Book Reviews: building modern Britain, networking theory and coincidences
This month’s new titles demystify the mathematics behind coincidences, tell the story of one of the engineers who built modern Britain, and explain how networking theory underpins much of the technology we take for granted
Fluke: The Maths and Myths of Coincidences
By Joseph Mazur, £12.99, ISBN 9781780748993
Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how unusual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new book, Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.
Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?
This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will respond with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.
Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five-second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor that could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”
Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really somewhat inconceivably huge place.
Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.
The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?
Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain
By Julian Glover, £25.00, Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408837467
If ever a man could give hope to those of humble origins it is Thomas Telford. Born into a lowly shepherding family, in a ramshackle farmhouse in the hills of Dumfriesshire, Telford never knew his father, and at school, succeeded in learning little more than the basics of the ‘three R’s’. Yet, despite this modest beginning, he went on to become one of Britain’s greatest engineers. So, what’s his story?
In Man of Iron, the first comprehensive modern biography of Telford, journalist Julian Glover draws on historical anecdotes, letters, records, reports and contemporary accounts to provide a strikingly clear portrait of the man who helped shape Britain. A simple, smiling boy from the south of Scotland, known affectionately as ‘Laughing Tam’, who despite his fame and success, never forgot his roots.
Born in 1757, a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to sweep through Britain, Telford left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a stonemason. The piecemeal work of building new roads and farmhouses on a local estate inspired Telford’s initial interest in structural engineering. He began studying at night, determined to learn all there was to know about construction.
This passion formed a career that spanned almost eight decades. It helped create the basic building blocks of Britain, constructing roads, bridges and aqueducts, facilitating trade and renovating the country for a time of industrial transformation.
Among his most remarkable work was the design of the Menai Bridge in north Wales, one of the first structures based on the suspension principle. It spanned 180m – the longest such bridge of the era. He was one of the first British engineers to trial such a procedure. At the time, his creations were considered some of the most remarkable in Europe, but perhaps what is most notable is that almost all of his work remains standing – and in use – to this day.
While his influence on the backbone of Britain is obvious, the person behind the engineer is less known, and for some, this may be the most interesting aspect of this book. Telford was a complex man, as his interests and talents were not limited to engineering. While contributing to the industrialisation of Britain, he was also fascinated by the natural landscape, and was actually a keen poet. In his musings, he wrote of the ‘artificial joy’ of towns, preferring the quiet solitude of the country. It may seem somewhat oxymoronic, but even as he built the structures that supported urban life, he did so with a passion to enhance the countryside, not replace it.
The influence of Telford across Britain is well recognised and celebrated. The Institution of Civil Engineers, of which Telford was the first president, continues to celebrate the legacy of his work long after his death. ‘Man of Iron’ keeps with this culture of recognition and celebration by revealing the history of Telford for all to understand and enjoy. It is a beautifully written biography, reading almost as a work of classic literature, rather than a piece of non-fiction.
Glover spares no words in greatly detailing every aspect of Telford’s life, from his poverty-stricken yet somewhat idyllic childhood in the green woods of the Scottish countryside, to his vibrant life travelling and working across the British Isles. It is just as easy to envisage a grubby-faced but smiling young Telford stumbling over bracken-rich fields of Eskdale as it is to recall the wondrous unveiling of his remarkable works of civil engineering.
The Power of Networks: Six Principles That Connect Our Lives
By Christopher G Brinton & Mung Chiang, £24.95, Princeton University Press, ISBN 9780691170718
Networking theory is an aspect of technology most of us encounter repeatedly in our daily lives without realising how essential it has become. Using a smartphone (or even making an old-fashioned mobile voice call), logging in to free Wi-Fi in a busy airport, picking up a book or movie recommendation based on what people with similar tastes have bought, even getting exactly the website we want as the top result in a Google search. Networks are everywhere and ‘The Power of Networks’ shows not only how they work but why understanding them is useful.
Authors Christopher G Brinton and Mung Chiang both have backgrounds in electrical engineering, which combined with experience of topics like big data analytics allows them to strike an authoritative but accessible tone. The book has partly evolved from massive open online courses the pair have developed over the past few years that have introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the science behind networking. It isn’t a complete beginner’s guide, but is pitched perfectly at the reader with a background in technology who’s interested in finding out more about the principles that underpin so much of daily life.
Key to this is using simple metaphors to help visualise concepts that at a practical level are very complex but aren’t that hard to understand. The idea of conversation at a busy cocktail party is a recurring theme. Once you realise that the ‘carrier sense multiple access’ that allows multiple devices to share a Wi-Fi network is a ‘courtesy procedure’ similar to the conventions that allow a group of people to mingle in a room, starting up chats, taking turns and moving on without ending up just trying to shout over each other, the technical implementation is much easier to grasp. The same analogy illustrates the contrast between time-division and code-division multiple access in a way that a layperson put off by the TDMA and CDMA abbreviations will find simple to understand.
Herds of livestock play a part too. The economic principle of the tragedy of the commons, in which increasing numbers of herdsmen add to their respective cattle grazing on shared land makes a handy simile for the delicate balance between flat-rate and pay-as-you-go mobile data plans, while a 1906 auction in Plymouth introduces the ‘wisdom of crowds’ principle that underpins all those recommendations of content you might like based on other users’ preferences. (Statistician Sir Francis Galton found that although hundreds of guesses of the weight of an ox varied wildly, the average was within 0.1 per cent of the correct figure.)
This isn’t a superficial book though, and the easily grasped comparisons lead on to an in-depth treatment, though without the maths of a full-blown text book. One nice touch is the first-person accounts from big names in the industry like Eric Schmidt and Vinton Cerf of how the technology described has been applied in the real world.
From the IET Archives
1930s Society Glamour Photographers
Many of the collections in the IET Archives contain photographs, and many of these photographs have subject matter that is non-technical. What people might not expect is a small but significant number of photographs of ‘famous’ people taken by noted society photographers of the 1930s such as the one shown here of aviator Amy Johnson, taken by John Capstack.
Capstack was born in Accrington in 1881 and eventually moved to Blackpool after being invalided out of WWI with tuberculosis. For around 30 years he had a studio on the sea front at Blackpool and during this time he took many ‘glamorous’ photographs of well-known individuals such as the actresses Peggy Ashcroft in the 1920s and Anna May Wong in 1933.
There was a touring exhibition of Capstack’s work in the late 1990s and in the Birmingham Post’s commentary on that exhibition it said that Amy Johnson (married name Amy Mollison) had her picture taken by Capstack twice, once in flying gear and once in a Gypsy Moth after her solo flight to Australia.
The relationship actually seems to have been much stronger. The IET has three photographs of Johnson in the archive collections which do not appear to have been known about before.
We have these photographs because Amy Johnson was a two-term President of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in 1935/36 and 1936/37, whose collection we hold in the archives, and as a consequence there are many Amy Johnson photographs as well as her correspondence in the WES collection.
Other noted photographers of the 1930s whose works we hold in the archives include Madame Yevonde and Dorothy Wilding.
More at bit.ly/IET-Archives