Skip to main content

Imagine That… The History of Technology Rewritten – Michael Sells ***

Asking the question ‘What if…?’ is a classic approach to creativity and original thinking. As Michael Sells shows, it is also a good way to explore a whole range of subjects, from technology in this book through to the likes of ‘Football Rewritten’ and ‘The History of Music Rewritten.’
What Sells does here is take a number of key events in the history of science and technology where a small change in situation could result in a major difference in outcome. So, we are invited, for instance, to consider what would have happened if Alexander Fleming had cleaned his petri dishes and penicillin was washed down the drain – or if Steve Jobs never visited Xerox PARC at Palo Alto and got the inspiration that would lead to the Mac.
It’s a fascinating approach and Sells brings us ten scenarios including the transistor, Facebook, cats’ eyes (the ones in the road) and the totally wonderful ‘Newspaper Radio’, an idea from the end of the 1930s of broadcasting a facsimile newspaper bringing, as Sells puts it, 24 hour journalism to 1939. Most of the ‘what if?’s did happen, though a couple – like that broadcast newspaper and Tesla’s wilder ideas having enough financial backing – didn’t.
There were a couple of disappointments for me. A minor matter was that the title grated. It would have read much better as ‘Imagine… The History of Technology Rewritten.’ But what was more significant was that very little of the content was ‘What if?’ According to the bumf we are taken on a ‘historical flight of fancy, imagining the consequences if history had gone just that little bit differently’, but in practice the text is almost all about what actually did happen. So, for instance, with Fleming, we get the initial set up of ‘Imagine if he cleans up his dishes’, but then around 90% of the text is a simple description of what actually did happen, with just a few pages on how things would have been if Fleming had got down to scrubbing.
I was also unhappy with the Tesla section, which suggested he would have gone onto far greater things if he had ‘received philanthropic support.’ However there is no evidence that Tesla’s ‘World System’ of ‘free energy’ and broadcast power and information that would span the globe would have worked. It had no scientific basis. Sells comments that ‘Tesla had an unerring habit of being right.’ But this just isn’t true. He was a brilliant engineer, and his work on AC was outstanding – but he showed several times that he had limited understanding of some aspects of physics. For instance, he refused to accept relativity. Not to mention his infamous claim to have a box containing a deadly energy weapon that in fact held a Wheatstone bridge. It’s true that Tesla predicted many things – but that didn’t mean he could make them happen, any more than Roger Bacon could have produced the aeroplanes, cars, television etc. he dreamed up in the thirteenth century if only he had philanthropic support.
So, an excellent concept with some very good entries (my favourites were cats’ eyes and the newspaper radio), but a little patchy and not delivering enough on the ‘what if?’s. Even so it’s a well-priced pocket-sized book and well worth taking a look.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…