‘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

‘Mathematics: How it Shaped our World’ by David Rooney

 

In December 2016, I attended the opening at London’s Science Museum of ‘Mathematics: the Winton Gallery’, an inspirational exhibition which seeks to highlight how mathematics has played a central role in human development throughout history. Now the same brains behind the gallery have launched a new book, which brings this wonderful story into the home.

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This beautiful new book, written by David Rooney, curator in the technologies and engineering group at the science museum and lead curator of the Winton Gallery, explores how mathematics has influenced the world throughout the last 400 years.

The fascinating yet misunderstood field of mathematics, though considered by many to be a rather forbidding and remote subject, is not just present within university and financial institutions, but has importance within all of our daily lives. The Winton Gallery was created as an accessible and fun avenue into understanding mathematics in a bid to change the public’s relationship with mathematics and its history.

‘Mathematics: How it Shaped our World’ by David Rooney supports this quest for anyone unable to visit the Science Museum or for those simply wanting to continue the journey at home. Beautifully illustrated by full-colour photography throughout, this attractive publication would make an excellent addition to any coffee table or bookshelf, whether for casual perusing or an all-out maths fest.

Mathematics is as old as time itself, but with any book there needs to be a beginning. This one emerges on board the merchant ships of the early 18th century with the invention of overseas trade. Mathematics’ relationship with trade is much more complex and far-reaching than the changing hands of currencies. At the heart of trade is measurement: it is in the designing and construction of ships; in the navigation and the building of trade networks; in the buying and selling of goods, and even in the forming of codes for transmitting secret information. As Rooney points out, whole empires have been built and fortunes made and lost off the back of world trade – a fact that resonates just as much now, with the cheap outsourcing of production overseas, as it did 400 years ago.

From trade and travel we move on to war and the many technological advances that mathematical innovation has awarded to the fight for peace throughout history, from the ‘differential analyser’ of the Second World War, to the invention of radar and subsequent rise of ‘operational research’ – a form of mathematical decision making – within military practice. With each chapter in the book Rooney introduces a new concept or sector which has been affected in untold ways by the power of mathematics – exploring economics, weather patterns, surveillance systems, computing, medicine, risk analysis, health and beauty and the very nature of life and death itself.

The book is rounded off nicely by a series of short essays from key figures in the study of mathematics, which look at, among other things, the position of women within mathematical history, with particular attention to key female figures such as Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Sommerville and the ever-changing nature of the mathematics landscape in the present day.

There is no question of the importance of mathematics in the minds of most people. Those who shy away from the simplest of calculations and cringe every time it comes to splitting a bill at a restaurant will know the perils of lacking basic mathematics skills, but – as Rooney demonstrates – this is really just the beginning. Where some introductory or historical texts seek merely to inform, this one strives to engage intellectual thought and questioning, positioning it firmly above the rest. Whether you are a mathematician by trade, a closet maths fanatic or a self-proclaimed sum-dodger, this book is sure to give you food for thought.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Pyjamarama Funfair’ and ‘Pyjamarama Fever’ – Barrier-grid animation from Michaël Leblond and Frédérique Bertrand

Pyjamarama Funfair and Pyjamarama Fever, two fun new books from Thames and Hudson, introduce children to the wonder of animation in non-digital form.

In response to changing times, and rather picky customers, children’s author Michael Leblond and acclaimed illustrator Frédérique Bertrand have released this dynamic book duo, filled with awesome, printed animations and interactive pages, as the ultimate solution for when you cannot prise your child away from their smartphone.

These exciting new publications utilise an old graphic design technique to create a swirling, fun-filled world of moving pictures, without a hint of technology. In Pyjamarama Fever and Pyjamarama Funfair Leblond and Bertrand use barrier-grid animation, an effect created by moving a striped acetate overlay across an interlaced image, to create an optically illustrated world for children to interact with, and explore.

The Pyjamarama series tells the story of a little boy who puts on his pyjamas and turns out the lights to go to bed only to fall into a magical, dazzling dream world filled with bright colours and flashing lights. In the past Pyjamarama has taken children across the world to the sights of New York and Paris, but the newest additions to the series stay a little closer to home.

In Pyjamarama Funfair, our little friend finds himself in a magical funfair, where bright swirling lights, rampant rapids, twisting roller coasters and rough dodgems dart and dance across the page. In Pyjamarama Fever the same little boy is sent to bed feeling a little under the weather, before succumbing to a strange but dazzling delirium filled with strange shapes, shimmering stripes, swirling spots, and pyjama-clad firefighting mums and carwashing dads.

As our pyjama-clad hero dreams, children reading the book are able to interact with the images. Sliding the acetate sheet, which comes included with each Pyjamarama book, across the page brings the illustrations to life: cogs turn, lights flash, dots dance and waves flow with just a slight turn of hand. The images flickering across the pages, however simply explained, are pretty cool to say the least.

These innovative books are highly interactive and a great way of encouraging children to rediscover the magic of the printed word. The illustrations, which in themselves are pretty mesmerising, are awarded a whole new level of awesomeness when combined with the acetate sheet. It’s a simple, effective animation technique that children, and the majority of parents and carers, are sure to love – they certainly proved popular among the E&T editorial team.

So if you are looking for a new way to keep your children occupied outside of school, with the added benefit of giving them a break from digital technology and a chance to rediscover the magic of books, then look no further than a little Pyjamarama fun.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Destroy this Book in the Name of Science’ by Mike Barfield

 

Science is exciting and at no point is this more apparent than when viewed through the eyes of a child, as this fun-filled new publication from Mike Barfield goes to show.

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As an impressionable ten-year-old, mere mention of the word ‘science’ had me thinking about dissolving just about anything in huge beakers of acid. With real-world scientific knowledge limited to the realms of mixing salt in water and weird Brainiac-related science abuse involving walking on custard and testing out slippery socks, I just couldn’t wait to get to secondary school and discover what wonders awaited me in the teenage science lab. Who could possibly resist the temptation of flammable alkaline metals, fizzing rainbow-coloured liquids and sooty beakers tarnished by improperly adjusted Bunsen burners?

When I first visited my secondary school, the chemistry teacher set up an experiment to show that the colour of fire could be changed using different types of salt. I’ll never forget adding borax to the soft glow of a Bunsen burner and seeing the flame change to a vivid apple green. The teacher managed to feign delight at what was no doubt the same experiment he’d seen dozens of times already that evening, musing ‘I’d rather like a pair of trousers that colour’ as I happily trotted off for my next lab tour.

What’s the point of this weird childhood anecdote, you may ask? To show that children are impressionable and liable to be amazed by even the simplest feats of science. It’s a good thing, too, because we all know how important it is to get children interested in STEM from an early age. As a parent, older sibling, aunt, uncle or concerned observer, it’s never too soon to get the young Isaac Newtons in your life excited about the wonderful world of science – and what better place to start than in the home.

The good news is that hands-on, kid-friendly science doesn’t have to be limited to the chemicals, crystals and compounds in the average chemistry set. A solution comes in the form of Destroy this Book in the Name of Science, an entertaining new publication from author Mike Barfield, which proves the perfect literary addition to the lab/bedroom of curious children.

Complete with its very own cut-out Einstein mask, this book is filled with projects and tasks to push out and pull apart, with pages reserved for colouring, doodling, cutting, tearing and flat-out destroying – all in the name of science. With the help of a little glue and some determination, even the most fledgling of boffins can discover the physics behinds some exceptional magic tricks, build a working cardboard hoop glider to out-fly any paper aeroplane and race paper sea turtles with the help of just a little washing up liquid.

The comically illustrated book is a simple affordable method of awakening the latent scientist nestled within each young brain. I would recommend this book for adults wanting to engage children in a little scientific fun or, equally, tired editorial staff in need of a Friday afternoon pick-me-up.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories’ edited by Michael Brotherton

Science and science fiction may seem like two sides of the same coin, but much of the genre gracing bookshelves and cinemas today is actually missing an integral piece of the puzzle – the ‘science’.

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Without science, says Michael Brotherton, sci-fi is little more than a western set in space, or a fantasy set in the future. As a lover of all things scientific and a trained astrophysicist, Brotherton characterises science fiction as providing a glimpse into amazing futures not outside the realms of possibility, or terrible and grotesque scenarios that we should try to avoid.

It may not surprise you to learn that many renowned sci-fi authors were trained in science – Isaac Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry, and Arthur C Clarke was known for his essays on space travel. Perhaps it is the accuracy, or indeed the believability of their fiction, the notion that these situations are not outside the realms of possibility, that makes their work so profound.

As editor of ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’, Brotherton introduces the latest generation of science-trained sci-fi writers, among them current researchers pursuing a love of fiction on the side, retired experts, or those who have set aside prosperous careers to write full time.

In ‘Down and Out’ by Ken Wharton, the reader meets Ogby, a strange, spiderlike creature living within the nutrient-rich oceans of a mysterious, ice-​encrusted land, with odd perceptions of gravity, sinking to the bottom of her habitat by filling one of her many gaseous bladders with air.

In ‘Supernova Rhythm’, Andrew Fraknoi writes of an optimistic young research scientist who discovers a strange pattern of exploding stars in galaxy NGC 6946, and so finds that there may be life forms billions of years ahead of us developmentally, whose actions we cannot possibly understand.

Alongside tales of obscure lands, terrifying futures and pending zombie apocalypses, the authors have taken time to explain a little of the science behind the sci-fi, unveiling origins of the tales and shedding some light on their motivation. In this way, we learn that Obgy is an alien lifeform from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, who scuttles upside-down upon the layers of ice enclosing the moon’s subterranean ocean; that a new musical piece created by a group of astronomers uses notes supplied by supernovae in far-off galaxies and that future scientists could theoretically sequence the DNA of hundreds of species of animals to be contained, and later deployed, within a single piece of fruit.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists’ is an interesting and intriguing anthology of short stories, which is sure to set the reader’s mind in motion a little better than the average collection of sci-fi shorts. Leisure is combined with learning to leave not just a sense of wonder and amusement, but also the desire to find out a little more about each author’s particular field.

For those interested in exploring further, a more challenging read comes in the form of ‘Murder on the Einstein Express and Other Stories’, also from Springer. This short anthology by assistant professor in mathematics and physics Harun Šiljak, touches on the realms of the theoretical, physical and computational to create obscure tales, including an Alice in Wonderland-type adventure set within the realms of mathematical analysis.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Robert C Allen

From British feudalism to the Internet of Things, this concise analysis of the Industrial Revolution provides the perfect introduction to one of the most complex times in human history.

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Look back at the work of any 16th century painter and you will see a life very different to that we live today. Streets were strewn with farm animals and bore witness to all manner of slaughtering, plucking, sheering and bathing alongside horse drawn carts transporting livestock, cloth and grain – a food economy if ever there was one. The land was central to life, with arable plots taken up by livestock and agricultural farming, while towns and cities blossomed along riversides. Craftsmen, placed by the water’s edge for trade, would carve, sand and smooth their wares from metal and wood using hardy hand tools, before selling their goods in local markets. Homes were heated, and food cooked, using wood fires and charcoal, and sanitation left much to be desired.

Fast forward to today and life has moved on somewhat. Hand tools are relegated to those who enjoy gardening and crafts, with production carried out in connected factories, assisted by robotics and autonomous systems. Our houses are heated with oil, gas or renewable sources, and come complete with electric lighting and pristine running water. Most people now live within the confines of the city, which in themselves are vast and busy, with buildings stretching up and out as far as the eye can see. Areas of countryside, rather than offering the gift of life themselves, are set aside for those wishing to ‘reconnect’ with nature and escape the hectic urban life.

So how did we get from one to the other?

The answer lies in the Industrial Revolution, a decisive journey that occurred halfway between life depicted in oil works of the 1500s and today. In this latest Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press, author Robert C. Allen traces the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the humble shores of the British Isles, and analyses the wider global effect of the two centuries of industrial development which helped to shape the course of recent history.

It is a tumultuous story that begins, as with this review, with the wholesome lives of aristocrats, tradesman and labourers in 16th century Britain, where seeds of revolution were sown long before the first cogs of the industrial machine began to turn. The years that followed were a turbulent time, filled with growth, but also contradiction. Alongside the progression man made, was life rife with poverty, unemployment, squalid housing, pollution and protest.

In just over 100 pages, Allen crams 500 years of human development and clears up any uncertainties one might have as to the roots, development and consequences of this Revolution. Despite developments around the world, it was Britain that first saw the ripples of industrialisation, which Allen traces from the English Channel, undulating out into mainland Europe and beyond.

‘The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ is a wonderfully accessible introduction to an incredibly complex period of human history. The revolution itself was made from simultaneous developments across trade, commerce, agriculture, mechanics and economics, and so this introduction, far from being just about the rise of industry, takes into account a breathtaking array of subject matter, but does so within the most manageable of formats. Allen has created another truly fantastic edition to the Very Short Introduction series. This book would make a wonderful addition to any bibliophile’s collection, but would be most ideally suited for those with an interest in industry, British history or international development.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Asteronymes – Claire Trévien

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Asteronyme is the word for a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password. I wonder what this book of poetry is hiding.

Poetry is a like a window into a person’s soul, but not all windows are clear. Words can paint the desires and emotions often left hidden in the depths of the unconscious mind but it is not always apparent what emotions the words are hiding, just as you can never been sure of the meaning behind the asterisk in any given password.

In some ways I find that poetry is the most personal form of literary expression. There is always passion in writing – even the most terrible novel, or simplest anecdote can tell you something about a person – but delve into the world of the poetical and you have something more. Sometimes the simplest method of expression is in poetical thought, but to express doesn’t mean to be understood.

The poems nestled within this obscure blue cover relay extremely personal experiences, and linguistic experimentation. Trévien takes the reader with her on a journey through the Scottish Island of Arran, a remote place wrought with contradiction, where ancient rocks and history meet the cruel harsh reality of digital life.

Alongside caves adorned with the mythical carvings of old, where snow-peaked mountains meet coastal palm trees and the post-industrial rush of life, past, present and prelife experiences come together to explore the remote Scottish countryside. Trévien’s voice emerges in an explosion of lyrical, poetic exploration which speaks of the destruction of timeless places by the passing of time itself.

Ruin, neglect and progression come together in an expression that is all at once playful, creative, and explorative, and challenges the boundaries of traditional poetical construction. Trévien’s words are at times humorous and crass, and other mournful and waning, serving as an elegy to destruction and neglect throughout time.

I don’t often take the time to read modern poetry, preferring instead to stay loyal to my grandfather’s dusty edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and a crumbling copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but I’m very pleased I decided to pick up this humble little collection up. It really is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself wanting to experiment with some of the new techniques and styles uncovered within the text. To be sure my attempts are nowhere near as eloquent as Trévien’s, but it was lovely to have the desire reawakened within me.

If you are looking for a new collection to revive your senses and inspire your creative spirit you really need look no further than Asteronymes. Trévien is definitely a very exciting new voice to the world of poetry.