Aug 18 2014

Book review: Degrees Kelvin by David Lindley

How to start? I’ve read another book… degrees_kelvinDegrees Kelvin: A tale of genius, invention and tragedy by David Lindley. This is a biography of William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, who lived 1824-1907.

Thomson lived at a time when the core of classical physics came into being, adding thermodynamics and electromagnetism to Newtonian mechanics. He played a significant role in creating these areas of study. As well as this he acted as a scientific advisor in the creation of the transatlantic telegraph, electric power transmission, marine compasses and a system of units for electromagnetism. He earned a substantial income from patents relating to telegraphy and maritime applications, and bought a blingy yacht (the Lalla Rookh) with the money.

He died a few years after the discovery of radioactivity, x-rays, special relativity and the first inklings of quantum mechanics – topics that were to form “modern physics”.

The book starts with William Thomas heading off to Cambridge to study maths. Prior to going he has already published in a mathematical journal on Philip Kelland’s misinterpretation of Fourier’s work on heat.

His father, James Thomson is a constant presence through his time in Cambridge in the form of a stream of letters, these days he’d probably be described as a “helicopter parent”. James Thomson is constantly concerned with his son falling in with the wrong sort at university, and with the money he is spending. James Thomson was a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University, William had attended his classes at the university along with his brother. Hence his rapid entry into academic publishing.

Fourier’s work Analytical Theory of Heat is representative of a style of physics which was active in France at the beginning of the 19th century. He built a mathematical model of the flow of heat in materials, with techniques for calculating the temperature throughout that body – one of which were the Fourier series – still widely used by scientists and engineers today. For this purpose the fundamental question of what heat was could be ignored. Measurements could be made of heat flow and temperature, and the model explained these outward signs. Fourier’s presentation was somewhat confused, which led Philip Kelland – in his book Theory of Heat to claim he was wrong. Thomson junior’s contribution was to clarify Fourier’s presentation and point out, fairly diplomatically, that Kelland was wrong. 

Slightly later the flow of letters from Thomson senior switches to encourage his son into the position held by the ailing William Meikleham, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University – this project is eventually successful when Meikleham dies and Thomson takes the post in 1846. He retired from his position at Glasgow University in 1899.

William Thomson appears to have been innovative in teaching, introducing the laboratory class into the undergraduate degree, and later writing a textbook of classical physics, Treatise on Natural Philosophy, with his friend P.G. Tait.

Following his undergraduate studies at Cambridge, William goes to Paris, meeting many of the scientific community there at the time and working in the laboratory of Henri Regnault on thermodynamics. In both thermodynamics and electromagnetism Thomson plays a role in the middle age of the topic, not there at the start but not responsible for the final form of the subject. In both thermodynamics and electromagnetism Thomson’s role was in the “formalisation” of the physical models made by others. So he takes the idea of lines of force from Faraday’s electrical studies and makes them mathematical. The point of this exercise is that now the model can be used to make quantitative predictions in complex situations of, for example, the transmission of signals down submarine telegraph wires.

Commercial telegraphy came in to being around 1837, the first transatlantic cable was strung in 1857 – although it only worked briefly, and poorly for a few weeks. The first successful cable was laid in 1866. It’s interesting to compare this to the similarly rapid expansion of the railways in Britain. Thomson played a part from the earliest of the transatlantic cables. Contributing both theoretically and practically – he invented and patented the mirror galvanometer which makes reading weak signals easier.

It’s a cliché to say “X was no stranger to controversy” Thomson had his share – constantly needling geologists over the age of the earth and getting into spats regarding priority of James Joule on the work on inter-convertibility of energy. It sounds like he bears some responsibility for the air of superiority that physicists can sometime display over the other sciences. Although it should be said that he more played second fiddle to the more pugnacious P.G. Tait.

Later in life Thomson struggled to accept Maxwell’s formulation of electromagnetic theory, finding it too abstract – he was only interested in a theory with a tangible physical model beneath it. Maxwell’s theory had this at the start, an ever more complex system of gear wheels, but ultimately he cut loose from it. As an aside, the Maxwell’s equations we know today are very much an invention of Oliver Heaviside who introduced the vector calculus notation which greatly simplifies their appearance, he too cut his teeth on telegraphy.

At one point Lindley laments the fact Lord Kelvin has not had the reputation he deserves since his death. Reputation is a slippery thing, recognition amongst the general public is a fickle and no real guide to anything. Most practicing scientists pay little heed to the history of their subject, fragments are used as decoration for otherwise dull lectures.

It’s difficult to think of modern equivalents of William Thomson in science, his theoretical role is similar to that of Freeman Dyson or Richard Feynman. It’s not widely recognised but Albert Einstein, like Thomson, was active in making patent applications but does not seem to have benefitted financial from his patents. Thomson also plays the role of Victorian projector, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Projects in the 21st century are no longer so obviously the work of one scientist/engineer/project manager/promoter these roles having generally been split into specialisms. 

I was intrigued to discover that Lindley apparently uses S.P. Thompson’s 1910 biography of Kelvin as his primary source, not mentioning at all the two volume Energy and Empire by Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise published in 1989.

Degrees Kelvin provides a useful entry into physics and technology in the 19th century, I am now curious about the rise of electricity and marine compasses!

Aug 03 2014

Book review: Finding Longitude by Richard Dunn, Rebekah Higgitt

finding-longitudeMuch of my reading comes via twitter in the form of recommendations from historians of science, in this case I am reading a book co-authored by one of those historians: Finding Longitude by Richard Dunn (@lordoflongitude) and Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh).

I must admit I held off buying Finding Longitude for a while since it appeared to be an exhibition brochure, maybe not so good if you haven’t attended the exhibition. It turns out to be freestanding and perfectly formed.This is definitely the most sumptuous book I’ve bought in quite some time, I’m glad I got the hardcover version rather than the Kindle edition.

The many photographs throughout the book are absolutely gorgeous, they are of the instruments and clocks, the log books, artwork from the time. You can get a flavour from the images online here.

To give some context to the book, knowing your location on earth is a matter of determining two parameters: latitude and longitude:

  • latitude is your location in the North-South direction between the equator and either of the earth’s poles, it is easily determined by the height of the sun or stars above the horizon, and we shall speak no more of it here.
  • longitude is the second piece of information required to specify ones position on the surface of the earth and is a measure your location East-West relative to the Greenwich meridian. The earth turns at a fixed rate and as it does the sun appears to move through the sky. You can use this behaviour to fix a local noon time: the time at which the sun reaches the highest point in the sky. If, when you measure your local noon, you can also determine what time it is at some reference point Greenwich, for example, then you can find your longitude from the difference between the two times.

Knowing where you are on earth by measurement of these parameters is particularly important for sailors engaged in long distance trade or fighting. It has therefore long been an interest of governments.

The British were a bit late to the party in prizes for determining the longitude, the first of them had been offered by Phillip II of Spain in 1567 and there had been activity in the area since then, primarily amongst the Spanish and Dutch. Towards the end of the 17th century the British and French get in on the act, starting with the formation of the Royal Society and Académie des sciences respectively.

One stimulus for the creation of a British prize for determining the longitude was the deaths of 1600 British sailors from Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell’s fleet off the Isles of Scilly in 1707. They died on the rocks off the Isles of Scilly in a storm, as a result of not knowing where they were until it was too late. As an aside, the surviving log books from Shovell’s fleet showed that for the latitude (i.e. the easier thing to measure), measurements of the sun gave a 25 mile spread, and those from dead reckoning a 75 mile spread in location.

The Longitude Act was signed into law in 1714, it offered a prize of £20,000 to whoever produced a practicable method for determining the longitude at sea. There was something of the air that it was a problem about to be solved. The Board of Longitude was to judge the prize. The known competitor techniques at the time were timekeeping by mechanical means, two astronomical methods (the lunar distance method, and the satellites of Jupiter) and dead-reckoning. In fact these techniques are used in combination, mechanical timekeepers are simpler to use than the astronomical methods but mechanical timekeepers needed checking against the astronomical gold standard which was the only way to reset a stopped clock. Dead-reckoning (finding your location by knowing how fast you’d gone in what direction) was quick and simple, and worked in all weathers. Even with a mechanical timekeeper astronomical observations were required to measure the “local” time, and that didn’t work in thick cloud.

There’s no point in sailors knowing exactly where they were if maps did not describe exactly where the places where they were going, or trying to avoid. Furthermore, the lunar distance method of finding longitude required detailed tables of astronomical data which needed updating regularly. So alongside the activities of the longitude projectors, the state mechanisms for compiling charts and making astronomical tables were built up.

John Harrison and his timepieces are the most famous part of the longitude story. Harrison produced a series of clocks and watches from 1730 and 1760, in return he received moderate funding over the period from the Board of Longitude, you can see the payment record in this blog post here. Harrison felt hard done by since his final watches met the required precision but the Board of Longitude were reluctant to pay the full prize. Although meeting the technical specification in terms of their precision were far from a solution. Despite his (begrudging) efforts, they could not be reliably reproduced even by the most talented clock makers.

After Harrison’s final award several others made clocks based on his designs, these were tested in a variety of expeditions in the latter half of the 18th century (such as Cook’s to Tahiti in 1769). The naval expedition including hydrographers, astronomers, naturalists and artists became something of a craze (see also Darwin’s trip on the Beagle). As well as clocks, men such as Jesse Ramsden were mass producing improved instruments for navigational measurements, such as octants and sextants.

The use of chronometers to determine the longitude was not fully embedded into the Royal Navy until into the 19th century with the East Indian Company running a little ahead of them by having chronometers throughout their fleet by 1810. 

Finding Longitude is a a good illustration of providing the full context for the adoption of a technology. It’s the most beautiful book I’ve read in while, and it doesn’t stint on detail.

Jul 29 2014

Book review: The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

shock_of_the_oldThe Shock of the Old by David Edgerton is a history of technology in the 20th century.

A central motivation of the book is that, according to the author, other histories of technology are wrong in that they focus overly on the dates and places of invention and pay little attention to the subsequent dissemination and use of technologies.

The book is divided thematically covering significance, time, production, maintenance, nations, war, killing and invention. Significance reports on the quantitative, economic significance of a technology, something on which there is surprisingly little data.

A recurring theme is the persistence of things we might consider to have been replaced by new technology, the horse, for example. It’s perhaps not surprising that a huge number of horses were used during the First World War but the German’s, the masters of the mechanised blitzkrieg, used 625,000 horses in 1941 when they invaded the Soviet Union. This isn’t the end of the story of animal power: Cuba, as a result of sanctions and the fall of the Soviet Union was using nearly 400,000 oxen by the end of the 1990s.

The same goes for battleships and military aircraft. When Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Belgrano, originally commissioned into the US Navy in 1939 was sunk by 21-inch MK8 torpedoes originally designed in 1927! The Falklands airstrips were bombed from Britain by Vulcan bombers refuelled by Victor in-flight tankers, originally built in the 1950s. The reason for this is that the persistent technology actually does it’s job pretty well, the cost of replacing it for marginal benefit is too high and maintenance and repair means that to a degree these technological artefacts have been almost entirely rebuilt.

The time chapter expands on the idea that the introduction of technologies to different places is not simply a case of timeshifting, it depends on the local context. We find, for example, that horse draw carts are constructed from the parts of cars. And that corrugated iron and asbestos-cement are the material of choice for construction in the new slums of the developing world. Edgerton refers to these as ‘creole’ technologies – old technologies which have been repurposed into a new life.

In terms of technology and economic growth, it has really been mass production which has lead directly and obviously to economic growth particularly in the 30 years after the Second World War, known as the ‘long boom’. And whilst there was a boom in new technologies, all around the world the oldest technology – agriculture was also experiencing a boom in productivity – overshadowed by the new things.

As usual with such a book I picked up some useful facts to deploy at the dinner table:

  • The German V-2 rocket killed more people in its production than it did in its use.
  • The inventor of the Aga cooking range was a Nobel prize winning physicist.

For a scientist this book makes for an uncomfortable read in places since we come to the topic with some preconceived ideas and position, which are not necessarily grounded in the best of historical methods. For instance, Edgerton highlights that R&D spend just doesn’t correlate with economic growth. And that to a large degree the nation of invention is not the nation which benefits from an invention.

Perhaps most damning in the eyes of scientists, their bête noire, Simon Jenkins has supplied a cover quote:

The Shock of the Old is a book I can use. I can take it in two hands and bash it over the heads of every techno-nerd, computer geek and neophiliac futurologist I meet!

It’s a mistake to think of all scientists and computer geeks as being neophiliac. One of my colleagues works using an IBM Model M keyboard which we recently established was older than our intern, he also prefers the VIM editor – based on technology born in the 1970s. In the laboratory, the favoured computer language for scientific computation is still often FORTRAN, invented in the 1950s.

Thinking back over the other books I’ve read on the history of technology, for example A Computer Called LEO, Fire & Steam, The Subterranean Railway, Empire of the Clouds, The Idea Factory and The Backroom Boys. It is true to say they have very much focussed on single technologies or places but to my mind they have generally been pragmatic about the impact on society of their chosen subject. The authors have each had a definite passion for their topic leading to regret for what might have been: a thriving British aircraft industry, computer industry and so forth. But they don’t seem to provide the litany of dates and inventions of which Edgerton accuses them.

Despite this The Shock of the Old is readable, the author knows his field and provides a different viewpoint on the history of technology, more overarching, not so besotted. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of his books.

Jul 20 2014

Book review: Half a wife by Gaby Hinsliff

half_a_wifeHalf a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back by Gaby Hinsliff, is a proposal as to how families can live their lives.

The title sacrifices clarity for a catchy headline. The “half a wife” is a reference to the fraction of her time Hinsliff wanted to be a full-time mother, or rather the collective target that she, and her husband would aim to achieve. Mrs SomeBeans and I have accidently hit this target – I work full time, Mrs SomeBeans works 2.5 days per week.

As a society we’ve moved away from the traditional family of a full-time employed (male) breadwinner and a full-time (female) housewife. This model used to be enforced firmly. In the early 1970s, when she fell pregnant with me, there was no question my mother would leave her job and wouldn’t be coming back. In fact when my brother and I were small, a local garage refused to give her a job application form because she had children. My mothers experience was not unusual. But by 1983 two thirds of mothers stayed at home to bring up their children, by 2010 only one third were doing so.

This shift is a result of a societal change with a macroeconomic benefit – more workers make a more productive economy. It has been facilitated and encouraged by government policy.

Half a wife addresses how we might cope with this change. It is written from the point of view of someone getting a “London premium” by moving out of London, whose reduced income just goes over the line into the upper rate of tax and who seems pretty talented. Things not available to all of us.

The book is based around interviews with a range of parents, focussed on how people organise their family life. This is rather useful since I suspect we are largely unaware of other people’s domestic arrangements, what might be possible. At times I felt Hinsliff must have been spying on us, so many things rang so true – the tensions over household chores, the boredom and frustrations of child rearing, the added stress of travelling for work with a child at home. I’d have welcomed an appendix collecting each of these stories, since as it stands they are scattered in fragments through the book.

I worked 4 days a week for a while, when Mrs SomeBeans was still on maternity leave. This was a cosy arrangement but when she returned to work and I looked after Thomas by myself for one day a week – I got bored. I feel ashamed to say it but it seems from Hinsliff’s book that I’m not alone. Financially, working an extra day a week didn’t make a great deal of difference. What I gained in salary I pretty much lost in nursery charges, and would have gone completely if we’d have taken on a cleaner. This does fit with a theme of the book, people – both men and women, value working life. So even if going to work is no better than cost neutral, many people will chose to work.

Hinsliff’s proposal for family life is the “half a wife” solution, a midway point between the traditional breadwinner/homemaker and two full-time employed model. The path to this proposal is not direct, it’s a combination of career, housing, childcare and schooling. A recurring theme of the book is that the family policy to support this proposal is not just for women. I like this sentiment.

The career side of the problem is covered by the “z-shaped trajectory”, with the horizontals representing those times when family takes over and the career goes on hold and the diagonals when things take off. I have to say this seems terribly well organised! My career has suffered from a lack of a master plan. My earliest guide was my dad, who worked for the same organisation for his entire working life. I had a spell working on short term contracts in academia before gaining tenure, then gave it all up to work for Unilever for a period. Most recently I joined a startup in Liverpool, it’s only with this most recent move that I’ve started to appreciate that I’ve got marketable skills. The policy support here is in pushing companies to allow more flexible working, for both women and men.

Housing forms another part of the jigsaw puzzle, housing costs in the UK are high, particularly where there are jobs. Long commutes to work are both bad in themselves for employee happiness, and damaging for family life. Housing is a difficult bullet to bite there is a tacit agreement that house prices are too high. But bringing them down means a large block of voters will lose out.

Childcare is a second leg of the problem, I must admit I look with envy on other couples mentioned in the book who get support from conveniently located family. Schooling has some part to play here, for working families a school day shorter than a working day presents a childcare challenge. Even worse, the long summer holidays, originally designed to support the use of children as an agricultural labour force.

Half a wife helps answer the question: “how do I be a grown-up?”  for which I’ve never felt well-prepared. Doubly so when it came to fatherhood and how it fitted with work, and my previous life. It’s well researched and readable. I wish I’d read it before I entered adult life!

Jun 24 2014

Book review: Fire & Steam by Christian Wolmar

FireAndSteamI’ve long been a bit of a train enthusiast, reflected in my reading of biographies of Brunel and Stephenson, and more recently Christian Wolmar’s The Subterranean Railway about the London Underground. This last one is my inspiration for reading Wolmar’s Fire & Steam: How the railways transformed Britain which is a more general history of railways in Britain.

Fire & Steam follows the arc of the development of the railways from the the earliest signs: the development of railed ways to carry minerals from mine to water, with carriages powered by horses or men.

The railways appeared at a happy confluence of partly developed technologies. In the later half of the 18th century the turnpike road system and canal systems were taking shape but were both limited in their capabilities. However, they demonstrated the feasibility of large civil engineering projects. Steam engines were becoming commonplace but were too heavy and cumbersome for the road system and the associated technologies: steering, braking, suspension and so forth were not yet ready. From a financial point of view, the railways were the first organisations to benefit from limited liability partnerships of more than six partners.

Wolmar starts his main story with the Liverpool & Manchester (L&M) line, completed in 1830, arguing that the earlier Stockton & Darlington line (1825) was not the real deal. It was much in the spirit of the earlier mine railways and passenger transport was a surprising success. The L&M was a twin-track line between two large urban centres, with trains pulled by steam engines. Although it was intended as a freight route passenger transport was built in from the start.

After a period of slow growth, limited by politics and economics, the 1840s saw an explosion in the growth of the railway system. The scale of this growth was staggering. In 1845 240 bills were put to parliament representing approximately £100million of work, at the time this was 150% of Gross National Product (GNP). Currently GNP is approximately £400billion, and HS2 is expected to cost approximately £43billion – so about 10% of GNP. Wolmar reports the opposition to the original London & Birmingham line in 1832, it sounds quite familiar. Opposition came from several directions, some from the owners of canals and turnpike roads, some from landowners unwilling to give up any of their land, some from opportunists.

The railways utterly changed life in Britain. At the beginning of the century travel beyond your neighbouring villages was hard but by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, a third of the population was able to get themselves to London, mostly by train. This was simply a part of the excursion culture, trains had been whizzing people off to the seaside, the races, and other events in great numbers from almost the beginning of the railway network. No longer were cows kept in central London in order to ensure a supply of fresh milk

In the 19th century, financing and building railways was left to private enterprise. The government’s role was in approving new schemes, controlling fares and conditions of carriage, and largely preventing amalgamations. There was no guiding mind at work designing the rail network. Companies built what they could and competed with their neighbours. This led to a network which was in some senses excessive, giving multiple routes between population centres but this gave it resilience.

The construction of the core network took the remainder of the 19th century, no major routes were built in the 20th century and we have only seen HS1, the fast line running from London to Dover completed in this century.

The 20th century saw the decline of the railways, commencing after the First World War when the motor car and the lorry started to take over, relatively uninhibited by regulation and benefitting from state funding for infrastructure. The railways were requisitioned for war use during both world wars, and were hard used by it – suffering a great deal of wear and tear for relatively little compensation. War seems also to have given governments a taste for control, after the First World War the government forced a rationalisation of the many railway companies to the “Big Four”. After the Second World War the railway was fully nationalised. For much of the next 25 years it suffered considerable decline, a combination of a lack of investment, a reluctance to move away from steam power to much cheaper diesel and electric propulsion, culminating in the Beeching “rationalisation” of the network in the 1960s.

The railways picked up during the latter half of the seventies with electrification, new high speed trains and the InterCity branding. Wolmar finishes with the rail privatisation of the late 1990s, of which he has a rather negative view.

Fire & Steam feels a more well-rounded book than Subterranean Railway which to my mind became a somewhat claustrophobic litany of lines and stations in places. Fire & Steam  focuses on the bigger picture and there is grander sweep to it.

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