A collection of essays on the scientist credited by Einstein as being responsible for changing our whole perception of physical reality is a highlight of this month’s new technology books.
MIT Press/Apogee Prime
Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program/Live TV From Orbit
By David Meerman Scott & Richard Jurek/ Dwight Steven-Boniecki, £27.95/$28.95, ISBN 978-0-262-02696-3/978-1926837-28-4
Since the beginning of the Space Race, the money spent on sending people into space has been open to criticism. All too often, critics advocate the withdrawal of funding, naively assuming its redirection to their favourite cause while conveniently ignoring the spin-off benefits of high-tech R&D. In the case of the Apollo lunar programme (the subject of the first book here), these included kick-starting the microprocessor industry, encouraging science, technology and maths education and, following the publication of the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo, focusing the vision of the environmental movement. Unfortunately for those in the space community, such benefits are either difficult for people to assimilate on a short timescale or are absorbed almost imperceptibly within society.
Even during Apollo, it was necessary to ‘sell’ this application of tax dollars to the American public and it is this that ‘Marketing the Moon’ takes head on. Written by two marketing and PR specialists, it traces the multifaceted approach made by Nasa and the space industry to educate and infiltrate the minds of taxpayers. “Primed by science fiction, magazine articles, and appearances by Wernher von Braun on the ‘Tomorrowland’ segments of the Disneyland prime time television show, Americans were a receptive audience for Nasa’s pioneering ‘brand journalism’,” say the authors.
Nasa’s media campaign, and the freely available public information packs, stoked a fascination in the general media mirrored in today’s celebrity culture; as David Bowie sang in ‘Space Oddity’, “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”. It was inevitable that the manufacturers of products used by the astronauts – from Sony tape recorders to Tang drinks – would want to advertise the fact. Complete with photos of adverts, books, products and people, ‘Marketing the Moon’ is a fascinating overview of the US’s ‘other lunar programme’ – the selling of Apollo.
TV coverage of Apollo, especially from the lunar surface, was an integral part of the mission. But it was not until after the Moon landings that improvements in technology allowed TV coverage to become an ‘embedded’ technology in missions such as the Skylab space station and the Apollo-Soyuz US-Soviet docking project. As explained in ‘Live TV From Orbit’, Nasa’s desire to have “equally impressive TV broadcast from the future Space Shuttle flights saw a bidding war between the two Apollo-era rivals of Westinghouse and RCA”. RCA won, but at “great financial cost”, according to the author.
This book, a companion volume to ‘Live TV From the Moon’ traces the development of TV broadcast systems, videotape recorders and CCTV systems for Apollo-Soyuz, Skylab and Shuttle missions. It explains how TV evolved from a simple media tool to a fully-fledged science and engineering instrument, used for anything from transmitting images from astronomical telescopes to communications.
As Shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless says in his foreword, “a book about live television using only still photos... would fall short of the mark”, which is why this package includes a DVD. While it may not have the production values of Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’, the special effects are the real McCoy!
Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Seeing What Others Don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights
By Gary Klein, £12.99, ISBN 978-1610392518
Most of us will have, at some point, worked for a company that, while claiming to value their employees, couldn’t care less about them. That same company will outwardly encourage innovation and creativity, while concealing a deep-seated structural paranoia, the first demand of which is that we simply do not make mistakes. These aren’t attractive insights into management, but they’re depressingly accurate, and in his new book Gary Klein makes a decent attempt to work out why.
‘Seeing What Others Don’t’ is a work of applied psychology that examines how we gain insight, the theory being that the better we can penetrate a problem the quicker we can make it go away. So in the case of the organisation that undervalues its staff, we learn that it has fallen foul of a predictability trap. It’s not particularly helpful to wheel out the overexposed corporate DNA metaphor, but it is interesting to see that the organisational malaise doesn’t stem from innate sadism, but the craving for a shock-free operation. Recalibrate the system to tolerate errors and people become happier.
Klein takes us on a fascinating journey from medical breakthroughs to military strategy. He analyses why IT systems are ‘dumb by design’ and examines how Darwin started to understand evolution as well as how Crick and Watson discovered DNA (although the insight here might be that the former pinched his ideas from Alfred Russel Wallace while the latter didn’t credit contribution from Rosalind Franklin).
As with so many psychology books, ‘Seeing What Others Don’t’ is an exercise in the statement of the obvious. But it rattles along with pace and flair, while being, appropriately enough, packed with insight.
The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
By Michio Kaku, £20, ISBN 978-0385530828
Few will question, when it comes to the future of physics, that Michio Kaku is one of the master authors in ‘popular science’. He is, after all, cofounder of string field theory, professor of physics at the City University of New York and a noted futurologist. But we don’t often associate him with the problem of how the mind works or, more specifically, how technology will assist it to become more powerful.
In ‘The Future of the Mind’, Kaku posits that we are on the brink of a new Golden Age of neuroscience, where what was once a sci-fi dream will become reality. We will be able to download entire memory sets and ‘brain-mail’ them across the Internet into other people’s consciousness. We will be able to telekinetically operate exoskeletons and remotely control mechanical beings. This new landscape fascinates the author as much as his other great passion, the origin of the Universe.
It took 350 years from the invention of the telescope to get our technology into outer space. And yet it took a mere 15 to get from seeing inside the brain with MRI scans to connecting it electronically to the outside world. This new revolution has taken on such a rapidity of progress partly because we now understand electromagnetism, but it also relates to Moore’s Law, which explains how and why the BMI (brain-machine interface) is taking off in such a big way.
As with all of Kaku’s books, we are left with a sense of doubt, mostly because futurology isn’t an exact science. As the man himself has often remarked, the problem with the future is that it never arrives on time.