Tag: Books

The world has lost a great artist in mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani

She was the only woman to have won the Fields medal, maths equivalent of the Nobel prize

The mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died two weeks ago. Shewas 40. I had never heard of her before reading about her death in the papers. Its a piercingly sad story: Iranian-born, and latterly a professor at Stanford University, Mirzakhani was the only woman to have won the Fields medal, the equivalent for a mathematician of the Nobel prize, and is survived, in newspaper-speak, by a husband and a daughter.

I always find the locution survived by too cruel to bear. So final the rupture, no room for error: shes gone, theyre left. And, in this case, how young the mother and the wife.

It is a sad story for other reasons, too, not least the intensity of Mirzakhanis expression in the photograph most of the papers used. There is a beauty that can onlybe described as that of the minds migration to the face, the transfiguring beauty of exceptional intelligence. So its a double loss: thepremature loss of a person and the premature loss of her genius.

I remember there being an unspoken qualitative distinction atschool between those who were good at maths and science the priests of numbers and symbols and the more poetical of us, whose medium, as Wordsworth had it, was the language of men talking to men. The assumption, at least on the part of us Wordsworthians, was that creativity was all on our side. I have since come to think the word creative has much to answer for. Among the freedoms it sometimes gave us was the freedom from structure, knowledge and the obligation to convince.

Mirzakhani, it is said, considered being a writer before turning to mathematics. It is unlikely she believed shed made a choice in favour of an inferior, or less artistic, discipline. And she expressed her immersion in mathematics in language every writer will recognise like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with luck you might find a way out.

The luck, of course, is no such thing. Its the mystery Keats called negative capability, the trust that the work will do itself if only we dareto plunge without irritability orinsistence into the dark, not sure we will find a way out at all. The bestwriting happens in this way, unintended, unknowing, grateful and surprised. Such abnegation of will is what we mean by creativity. So the mathematician and the artist are companioned in the same dark, and do obeisance to the same gods. The pity of Mirzakhanis death will be felt by poets as well as mathematicians.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/29/maryam-mirzakhani-great-artist-mathematician-fields-medal-howard-jacobson

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The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race

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How the Hitchhikers Guide can make the world a better place | Marcus ODair

Douglas Adamss sci-fi classic has inspired real-life tech innovations. So what else could we rip from its pages to aid our ailing society?

The Mobile World Congress, which takes place annually in Barcelona, is usually dominated by smartphones. Grabbing headlines this year, however, is the Pilot earpiece and its promise to instantly translate languages: a real-life version of the Babel Fish from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

The knife that toasts became a reality in 2015: its called the FurzoToasto.

It is not the first time that elements of science fiction from Douglas Adamss story have subsequently become science fact. The technology that allows the Hitchhikers Guide to be operated simply by brushing with ones fingers is now familiar from smartphones and tablets. The information the Guide stores, meanwhile, is user-generated, and constantly updated; the approach adopted by Wikipedia. And the sub-etha telecommunications network? Thats the internet, even if it doesnt yet extend across the entire Milky Way. Even the knife that toasts became a reality in 2015: its called the FurzoToasto. So which of Douglas Adamss other inventions should scientists bring to life?

Crisis inducer

Though it resembles a wristwatch, this product carries out a very different function: it convinces the wearer that a crisis is imminent. The severity of the crisis can be preselected by the user, but its always enough to get the adrenaline pumping. The ultimate cure for lethargy.

Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses

If the crisis is, on the other hand, all too real, these sunglasses offer a solution: at the first sign of danger, they turn opaque. OK, a relaxed attitude to danger might represent only a short-term solution but, for those few moments, ignorance is bliss. Could be useful in 2017.

Infinite Improbability Drive

The Infinite Improbability Drive, the key feature of the Heart of Gold spaceship, can carry out any conceivable action, providing that someone on board knows precisely how improbable that action is. It can, for instance, transform a pair of missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, as well as facilitating interstellar travel. Just what we need in the Ministry of Defence.

The Infinite Improbability Drive in action

Total Perspective Vortex

Though powered by a piece of fairy cake, this machine is far from innocuous: in fact, in the Hitchhikers world, exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex is the ultimate form of torture, worse even than Vogon poetry. It does this by revealing to users their cosmic insignificance. Might be useful for reining in the egos of certain politicians.

Nutri-matic drinks dispenser

This vending machine wont issue a drink until it has analysed the users taste buds, metabolism and brain. Collecting all this data is pointless, however, as the machine always ultimately dispenses the same thing: a shoddy cup of tea. A properly bespoke drinks dispenser, however, sounds appealing and, in the era of big data and artificial intelligence, it might not be too far off. Mines a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Bistromathic Drive

Part of the appeal of Adamss story lies in its combination of sci-fi and the mundane: for all the planet-hopping, The Hitchhikers Guide also fits neatly into a line of English comedy running from Fawlty Towers to Peep Show. The Bistromathic Drive harnesses the unfathomable mathematics of restaurants in order to power a spaceship of extraordinary powers. Next time youre trying to split a bill between a large number of diners, few of whom are paying in cash, imagine you could use those very same mathematical quirks to travel across interstellar distances.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

You might be getting a sense, by now, that Douglas Adams liked restaurants but he never visited one 576 thousand million years in the future. His protagonists, however, enjoy the benefits of time travel, and so are able to visit to Milliways, billed as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. At Milliways, diners watch the whole of creation destroyed, night after night: apocalypse as background entertainment. Theres no need to book (you can reserve a table retrospectively, when you return to your own time) and the meal is free too: just deposit a single penny in your own era, and the compound interest will take care of even the most exorbitant bill. An instant solution to the cost-of-living crisis.

Point of view gun

If you point it at someone and pull the trigger, he or she will instantly see things from your point of view.

As Stephen Fry, playing the Guide, tells us in the film version of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the point of view gun does precisely what its name suggests: if you point it at someone and pull the trigger, he or she will instantly see things from your point of view. Instant empathy. Something the past 12 months have been sorely lacking.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/06/hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-technology-sci-fi-books

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Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Were coming close to the point where we can create people who are superior to others’

Social changes unleashed by new technologies could undermine core human values unless we engage with science, warns author

Imagine a two-tiered society with elite citizens, genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill humans. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, but the world could be sleepwalking towards this scenario, according to one of Britains most celebrated writers.

Kazuo Ishiguro argues that the social changes unleashed by gene editing technologies, such as Crispr, could undermine core human values.

Were going into a territory where a lot of the ways in which we have organised our societies will suddenly look a bit redundant, he said. In liberal democracies, we have this idea that human beings are basically equal in some very fundamental way. Were coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others.


Ishiguro spoke to the Guardian ahead of the opening of a new permanent mathematics gallery at the Science Museum in London, which features a machine to predict coastal storm surges built by his oceanographer father, Shizuo Ishiguro.

The author hopes that the 5 million exhibition, and others like it, will encourage people to engage with the process of science and its future trajectory, rather than simply tuning in for the headline results of research and only then worrying about the implications.

Despite the atom bomb and things like this, were still in the habit of compartmentalising scientific endeavour, he said. Its important that we, as a society, get much more interested in science and maths, that we dont silo it off in our minds … until theres some breakthrough product that turns up.

Ishiguro cites three areas – gene editing, robotics and Artificial Intelligence – that he believes could transform the way we live and interact with each other over the next 30 years.

We are on the brink of all kinds of discoveries that will completely alter the way we run our lives, said the author, whose 2005 book, Never Let Me Go, imagines a dark future in which humans clones are raised to be organ donors.

The gene editing tool, Crispr, allows scientists to cut, paste and delete single letters of the genome with unprecedented precision, meaning aberrant genes can be overwritten with working copies, and, potentially, functional genes replaced with enhanced versions. Chinese scientists are already trialling the technology in patients to treat lung cancer.

When you get to the point where you can say that person is actually intellectually or physically superior to another person because you have removed certain possibilities for that person getting ill or because theyre enhanced in other ways, that has enormous implications for very basic values that we have, said Ishiguro.

He also has concerns that in AI and robotics the bulk of intellectual capital lies with the Silicon Valley masters of the universe rather than universities or government-funded labs.

There are some very powerful and rich people who want to do enormous research in this area, he said. Some of them might want to come out with things that are very beneficial, but its probably outside of regulation and so, yes, I think society as a whole needs to be more engaged.

Ishiguros father, an oceanographer originally based in Nagasaki, moved with the family to Guildford, Surrey, to work at the National Institute of Oceanography in 1957, when Ishiguro was five.

Dr Shizuo Ishiguro with his electronic analogue machine, which converted meteorological and ocean data into electrical signals on a series of wire meshes. This allowed the height of storm surges, and where and when they would make coastal impact, to be predicted. Photograph: Image courtesy of NOC Archive.

Despite the two countries having been at war just a decade previously, the family were made welcome, he said. The British people of that era had a very sophisticated sense of the international community because they had come through the war, he said. They knew the difference between serious things and less serious things, [having] lived through a period when they thought they were going to be under Nazi occupation.

Ishiguro contrasts this with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that dominated the Brexit and US election campaigns.

We have become much more multi-cultural and much more cosmopolitan in many ways, but the attitude to, say, the refugee crisis, I think is quite different to what I remember from the Britain I grew up in, he said.

His fathers electronic analogue machine, which is the size of a large wardrobe, converted meteorological and ocean data (wind speed, tidal motion, water depth and so on) into electrical signals on a series of wire meshes. This allowed the height of storm surges, and where and when they would make coastal impact, to be predicted. The system was originally developed to help Japanese fishing fleets, but modified to be applied to the North Sea, where floods following a storm surge in 1953 led to more than 2,000 deaths.

Ultimately, the machine was superseded by digital computers, but the scientist continued to perfect his creation in the family garden shed in Guildford until his death in 2007 a fact Ishiguro describes as entirely unsurprising.

Despite having taken a different career path, Ishiguro inherited an obsessive attitude towards work from his father, he said, recalling him mulling over equations every evening while watching American thrillers on television.

Looking back now I can see that the whole approach to his work is quite like my approach to my work as a writer, he said. He didnt think of it as a job at all. It was something he obsessively thought about the whole time. That was my model.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, opens on 8 December. It spans 400 years of mathematics, focusing on ideas and objects that have influenced everyday lives.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/02/kazuo-ishiguro-were-coming-close-to-the-point-where-we-can-create-people-who-are-superior-to-others

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