interminably complex subject, and condensed and contracted it to something reasonably manageable – just reasonably, mind, not entirely, as this is infinity we are talking about. The book introduces puzzles and paradoxes, debunks common misconceptions and explores infinity as a concept in both the natural and theoretical world. The sheer wealth of information is at once fascinating and a little terrifying.

If you’ve ever been struck by the question of what lies at the end of infinity, are baffled by the idea of never ending time or space, or just want to read something that is bound to twist your mind in crazy directions, then this is the book for you.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The Trainable Cat’ by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis

There is such a thing as cat whispering and it’s really not that difficult. This new book by self-proclaimed cat enthusiasts John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis outlines simple ways that owners can make life happier for themselves and their furry four-legged friends.

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There are two kinds of people in this world, those who love cats, and those who are wrong. Or, if you want me to be a little less biased, cat people and dog people – no prizes for guessing which category yours truly falls into. One of the biggest gripes dog people seem to have with cats is their brazen ‘up yours’ attitude to anything and everything. A cat will do as it pleases, when it pleases, and there is little if anything you can do to stop them. Dogs are trainable, dogs are reliable, cats, on the other hand, are a law unto themselves.

While the idea of a trained cat might seem contradictory, in ‘The Trainable Cat’, authors John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis show that stress-induced behaviour in cats, such as shredding furniture and fighting against vet visits, can be prevented, making life happier and healthier for cats and owners alike. Your cat is just as intelligent as the dog next door, and far from being untrainable and ignorant, is continually learning and adjusting its behaviour to outside stimuli. You may assume that when your cat jumps up onto the work surface for the fourth time while you are baking, it is deliberately ignoring your pleas for peace, but have you ever stopped to consider that your response to the cat is actually encouraging it?

Starting from the basics, Bradshaw and Ellis delve into the inner workings of the feline mind, to uncover how and why cats learn the way they do, and what cat owners can do to make training easy for the cat and themselves. Cats have excellent memories, they say, and are therefore perfectly suited to training, but are rather different to dogs and thus have their own specific requirements. Through multiple enlightening and often humorous scenarios, Bradshaw and Ellis lay out different training approaches and programmes that can be used to teach cats by rewarding good behaviour while limiting the less appealing sides of a cat’s psyche – including those that result claw-marked furniture and bloody corpses.

Think you can’t train a cat? Think again! The video below shows one of my own beloved moggies playing fetch cat-sized stick (aka hairpin). A bit of positive reinforcement in the form of delicious cat snacks goes a long way.

This book isn’t just a training manual, though. As well as offering advice for the cat lover who wants to ensure they are getting the most out of their relationship with their humble friend, it’s also packed full of awesome cat-related general knowledge titbits. The geek within me revelled in the discovery that the reason one of my cats sometimes sits with her mouth gormlessly hanging open is because she has smelled something interesting and is literally ‘tasting’ the air. The fact that cats like to seek out tiny spaces to hide is because, as retractably clawed animals, they are unable to dig and so, in the wild, would have had to seek out natural crevices to protect themselves from predators.

This book delivers on random information, psychological insight, scientific analysis and all-round cuteness, securing it a high position on my list of favourite books reviewed for E&T so far. I can’t confirm as yet whether Bradshaw and Ellis’s advice has in fact made life happier for me and my cats, but it has certainly given me a better understanding of crazy and endearing things they do. Whether you want to train your cat, are interested in the inner workings of the feline mind, or are a hard-core ‘dog person’ in need of a ‘reality check’, this book is guaranteed to make you think, smile and truly appreciate the unique personalities of these complex creatures.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine