This month’s new releases cover everything from the wizardry of invisibility to the art of predicting the unpredictable.
Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen
By Philip Ball, £25, ISBN 9781847922892
In the run up to the March 2000 meeting of the American Physical Society, electronic engineer David Smith was slightly alarmed to learn that his research supervisor at the University of California at San Diego had organised a press conference to discuss a paper he was due to present.
What Smith probably hadn’t allowed for was the spin that the mainstream media could put on his work. He’d been looking at how the ‘plasmonic’ behaviour of nanoparticles whose negative permittivity causes them to bind certain wavelengths of visible light. In the process of developing a scaled-up model for the effect using microwaves and ‘atoms’ a few millimetres in diameter he’d met John Pendry of Imperial College in London, who was one of the team behind a hypothetical solution based on an arrangement of wires capable of acting as tiny antennas and receivers.
Pendry’s work had led to arrangements of c-shaped wires known as split rings capable of controlling permeability. Smith, with his colleague Willie Padilla, put the theory into practice by etching copper foil on a printed circuit board into the required pattern. The result was a material with a negative refractive index – interesting enough for a gathering of academics, but with a little journalistic licence something that the media could present as the long sought key to invisibility.
Like many before and after, their work was briefly headline news around the world until people realised it wasn’t going to be incorporated in anything they could buy in the shops for some time yet. What the episode demonstrated though was the enduring fascination the public has with the idea of being able to observe events without being seen yourself.
As Philip Ball demonstrates, achieving invisibility may now be a realistic goal for scientists but it’s a concept that’s been around for millennia. It appears in most mythologies and as a regular literary device, from the host of Greek gods and mortals who wore various caps of invisibility to Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, which has provided journalists with a handy reference point for any new developments in stealth technology.
What makes Ball’s review of the whole subject of invisibility so readable is that alongside the ‘how’ of work like Smith and Pendry’s, he discusses why we find this such a fascinating idea.
In fiction, it’s invariably a device for making a moral point about the dangers of wish-fulfillment and seeing things you’re not supposed to, achieved by some form of unexplained magic. Harry Potter is one of the few characters whose invisible exploits are generally to his advantage and never end tragically.
The most obvious example outside the world of Potter, discussed at length by Ball, is HG Wells’ ‘The Invisible Man’, which explains in detail how the scientist Griffin uses not magic or a specially made garment but a knowledge of biology and various drugs to make himself completely transparent.
Of course this contributes to the tragic outcome. His clothes are still visible so he has to go naked to take advantage of his invisibility at all, food remains visible for some time after he’s eaten it, and he ends up being killed by an angry mob.
Wells took a strong interest in the 1933 film version, insisting that it was important to show not that Griffin wanted to become invisible because he was a ‘mad scientist’, but that he was a rational person driven to insanity by his own success. With ‘Invisible’, Philip Ball provides a comprehensive account of how close we are in reality and the warnings we might draw from the many writers who have contemplated what it could mean.
The Dark Net
By Jamie Bartlett, £20, ISBN 978-0434023158
Mainstream web search engines are apt to sustain the illusion that the Internet and its content are entirely transparent and accessible to all; but some of what’s ‘out there’ is available only to those who inhabit the ‘Dark’ domains – an underworld of data resources and services that cannot easily be accessed through conventional web interfaces.
Its ‘darkness’ also pertains to the nature of the burgeoning range of subcultural applications and activities found there: from narcotics etailing, webcam-based modelling and sexualised exhibitionism, to social media-enabled extremist agitprop, trolling – and the trade in child pornography.
Some of this digital murk will be known to consumers of sensationalist media; other outgrowths – such as the growing value of crypto-currency transactions being used to buy illegal drugs from online marketplaces like the Silk Road (2013 sales: $1.2bn) – are more alarming.
Trolls are a well-established phenomenon that have received much headline coverage, and occur in both the Dark- and ‘Surface’ (public) Nets. Judging by Bartlett’s account, the ranks of those minded to spend almost unlimited time and effort seeking to exchange insults and abuse, or to bully vulnerable web surfers warrants more detailed analysis. Bartlett helpfully refers to psychological phenomena, such as ‘behavioural contagion’ and Professor John Suler’s six-factor Online Disinhibition Effect, which seem to compel so many people to vent virtual spite.
The book’s most informative chapters highlight the effective use made of social media platforms to disseminate radical politics, particularly where sites such as Facebook and Twitter serve as springboards for constituencies of extremist viewpoint that, arguably, would otherwise not be able to come into being so conspicuously.
This readable and well-researched book throws much light onto Dark matters.
How to Predict the Unpredictable: The Art of Outsmarting Almost Everyone
By William Poundstone, £12.99, ISBN 978-1780744070
It’s tempting to think that as people operating in the objective sphere of engineering we’d have the upper hand over the layman when it comes to predicting the outcomes of everyday events such as the lottery. We know that there is a load of complicated mathematics available to us, which, combined with our experience of the real world, will make us smarter.
William Poundstone’s ‘How to Predict the Unpredictable’ offers insights into ‘the art of outsmarting almost everyone’. Whether it is guessing computer passwords or the stock market there are ways, he explains, that we can apply his knowledge and appear cleverer than we are.
For example, when faced with polar questions where the answer can only be ‘true’ or ‘false’, if you don’t know the answer, always say ‘true’. In multiple-choice questions where there are four options, the second option is most likely to be correct. ‘All of the above’ and ‘none of the above’ are disproportionately likely to be correct. If you’re really stuck, don’t select the most obviously different answer – the ‘outlier’ – because that will be wrong, unless it’s right.
The key to Poundstone’s highly entertaining book is that people are more predictable than they think they are, especially when they are trying not to be. To find out why this should be read no further than his brilliant introduction, where he tells the story of the Bell Labs ‘Outguessing Machine’. Great stuff.
Here Be Dragons: The Rise of SpaceX and the Journey to Mars
By Stewart Money, £25.95, ISBN 9781926837338
Conventional wisdom has it that history can only be written after historians have had time to dwell on events and consider their relative importance in the ‘grand scheme of things’. But technical subjects develop quickly and delaying too long can mean that important details and contextual information can be lost. That’s why this book on the early development of SpaceX, Elon Musk’s budding rocket company, is both welcome and timely.
The author, a history graduate and freelance writer, divides the book’s 31 chapters into four sections covering the Falcon 1 rocket, the current Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule and the effort to produce a reusable booster that could help “bring about a new era of deep space exploration”.
The engineering development of the Falcon stages and the Merlin rocket engine is well documented in an accessible manner – that is, without the notes and references of a historical text while avoiding the gee-whiz approach of the ‘enthusiast’. The technical and contractual background to the Dragon capsule in its role as space station supply vehicle is also well documented.
Arguably the most intriguing part of the book is the putative role of the Falcon-Dragon system in Mars exploration alluded to in the subtitle. Indeed, the full name of Musk’s company – Space Exploration Technologies – and his continual references to mankind as a “spacefaring civilisation” suggest that he has always had his eyes on Mars. However, there isn’t much about Mars in this book and the author notes that “even notional details are very sketchy”. That said, he places Musk’s philosophy of the ‘multi-planet species’ in context with the available technology and leaves the rest for another time. The fact that SpaceX is little more than a decade old and has achieved so much suggests that this story will run and run.