Skip to main content

The Universal Machine – Ian Watson ****

I have to admit upfront that I’m a big computer geek and lap up anything about the history of computing, so this could be a slightly biassed review - but even if you don’t have a lot interest in computers per se, their influence on the modern world is so huge that this has to be a book you will at least consider. Because The Universal Machine follows the development of computers, as it says in the subtitle, ‘From the dawn of computing to digital consciousness.’
Ian Watson takes us on this journey with a charming if slightly amateurish personal style (the first line of the book is ‘Hi, you probably don’t know me, but assuming you stick with this book then we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together.’) – don’t be put off by the introduction, the style settles down. Bearing in mind my bias, I found it absolutely fascinating, from one of the best section’s on Babbage’s work I’ve ever read, through the development of the electronic computer, into PCs and the web.
On the whole, the historical content was at just the right level – enough to keep you interested without getting overwhelmed. I was slightly surprised Ted Nelson, who devised the hypertext concept, wasn’t mentioned, but there is always going to be something. Of course, there are parts of the story where a lot more depth is truly fascinating – so I’d recommend, for example, the classic Insanely Great and Hard Drive on the origins of Apple and Microsoft respectively – but for an overview this was hard to beat. Interestingly it’s at it’s best in an application context. The only time the text got a little dull was when Watson talked pure computing, and in the probably unnecessary future gazing bit at the end.
What was odd about the book is that I know that it was published by a large international publisher (Springer Verlag), but reading it sometimes felt more like the experience you typically have with a self-published book. The text is too tightly crammed on the page, making it slightly uncomfortable to read. And there are rather more typos and basic errors than I’d expect in a professionally published book. One example that jumped off the page – Mary Shelley’s surname is written as ‘Shelly’ at least three times. (Funnily enough, her surname was actually Godwin when she wrote Frankenstein, though she had married Shelley by the time it was published.) There are a couple of places where the text doesn’t knit well together, resulting in some repetition. And it’s also rather unfortunate that the author says ‘you may be reading [this book] on a Kindle or iPad’ when there isn’t a Kindle edition.
Overall, then, although I would recommend following it up with some more focused computing histories, The Universal Machine is a great way to get a real feel for where the machines that are at the centre of so many of our lives came from.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …