Fascinating scientific history based on the humblest of artifacts.

JACQUARD’S WEB

HOW A HAND-LOOM LED TO THE BIRTH OF THE INFORMATION AGE

A British science writer traces the history of the punched card, from the Jacquard loom, which programmed the weaving of elaborate silk brocades, to the modern computer.

After a brief history of silk, Essinger introduces Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), the son of a master-weaver. In Napoleonic France, after the revolution, Jacquard puttered aimlessly until about 1800, when he patented an improved loom. In its final form, the Jacquard loom wove the complex patterns that made it famously 24 times faster than earlier versions, but with half the manpower. Honored by Napoleon, Jacquard lived out his life in prosperity; but the story of his cards had just begun. In England, Charles Babbage (1792–1871) conceived a machine to calculate the mathematical tables that Victorian science and industry were increasingly coming to rely on. In 1834 he decided to use Jacquard's cards to control his machine. With the help of Lord Byron's daughter Ada, Countess Lovelace (1816–52), he worked on the design for several years, but the lack of sufficiently precise and uniform mechanical parts prevented him from completing his Analytical Engine. The next step in the career of Jacquard's cards came when the American engineer Herman Hollerith (1860–1929) built a machine to tabulate the data from the 1890 US Census. In 1911, Hollerith's tabulating machine company merged with two others to form IBM. Those IBM cards (as they were now known) programmed the pioneering computer designed by Howard Aiken and built by IBM in 1944, and the electronic machines—ENIAC, UNIVAC, and their successors—that made computing practical. The IBM card dominated computing until the 1980s, when electronic devices took over its function, and played a role in history as late as the election of 2000. Essinger's sketches of the various inventors and scientists are lively, and he effectively places their contributions in historical context.

Fascinating scientific history based on the humblest of artifacts.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-19-280577-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2004

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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