This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.
What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.
But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.
And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…
I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.
And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…
An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.
Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.
“The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.
During the epic Voyager missions, after one of those innovative little mechanical explorers had finished with its primary mission to give us our most astonishing close up encounters with the most distant worlds in our solar system in a detail that Galileo and Copernicus could never have dreamed possible, it was re-tasked and reprogrammed to turn around to look back into our solar system from the cold, dark edge of our own little stellar neighbourhood. The late, great Carl Sagan was one of those who campaigned for this to happen – no small feat given the codes to reprogramme the distant probe would take hours to reach it even travelling at the light speed of radio waves, so far was it from home now, and there was no true scientific knowledge to be gained from this move.
Sagan, however, always understood that science has to appeal to both the heart as well as the head, emotion and intellect, and be able to make everyone grasp why it was important to us. The spacecraft was turned and took what is now known as the family portrait, a view of most of the planets in our solar system, a perspective no-one in the entire history of humanity had ever beheld before, a real “going where no-one had gone before” moment. In that family portrait is a pale, blue dot, not even an entire pixel in size – our world, the Earth. As Sagan put it, everything any of us has ever known, every person we have read of, every person who built a monument we’ve gazed at, everyone we have ever loved and all those who came before them, right back to the emergence of our ancestors out of ancient Africa’s cradle to start out human journey, every one of them, peasant and king alike, lived on that tiny dot. Joel Somerfield’s animation is very short but celebrates that moment, using the words of Sagan, a moment when emotion and science, heart and intellect, gave our species a new perspective on the majesty of creation and our own place in it, just a tiny mote floating in the glow of the sun, miniscule in astronomical terms, fragile, but never, ever unimportant, but a wonder in a sea of wonders, a haven of spectacularly diverse life. Our home.
(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.
With the shuttle programme – and NASA’s ability, for the moment, to send manned missions into space – now grounded and the surviving spacecraft being sent to various museums around America today there was a very special moment as a modified 747 carried a very special shuttle flying low over New York City for everyone to watch. The spacecraft was the Enterprise. The ending of the shuttle programme is much like the ending of Concorde for many of us – when we were kids they were the future, now they are history and that would be fine, it would be natural, if they were retired to make way for the next generation of craft to replace them, but they’re not. We’ve stepped backwards, it feels, become smaller. But for a final hurrah this was a remarkable one, the Enterprise, her very name resonates for many of us, flying over New York, captured here with Lady Liberty and the Empire State in the frame by Bill Ingalls:
What a remarkable shot, a couple of the great world landmarks with a piece of flying space exploration history. Enterprise was named after NASA called for a public vote to name the first spaceship; the geek community, of course, got together and made sure to vote en masse that she would be called the Enterprise, because she was the first of a series that would boldly go… Enterprise herself never brushed against the hard vacuum of space though, she started her career at NASA riding piggyback just like she was today – she was designed to test aerodynamics, a bit of a new area for spacecraft design at the time because most were odd shaped objects on the end of a rocket but the shuttle, she was meant to fly back down from orbit through the atmosphere like a conventional plane, hence the tests. As a boy I followed the emerging shuttle programme and remember well watching news reports of the Enterprise’s flights paving the way for the first full shuttle launch.
As a wee boy raised on repeats of the classic Star Trek it made me happy to see a real spacecraft being named Enterprise and, Americans being rather good at marking big occasions, when she was first revealed to the public Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and many of the original cast were there to wish her good skies, way back in 1976 (pic below and following borrowed from Space.com):
And here three and a half decades or so on is one of those illustrious crewmembers of the fictional USS Enterprise giving the Vulcan salute – live long and prosper – to his old friend, the shuttle Enterprise, as she heads for the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Musuem in New York. Rather fitting she will be near the USS Intrepid, which any old Star Trek hand knows was the name of one of the other Constitution class starships in the original Trek, the same class of vessel as Jim Kirk’s Enterprise (Intrepid being crewed entirely by Vulcans, if my memory serves):
As I said, like with Concorde, it feels wrong to know that the shuttle are gone, that something that promised the exciting future of space exploration to a young boy is now a historical artefact in a museum and that we didn’t mothball them to make way for a new generation of faster, bigger, more efficient spacecraft. Still, one of these days there will be another Enterprise, I am sure. Larger, with a greater range, this Enterprise A, B or C ships will boldly go further… As Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself once noted when asked if they would ever build another Enterprise “plenty more letters in the alphabet”.
One day, another Enterprise, please, make it so…
(Enterprise comparison chart from Cygnus X-1 site)
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.
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
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
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 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
Great, two of my favourite geek things in the world, Star Trek and Mythbusters, are coming together – the Mythbusters team are going to test out a classic scene from the original 60s Star Trek, where Captain Kirk is kidnapped and placed on a desert planet to battle the captain of the Gorn ship and told there are materials scattered around that can be fashioned into weapons. Finding some sulphur and other material he takes a large bamboo like hollow cane and imrpovises a primitive cannon, with some diamonds shoved in the barrel as ammunition. Its a now classic Trek scene (with the rocky desert setting now a cliche for the show, endlessly lampooned). But if you improvised such a device in real life would it work or just blow up in your face? That’s what the Mythbusters are going to test – sounds like a Trek themed follow up of sorts to the medieval wood cannon they did a couple of years back.
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.