Ping Fu

Book Reviews

Two stories of women who overcame adversity to forge successful careers in technology lead this month’s selection of new books.

Andrews UK

Let it go

By Dame Stephanie Shirley, £5.99, ISBN 978-1-782341536

As with so many autobiographies, the title of Dame Stephanie Shirley’s is a play on words. But unlike so many, it’s rather a good one because ‘Let it go’ refers both to her career as an IT entrepreneur, in which she amassed a colossal personal fortune, and her post-retirement career in philanthropy, in which she gave ‘it’ (i.e. the money) away. This is her memoir, and it is remarkable.

What her book makes clear is that while her professional life may have been extraordinary, her private life is just as interesting. Born in Germany, she arrived in the UK just before the Second World War as part of the kindertransport child refugee rescue mission. As a poverty-stricken young adult she entered the fledgling computer industry only to hit the glass ceiling before she was 30. Certain that the programming industry was the future, with just £6 capital she launched her own software company in 1962.

Over the next quarter of a century Shirley would lead Xansa to becoming a FTSE 250 leading technology group. And yet, despite the independence of being CEO of her own company, gender politics held her back until she took the decision to adopt the business pseudonym ‘Steve’. The gamble paid off and she found herself on the Sunday Times Rich List worth £150m.

But it wasn’t an easy ride for Shirley and in a life beset with personal tragedy, including the death of her only son, she came to realise that money means nothing unless it is being used for good. And so she became a philanthropist with a special interest in autism charities. How a young IT programmer became the government-appointed ambassador for philanthropy is one of those stories for which the over-used word ‘rollercoaster’ should be reserved. Great stuff.

Nick Smith

 

Bantam Press 

A down to earth guide to the cosmos

By Mark Thompson, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-593070369

To most city dwellers, the night sky is a ‘forgotten country’, long ago obscured by the scourge of light pollution. Leave the towns and cities behind, however, and a new window opens. On a clear night - and well away from streetlights - it is still possible to see the Milky Way, that thought-provoking view along the spiral arms of our galaxy.

In this book, TV and radio presenter Mark Thompson has a mission to open our eyes to “the awesome nature of the cosmos”. He attempts to do this - in 12 short chapters mirroring the months of the year - by providing an understanding of the physical universe and enhancing the reader’s ability to find celestial objects and “navigate around the sky”. In fact, as the monthly ‘Quick Sky Guides’ and other illustrations show, he takes a hands-on, practical approach. Almost from page one, he has the reader identifying the celestial equator and measuring 10-degree angles with a clenched fist at arm’s length. Who needs a protractor?

In common with most primers on astronomy, this one includes a potted history of Greek notables, Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s telescopic observations. Though the author quickly brings it up to date with mention of space telescopes and smartphone navigation apps, he is sufficiently ‘old school’ to recommend “a proper star chart, which can be bought in either book format, loose leaf or sometimes even laminated”. That said, his book alone would be a good start for any budding Patrick Moore.

As Thompson says, “the real beauty of astronomy is that it is free and open to anyone”, irrespective of age or ability. So, whether or not you buy his book, you should invest a little time to go outside and just look up.

Mark Williamson

 

Princeton University Press

The logician and the engineer: how George Boole and Claude Shannon created the Information Age

By Paul J Nahin, £16.95, ISBN 978-0-691-15100-7

The Language Clarifier, Paul Nahin explains in his book ‘The Logician and the Engineer: how George Boole and Claude Shannon created the Information Age’, is a machine that turns convoluted language into simple sentences. He says the machine is fictional but I strongly suspect his publishers have a partially working model in their basement from which they generate simple but slightly misleading book titles.

Non-technical readers hoping to understand how modern computers and communications emerged from the ideas of the 19th century British mathematician Boole and the 20th century American electrical engineer Shannon, will struggle with this book. But those with a basic grounding in electrical theory and maths should find it interesting.

This is not a double biography. Rather it is a short but fairly detailed exploration of the genesis of Boolean logic and Shannon’s information theory with some biographical elements thrown in. Between the many equations, circuit diagrams and logic puzzles, we learn how a cobbler’s son who was largely self-educated came up with a new language of mathematical logic. A century later, the highly educated Shannon picked up the theory and showed how Boolean concepts such as ‘if X or Y happens and not Z then Q results’ could represent the working of switches and relays in electronic circuits.

The author is professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire, and it shows. Nahin’s forte is in illustrating how theory is connected to practice with real examples of analysis. Subjects range from basic Boolean algebra, through conditional probability, all the way to Turing machines.

Nahin also goes beyond Boole and Shannon to the thermodynamics of computing and the twilight zone (his words) of quantum computers. But the 21st century ‘information age’ context is too thin on the ground to justify the title.

Not for everyone, but good background reading for anyone studying electronics or computer science.

Christine Evans-Pughe

 

English Heritage

The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012

By Peter Kendall, £50, ISBN 978-1-84802-098-6

Since Chatham Dockyard closed in the 1980s, Kent’s Medway Towns have been better known for their connection with Charles Dickens than as the home of one of the world’s greatest military complexes.

The dockyard site where the young Dickens’s father worked may now be home to a theme park celebrating his work, but a significant part of the stronghold whose story mirrors Britain’s rise to global prominence during the wars of the 18th century and colonial expansion of the 19th lives on in the shape of the Royal School of Military Engineering, home of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Peter Kendall’s lavishly illustrated history of the Royal Engineers at Chatham marks the School’s 200th anniversary, but tells a story that goes much further back to the pre-Roman occupation of a key strategic site on the road between Dover and London.

In Dickens’s time, siege exercises on the Great Lines overlooking Chatham drew thousands of spectators and are immortalised in The Pickwick Papers. Today, refurbished heritage attractions like the sophisticated fortifications at Fort Amherst and the Historic Dockyard pull in more modest numbers, but anyone who has spent time in the area either as a visitor or member of the military will find this a compelling account of how the fortunes of engineering in the British army have changed over the centuries.

Dominic Lenton

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