Skip to main content

Tom Lean - Four Way Interview

Tom Lean is a historian of science and technology.  He has a PhD on the history of computing and a particular interest in old technologies and the people who made and used them.  In his day job he records scientists and engineers life stories for an oral history archive project at the British Library, helping to preserve the memories of scientists' pasts for future generations. His new book is Electronic Dreams – How 1980's Britain Learned to Love the Home Computer.


Why Science? 

It's really more the history of science and technology for me, and particularly their interaction with the world at large. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of complex systems involving technologies, science, people, organisations, ideas and more, and seeing how all the parts fit together and interact. I'm interested in how science and technology develop over time and the way that society, the things that we think and do, helps to shape those developments. 

Why this book? 

I've been fascinated by 1980s home computing for years; I even did a PhD on it. The home computer boom was the moment of first contact between millions of people and computers, when they became everyday appliances, not just giant electronic brains for big business and Big Brother. But the whole thing was so uncertain, so gloriously messy in practice, and no one was sure how it would turn out. There were so many different ideas about what a computer in the home was for, so many idiosyncratic designs of computer available, so many agendas at work. To people learning to program for themselves, it was a fascinating logic puzzle; to the kids it turned into a video games system; to the government it was going to be the technology that dragged the country into the information age and made Britain great again. Margaret Thatcher even showed off a Sinclair ZX Spectrum to the Prime Minister of Japan! Tying all that together into a bigger story about how 80's Britain learned to love the home computer has been a joy and something of a nostalgia trip for me – there aren't many people who get to play Manic Miner and call it research!

What's exciting you now? 

I'm really into current media stories about the social impact of disruptive information technologies and automation, how robots and computers will take our jobs and how society and the economy will have to adapt. Everyone seems to forget that back in the 1970s the techno-prophets were predicting  the same things with the same consequences, brought about by the 'Microchip Revolution' sweeping the world. We're still living through that revolution now, but people talk about it like it's a new thing. The answer then was teaching people to become computer literate to avoid being left behind. These days the answer is called learning to code, but amounts to pretty much the same thing. History really does repeat itself and it's intriguing to watch. 

What's next?

Hard to say right now, I have a few ideas floating around but I'm waiting for some of them to stick. For the last few years I've roamed the country interviewing scientists and engineers about their life stories as an oral historian for National Life Stories at the British Library. I've talked to everyone from physicists and rocket scientists to electrical engineers and bridge designers – it's been a real adventure and it would be great to find some ways of telling those stories. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…