Science and technology

The Innovators: A fascinating history of the digital revolution

The InnovatorsTitle: The Innovators
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 2014)
Pages: 560
ISBN: 9781471138799
Genre: Non Fiction, Computers & Technology, Business
Rating: 4/5

Long before the advent of the computer and internet as we know it now, long before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were beatified as idols of computing and Apple and Microsoft became household names, scores of scientists and engineers had been busy decoding the principles of science, seeking to understand the ways of the machines. Almost a century of discoveries, innovations and generating and executing ideas that helped create the “digital age” is what biographer Walter Isaacson has explored with great zeal and attention in ‘The Innovators.’

But here there are no individual heroes, brilliant thinkers and visionaries who stood above the rest. For Isaacson places teamwork as central to innovation. Elaborating how creativity is a collaborative process, he writes, “The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding ideas handed down from previous generations.” The best innovators are those who understood this trajectory of technological change and all of Isaacson’s characters, be it engineers, scientists, hackers and entrepreneurs, took the baton from other innovators.

When a dream was envisaged by Charles Babbage, his ideas were borrowed and galvanised by Harvard Aiken for his Harvard Mark I. To understand how the first transistor came about is to learn of the collaborative efforts of Walter Brattain and John Bardeen. Steve Jobs built on the work of Alan Kay, who was in turn inspired by Doug Engelbart, who built on JCR Licklider and Vannevar Bush. Yes, this book isn’t a book of lone geniuses and Isaacson, ever so powerfully attests to the romance of collaboration rather than individual effort.

Throughout the book, he singles out the creative genius of the various visionaries and through their stories weaves a wonderful tapestry of human-human and human-machine symbiosis, how each in their own way contributed their share to create a world where new technologies thrive.

The book begins and ends with the story of Ada Lovelace, celebrated as a feminist icon and a computer pioneer, who had a propensity for the marriage of the poetic realm with math. Assisting Babbage on his ‘Analytical Engine,’ she dreamed of a world where “machines would become partners in human imagination.” The saga of the digital age that is ‘The Innovators’ — cataloguing how the digital universe evolved, how technology progressed from transistors and  microchips to personal computers, video games, internet, et al — has amusingly reinforced this idea. Innovation after all happens when you understand the relationship between humanity and technology.

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Categories: Books, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blend of Science and Humour

What if

Title: What if?
Author: Randall Munroe
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9781848549586
Genre: Nonfiction, Humour, Sciences, Technology & Medicine
Rating: 4/5

Former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe has gained quite a fan following for regularly churning out hilarious and sometimes absurd cartoons on XKCD, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” In tandem with this endeavour, he had launched his blog, ‘What if?’ where he provided “serious scientific answers” to “absurd hypothetical questions” asked by readers, his responses often dotted with his trademark brand of funny caricatures.

Now, he has collated the blog’s most popular answers in a book called What if?, published in India by Hachette. Munroe, who undoubtedly receives a dozens of questions everyday, has included in the book only those “particularly neat questions” which he wanted to “spend a little more time on.” The book also features updated versions of some of his favorite articles from the site and a few brand new questions which he has answered for the first time in the book.

Some of the questions that Munroe tackles are seemingly bizarre but peculiarly enough, as one finds out after reading the book, they can be explained using rational thought. ‘What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different solar system bodies? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net? How close would you have to be to a supernova to get a lethal dose of neutrino radiation? Then there are questions that Munroe has set aside as ‘Weird (and worrying)’ which he deems unworthy of an explanation, but doesn’t ignore them altogether: Questions like ‘Given humanity’s current knowledge and capabilities, is it possible to build a new star? How fast would a human have to run in order to cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? Would Thor, with a spinning hammer, be able to create a tornado like in the movie, in real life?’ are accompanied by rib-tickling comments often put forth through cartoons.

What makes Munroe’s work worthwhile is the way he blends esoteric scientific analogies and logical reasoning with an unfaltering comic commentary. His dedication to answer one weird question after another using these facts (complemented with diagrams, equations, graphs) in the most imaginative and simplest way possible, underscores Munroe’s sound understanding of the subject.

What if? is like a textbook for the curious minds who at some point of their lives would have wondered if there is enough energy to move the entire current human population off the planet or while watching Star Wars, if Yoda can produce sustainable energy to power the entire planet. Having said that, even the not-so-scientifically inclined ones among the crowd can devour it.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 21, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Hachette, Humour, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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