Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

23 APRIL, 2013

Meet Marty Cooper, Inventor of the Cell Phone

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“If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well.”

“Often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical,” Alexander Graham Bell observed in reflecting on his early work that would eventually produce the telephone. Yet how nonsensical the notion of a wireless phone must have seemed even to him at the dawn of the 20th century. But a mere seven decades later, in April of 1973, the first cellular phone made its debut. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the era-defining technology, filmmaker David Friedman has profiled inventor Martin “Marty” Cooper (b. 1928) in the latest installment of his wonderful series of portraits of inventors.

What’s important about any technology is that the technology is — hopefully — invisible, but at least transparent and maybe intuitive. … The purpose of technology is to make your life better. Most cell phones don’t do that very well — in fact, they force us to become engineers, to learn a bunch of new things. We shouldn’t have to do that. The ideal phone would be one where I would just talk to the phone — or maybe the phone would read my mind — and it would do things to make my life better. … If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well. So I think that’s where we are with cell phones today.

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18 APRIL, 2013

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Female Author & Illustrator Got Kids Into Science in 1953

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“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.”

Vintage science illustrations hold a special charm, and illustrated children’s science books by women are a (heartening) rarity even today, so a woman who got kids excited about science half a century ago is nothing short of a cultural hero. Such is the case of Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology. An advocate of questions over answers as the key to the scientific mind and a champion of combinatorial creativity who recognized that all ideas build on those that came before, she articulated her ethos with inspiring eloquence:

One part of the job I set for myself is to make those young readers see that everything is connected to everything — that science isn’t something apart. It’s a part of everyday life. It has been that way since the beginning. The things the earliest scientists learned were the building blocks for those who came after. Sometimes they accepted earlier ideas. Sometimes they questioned them and challenged them. I want to involve readers directly in the text so they will ask themselves questions and try to answer them. If they can’t answer, that’s not really important… Questions are more important than answers… If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.

In 1953, half a decade before the dawn of the Space Race and cosmic optimism, sixteen years before the first human on the moon, and more than half a century before space exploration took a tragic nosedive to the bottom of government priorities, Bendick penned and illustrated The First Book of Space Travel (public library) — a whimsical and illuminating primer on astro-exploration and the known universe. From the physics of how rockets work to the scale of the solar system to the essentials of astronaut lingo, her charming illustrations and rigorously researched yet clear text live at the intersection of curiosity and wonder.

Decades before Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos, shared her first-hand account of what it’s like to launch on a space shuttle, Bendick illustrated the experience:

A quarter century before Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury pondered the possibility of life on Mars, Bendick envisioned extraterrestrial life:

And because every budding astronaut should know how to space-talk, she broke down the essentials:

Fifteen years before the birth of the revolutionary Apollo space suit, Bendick presented a surprisingly accurate design anatomy:

The First Book of Space Travel is sadly long out of print, but used copies are not yet impossible to find. Complement it with this wonderful modern-day, vintage-inspired illustrated chronicle of the Space Race and Diane Ackerman’s vintage verses for the planets.

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01 APRIL, 2013

Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah: An Uncommon Portrait of Alan Turing, Godfather of Modern Computing

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“He might ask you … whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.”

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight.

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Alan Turing

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age goes on to trace the making of an extraordinary mind and extraordinary life, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

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