Author Archives: Dave Osborne

Waxing Lexical

I’ve just finished reading a book that I never knew I simply had to read about a subject that I had no idea I was interested in.  Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale is a strange mix: partly autobiographical, part history of whaling, partly an in-depth study of Moby Dick and its author, and partly a love letter to whales; words mixed with grainy monochrome pictures.  Yet far from being fragmented and confusing, this strange combination is utterly compelling.

Hoare flagrantly romaticises the whale, writing about these creatures with an often mystical and spiritual tone.  He tells the tale of how as man developed technology, we became more and more brutally efficient at slaughtering a creature which to this day, we have a fairly limited understand of.  He speculates on how man’s intervention has quite possibly destroyed whale culture; knowledge that was somehow passed down through generations before the whale population was so comprehensively disrupted and brought to the brink of extinction.  He traces the history of man’s encounters and those that sought to document them in fact and fiction.

The real power of this book, however, is not in the subject matter but the strength of its writing.  Book lovers will know that a book – merely words – can be more immersive than any other form of media.  Immersive doesn’t begin to describe this title.  This is truly a book to be experienced.

“It was as if I were looking into the universe.  The blue was intangible yet distinct; untouchable and all-enveloping, like the sky. I felt like an astronaut set adrift, the world falling away beneath me.  Floating in and out of focus before my eyes were a myriad of miniature planets or asteroids, some elliptical, some perfect spheres.  Set sharply against the blue, the glaucous, gelatinous micro-animals and what seemed to be fish roe moved in a firmament of their own, both within and beyond my perception.

I was moving through another dimension, suspended in salt water, held over the earth that had disappeared far below.  I could see nothing ahead.  The rich soup on which those same tiny organisms fed combined to defeat my sight, reducing lateral visibility as they drifted like dust motes caught in the sunlight.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Ahead, taking shape out of the darkness, was an outline familiar from words and pictures and books and films but which had never seemed real; an image I might have invented out of my childhood nightmares, a recollection of something impossible.  Something so huge I could not see it, yet which now resolved itself into reality.

A sperm whale, hanging at the surface.  I was less than thirty feet away before I saw it, before its blunt head, connected by muscular flanks to its infinite, slowly swaying fukes, filled my field of vision.

…I could not believe that something so big could be so silent.  Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite.  Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head.  As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness.  Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort.  The moment lasted forever, for seconds.  Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.”

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Is Anything Truly Random?

I hated science lessons at school.  Looking back, it was miraculous that the science curriculum and those that taught it managed to make a subject so fascinating – a subject with such universal appeal to the inquisitive minds of children – so dull.  I imagine my science teachers put this skill to use in their downtime by going to parties and turning all the wine into water.

Bill Bryson expresses a similar concern in his Introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In writing this book, Bryson produced the grand daddy of popular science books but beyond him there is a wealth of non-fiction science books aimed not just at Physics MSCs, but rather anyone that has a healthy mind and enjoys asking the question “why?”.

Marcus Chown - We Need To Talk About Kelvin Front CoverThe more science I read, the more I appreciate it’s place in the arts alongside philosophy and psychology.  Marcus Chown, in We Need To Talk About Kelvin – What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe, attempts to help us rekindle our child-like enthusiasm for intellectual discovery by describing how normal things can prove mind-blowing concepts.  And so on to the question at hand; a question which is seemingly philosophical in nature.

It could easily be argued that nothing is random. Much of human behaviour has been shown to be predetermined by our genes and our behaviour.  A coin toss is caused by gravity, resistance, the velocity and angle of the throw and the detail of the surface it lands on.  One could argue that if these causes could be perfectly simulated then the result could be predicted.  Due to technological limitations we are not able to produce such a perfect simulation but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.

What does Chown say to the question ‘is anything truly random’?  His answer is: “yes, God plays dice”.  What everyday thing proves this according to Chown?  Your reflection in a window.

Imagine looking through a window when the light outside is low.  You can see your reflection in the glass, but you can also see beyond it to the other side of the window.  Let’s say that the glass appears 60% opaque.  So what?  Well, some light is reflecting back and some is continuing through.  This makes sense if light is a wave, like a ripple in a lake spreading out and continuing despite hitting a small floating obstacle.  However, light is also a stream of photon particles, each particle identical.  Commons sense and observation tell us that the overall effect is stable; so how is it that some photons pass through and some reflect?

It took the genius of Einstein to realise that this dilemma was a bomb-shell dropped into the laws of physics.  The only logical answer is that 40% of the particles are being reflected back.  Giving that each photon is identical, each photon has a 40% chance of being reflected and a 60% chance of continuing straight through.  This means it is impossible to predict what a single photon will do when it reaches the glass; it effectively has to ‘decide’ itself.  Unlike the lack of computing power required to simulate a coin toss, predicting the behaviour of a photon when it reaches the glass is not a practical issue.  It is impossible to predict because the photon’s beahviour is completely and utterly random; effect without cause.  It’s not just light either; at the microscopic level, the entire world is governed by chance.

But this is just the beginning of the madness.  Chown goes on to draw further conclusions from this everyday observation.  It can also be demonstrated that light is both a wave and a particle, that a single photon can be in two places doing two things at once, and that particles can break the speed of light by instantaneously influencing another particle at any distance.

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How do you discover new non-fiction books? No prizes for guessing…

‘Non-fiction’ includes books on virtually any subject, any skill, idea or person in history. With your credit crunched bank balance, your limited precious time and the finite number of bookcases in your abode, you want to make sure you are only purchasing and reading quality. Unless you are already well read in a particular field, how on earth do you go about discovering new non-fiction books to read?

The way I purchase books tends to be quite haphazard and often comes down to what I am feeling or thinking at the time. Here are the ways in which I discover new non-fiction books to read:

  • Book prizes. There are several book prizes out there which seem to always have top quality reads. The BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. The Royal Society Winton prize for science books. The newly launched Guardian Book Award (which includes a sub-category of non-fiction). Annual book prizes tend to include only the best books in the category and I don’t think I’ve ever been let down by purchasing from book prize shortlists.
  • Author publicity. Authors often promote themselves by doing opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines or television. I’ve discovered many books this way, having enjoyed reading an article and then seen at the bottom that Joe Bloggs is the author of Some Non-fiction Book. “Go on then” I think to myself. “If I enjoyed the article, surely I’ll enjoy the book too”.
  • Amazon recommendations. I buy quite a lot of my books from Amazon
    (which is another discussion for another time). Amazon is creepily excellent at using its customer purchasing trends data to push products onto you. Every single product page has a ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ section and I can honestly spend hours clicking on these links, trawling my way through different genres, reading customer reviews and wikipediaing the authors.
  • Word of mouth. Obvious but couldn’t leave it out of the list. When someone enthuses about a book it can be incredibly infectious. Thanks to the joy of smartphones and internet shopping it’s possible to order a book 30 seconds after hearing a recommendation.

Conspicuous in its absense from this list is book reviews. Personally I rarely read book reviews in printed or online media. I also don’t buy from the book charts, or from promotional plinths at bookshops, which many people must do. Feel free to recommend some book review sites or other methods in the below comments.  And of course, if you’re looking for a new book you could always have a read through this blog.

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Opulence and Arrogance

Imagine a society where the ruling class are so wealthy that they gain political power and influence not by accumulating money or land, but by proving themselves in philosophical and religious debate.  Sounds a bit like Voltaire’s utopian vision of El Dorado doesn’t it?  Welcome to Ancient Greece.

The Antikythera MechanismI previously reviewed ‘Decoding the Heavens’, a book which tells the story of how the puzzle of the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient clockwork computer discovered in a shipwreck) was solved.  Without giving too much away about the mechanism itself, here’s some more details:

  • Its complexity means it probably took several generations of work from master crafstmen to perfect.
  • It contained state of the art astronomical data and would have therefore required input from a top astronomer.
  • It was contained in an ornate box and had inscription on its inputs and outputs which were ‘idiot’s guide’ instructions on how to use it.

From the last bullet point, we can deduce that this is no astronomer’s tool; it is a luxury item.  It seems inconceivable that the Ancient Greeks could make such a machine and yet it never occurred to them that the technology could be useful if applied elsewhere.  Amongst the aristocrats of this society, it was more important to use technology as a religious or philosophical demonstration than to apply the technology for more practical outcomes.  In Europe, it was the invention and development of clockwork that sparked the industrial revolution.

An Ancient Greek also invented the steam engine (to disprove one of Aristotle’s theories) and again they failed to apply the technology to industry.  It’s difficult to get one’s head around a society with such radically different values.

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Stranger Than Fishing

Decoding the Heavens - Solving the mystery of the world's first computer by Jo MarchantOne of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.

‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.

Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.

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