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Pebbles to Computers: The Thread
Using an exciting synthesis of text and pictures, photographer Hans Blohm and scientist Stafford Beers present a graphic exploration of the connections between prehistoric and antique technologies and those of our modern world. In this inventive book, a Byzantine sun-dial and a modern satellite signal receiver are among the many images that have been chosen to show the 'thread' connecting our efforts down the ages to use and record information.
The story of computation emerges as the central theme. By tracing its development from the earliest use of pebbles through the abacus, the slide rule and finally to the most sophisticated modern circuits, the authors present a convincing argument that 'high tech' does indeed go back to the dawn of time. Blohm and Beers have traveled from Stonehenge to the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico, marveled over Leonardo's inventions in Milan and examined Leibniz's calculator in Hanover in their search for evidence of the patterns of human invention.
They isolate some critical issues in the development of technology, such as the reproduction of written language, and cover many of the outstanding names: Archimedes, Caxton, Pascal, Babbage and Turing among others. With an introduction by renowned zoologist David Suzuki, Pebbles to Computers is a remarkable testament to the depth and richness of humanity's technological achievements.
The book is more than a history of computation. The threads or "connexions" link pictures and text from page to page, organizing our perceptions of past and present, nature and technology, science and philosophy, in a unique way. For example, the first picture is of wet pebbles, all different, all entities, all representing an abstract concept of a physical unit, something that can be counted or used as a ballot.
The pebble computer, a disc-shaped rock, sectored and with concentric wings, bears a strong similarity to a computer disk; although far apart in space and time, both are used for basically the same purpose. Artifacts such as cave drawings, pictographs, Stonehenge, clay tablets, geared calendrical devices, astrolabes, and clocks are described and related to "all efforts of mankind to record time and memory, to create order out of chaos."
The beauty of this book is the reaching out, McLuhan-like, in so many different directions to make the connections. It would not be very useful as a history factbook, but rather as an enrichment tool to inspire a bright student. It is a book to be picked up again and again, meditated upon, and savored. There is no index, only a short bibliography, and a list of plates.
Six years ago Hans Blohm began making murals from microphotographs of silicon chips. As he worked on several murals for locations in various parts of the world and on traveling exhibitions commissioned by the Canadian Department of External Affairs, he conceived a plan for an accompanying catalog that would track the evolution of information technology from prehistoric to modern times. Pebbles to Computers, with Blohm’s striking photographs and commentary by Stafford Beer, is the result.
David Suzuki, a geneticist internationally known for his television programs on science and conservation, makes an eloquent plea in his introduction for a broader worldview than that afforded by science and technology if we are going to solve our present problems and live in harmony with each other and the world about us. Blohm’s photography produces a sense of wonder when we see familiar sights—a collection of pebbles, waves on the seashore, a high-rise office building at night, a flight of steps in a rock garden—we have seen countless times before, and objects that many may be seeing for the first time-a radio-telescope, silicon wafers, astrolabes, mechanical calculators. Beer’s text weaves these images together, showing the continuity of technology, especially information technology, from its primitive beginning to the present.
Beer was an eclectic 20th century British theorist who achieved remarkable innovations in the seemingly disparate fields of capitalist management consulting and state-sponsored socialism. He believed that cybernetics (what he called “the science of effective organization”) represented a new frontier in institutional and organizational design, a powerful tool that would inevitably be taken up if not by the forces of democracy and freedom then by their enemies, authoritarians of either the corporate or government variety (if not both).
Brian Eno described him lovingly, “he was all hair and brains: full of life, fuller of opinions, intimidatingly fast and yet encouraging. He spoke to me not as a student but as a peer. This was demanding: his mind moved quickly.” One of Eno’s favorite quotes would be a fundamental guiding principle for his work: “instead of trying to specify in full detail,” Beer wrote in his book The Brain of the Firm, “you specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.”
He is best known for his work in the fields of operational research and management cybernetics, as well as the architect of Cybersyn, a Chilean project from 1971-73 during the presidency of Salvador Allende which aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy.
Beer was deeply shaken by the 1973 coup in Chile, and dedicated his immediate post-Cybersyn life to helping his exiled Chilean colleagues. He separated from his wife, sold the fancy house in Surrey, and retired to a secluded cottage in rural Wales, with no running water and, for a long time, no phone line. He let his once carefully trimmed beard grow to Tolstoyan proportions. A Chilean scientist later claimed that Beer came to Chile a businessman and left a hippie. He gained a passionate following in some surprising circles. In November, 1975, Brian Eno struck up a correspondence with him. Eno got Beer’s books into the hands of his fellow-musicians David Byrne and David Bowie; Bowie put Beer’s “Brain of the Firm” on a list of his favorite books.
Isolated in his cottage, Beer did yoga, painted, wrote poetry, and, occasionally, consulted for clients like Warburtons, a popular British bakery. Management cybernetics flourished nonetheless: Malik, a respected consulting firm in Switzerland, has been applying Beer’s ideas for decades. In his later years, Beer tried to re-create Cybersyn in other countries—Uruguay, Venezuela, Canada—but was invariably foiled by local bureaucrats.
The Nature of Things program, which debuted as a half-hour show in 1960, was one of the first to present scientific findings on climate change, AIDS, nuclear power and countless other subjects, and helped give international prominence to David Suzuki, who became its permanent host and the face of the program in 1979.The series is named after an epic poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius: "De rerum natura"—On the Nature of Things.
Suzuki reluctantly left the radio show Quirks and Quarks to begin hosting the tv show in 1979. He enjoyed radio as a medium because it was less restricted compared to television, but saw benefits in switching to television. He stated that television had a greater impact as it reached more people, and this was important because he wanted to make science accessible to the general public.
The goal of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki was to translate the confusing and complex scientific language into concepts that the general public could understand. This would give people the information that they need in order to make informed decisions about how science and technology should be managed. There is one new episode every week which all contribute to a scientific understanding of how the world works. They are created not only for entertainment, but also to encourage and popularize education.
While the Vancouver native commands the respect and adoration of vast numbers of Canadians, he has been a major thorn in the side to many of Canada's most important industries. In the early 1980s, he was an instrumental force in preserving South Moresby Island in B.C.'s Haida Gwaii archipelago from logging.
Suzuki's profoundest effect has been on the Canadian environmental movement itself.
"I think David Suzuki has been our teacher, our friend, our inspiration, our environmental expert and trusted as such for decades," asserts Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada.
One of the earliest computing devices was the sand table. It was a set of three grooves in the sand with a maximum of 10 pebbles in each groove. Each time one wanted to increase the counter by one, he would add a pebble in the right hand groove. When ten pebbles were collected in the right groove they were removed and one pebble was added to the left groove. The word "calculate" is said to be derived from the Latin word "calcis," meaning limestone, because limestone was used in the first sand table.