Turing 100

Professor Jim Al Khalili, ERS Turing lecture 02

(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

Reviews From the Past: How To Build a Nuclear Bomb

Another of my almost-lost reviews from years ago – tis review of Frank Barnaby’s science/history book was first written for The Alien Online back in November 2003 and was quite pertinent at the time as rows over the claims for WMDs in Iraq pre-invasion then the failure to find any post-invasion and the idea that we had largely been lied to by governments to justify the war was growing.
How to Build a Nuclear Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Frank Barnaby
Published Granta, September 2003

How I learned to fear the bomb and start worrying more

Okay, first off, despite the cheeky title this is not a manual on the construction of thermonuclear devices. So those of you who were technically minded and looking for a project to occupy you over the long winter nights can stop reading now. What this little book actually does do is act as a handy-sized, easy to understand primer on Weapons of Mass Destruction – those WMDs all the cool kids are talking so much about these days.

Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at Aldermaston, amongst other places, lays out concise explanations in a language easily accessible to the layman, describing each of the three main WMDs: atomic, biological and chemical (now you know where 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors got their name from).

The section on each type of weapon system is then broken down into brief overviews explaining the history of the weapon’s development, how they work, how they can be deployed by governments or small groups, what effects they have and, even more depressing, the history of their actual use, from chemical weapons on the fields of WWI Flanders to nuclear annihilation over WWII Japan.

This is not to say that Barnaby is an alarmist. Far from it; in fact he seems to have written this sensible book in order to counteract the souped-up hyperbole of the mass media in our post 9-11 world and the dreadful spin (if not actual misleading or even lying claims) about WMDS from governments. He has aimed to cut through this and produce an effective introduction to let the thinking person understand some of the real history, possible effects and uses of WMDs. In this respect I’d say he was extremely successful. For example, I now know that WMDs are not in fact invisible. Which does make me wonder why the US/UK can’t find all those ones in Iraq.

Although very informative, this book is, almost by its nature, disturbing reading. Describing how simple it is for someone to create chemical or biological weapons is frankly terrifying, and the example of the Tokyo subway attack using Sarin (the group responsible also had produced Anthrax) highlights the danger. The fact that immensely wealthy and powerful international pharmaceutical companies have used their might to stymie effective checks on production facilities in case someone is using them to secretly create bio or chemical weapons is even more alarming. There is no international system of checks – as exists for nuclear facilities – because the companies are too worried about possible industrial espionage and are prepared to put the lives of others at risk to protect their profits.

This is unlikely to be of surprise to anyone who has followed these same companies’ years of trying to block cheap, generic drugs to third world nations, but it is still more than a little astonishing that even in the current political climate there is no body to check up on chemical and biological facilities world wide. Given their history – look how many such weapons were created by IG Farben in Nazi Germany alone – you’d think the industry would be a little more safety compliant.

There was one aspect of this book that was even more horrifying and disturbing than this however. This dealt with the history of the deployment and use of WMDs. Often by the same ‘responsible’ governments who now act out military adventures to supposedly save civilization from madmen armed with WMDs. Chemical agents dropped in Vietnam, gas weapons used by Germany, Britain and France in World War I and, of course, the nuclear fires over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that burned the horror of WMDs indelibly into the public mind for all time in much the same way as they burned people’s shadows into the walls.

And before anyone argues that these events are being taken out of historical context, Barnaby discusses the vast destructive arsenals Russia, Britain, America, China and France hold to this very day and are reluctant to get rid of, while trying to ensure other nations do not possess similar weapons; although to his credit he does not take a political stance on this, merely reports the facts.

So, yes, this is disturbing material, but if you follow current events then you should know this stuff so you can try and cut through the spin and scare-tactic headlines. Information is a weapon every bit as effective as WMDs and its one weapon we should all have access to.

Reviews from the past: Living Dolls

This review was first posted on The Alien Online back in May of 2002. By coincidence it was the second pop-science book on the subject of historical automata I posted on there within a short space of time, the other being Tom Standage’s fascintaing book on the famous Mechanical Turk (reposted here). Wood’s book is more wide ranging though, going through a number of famous historical automatons across the centuries, right through to modern day scientists working in advanced robotics, along the way taking in the birth of modern cinema, stage magic and some of the figures who moved through both fields like George Melies, magician, showman, pioneer of early cinema and a displayer of automata, even taking in remarkable humans who some believed were really automata.

Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

Machines which mimic human life, humans who appear as perfect doll-like automatons – not science fiction, but history

Typical – you wait ages for a book that deals with historical automatons and then two come along at once.

Anyone who has read the recently published the Mechanical Turk (see earlier review) by Tom Standage will be at least partially familiar with some of the subjects in this new book from Observer writer Gaby Wood. Understandably The Turk itself commands a fair chunk of the book – it is, after all, one of the most famous attempts to counterfeit life artificially. The question here is, does Living Dolls contain enough new material to make it worth reading if you have already perused The Turk? Personally I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Living Dolls eschews the in-depth concentration on a single strand of automata for a more general and wide-based historical overview. Wood certainly covers many of the same areas as Standage – Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, his magical flute player and of course The Turk – but she is preparing her grounds for a somewhat more anthropological approach. Her broader overview allows her to examine what it means to be human or machine and how the lines have been blurred by successive generations of mechanicians, scientists and illusionists (not all as different and occupation as you may suppose). Wood carries the reader through the wonderful devices of the 18th and 19th century with a journalist’s understanding for the human angle, affording us a more empathic approach to this fascinating subject than Standage, with a fine eye for wry amusement along the way (for instance the mechanical child who writes essays at his desk and occasionally scribbles “I think therefore I am, I do not think, do I therefore exist?”).

Wood includes in her definition of artificial life the creation of cinema in the 1890s and also the first phonographs, with excellent chapters on Edison and George Melies. It is hard to imagine for us now, but when Edison first created the phonograph he had inadvertently given away one of the defining characteristics of humans – speech and language – to a machine. Moreover, this machine could store a voice, playing it back long after the speaker has ceased to exist – this was indeed a marvel of the age and also deeply disturbing, especially when fitted inside Edison’s talking doll. Melies, a great stage illusionist who ran the Robert Houdin theatre (the magician and automaton maker who gave Harry Houdini his stage name), uses the early cinema to create new takes on human forms. One of the first to realise he could use the new medium for magical effects and tricks, Wood argues that Melies, by making what appear to be humans perform actions impossible in real life, had actually created a new type of simulacrum. In an age of virtual reality, this is certainly a subject to be considered and it is fascinating to see the precursors to our modern conundrum with technology and The Real back in the age of steam.

(a schematic of Vaucanson’s famous mechanical duck)

The final chapter deals less with the mechanical and more with difference. Wood brings us into the early twentieth century and the heyday of the travelling carnival and all-American freak show. We are introduced to many fascinating and richly colourful characters, notably the Schneiders, who appeared under the stage name of the Doll Family. This was a travelling act of a family of midgets, who unlike some small people have limbs that are in proportion, making them appear like either children or miniature versions of adults. Is this straying from the subject, fascinating as it is?

Wood, successfully in my opinion, argues that in a fine historical reversal the Doll Family were often perceived by curious audiences as simulacra. No real person could be this size and in proportion, so they must be clockwork dolls or automata of some sort. We have moved from the public gasping in admiration at mechanical devices counterfeiting life so well they believe a human agent must either be inside or controlling them to an era where they believe small humans to be unreal, mechanical concoctions. In an era of psychoanalysis this fits in perfectly with notions of the Uncanny and the all-too-human fear of the Other. The Dolls, especially Harry, appeared in many Hollywood films and were well loved. Tod Browning, who began working in these same carnivals went on to direct Lugosi in Dracula before casting Harry and other real life carnival performers in his astonishing film, Freaks. A fascinating mixture of mechanical (the moving image and recorded voice) and people very different from the ‘normal’ range of humanity – what is human? What is normal? How can we consider if a machine has life or thought if we are so prejudiced against other humans who look different? In a wonderful personal coda to this chapter Wood is examining archives in Florida, where the Dolls retired. After reading Harry’s obituary – he passed away in the 80s – she decides to drive past the address listed as his last home, a kind of pilgrimage. She is shocked to find the Doll name still on the mailbox and further surprised to find Elly – Tiny Doll – still in residence. It is a wonderfully personal and warm moment, a piece of the history she has researched, still here, no longer a chapter in a book but a breathing, feeling person.

The very last short chapter takes Wood to Japan to observe the latest in robotic technology. In another amusing twist she finds that Professor Takanishi has constructed an artificial flautist, completing a circle from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. She asks him if this in tribute to Vaucanson’s famed eighteenth century mechanical flute player. Takanishi answers in the negative. In fact he is of the opinion that a mechanical flute player is so difficult to create that Vaucanson could not possibly have constructed one nearly two hundred years ago. I share Wood’s ironic amusement at this modern scientist’s lack of history in his own subject of research.

As with Standage’s Turk, Living Dolls is a book of wonders, from past to present. Little reminders that the mechanical miracles that are now commonplace in our modern world are not new, and debates over the status of humanity and intelligence and machines have been with us for a long time. I found The Turk to be a fascinating and absorbing book, but Living Dolls has perhaps a more human, warm and personal touch to the subject. Oh, why not spoil yourself and read the pair of them!? Then the next time you watch Data in Star Trek TNG debating if he is really “alive” you will be able to appreciate the rich history behind his Pinocchio-like dilemma.

Publisher: Faber and Faber, May 2002

Reviews from the past: The Backroom Boys

Britain: one of the great intellectual powerhouses of science and engineering advances, from the days of Newcommen, Brunel, Stevenson and Newton on and yet since the end of the Second World War haven’t those glory days where we lead the world slipped away? No, says Francis Spufford, who takes several fascinating post war British inventions by the great British Boffin that have lead the world, including the brilliant triumph where, for a change, the Blighty Boffins took on the wealth of American privatised research and made vital genetic research work in a way that could then be shared with the world to further medical advances (take that, Craig Venter!). This review first appeared on The Alien Online back in January of 2004, where in addition to science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel reviews I also contributed a number of popular science lit reviews:

The Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

Ladies and gentlemen, let us celebrate the Great British Boffin!

Boffins. It’s a peculiarly British word for a very British kind of eccentric scientist. We’ve all got a mental image conjured by that word; cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking types working on Heath-Robinson contraptions which look ludicrous yet become the prototype of inventions such as radar, supersonic aircraft or genetic sequencers. Spufford, author of the lovely The Child that Books Built, has taken several post-war episodes of invention to highlight the fact that the British Boffin is still around.

Backroom Boys begins with the ill-starred British space programme. Yes, we did have one once upon a time, although you can be forgiven for not knowing. In a typically British fashion it was run piecemeal on a shoestring. Not quite a garden shed moon rocket but pretty close, as a converted flying boat manufacturer designed and started to build rockets.

Where NASA had billions of dollars and tens of thousands of specialists in many fields the British had a small team doing it all – and pretty well too. The aims were limited and the technology too, constrained by the lack of investment. By the time the rocket finally took off successfully and put a tiny satellite into orbit the project had already been cancelled. Again the typical British way of doing things: spend time and on something then cancel it just as it begins to show some hint of success.

The chapter on the magnificent technological folly of Concorde is similar in tone; backbreaking research into an unexplored field of science and engineering which ultimately was thrown away. Spufford takes us through the design and the political problems which dogged the Anglo-French project right through to the world economic and fuel crisis which effectively stymied it as it began to fly and the limited legacy bequeathed to British Airways.

It’s not all doom and gloom and heroic failures though. Rarefied theorists come out of their ivory towers to map Britain in unprecedented scale in order to design transmitters for the new-fangled mobile phones, innovating in many realms: computer modelling, multiple frequency transmissions, cellular structure for broadcasts. We all use – or are annoyed by – these (now) tiny, bleeping devices of mass communication today, but most of us probably only have a vague idea of how they came into existence and just how it is that millions of them can be used each day so easily. British know-how strikes again.

The Universe in a Bottle is a chapter which I suspect will warm the heart of many a geek of a certain age. A new generation of backroom boys (don’t titter, it doesn’t mean anything dirty you naughty lot) arises, working in their bedrooms on a device which is new to the home: the personal computer. Tinkering with Acorn Atoms and ZX81s… who else recalls those early days? And then the mighty BBC model B gave a couple of boys at university the ability to design something no-one else had thought of: a truly three dimensional space on the two dimensional screen.

Those of you old enough to remember the days of keying in long programmes by hand or buying a cassette (yes, cassettes you young whippersnappers!) of a “100% pure machine code” home-made Space Invaders game from some bloke advertising in the back of Computer Shopper will guess what this revolutionary software was: Elite. One of the first enormously successful games and technologically innovative, too: the routine the boys re-wrote to make the BBC perform the graphic they wanted amazed even the people at Acorn who built it. It may look tame to day but it was the first of its type back in the dim days of the early 1980s, and it was a bloody good game too.

The book wraps up with very modern technological innovations: extra-planetary exploration and the unravelling of the human genome. The multi-national attempt to decode the human genome, to read the book of life itself is one of the biggest scientific projects in human history. It is a project which holds promises of great changes for all of humanity and is as breath-taking in its scope as the Apollo programme was in the 1960s. And it nearly foundered on the rocks of American capitalism.

Craig Venter announces that his private genetics company intends to do most of the work over the top of the public research bodies. In the US government agencies are forbidden from competing against private industry, so that appeared to be the death of the public programme. Needless to say Venter wasn’t doing this for high-minded philanthropy; he wanted to make money from the information he decoded. Step forward the British Boffins. Funded by the biggest charity in the world, the Wellcome Trust, they decide that the book of life will not be privatised on their watch. They want every scientist in the world to be able to access this information freely so that even doctors in poorer countries can use the data to help treat diseases. They announce at a conference that they will if necessary, do the entire project themselves. The dispirited US scientists go back re-invigorated to their public projects. The rest is history. This is science for the finest reasons – completed purely for the betterment of humanity.

The final chapter deals with the not so well-funded boffins who are the brains behind the Beagle II Mars explorer. Struggling with the ever-decreasing British commitment to space endemic since the project in the first chapter. Trying to pack in as much technological sophistication as possible into a tiny probe to ride a larger ESA vessel is difficult. Trying to get the funding to make even this modest device is even harder. But, as we all know by now, they succeeded against the odds (the favourite type of British success). The British boffin strikes again.

This is a book which is as unusual and quirky as the kind of people it is describing. It is part a history of science and partially a celebration of British eccentricity and genius – and we do like our geniuses to be eccentric in this country. It is an extremely affectionate look at the Great British Boffins who have quietly helped to shape the world we live in which never becomes to maudlin or overly nostalgic, despite re-creating the Dan Dare atmosphere of the ’50s rocket ships so well. It celebrates triumph and disaster equally buy still comes out with an uplifting message of optimism. This will delight and fascinate anyone interested in the history of science and, with the chapters on Concorde and Beagle II and new racketeers re-appraising the old British rocket it is as contemporary as it is historical.

Publisher: Faber & Faber (UK)
Date: November 2003

Reviews from the past: Two Sides of the Moon

This review was first posted on The Alien Online back in July of 2004 and tells the story of the Space Race from the point of view of both an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. By a stroke of enormous luck one of the two space explorers, Commander David Scott, was in Edinburgh to meet the media in a hotel near my then bookstore and his PA brought him over to sign some copies of the book afterwards, so I got to meet him. Suddenly an ordinary working day was transformed as I got to shake the hand of a man who walked on the Moon. A man who even drove on the Moon! A man who got to live a childhood dream of mine…

Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott & Alexei Leonov

Two Sides of the Moon 1

Two of the pioneers of space flight show how to have the Right Stuff

David Scott and Alexei Leonov. Respectively an all-American fighter jock turned astronaut, and a Soviet test pilot then cosmonaut. Both men trained by their respective air forces during the chilliest periods of the Cold War, both part of the vast war machine both superpowers employed in their most dangerous games. Had history unfolded a little differently these men may well have ended up facing each other in aerial battle. As it was, they and their nations would compete in a new arena: space flight.

Two Sides of the Moon flips regularly from Leonov to Scott and back again as both tell us a little about their early lives and the decisions which would eventually lead them into space. Both men are fascinating characters. Leonov, struggling in the inadequacies of the Soviet system where even obtaining a pair of shoes could be a struggle, still manages to become well-enough educated to become a pilot. Scott works hard to put himself through education and training to also become a pilot. Having achieved this goal though, neither man loses any edge to their ambition or determination. Studying even harder, working and flying, they both excel at both theory and practise of aviation, becoming test pilots. This was the pool from which both superpowers would select the original astronaut crews, although at this point neither man really suspected that this was where their futures lay.

Both men were right in there in the earliest days of manned space flight, undergoing trials and training that make their previous travails seem comparatively straightforward. Both men work with and are friends to explorers who have become legend since those heady days: Leonov with Yuri Gagarin and Scott with Neil Armstrong (who provides the introduction). The physical, emotional and psychological pressure the prospective space crews come under is astonishing – way beyond what is demanded today of those undergoing space flight. It had to be demanding however, these men had to have what Tom Wolfe called ‘the Right Stuff’ because they were not only the pioneers of a new frontier; they were entering a wild frontier. New technology and engineering designed to do something never achieved before in the entire history of human civilisation. Men about to be subjected to who-knows-what kind of dangers? Could a man even live in space? Would his ship survive the environment of chilled vacuum and hot radiation? Could the man? Would a ship make it back to Earth safely? Even if it did, would the man be alright? What totally unknown effects could space flight have on a human body?

When you realise just how little was known about space – and this is only 40 years ago – it becomes apparent that the determination and quiet bravery of these early cosmonauts and astronauts must have been exceptional. If you were a test pilot – as both men had been – trying out a revolutionary new aircraft and it goes wrong, you have a chance to eject and escape. This was not really much of an option in an early rocket vessel and indeed lives were lost on both sides, while more were imperilled but saved, by a mixture of ad-hoc engineering genius, skilful flying and steady nerves. This really was a dangerous time – Leonov elicits great sympathy for lost comrades who gave their lives in pursuit of this bold, new human exploration. Scott, in an incredibly touching display, places a small statue and plaque on the lunar surface honouring the names of both Soviet and American astronauts who had given their lives to the new frontier.

This sense of brotherhood between the rival space explorers is a constant theme throughout the book. Neither man is naïve enough to dismiss the Cold War rivalry and the politics of that period which lead to the huge investment in space exploration for reasons of scientific and military dominance as well as for national prestige. But brotherhood there most certainly is, between these explorers isolated by geography and politics by united by a common pursuit into the unknown. Both groups feel sympathy and pain for the others’ losses and both, while also aspiring to lead, applaud the other’s achievements. This would contribute directly to the mid-’70s brief period of détente when Soyuz and Apollo craft would meet in orbit around our world and dock together. Two Cold War rivals united many miles above the glowing surface of the Earth.

For most readers who are familiar with the history of space flight, this may not be a major revelation. What this book does do however, is give that epic period a human face, to personalise it. Leonov’s love of art leading him to take crayons and paper into orbit to sketch what he sees (Scott, incidentally, echoing Carl Sagan’s heroine in Contact by saying that what we need in space is an artist or poet to really describe it to the rest of us). Scott spending several days on the Moon, realising that if he raised just this thumb he could obscure the entire Earth from the horizon. More Earthly camaraderie as the joint Soyuz-Apollo teams play host to each other during their training, the US astronauts struggling to keep up with the hospitable Soviets who insist – of course – on drinking a vodka toast to their health on each visit. Leonov and his crew taking a quick pee against the wheel of the bus which takes them to the launch area. These small, personal events give a very human shape to men who achieved astonishing feats – Scott driving on the Moon in a Lunar Rover, bouncing along the lunar surface, Leonov the first man to float freely in space, ‘walking’ outside his tiny craft, hanging by a thread above the world. Leonov’s delight at Arthur C. Clarke naming the spaceship in 2010 after him.

Space exploration today has often become a pale shadow it’s former self. Safety and simple economics have both reduced the manned exploration to a rump and the general public pays scant attention for the most part, unlike the ’60s and ’70s when the deeds of astronauts were front page news around the world. Occasionally people pay attention when spectacular images from the recent Cassini probe come in or when lives are lost in a disaster like Challenger. This book speaks to those of us who remember the sheer wonder and excitement of the early space missions, when millions of little boys and girls dreamed of becoming astronauts when they grew up. It’s about the magnificent feats humans can accomplish, the achievements we can make through hard work, ingenuity and bravery.

In a way it is a little sad that this great, heroic period is already just a part of history. These men actually lived what many of us dreamed of; now it looks like the dream is fading away. And yet one of the lessons that can be learned from this book is that the dream never leaves us entirely; the human urge for exploration is simply too strongly ingrained. Those pioneering days of triumph and tragedy may be gone, but they left a route for us to follow. The Apollo and Soyuz project was more than a brief flowering of Cold War détente – it proved that different space craft could rendezvous in space and successfully dock with one another. Without this mid-70s flight the dream of today’s multi-national space station Freedom would have been stillborn. The early days are gone and the men who took giant steps are growing older, but the deeds they accomplished remain as both testament to human endurance in the past and as a beacon for future explorers.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (UK)
Date: May 2004

A Glorious Dawn

I see that this fab remix of the late and much missed Carl Sagan’s word from Cosmos that has proved popular on YouTube is getting a release as a traditional 7 inch vinyl. Funnily enough a friend sent me some music tracks he came across recently, from Cosmos, which we both remembered watching; it was instant nostalgia for me. As a boy I adored the series; I was already fascinated by astronomy and the exploration of space and this fueled it, as well as introducing me for the first time to Sagan. Years later I’d admire him for speaking out for the importance of scientific research for the sake of research and not simply for commerce, for the value of knowledge over susperstition and the need to take care of our own remarkable world, so different from the other planets we were exploring – he even publicly berated Margaret Thatcher once when she was Prime Minister, scolding her for her lack of support for pure research and environmental awareness, telling her it was shocking that someone who actually had proper scientific training could be so foolish.

Apparently the B side of the single looks like the cover of the famous gold record disc which was placed in the Voyager spacecraft, so that long after they had completed their mission of exploration (which they did so magnificently) and headed out of our solar system and into the deep, cold depths of interstellar space, should they by some remote chance be found by another civilisation they could play them and hear sounds from Planet Earth – greetings in many languages, poetry and snatches of music, which Sagan helped oversee. Carl’s been gone a while now, sadly, but that gold disc is now travelling still, further than any man made object in the entire history of the world has ever travelled, waiting for the day when someone – something,perhaps – finds it and plays it. (via Third Man Records)

And while we’re at it, here’s a short video, the Pale Blue Dot, by Carl. As the aging Voyager reached towards the edge of our solar system he argued for NASA to turn it to face back towards us – no easy task when the vast distance meant even radio signal commands travelling at the speed of light would take some time to reach the craft, then longer for returns, assuming it even worked. But he argued and they did it and the result was ‘the family portrait’, a view of the worlds of our solar system as no-one else in the history of our species had ever seen it, a shot taken from the edge of what we know from a little machine about to cross that boundary, a parting gift from one of the great missions of exploration. And in that picture a tiny dot, a blue dot taking up even less than one pixel. That dot being the Earth. Everything we’ve ever known, every person who has ever loved and lived, every cat, every dog, every Triceratops, every dolphin, every fern, every bush, every fish, every work of art, all contained inside that tiny, tiny dot… Sagan had that wonderful gift of enthusiasm and the ability to communicate the sense of wonder to all, a great spokesman for science.

Giant steps are what you take, walking on the Moon…

How can it really be forty years to the day since the first human beings walked on the surface of a celestial body that was not our own little world? How can it be that we’ve never surpassed that magnificent achievement after four decades? Oh don’t get me wrong, there have been other incredible, world changing endeavours – the Human Genome project springs to mind – but after four decades not to have striven beyond that Moon walk is dreadfully sad. Its like Concorde being retired without a next generation bigger, better, faster, more efficient replacement coming in, or the Shuttle due to finish its flights next year. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards a bit, not a good thing as a species.

Yes, I know there are other important priorities needing world resources, not least feeding the hungry and controlling runaway populations. And some will say we shouldn’t ‘squander’ money on space when we have these problems to look at here. But as Bill Hicks used to say, if we didn’t spend so much on every more devious ways to kill one another we could spend the money we spend on weapons to feed the hungry and still have plenty left over to explore space. Hell, if we took what women collectively spend on make-up every year we could do that! But still I feel sad that those things which marked the wave of a bright future when I was a wee boy now turn out to have been the highwater mark and the tide of progress has receded. Although I did really enjoy the image of all three of the Apollo 11 crew with Obama on the news. Three of my boyhood heroes. Still three of my heroes.

Two Sides of the Moon 2
my signed copy of Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, a memento of the day when an Apollo astronaut came into my bookstore and I got to shake his hand.

Galilelo, Galileo, do the fandango…

The Popenfuhrer has announced that Galileo Galilei might have had some interesting ideas. Which is nice, shame it is 400 years late following the great scientist’s intimidation and bullying by the Catholic Church, but I suppose its better late than never. Ah, the church of the all-loving god, doing the Almighty’s will by persecuting a frightened, elderly man for pointing out the truth…

Reviews from the past: Mutants

This is one of my non-fiction reviews of a pop science book from 2004 (originally published on the now sadly defunct The Alien Online), a fascinating, touching and very human study of genetic variation in the human form by Armand Marie Leroi. You may have seen the TV series which followed on Channel 4 in the UK and Discovery in the US as Human Mutants; the book was shortlisted for the Aventis Science book award and won the Guardian First Book Award:

Armand Marie Leroi,
Published HarperCollins

What is human?

Humanity – the pinnacle of evolution. A creature which can walk upright, engage in sophisticated language, entertain abstract thought, manipulate its own environment. Humans are also the sum of the DNA. Being such a sophisticated form of life does have a drawback, however – the more sophisticated something is the more there is to possibly go wrong. The thousands of genes and electro-chemical signals which create a human child and regulate its growth can and do go wrong. Fortunately for most of us the genetic flaws which we all have (on average around 300 per individual) are normally not malignant. For some people throughout history and even today the story is quite different.

Leroi begins by explaining how it is the aberrations from the norm which can so often illuminate what the normal function of certain genes are. After his thoughtful introduction Leroi divides the book into different – although often related- areas, such as gender, skeletal structure and ageing. The first chapter begins suitably enough with embryonic development, both ‘normal’ and abnormal. Here we come face to face – or rather face to faces – with what is probably the best-known form of embryonic abnormality, the conjoined twin. As with the accompanying TV series Human Mutants we are introduced to the wood engravings of Ritta and Christina Parodi and also to the sad spectacle of their little skeleton; conjoined and on display in death as they were in their short life in 1829.

This is a common device in this book – Leroi frequently refers to historical cases of human mutation, from conjoined twins and court dwarves to African pygmies and hairy ‘wild-men’. This serves to purposes – it, of course, gives some historical range and depth to the cases being studied. Leroi examines not only the mutation but also the life of the afflicted person and the studies and theories made of them by academics of the time, contrasting it with modern science and theories of genetics, taking us from Classical theories through the Enlightenment, Nazi eugenics up to the Human Genome project. This offers not an overview of scientific evolution but also offers a view of the way in which those who are different have been seen by society over the centuries.

The second function this method of discourse provides is to humanise the cases being discussed. It would be too easy to view these mutations as merely interesting cases of study and curiosity, especially when Leroi is discussing modern scientific methodology. It is to his credit that these interesting cases remain interesting but also remain human. In a way this is a major part of Leroi’s argument – that no matter how unusual or distorted the body is, each of these people he discusses are individuals; they are human beings.

Naturally there is a form of voyeuristic pleasure to be had from this book; the author admits as much himself. It is hard for us not to look, or even gape sometimes, at some of the Cycloptic babies in jars in Dutch medical museums or 8-foot tall giants. Even when regarding an ‘Elephant Man’ with a scientific viewpoint there is arguably still a voyeuristic element present. Again it is to Leroi’s credit that he is able to admit to this without giving in to it totally – this is not a simple freak show like some old carnival. It’s a sensitive subject area to deal with, especially when discussing contemporary mutations such as Fibropdysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a (thankfully) rare skeletal disorder where bones simply do not get the signal to stop growing. The skeleton continues new growth until the person’s body literally seizes up, leading to a premature death after much pain and increasing suffering.

Not all of the mutations here are of the spectacular variety however. There is also discussion of the common mutations that we see every day. The mutations which give some of us blue eyes and red hair and others brown eyes; make some people tall, some shorter; some with dark skin, some with pale skin, makes some average and others beautiful. Leroi ventures a little into controversial territory by discussing theories of race – an area of science which has all-too often been abused to justify political motivations (Nazi eugenics, US government enforced sterilisation of black men in the 30s).

Leroi explains that modern genetic research has shown some 80% of all genetic diversity is present in just about every corner of the globe. To be sure there are regional variations with some genetic traits obviously (sometimes visually) stronger in some places than others (such as red hair in Scotland or Ireland), but 4/5 of our genes are common in every land and amongst every people. In a way he is saying that there really is no such thing as ‘race’ in science; it only exists in political viewpoints. Again this is consistent with his message that despite every mutation every person here is a human being of equal worth to every other person. A white person, who became black, conjoined twins, dwarves, hermaphrodites, Europeans, Aborigines – all of them human. The human body can take many unusual twists and turns in its formation, yet it still remains the body of a human being. And, Leroi points out, we are all of us mutants. A successful species flourishes through biological diversity and that means mutations (something for you to think about next time you read an X-Men book).

This is a fascinating science book which treats a potentially controversial or even macabre or ghoulish subject with great sensitivity and respect. It’s a treatise on human development and on scientific progress and understanding. It’s about being human.

Rock the world

Geologists have found the oldest rocks on Earth, dating back some 4.28 billion years (a Thursday afternoon), in Hudson Bay, Canada, reports the BBC. You might think since the Earth is ancient it should be relatively simple to find rocks almost as old as our world itself, but since the Earth is a very dynamic world where even the very continents move many of the oldest rocks have long been crushed or slipped back into the interior of the world.

The Woolamaloo Gazette spoke to Billy Granite, a leading local rock, who said he and the entire Igneous, Metamorphic and Trans-sedimentary community were extremely pleased with this new scientific discovery. “Our rocky community is often disparaged by many religious groups, “Mr Granite explained, “they maintain that some mythical creator came along and waved a magic wand to make everything in a few days. Rock-kind find this a bigoted and ignorant view point as it completely dismisses the millions and billions of years stones and rocks have put into crafting our wonderful world and we think these religious bigots should shut up and give some credit to us. They’re happy enough to use us to build their bloody churches but then spread lies about us.”

While religious bigotry and ignorance to rock-kind is, sadly, fairly common, especially in certain parts of America, the problem can escalate to outright hate crimes and violence – only last month two fossils were attacked in a public park in Seattle by fundamentalist Christians. It can only be hoped that new scientific research helps to undermine the ridiculous position of the religious right.

Reviews from the past: Monturiol’s Dream

Over the years I’ve written a large number of reviews of comics, books, graphic novels and movies and even the odd play (and now beer too). A lot appeared on the Library of Dreams, the first site I ever made and which I posted a lot of reviews on, along with some pics and some poetry I penned and which went defunct when the provider decided to stop making the free hosting free – the site stayed up for a good while after but I couldn’t update it anymore. I was planning a new reviews site when my good mate Ariel suggested I contribute instead to The Alien Online and soon I was posting a lot of reviews to TAO, which grew to be practically a magazine online – reviews of comics, science fiction and fantasy were the backbone of TAO but we had articles and interviews and other features too, from a wide range of contributors, including several authors such as Adam Roberts and James Lovegrove.

When TAO finished its run it stayed up for a while too but now its gone too, so I was thinking, I still have a lot of those reviews tucked away in a folder and maybe it would be interesting to repost some of them myself. So now I’m slowly picking upon the Woolamaloo again I thought it would be a good time to start reposting some of them. I’m starting with one from 2003, a popular science book (although TAO was mostly SF we also posted on some interesting factual science works too) which I found absolutely fascinating:

Monturiol’s Dream,
By Matthew Stewart,
Published Profile Books

A socialist utopian dreamer tries to create a better world through science

Narcis Monturiol is a name I suspect that most people will not recognise, even those of us who fancy we have a fair smattering of the history of science. Born in Catalonia in 1819 Monturiol was one of those people who seem to be able to turn to whatever interest takes them and to be rather good at it. A remarkably intelligent man he was also very politically aware, his soul fired by the socialist dreams of a modern utopia where men and women (for Monturiol was a staunch advocate of the role of women) could live a better life. Despite his fervent belief in the progress to a utopian future he remained, unlike many others, committed to achieving this goal through non violent means. This gentle man, like many intellectuals around Europe in the 1800s, turned to the new sciences to create a better world.

Monturiol’s contribution to this better world would be a remarkable device – a submarine. To modern readers this may seem almost laughable, but Narcis was in deadly earnest. While others around the globe had struggled to create somewhat poor submersibles barely worthy of the name he would create a proper, sea-going submarine. At a time when the best attempts had produced small vessels that could stumble along a few feet under the water with a breathing hose sticking up through the waves (such as those used in the American Civil War) Monturiol would settle for nothing less than a fully functioning craft that could sustain life for hours and cruise the deep depths.

During times of great political turmoil he fired his friends and other residents of Catalonia with his dream. Constantly struggling with cash flow Monturiol, with no backing from any big company or government, used his collective to help him design, build and launch his ‘artificial fish’ the Ictineo. Lined with portholes so that they could see the marvels of the underwater world the Ictineo would have been remarkably impressive for a team of engineers working in a naval dockyard. For a self-taught man working within a socialist co-operative it was a stunning achievement.

The Ictineo was powered by several volunteers turning cranks. Monturiol, through much experimentation and thought had hit upon the idea of a double hull design to help the submarine sustain its integrity in the crushing depths – a design every submarine follows to this very day. Monturiol turned to chemistry and devised a mixture of compounds that would be mixed to generate fresh oxygen without ruining the cabin’s atmosphere with noxious gases as a by-product. The Ictineo could thus sustain a number of crewmen for many hours beneath the waves, giving ample time for exploration of the depths.

His attempts to raise more investment cash by attracting the government were not so successful however. Despite the backing of engineers and local Catalan politicians the admiralty was unimpressed. Monturiol even, reluctantly, added a canon to his ship to show that it cold be used offensively. Being the man he was he devised a method to fire this while still submerged. Fair to say this would have been a devastating weapon if it had been explored further. Monturiol rationalised this to himself by reasoning that this would level the playing field between navies such as Spain’s and France’s against the omnipotent might of the Royal Navy. Still the Spanish admirals were not impressed.

Once again Monturiol was rescued by friends, fellow socialists and the local Catalan people (who often came down to Barcelona’s harbour on a Sunday walk to see the marvel of the Ictineo diving and surfacing). A new co-operative managed to raise enough funds to being work on the Ictineo II. Monturiol was feted by the local population and politicians as a great inventor. Emboldened he sets to work on a much larger submarine. Ictineo II is capable of diving to depths of over thirty metres and sustaining life for many hours safely and comfortably. Monturiol devises manipulators on the hull to allow him to interact with the marine environment. His chemical knowledge allows him to create a mixture that will give him underwater illumination. The human-powered crank engine is replaced by a steam engine. Once again this amazing, self-taught man invents an astonishing way to power a steam engine underwater. Instead of a fire to stoke the boiler Monturiol uses a chemical reaction to generate heat to boil the water and drive the engine. This reaction also produces oxygen for the cabin and he employs more chemical means to scrub carbon dioxide from the air. The Ictineo II is, to all intent purposes, a fully functioning modern submarine.

Bear in mind that this is the mid 1860s. No-one else in the world would come up with anything so advanced for decades, yet here was a self-taught man who had made the fiction of Captain Nemo a reality before Verne ever wrote his wonderful novel. This was a man who took a concept which was science fiction and sculpted it into reality. He works out aqua dynamics, engineering principles of double hulls to withstand pressure, devices for interacting with the undersea environment and submersible locomotion and navigation, all by the 1860s. Unlike the many others around the world who tried to create a submarine – and usually failed, often fatally – Monturiol publishes detailed descriptions of his designs and methods so that others can copy and improve upon them. Still his utopian dream behind it all, a belief that this new type of artificial fish could help usher a new era in for humanity.

Of course we know today that the submarine as it was developed in the decades after Monturiol’s death was used more principally as a terrible weapon of war. And yet some glimmer of his original idea can still be seen today. Submersibles that can touch the very floor of the ocean – something Monturiol longed to do – and explore the myriad of new life found there in the darkest depths. Knowledge of our environment, tectonics and evolution have all been enhanced immeasurably by underwater exploration. How many of us thrilled to Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when we were younger? What would Monturiol have made of the fantastic sights millions could view in their own home watching Blue Planet?

Monturiol’s Dream is a fascinating and utterly delightful scientific history. The history of those turbulent times in European and Spanish history are absorbing enough in their own right – the beginning of genuine attempts to have politics for the masses and a striving to make a better world using modern reason and science. The technical brilliance of Monturiol is undeniable and makes for remarkable reading. What I took most from this gorgeous little book however was the same thing I took from the finest SF novels – sense of pure wonder. This is a quite wonderful tale of a very gentle man who really wanted to change the world. Not for honours or riches, but because he believed it was the right thing to do, to create a finer world. Perhaps on some levels he did. Hopefully Matthew Stewart’s fine book will go some way to restoring Monturiol and his work to the place he deserves in the history of science.

Creationist whackos get science teacher fired

Yup, once more the intellectually feeble throwbacks who constantly espouse ‘intelligent design’ (which is basically the utterly discredited Creationism dressed up in laughably bad science clothes) have made a move to decrease the IQ of the world a bit more: they used a flimsy excuse to get a science education officer in Texas fired. Christine Castillo Comer’s crime? She forwarded an email as an FYI which she had received from one science educational professional to some interested groups about a talk by an author in the area, an author who has looked into the fake ‘science’ these Intelligent Design wankers keep trying to sneak into school curriculums while also trying to have evolutionary teaching curtailed (no, they haven’t realised the 19th century is over).

Her boss’s boss dropped her in it claiming simply forwarding this message was tantamount to the education board endorsing it, which is ridiculous since she didn’t express an opinion, simply passed on details of a scientific talk to science professionals. Besides which anyone who works for a government department or large corporation knows full well their emails are usually issued under a ‘the ideas expressed in this email do not necessarily promote the ideals of the blankety blank department’. Interestingly enough this boss is a political appointee – a Bush-loving one. And the head of the board openly endorses Creationist nonsense and talks yet hangs out one of his science professionals for simply passing on details of a talk involving scientific matters to other scientific professionals.

Sadly this sort of attack on actually using our brains to logically interpret massive amounts of careful scientific date amassed over many decades by many people from paleontologists to genetic researchers is not confined to a few religious crackpots in Jesusland (as Richard Morgan terms the Texas area in his recent novel Black Man) since there have been attempts to push this nonsense in schools in the UK too. This really does infuriate me – NPR has a radio interview with Christine on their site and the whole thing stinks of a political-religious set-up for these right wing fundamentalist eejits to shove someone out the way so they can then install a new person who will agree with their retarded ideology. And if you are a Creationist don’t bother explaining to me why your view point is valid, because it just isn’t. You’re entitled to hold your view but please feck off and don’t inflict it on others much less try to infect schoolkids with your idiocy. If you believe this crap you are an anti-intellectual moron brain-washed by fundamentalists who like using their religion as a way to gain more control over people and what they can say or think – and that’s the nub of it, these idiots don’t just believe this fairy tale nonsense themselves, they demand it be taught to the rest of us. Thankfully the few attempts here have been laughed at in much the same way as trying to each that the Earth is flat would be, but these idiots keep trying… (link via Boing Boing)