Thursday, October 07, 2010

Once There Were Other Worlds

One of my favorite themes for this blog is the concept of a lost world.

I’ve quoted from both Conan Doyle’s novel of that name and Michael Crichton’s novel of that name.

I’ve written about Atlantis.

I’ve briefly touched on the Biblical usage by quoting a commentary on the Book of Jonah.

For this post I’m just going to quickly mention two times today I thought about lost worlds, in wildly different contexts.

First, I finished re-reading Michael Crichton’s great early novel, “The Terminal Man.” Near the end, the hero—a beautiful and resourceful psychiatrist (who warned the male doctors not to operate on Harry Benson but they wouldn’t listen to her)—is trapped in the basement of the hospital with Harry who has, by then, had his brain tragically re-programmed by the little computer the doctors implanted in his neck. Crichton, not typically known as a “poetic” writer, includes this paragraph:

His words frightened her. She was afraid that she would shoot him, and afraid that she would not. It was the strangest set of circumstances, alone with this man, surrounded by the wreckage of a computer.

That’s pretty cool stuff. They were in a computer room that Harry had just demolished, so they were literally surrounded by the wreckage of a computer. And Harry himself, his brain scrambled from the electrical impulses of his implant, a man who had become the malfunctioning terminal of a computer, was himself the walking wreckage of a computer.

That’s pretty cool stuff.

It’s a great novel and it’s a window onto a number of lost worlds. On one hand there is the notion of a computer room “full” of a mainframe computer, complete with large cabinets containing tape storage units, reel-to-reel devices with tape flowing from one reel to another. That kind of technology is gone, gone, gone. Would a young reader, today, even know what such a description was refering to? And, on the other hand, there is the notion that some people—many people?—felt that computers were intrinsically evil. Not that computers could be used for good or ill, but simply that the technology itself was dehumanizing and would inevitably redefine humanity along mechanistic lines. This was fairly common thinking just, say, a generation ago. Would a young reader, today, even connect today’s phones and cameras and tablets and desktops with concerns about good and evil, about humanity and machines?

Lost worlds!

Secondly, I was reading an entry at the Wolfram blog and it contained a link to a great speech made by Stephen Wolfram about the history of an area of mathematics called special functions. Wolfram’s speech included this paragraph:

Israil Solomonovitch Gradshteyn was born in 1899 in Odessa, and became a professor of mathematics at Moscow State University. But in 1948, he was fired as part of the Soviet attack on Jewish academics. To make money, he wanted to write a book. And so he decided to build on Ryzhik's tables. Apparently he never met Ryzhik. But he created a new edition, and by the third edition, the book was known as Gradshteyn-Ryzhik.

Yeah, once upon a time an academic could and would think about making money by writing a book. About mathematics. Using actual numbers.

Lost worlds!

It reminded me that a physicist named Oliver Heaviside used to write a monthly column about electricity and magnetisim for a mass-market magazine. It was such a popular feature that the monthly columns eventually got collected into a book that itself became very popular for many decades.

Not in today’s world.

But once there were other worlds.

They’re lost now.

But the thing about lost worlds is that sometimes they get rediscovered.

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