Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The terrible science of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

Those of you who enjoy spotting the science errors in Dan Brown's books will be pleased to know that I've read his latest, The Lost Symbol so you don't have to (see at The Lost Symbol/ The Lost Symbol).

If you aren't familiar with this sport, Dan Brown's books regularly depend on science for their plots - but often get it entertainingly wrong. My all time favourite is Digital Fortress (see at Digital Fortress/ Digital Fortress). The entire plot of this book depends on something that Brown  has his characters repeat over and over - it is impossible to create an unbreakable cipher. Unfortunately, not only is it possible, they have been around for nearly 100 years, so poor research there, Dan.

Angels and Demons is also replete with poor science (see at Angels and Demons/ Angels & Demons). What makes this book (and successors) particularly entertaining is that Brown starts the book with a section labelled 'FACT' - and much of the science in that section, particularly about antimatter, is painfully wrong.

But we're getting distracted from The Lost Symbol. Here, Brown lays himself wide open by putting in his FACT section 'All rituals, science... in this novel are real.' Bring it on. I'd like to start with a touch of piquant being too clever for your own good. He makes a big point that someone is using an iPhone. Trendy, huh? But then he shows a text from that iPhone - and clearly this is wrong. Why? Because every sentence begins with lower case letters. iPhone texting automatically makes the first letter of a sentence uppercase - is our Dan really suggesting that the character, hurriedly texting, went out of their way to set each starting sentence letter to lower case? Nope, he's just not used an iPhone.

We also get the old chestnut that the soul has a weight that can be detected leaving the body on death - sorry Dan, that's been pretty well disposed of. Oh and while we're on the subject of old chestnuts, he also implies that in medieval times they thought the world was flat. No, they didn't, Dan. That's a myth.

Minor stuff, though. When it comes to fundamental science, the two main planks of the book are that ancient wisdom knew it all first and we're just re-discovering it, and that the 'new science of Noetics' will enable us to harness the powers of the mind. Oka-a-y.

The ancient mysteries bit is hammered on about for page after page, chapter after chapter. This is a classic example of the 'later books of J. K. Rowling effect' where a writer has got so powerful that the editor dare not suggest cuts. It really needs paring down. However, when you examine the reality of it, it's a load of coincidental tosh. You can see some of this in more serious books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which attempts to link modern physics and ancient Eastern philosophies. No Dan, it's not all in the ancient writings. There are just coincidental similarities that would be strange if they weren't there.

For instance, Yin and Yang is often considered to prefigure the bipolarity of nature - positive and negative in electricity, north and south poles in magnetism. But Yin and Yang is easily derived from obvious 2-way things (male and female, dark and light) and doesn't have to prefigure anything. Anyway, of course it 'prefigures' things that come in twos. But how about things in ones (gravity), in threes (quarks) or fours (fundamental forces of nature). Sorry, it's woffle - and the same applies to all these great mysteries. The ancients knew nothing about how the world worked. They produced woffly sayings which can be made to parallel pretty well anything given a bit of massaging.

As for Noetics - all his stated facts are wincingly unproven. I particularly liked his suggestion that thought has 'mass' and can influence matter, and (this is the important bit) the force increases exponentially with the number of people doing the thinking. So with even a tiny force, the crowds in St Peter's Square (for instance) should have no problem making the pope float over his balcony, say. Strange nothing like that has never happened. Suffice it to say that all the talk about this new science that is going to transform the world isn't registering on many scientific radars.

I'm not saying there is no point researching psi phenomena, by the way - I'm all in favour of the sort of thing PEAR used to do. But all that research has yet to come up with any usefully reproducable science. It is to physics what homeopathy is to real medicine.

In the end, then, The Lost Symbol was a bit of a disappointment. Although most of the science and technology was wrong, it was too woffly to have the sheer incompetent joy of earlier books. Never mind, though. I'm sure there'll be another one soon.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

No more kinky addressing, please

I'm not what you'd call an outspoken feminist, but one thing that does get up my nose is the old fashioned style of addressing an envelope to a woman with her husband's name, but with 'Mrs' in front. So 'Fiona Smith' becomes 'Mrs Robert Smith'.

I've two objections to this. One is that I can't help but imagine Robert Smith in twinset and pearls, very Monty Python, but not at all as intended by the writer.

Second, it really does smack of ownership, in a very unpleasant way.

Please stop it. Now.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Howard Goodall's Enchanted Voices - the cheese strings of choral music

Regular readers will be aware that I'm fond of choral music, especially Tudor, Elizabethan and twentieth century. Over the last couple of weeks I have been listening to more Classic FM than usual, because they play a lot of Christmas music, and as a result I have been exposed to something called 'Howard Goodall's Enchanted Voices.'

To me, comparing this music to a good choir singing great choral music like Byrd, Sheppard, Howells or Leighton is just liking comparing cheese strings to a good mature cheddar or a magnificent stilton.

Let's see why. Cheese strings are highly packaged - and so is Enchanted Voices. It's not really clear whether this is the name of a group or a sound - it's just a package, really. Cheese strings are processed cheese - this is processed singing. It's either has artifical reverb added, or it's recorded in an acoustic that sounds very artificial. And then cheese strings have a very limited texture and a single trick of being peelable. Similarly, Enchanted Voices are just sopranos, lacking the full texture of a four part choir, and have an unremitting hard tone. I think it's supposed to be crystalline, to suggest enchantment - I just find it grating.

Now of themselves, cheese strings aren't evil. If they get people into cheese, and as long as they move on as they mature, that's fine. But if adults eat cheese strings after a meal (say), something has gone wrong. Similarly, I don't mind Classic FM using Enchanted Voices to get people into choral singing - but for goodness sake, please move on to the real thing!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Christmas 'aww' moment

As it's Christmas Eve in the workhouse (literary reference), for fans of Goldie I just wanted to show you how she looked when she was a little younger.

And even younger still (I'm not sure which one she is):

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

You are repeating yourself, Gloria

As Christmas approaches I'm spending quite a lot of time in the car (sometimes enjoying stunning snow-frosted landscapes, but that's a different story). At this time of year I confess I listen to Classic FM a bit, as I enjoy the Christmas music. But something is driving me away - an advert voiced by one Gloria Hunniford.

Our Gloria is advertising Benecol, a range of products containing plant stanol which apparently partially blocks the intake of cholesterol in the diet with the useful effect of lowering cholesterol levels.

I have no particular problem with the product (though I've a suspicion that you would need quite a lot of it to have a similar effect to the cholesterol lowering medication you can get from your doctor) - but I am really irritated by the way the advert begins. 'A while ago,' says Gloria, 'I used to have high cholesterol' (or words to that effect). The important thing is that she says 'A while ago I used to have...' Now that's just repeating yourself. Either 'A while ago I had high cholesterol' or 'I used to have high cholesterol' but not both. If consuming Benecol makes you repeat yourself, it's a touch worrying.

Thanks to Rob for pointing out this advert was for Flora Pro-activ, not for Benecol. I was so distracted by the irritating language, I missed the product name!

Friday, 18 December 2009

But it's a British institution!

I gather from this excellent blog post by Matt Brown (whose photo I have nicked) that the Royal Institution in London is in financial difficulties. This is really sad news. The RI is a wonderful facility, especially since its fancy makeover, and does excellent work. I have had the honour of speaking there a couple of times, and there are few things more scary for a speaker than an RI introduction, when standing at the desk where Faraday did demonstrations, your audience is told that 'n of the elements were discovered here, they have had x Nobel Prize winners... and now Brian Clegg is going to speak to you.' Gulp.

Some argue, and I'm afraid that I would agree, that the current director Susan Greenfield has not done a great job. I certainly feel that the RI could be handled differently. With hindsight, spending £20 million on a refurbishment programme was probably not wise (though I guess a fair amount of this came from grants).

Personally, I would suggest that those in charge of the direction of the RI bite the bullet and ask 'What do we do best?' Despite that history of fundamental research, I'd suggest that the RI's real strength has been science communication to the general public. If money has to be saved, I would reluctantly chop much or even all of the research work and concentrate on the communication side.

It used to be that every month the RI put on a wide range of 'Talking Point' events for the general public. It was at one of these that I did a session on infinity a few years ago, and it was totally sold out. But during the refurbishment, the momentum for these events was lost, and there still isn't anywhere near as good and wide ranging a programme as there used to be.

Matt worries about the RI being too formal and offputting. I don't - its tradition stands it in good stead. It shouldn't try to be another Dana Centre. But the RI does need to re-focus before it's too late.

This is the last post before the schools break up for Christmas - I expect posting to be rather intermittent for the next couple of weeks, but back to normal in the New Year.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Einsteinium - not exactly the most useful element

Yes, folks, it's element podcast time again. My latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element is live and it's all about Einsteinium, element 99.

It might seem obvious that an element would be named after Einstein... but there's no newtonium, so being a scientific superstar isn't enough. So why does element 99 have this name? And why is it so, well, useless?

Take a listen, or select it in from the list of my element podcasts below:

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A lament for the chemistry set

According to some research results which I obtained via the highly dubious route that someone mentioned them on Twitter - i.e. I have no idea whether this is true or not - over a recent period in some country or other (see, it's detailed research), 0 children were injured by chemistry sets while 600 were injured by Wendy houses.

You might be inclined to deduce that Wendy houses are much more dangerous than chemistry sets, but I think it's more likely that no one gets given chemistry sets any more. I can't remember when I last saw one in the shops. And that's sad.

Chemistry sets were wonderful. You could make interesting colours, smells - if you were lucky, minor explosions. And I suppose that's the problem. In our elf and safety conscious world, chemistry sets were watered down so much that in the end they just weren't worth having. I suspect they took out all the good bits and left you with little more than bicarbonate and vinegar.

Now even in my day, chemistry sets did not contain the materials to get up to the adventures I used to have in my evil basement chemistry lab. I was the master of producing nitrogen tri-iodide, the interesting black stuff that when dry explodes when you touch it. I revelled in the spontaneous combustion of potassium permanganate and glycerine (tip - it works best if you warm the glycerine up a bit). Yet even so, they were fun.

The conclusion? Should we be campaigning for there to be more accidents with chemistry sets? Quite probably. We might get more scientists that way.

You'll be pleased to know that some chemistry sets do still exist - the one above is here at

Monday, 14 December 2009

Freak show impressario

Until Edwardian times, the freak show was a standard part of the entertainment scene. Not, admittedly, a high class part - but perfectly respectable. Since then we moved away from the freak show on the intellectual argument that it is degrading for those involved. But you don't make an entertainment that appeals to the gut lose its appeal by intellectualizing. And this is clearly something Simon Cowell understands as he has had a huge influence on bringing the freak show to prime time TV.

Cowell's X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent (or US spin-offs American Idol and America's Got Talent) are primarily freak shows. You can argue (and no doubt Cowell would) that they're talent shows, and the beautiful performers who made it to last weekend's X-Factor final were anything but freaks, but this misunderstands the nature of the freak show. It was always important to put any freakiness alongside beauty and talent - the freak show is very much about contrast, about beauty and the beast. For many viewers, the early auditions of these shows are more engaging than the talent-led finals - because that's where you get the real oddballs.

Perhaps the ultimate case in point is the huge success of Susan Boyle from Britain's Got Talent. She has a good voice - I'm not trying to take that away. But it's no better than that of thousands of classically trained singers. Literally thousands. What has propelled Boyle into having vast numbers of YouTube hits and an album that topped the charts is her appearance and her limitations. It's the contrast - the whole raison d'etre of the freak show.

I can't really dislike Simon Cowell for this. He is just giving the punters the bread and circuses they want. But it's a shame that in 100 years we haven't managed to move our aversion to the freak show from the head to the gut.

Friday, 11 December 2009

One Christmas carol = x pints of beer. Calculate x

Whatever your religious persuasion (and even if you tick the 'atheist' box) it's hard to deny that many Christmas carols are evocative and beautiful. One of my favourites is Peter Warlock's haunting Bethlehem Down. In a recent survey of the great and good in church music it came up as one of the top carols, and I'll be doing it with my little choir this Christmas, just as I sang it with Selwyn College, Cambridge chapel choir many moons ago.

Music apart, the best thing about Bethlehem Down is the story of how it came to be written. According to Bruce Blunt, who wrote the words, in 1927 Warlock and Blunt 'were extremely hard up, and in the hopes of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper.' The carol was completed in a few days and sent off to the Daily Telegraph, which reproduced it on Christmas Eve, funding an 'immortal carouse' according to Blunt. It wasn't just the poem that was in the paper, but the whole hand-written score. Can you imagine a newspaper doing that today? Boggle.

If you want to hear what it sounds like when sung with enthusiasm if not too much polish, feel free to come along to St Andrew's in the Wiltshire village of Wanborough for 6pm on 20 December. And if you do, mine's a pint. After all, there's a tradition to uphold.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Trading up on standards

I'm not usually a great fan of common sense. That sounds wrong, but what I mean is that what's often labelled 'common sense' is more an example of letting feelings push facts out of the way. However, I do wonder if it's sensible when I hear of officials sticking with the letter of the law and not applying... yes, well, common sense.

I gather in the recent furore over Mclaren buggies trapping children's fingers, the Trading Standards line is that they comply with European regulations, so there's nothing that Trading Standards can do. When it's a product where the manfacturer has been forced to provide a fix to all customers in the US, when it's quite clear that there is a risk that can easily be overcome, why should Trading Standards hide behind European regulations? Surely they should be able to say 'Yes, there's a problem. Fix it.'

My only brush with Trading Standards was not particularly helpful. I called into an unfamiliar petrol station. There was no indication on the pump of pricing for the different options (I later discovered this was illegal, but that isn't my point). With no price to guide me, I had to choose between two versions of unleaded fuel, one labelled 'Super' the other 'Premium'. Now to my mind, 'Super' means very good, 'Premium' means of a special quality, commanding a greater price. So I went for Super. And got charged quite a lot more than the unleaded price on the big sign by the entrance.

So I moaned to Trading Standards, only to be told that this is the convention. Premium is cheaper than Super. Apparently it doesn't matter than this doesn't make any sense. Sigh.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

I'm going to twin my house with the White House

Exciting news for Swindon. It seems that we are to be twinned with Walt Disney World in Florida. No, really.

The whole concept of town twinning a bizarre one. As far as I can see the only purposes of town twinning, are a) so you can put up a sign with the names of the towns you are twinned with and b) so town/city officials can have jollies where they go off on official visits of the other place. If you live in a city of world renown like Bath, you get to twin with somewhere exciting and well known. Swindon is currently twinned with Salzgitter in Germany, Ocotal in Nicaragua and Torun in Poland.

You might think that the Disney people have slightly lost the plot. Surely a more appropriate place to twin with would be somewhere with a fairy tale castle, like Windsor? (Or even better Neuschwandstein in Germany.) But no - apparently we were chosen because someone won it as a prize in a competition. This should have meant that there was no sense of local pride out of it. It was a competition, guys. Nothing to do with the place. But this hasn't put competition winner Rebecca Warren off. She has commented (with no hint of irony, as far as I can tell): I think there are a lot of similarities between Swindon and Walt Disney World – the friendly atmosphere, the fact that there is always something new and exciting in the town and all the famous people we have coming to gig here. Ah, right. I can see it now.

Apparently we are going to have a twinning sign on the Magic Roundabout. Where else, really? And now all those Swindon Council people are going to have slog over to Florida for twinning meetings. What a drag. But I suppose somebody has to do it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I'm a rat, get me out of here

'Gino and the Rat' sounds like a good title for an age 4-8 story book, but followers of celeb events in the UK will realize immediately that we are dealing instead with an incident important enough to make it onto the main news bulletins. Rumour started spreading yesterday that TV chef and winner of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Gino d'Acampo was in jail for the terrible crime of killing a rat. Immediately the political correctness hackles rose. After all, rats are vermin. Killing a rat is our right - and in his case he killed it to eat it, so it's doubly okay.

When the initial panic settled down it turned out that the effervescent Gino was not in jail at all, but on his way back home to the UK. However the Australian authorities were considering charges. Still enough to get those hackles up? I'm not sure. In fact, once you look beyond the over-reaction, it's a good spotlight to throw on the nature of reality TV shows.

On the one hand, what d'Acampo did doesn't seem particularly bad. After all, I'm sure those same Australian authorities merrily poison rats, as a result of which they die a much more horrible death than the rat that became supper in camp. But when we defend the TV company (and it's the TV company that's at fault, not d'Acampo) we are falling for an illusion. The illusion that these people are out in the wild, dealing with the wild animals they face.

Instead what we're talking about is a bunch of celebrities on a TV set. Okay, it's an open TV set, but it's not the wild. Specifically, the encounter with the rat took place when a group of celebrities had been sent to an intentionally down market second camp. And the chances are high that the rat was there because the TV company put it there. So rather than a chance encounter with wild game, what we have is a TV set to which an animal (quite possibly bred in captivity) has been introduced for a celebrity to kill. Suddenly it doesn't sound right.

I'm not a rabid animal rights person. I'm a meat eater, and I accept what that implies. But in a civilized society I expect people not to hurt animals for entertainment. There's rather too much of this on the programme. It started with horses, clearly distressed, being forced to swim across a river with people on their backs. It continues with a whole range of 'jungle critters' from bugs and spiders to rats and eels being trampled on, kicked, rolled on and generally damaged in the 'bush tucker trials'. The rat incident just brings it to a head.

Fine, let your celebrities abuse themselves for entertainment - but there's no need to make other living things suffer in the process. I have nothing against people killing rabbits, pigeons or rats to eat them. But there's a difference between going out in the countryside with a shotgun and stabbing a rat that has been dropped onto a film set by the crew.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Apologies from nowhere

When out on the road in sunny Swindon I quite often pass busses carrying the inscription SORRY NOT IN SERVICE. I feel a strong urge to scream at said bus 'No you are not. You are not sorry at all. A bus can't be sorry, it's inanimate.'

I get the same irrational urge to talk to technology at the railway station. Over the tannoy we hear 'I'm sorry to announce that that the 3.17 to Upper Wombleton has been cancelled. I apologize to passengers for any inconvenience.' No you don't. You can't apologize, you are are a recording.

If I talked to a bus or a loudspeaker as if it were a person then I would rightfully be taken away for a little care and recuperation. So, equally, we ought to scrap any technology with pretensions of consciousness. Until someone really builds HAL 9000, and we have technology with a personality, it should stay that way.

Resist the urge, please, companies. Your equipment isn't sorry - don't make it tell me that it is.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Christmas Science Verse Revisited

Over on Nature Network there has been a burst of activity on a blog post I made last year. In the post you can see the collaborative effort that generated a piece of scientific Christmas verse a line at a time.

It's rather riddled with in-jokes - but such was the passion at the time I think it's worth repeating this masterpiece of line-by-line writing. Here's an audio version (thanks to Graham Steel for the effects).

And here's the pome itself:
’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the lab
Not a Gilson was stirring, not even one jab.
On the bench, ’twixt a novel by Jennifer Rohn
And the paper rejected by Henry’s iPhone
Lay a leg, still trembling and covered in gore
And Frankenstein sighed ‘I can’t take this no more’.

He exclaimed panic struck, as he took in the scene,
of horrendous results from NN’s latest meme.
‘having one extra leg wasn’t part of the plan
to create a new species, anatomized man’.
And then out of the blue, ‘twas a bump in the night
A girrafe ’pon a unicycle, starting a fight
Held back by a keeper all smiling with glee,
It was then that I knew that it was Santa Gee.

His iphone, it jingled, his crocs were so pink,
It was all I could do to stammer and blink.
‘There you are’ cursed old Frank’stein, approaching the Gee,
‘Call off the girrafe, and hand over the fee.’
“The Beast” then leaped up, from O’Hara’s new leg
Attacked Santa Gee and his elf, Brian Clegg.
One sweep of the sack and the beast was laid out
When hoof of girrafe gave a terminal clout.

Then its leg fell off quaintly, with a sad little ‘plonk’,
Santa Gee, from his sled, gave a loud, angry honk
And the mask on his face slipped – sadly ’twas loose -
To reveal not a man but a fat Christmas Goose.
To Frankenstein’s horror, the bird reared up high
He realized then that this goose could not fly.

So he grabbed the elf Clegg, who stood by buggy-eyed
and hoisting him up with great gusto he cried:
“O’Hara and Beast, I have them at last.
Sprinkle on Ritalin, for a tasty repast.”
But five minutes had lapsed, so the beast was asleep
Having dreams that were complex, clever and deep:

Half warthog, half carrot? What would look nice?
Half girrafe, half O’Hara? Yes! Made in a trice.
He dreamed a solution, to this horrid scene:
Unite the spare legs! To waste them is mean!
Much later that evening, the creature awoke!
One Bob-leg, one g’raffe leg! He rose up and spoke:
“Beloved creator, I wish you’d not meddle,
My unicycle now needs a quite different pedal."

Thursday, 3 December 2009

On the gradual acceptance of reality in vetinary measures

About once a year, or a little less frequently, Goldie our golden retriever gets an ear infection. Apparently, despite the big ear flaps and lots of hairy protection, a grass seed or something else irritating gets into one of her ears and the result is irritation, brown gunk and scratching.

It's cleared up quite quickly by a combination of a wash and antibiotic drops. But now here's the thing. The ear drops used to carry the instruction 'put four or five drops in the ear'. As an instruction, this sucks. It's entirely possible to do this with human ear drops, as you can start the drop off well clear of the ear and aim it down the appropriate orifice (assuming the patient has their head tilted). But not only is it difficult to get a dog to tip her head on its side, dripping from above results in an ear drop that sits on the protective fur at the entrance to the ear. You can't drip into it - you have to insert the nozzle in the ear, which means you can't see and count those drops.

So I was delighted that this time round, the instructions say 'small squirt to the affected ear' - a triumph for common sense.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

It moves!

Following up on yesterday's post on Eadweard Muybridge, when I was writing the book I discovered that I had totally the wrong idea of how we see a film as moving images. I was all prepared to write about 'persistence of vision' - in fact I did so in the first version of the manuscript. I was not alone in this mistake. You can still find plenty of websites and books that talk about persistence of vision - How Stuff Works, for instance, says 'Movies work because of persistence of vision, the fact that a human eye retains an image for about one-twentieth of a second after seeing it.' But if I'd left it in, I would have been writing a load of rubbish.

The idea of persistence of vision, first put forward around the same time as the emergence of the movie industry, depended on the assumption that some sort of after-image remained in the brain long enough to overcome the blank gap while the picture was changing to the next one, and that the two slightly different images then merged together to form the effect of motion. Unfortunately, more recent research makes it clear that after-images don’t form until around 50 milliseconds after the image has ceased to be projected, which isn’t quick enough to bridge the gap between frames.

Practical experience from the early days of cinematography showed that you had to change the pictures around 50 times a second to fool the eye. Early silent movies were shot at around 16 frames per second, with each frame shown three times, while sound movies run at 24 frames per second, showing each frame twice. The images are on screen for too short a time for persistence to account for the lack of visible flicker. And persistence of vision was never an adequate explanation for the second effect, apparent motion, as persistence would result in multiple images building on top of each other, not in the appearance of movement.

This illusion is a reflection of the brain’s ability to interpolate and substitute what it thinks is the right thing to see for the actual visual signal it is receiving from the optic nerves. The concept of persistence of vision relied on an outdated idea that the eye was like a camera obscura, projecting images onto the “screen” of the brain. In fact the brain contains a range of different visual sensory “modules” dealing with requirements like motion detection, object and pattern recognition, detail selection, and so forth. (These modules are conceptual rather than physical; they don’t uniquely occupy a single set of brain cells.)

These different modules don’t handle a single picture, but rather many different elements. The retina of the eye contains around 130 million light-sensitive receptors. When a photon penetrates to the back of the retina (the photoreceptors are back-to-front with the sensitive part at the rear, a clumsy arrangement that may well be an accident of evolution), it triggers a photochemical reaction. This reaction sends a signal back toward the surface of the retina, where input from different receptors is combined before feeding the information through the optic nerve to the brain. This nerve has a lot fewer nerve fibers than there are receptors in the eye, so the signal has already been processed before reaching the brain.

The combined image we “see” is much more an illusion than it appears, being a reaction to these complex inputs and a combination of the response of the brain modules that cope with motion, pattern, detail, and so forth. The suppression of the flicker between frames of a movie and the merging of still pictures into motion is not due to simple persistence; it is a side effect of the way the various complex systems involved in processing the optical data work together. Fascinating stuff.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Man Who Stopped Time

Eadweard Muybridge gets a truly bad deal in the history books. Significantly before the Lumiere brothers were in action, Muybridge was projecting moving pictures. He even built the world's first purpose built cinema for the Chicago World's Fair. Yet he often fails to be given the laurels for his work.

The argument is that his technology was not the same as the one that would eventually be used. 'Real' movies consisted of a string of images on a length of celluloid, each taken through the same lens a few moments after its predecessor. Muybridge's moving pictures were taken using a sequence of still cameras, producing at best a few seconds of movement.

There is no doubt that Muybridge's technology was something of a dead end - but that shouldn't detract from his importance as the father of moving pictures. No one argues about Babbage being called the father of computing, yet his technology was just as detached from the one that was finally used as was Muybridge's. Mechanical computers were a dead end too.

Because of this, although Muybridge's multiple still images like the ones on the book cover are iconic, particularly in the art/design world, his work with projecting moving images has largely been forgotten. So too his fascinating life. This was a man who went from the stuffy Kingston upon Thames of the 1850s to the raw life that was San Francisco in the gold rush. This was a man who murdered his wife's lover, only to be let off by the jury, as they felt it was a reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.

I'm delighted to say that apart from the book I wrote a few years ago on Muybridge, The Man Who Stopped Time, I'm being given the chance to do a talk about him at the British Library in London. If you're in town on 1 February 2010, why not help put Muybridge in his proper place. Here's some details of the talk.

If Muybridge sounds interesting, see my online account of tracking down Muybridge in Kingston upon Thames at the Popular Science website.