Review of “The Black Cloud”


Cover of "The Black Cloud"

My interest in astronomy and astrophysics comes from childhood and when I was much, much younger I had an (unscientific) fondness for the “steady state” theory of cosmology, which, in the early 1970s was not as thoroughly discredited as it is today (though, of course, many newer cosmologies borrow from it or show similarities to it – for instance Roger Penrose‘s proposal in Cycles of Time).

Part of the attraction of the steady state cosmology was the figure of Fred Hoyle, or at least how I imagined him: blunt speaking, no nonsense, scientific genius. But until I read The Black Cloud I had not read any of his scientific or literary works.

The book is fascinating as a period piece and not a bad read as a piece of science fiction either – though the overall tone and dialogue reminds me of “Journey into Space” – a 1950s BBC science fiction radio serial recently re-broadcast.

But here is a novel with differential equations, computer program listings (presumably in machine code of some sort as it certainly is not a high level language) and a description of the (then) pioneering technology of pulse code modulation.Not all the science is good though, but Hoyle cannot be blamed for that: although it does not use the term, the view of artificial intelligence here is the conventional one of the time, but also one that fifty years of rapidly advancing computing power has failed, thus far at least, to sustain.

Mixed, with that, though is a fair dose of of Little Englandism, enormous doses of sexism and a quite frightening view into how Hoyle thinks society should be organised – namely with politicians, the people we chose, removed and the dictatorship of the scientists instituted. Stalin ruled in the name of science too.

Hoyle’s preface implies it would be a mistake to ascribe the views of Chris Kingsley, the chief advocate of crushing politics, to himself, but the character sounds far too much like him – the man who once exploded with anger when a snotty PhD student called Stephen Hawking pointed out a flaw in his calculations because he thought it would weaken his attempted blackmail of politicians – for the denial to be credible.

It’s a great book and an easy read, so I do recommend it.

The Great Alan Turing


Allan Turing Statue, on display at Bletchley Park
Image via Wikipedia

Slashdot have a story to the effect that Leonardo DiCaprio is to play Alan Turing in a film that will mark the mathematician’s centenary next year.

Great news – the man’s memory deserves nothing more than the actor who has proved himself to be both great and edgy in recent work (he’s certainly not the milque toast figure the start of his career briefly suggested.)

As a geek, of course, I hope that the film will try to explain, just a little his achievements.

But how can you explain the ideas of computability and the Church-Turing thesis in a popular film? A tough one, but I suppose you could do something.

The Bletchley Park “bombe” and the idea that the weakness of the German Enigma machine – that it would never map a letter to itself (eg., in any message “e” would never be encrypted as “e”) – could be used to break the code (if a combination of a guessed plain text, usually a weather report, at the start of the message , and the initial key settings produced code that mapped letters to themselves then the initial settings were wrong) – is probably easier to explain.

And don’t forget about SIGSALY, the voice encryption system Turing worked on with Bell Labs. As a piece of engineering this is probably impossible to over-estimate in importance: as the first practical pulse code modulation system it could even be said to be the mother the mobile phone, or at least its grand aunt.

And, of course, let me again plug my book of the year: The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine