Not a history of computers but an ingenious look at how brilliant and not-so-brilliant thinkers see—usually wrongly but with...

RISE OF THE MACHINES

A CYBERNETIC HISTORY

A fascinating study of the “seductive power of the cybernetic mythos.”

The first triumph of cybernetics, the interaction of humans and machine, occurred during World War II. In 1940, British anti-aircraft gunners almost never hit high-flying Luftwaffe bombers; within a few years, input from early computers and radar vastly increased their accuracy. More triumphs and misfires followed, along with an ongoing debate over what it means, all superbly recounted by Rid (War Studies/King’s Coll., London; Cyber War Will Not Take Place, 2013, etc.). He deplores observers who regularly predict that computer “intelligence” will ultimately surpass that of the human brain. Intelligence (i.e. “thinking”) is irrelevant, emphasized early scientists led by cybernetics guru and Rid’s hero, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). “The brain is not a thinking machine, it is an acting machine,” wrote cybernetics pioneer Ross Ashby in 1948. “It gets information and then it does something about it.” True cybernetics describes a symbiosis between humans and machines, but science-fiction writers missed the point with raging robots à la the movie 2001, and the counterculture delivered products from dianetics to The Whole Earth Catalog. While popular enthusiasm peaked during the 1970s, the pitiful reality was massive computers with less power than an iPhone churning out payrolls and tracking Soviet aircraft. Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth fame, launched modern cybernetics by putting the Catalog online in 1985. Since then, its vision has pitted libertarians, who predict an interconnected world free of government and commerce, against the establishment, who see increasing social control, burgeoning commerce, and efficient, nearly bloodless war.

Not a history of computers but an ingenious look at how brilliant and not-so-brilliant thinkers see—usually wrongly but with occasional prescience—the increasingly intimate melding of machines and humans.

Pub Date: June 28, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-28600-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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