Books

E&T reviews three books for you including Dan Falk's "In search of time: Journeys along a curious dimension" and we announce the PoE&Try competition winner and launch the next challenge...

In search of time: Journeys along a curious dimension

Dan Falk, National Maritime Museum, £14.99.

'When the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it.'

Curiosity about why an animal would worry about being late propels Alice into Wonderland. And Dan Falk begins his engaging journey by pointing out that developing an awareness of time was a major milestone in the ascent of humans to become the Earth's dominant species.

For early man, the passing of the seasons and changes in climate were a matter of life and death, so it's little wonder that so much time was spent trying to comprehend what Falk describes as a 'curious dimension'. Although the purpose of Stonehenge, for example, will never be completely understood, it clearly has an association with ritual celebrations of points in the year that needed to be predicted with some degree of accuracy.

Although Falk touches on the abstract philosophical question of 'what is time?', it's largely to acknowledge what a difficult question this is to answer. The emphasis is on the practical implications, and if you're one of those who never got into Stephen Hawking's celebrated 'brief history', this book's more chatty approach, weaving some of the physics into a historical background, will provide an easier entry introduction.

One of the best ways to understand something is by looking at it through different eyes, and Falk's search is full of anecdotes about how cultures have related to time. The Aymara people of South America think of the past as being in front of them and the future behind. Why they perceive time so differently from every other culture isn't clear, except that their language makes a strong distinction between things they have personal knowledge of and what they only hear of second-hand. The emphasis on 'what can be seen', academics believe, could account for associating the known events of the past with the clear sight of looking 'back to the future'.

The ability to picture events in the far past and distant future is referred to as 'mental time travel' by cognitive scientists. Falk devotes a chapter to physical time travel, but acknowledges that it's what we can do mentally that has been more significant in the emergence of civilisation. Which raises the question, can other animals do it? If not, when did it arise and why?

Modern neuroscience suggests that our fascination with time is one symptom of the edge it has given us in the struggle for survival. The link between remembering the past and imagining the future lets us anticipate what might happen and modify our behaviour.

Lewis Carroll illustrated this aspect of how we perceive time with the White Queen in 'Through the Looking Glass', who remembers the future. As she points out when Alice claims she can't remember things before they happen: "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards."

Reviewed by Dominic Lenton, E&T managing editor

Wetware: A computer in every living cell

Dennis Bray, Yale Univesity Press, £18.99.

In 1983, in her acceptance speech, the Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock set out a goal for future biologists: "To determine the extent of knowledge the cell has of itself." How much a cell knows about its environment is a question that Wetware sets out to explore, threading a path between real-life and artificial life.

There is one problem with writing a book about how much a cell knows about itself and it's a problem that Dennis Bray, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, found when contacting publishers. "One rejection slip I received... asserted it was about single-celled organisms possessing consciousness," he writes.

Language, arguably, is not really up to the task of describing the mechanistic awareness a grazing bacterium or hunting amoeba might display. It's tough to describe how a bacterium decides to swim towards a chemical signal or tumble in the hope of finding a new source of food without talking about "awareness". But that is where the artificial life comes in. Bray's core argument is that cells perform computations and uses example from the worlds of robotics and artificial life to show the similarities.

Bray concedes that computer simulations have a built-in flaw: you can never be sure whether you are simulating what is going on inside the real thing or just following its behaviour. The cellular automata of the Game of Life obey rules that simplify how real cells behave. In the physical world, cells behave counter-intuitively, although there is often an evolutionarily acceptable explanation.

Unusually, for a book about biology, DNA only appears quite late on. In Bray's exploration of how cells compute, proteins take centre stage. They signal to each other, building complex networks and hierarchies that make it possible to have the scent of a chemical trigger a swimming motion.

DNA is important in that it provides the core software for the cell. But the incredibly complex interactions between proteins, and between proteins and DNA, make it possible for cells to make computations. Bray perhaps overstretches the comparison between real and artificial life in that many robots were constructed using living organisms as their inspiration. They are bound to be connected.

Biologists point out that one of the most important characteristics of the computer is that it works very differently to a living organism. The computer has a precisely defined structure. The cell seems to find order in chaos. Drawing too many comparisons can obscure what is going on in the biology. But, as a tour of how life works, particularly for those who engineer the inanimate, Bray pursues an original path.

Reviewed by Chris Edwards, E&T electronics editor

Dawn of the electronic age

Frederik Nebeker, Wiley/IEEE, £24.99.

On the night of 31 August 1939, nine Germans dressed in Polish army uniforms stormed a German radio station. Those listening to the station heard gunshots followed by an appeal, in Polish, for Poles to attack Germany. This staged action, arranged by the Gestapo, served Hitler as a pretext for his invasion of Poland the next day.

This incident is just one of many fascinating stories featured in Frederik Nebeker's history of the birth of a new industry. Subtitled 'Electrical Technologies in the Shaping of the Modern World, 1914 to 1945' and spanning over 500 pages, it is a fairly meaty, semi-academic book, geared towards the engineering community and historians of science and technology, but also contains a lot of social history. It explains how the birth of electronics in the first half of the 20th century transformed how we live, think, work and play today.

The book opens in 1914 with the development of electronics and its widespread applications during the remarkable and tragic period of two world wars.

Nebeker's story unfolds chronologically, explaining how in this 31-year period, the generation, distribution and application of electric power saw great advances. Starting at the First World War, it explains how wireless communications changed the way the war was fought and the increased interest in scientific research for improving military and industrial techniques. During the inter-war years, it describes radio broadcasting and the social and economic effect of radio's 'golden age' and how inventors and engineers found new ways to make electricity useful.

Moving on to how electrical technologies affected industry, commerce and the consumer culture, Nebeker explains how the image of engineers changed in the early part of the century. The pivotal role they played in the war helped them attain a higher social stature and aided the formation of professional societies, publishing journals and setting technical standards. The book moves on to the beginning of Second World War and how electrical technology changed the war on land, sea and air.

Many readers will appreciate the way in which Nebeker explains how the technologies worked without using complicated mathematics. Much of the narrative concentrates on the US, as many of the technological and social developments appeared there first, but the author has made a concerted effort to review world events as well.

Throughout there are excellent quotes from engineers, scientists and historians giving a fantastic insight into their thoughts. People seemed optimistic about the future with the prospect of more technologies whereas today, people are accustomed to continual technological change. We are more sceptical that new technologies will improve life.

The book concludes with the weapon that ultimately decided the war: radar. It explains how the development of radar for military means and air defence not only had a remarkable bearing on the outcome of the Second World War, but also led to many applications for ground, sea and air in times of peace and to encourage spin-off technology.

Reviewed by Alison Freeman, IET assistant librarian

PoE&Try

Our last column told the story of Samuel Morey, who patented the world's first internal combustion engine. Shortly afterwards he also drove - and crashed - the world's first motor car, the Morey Horsecart GTi (Got Turpentine inside). Many readers rallied to commemorate in verse this milestone. William Fairney cleverly incorporated Morey's original patent number:

X 4,378

Engines we appreciate!

Samuel Morey's patent old

Should have brought him pots of gold.

Instead he ended (What a b*tch!)

Upside down inside a ditch.

 

No doubt Morey's language was equally r*ch. Other entries ranged from the apoplectic to the apocalyptic, with Carmageddon a common theme. The winner was a limerick from John Langley:

Mr Morey, a United States boffin,

Made an auto, he looked quite a toff in.

But the charge for congestion

Gave poor Sam indigestion

And he ended his days in a coffin.

 

Mr Langley wins our regular prize, a shelf-full of quote books courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Our next competition takes its inspiration from another faded figure in science and engineering, Ferdinand Braun. The German scientist was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on wireless telegraphy. He shared this with Guglielmo Marconi, though Marconi's idea of 'sharing' extended to cribbing Braun's research and getting his lucrative patents registered first. 

Braun's breakthrough was in producing a 'loose' coupled antenna circuit that meant radio signals could be transmitted over huge distances. This allowed the development of all modern telecommunications.

Braun sent the first ever wireless telegram on 24 September 1900. It travelled 62km from Helgoland Island to Cuxhaven lighthouse on the German mainland and was a four-line ditty about drunkenness. Loosely-translated: 'On this most historic day/I have these wise words to say/Do not have too much to drink/Or it will make you drunk, I think.'

Braun's genius also extended to inventing the cat's whisker diode, the world's first semiconductor device, in about 1897. He also created the world's first 'cathode ray indicator tube' and paved the way for television. In Germany, TV cathode ray tubes are still known as Braun-tubes (not to be confused with 'brawn tubes', a type of German sausage).

Braun died in America in 1918. He had gone there to litigate on behalf of the German radio station at Sayville, New York. It broadcast the location of the Lusitania to German U-boats, as well as the Kaiser's coded call for Mexico to attack the US. Braun was barred from returning to Germany to die.

It is difficult to imagine a world without Braun's work: no 24-hour shopping channels, no wireless interactive ping-pong...

For the chance to win a set of OUP books, readers are invited to submit their own poems celebrating Braun's life (up to eight lines). Here's a taster:

Herr Ferdinand Braun

Didn't blow his own horn,

So his fame remains hidden

And latent.

He'd write about stuff

Just to find, sure enough,

Marconi had filed for

The patent.

 

Send your entries to vvitaliev@theiet.org by 24 July 2009.

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