Saturday, February 28, 2015

Innovation Reverberation How/Now

Review by Bill Doughty

Imagine what it's like to crawl inside the head of a dead sperm whale for days ... Look into how mirrors were the original selfies ... Feel how a ice cubes were harvested before  there was refrigeration ... Hear how sonar and ultrasound became a reality.

These and other insights are presented in Steven Johnson's "How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World."  It's helpful to know how far we've come as we chart where we are going.

That crawling around in a whale's head thing? Johnson describes whaling for spermaceti, a white oily substance that was used by early Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington even before 1776, in candles that produced a strong white light without offensive smoke.
"Extracting the spermaceti was almost as difficult as harpooning the whale itself. A hole would be carved in the side of the whale's head, and men would crawl into the cavity above the brain – spending days inside the rotting carcass, scraping spermaceti out of the brain of the beast. It's remarkable to think that only two hundred years ago, this was the reality of artificial light: if your great-great-great-grandfather wanted to read his book after dark, some poor soul had to crawl around in a whale's head for an afternoon."
Spermaceti whale of the Southern Ocean, 1833-1843, engraving by Sir William Jardine
Soberly, Johnson reports that about 300,000 whales, "majestic creatures," were slaughtered in roughly a century. "It is likely that the entire population would have been killed off had we not found a new source of oil for artificial light ..." That would be petroleum-based fossil fuels.

This book is built around six areas of innovation and invention: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light.

The first chapter reminds us of the importance, versatility and strength of glass – in various lenses, including in powerful microscopes and in the biggest telescopes at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and in fiberglass, fiber-optics, smart phones and computer monitors. Glass supports the entire Internet and networking. And, Johnson shows, glass is at the heart of art.

Author Steven Johnson takes a mirror "selfie."
"It's easy to make fun of our penchant for taking selfies, but in fact there is a long and storied tradition behind that form of self-expression. Some of the most revered works of art from the Renaissance and early modernism are self-portraits; from Dürer to Leonardo, to Rembrandt, all the way to van Gogh with his bandaged ear, painters have been obsessed with capturing detailed and varied images of themselves on the canvas. Rembrandt, for instance, painted around forty self-portraits over the course of his life. But the interesting thing about self-portraiture is that it effectively doesn't exist as an artistic convention in Europe before 1400. People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects. But they didn't paint themselves. The explosion of interest in self-portraiture was the direct result of yet another technological breakthrough in our ability to manipulate glass."
Johnson goes into the history and even some "bizarre sacred rituals" surrounding mirrors. It makes for an interesting story on which to reflect.

Sawing ice for harvest
Johnson's combination of art, science and history shows how belief, commitment and perseverance can pay off in his story of Frederic Tudor of New England, who had the idea in the early 1800s – seemingly crazy at the time – of harvesting ice from lakes in New England in the winter and taking it by sailing ship down to the Caribbean and over to Asia.

Ice trade, as depicted by F. Ray, Harper's Weekly, 30 August 1884
Tudor's insight, Johnson shows, was an understanding of the science of energy in a changing world economy.
"Tudor's triumphant (if long-delayed) success selling ice around the world seems implausible to us today not just because it's hard to imagine blocks of ice surviving the passage from Boston to Bombay. There's an additional, almost philosophical curiosity to the ice business. Most of the trade in natural goods involves material that thrives in high-energy environments. Sugarcane, coffee, tea, cotton – all these staples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commerce were dependent on the blistering heat of tropical and subtropical climates; the fossil fuels that now circle the planet in tankers and pipelines are simply solar energy that was captured and stored by plants millions of years ago. You could make a fortune in 1800 by taking things that grew only in high-energy environments and shipping them off to low-energy climates. But the ice trade – arguably for the only time in the history of global commerce – reversed that pattern. What made ice valuable was precisely the low-energy state of a New England winter, and the peculiar capacity of ice to store that lack of energy for long periods of time. The cash crops of the tropics caused populations to swell in climates that could be unforgivingly hot, which in turn created a market for a product that allowed you to escape the heat. In the long history of human commerce, energy had always correlated with value: the more heat, the more solar energy, the more you could grow. But in a world that was tilting toward the productive heat of sugarcane and cotton plantations, cold could be an asset as well. That was Tudor's great insight."
Galileo looks into the Cosmos
Johnson references people and groups as diverse as Jack the Ripper, Joe Biden, Ella Fitzgerald, Aristotle, H. G. Wells, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, Ike and Tina Turner, and Led Zeppelin.

Of course most of the focus is on innovators and inventors such as Galileo Galilei, Thomas Edison, Lee De Forest, Ellis Chesbrough, Reginald Fessenden, Jacob Riis, Lufkin Dennison, and Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace.

Johnson tells the story of music ethnographer Iegor Reznikoff from the University of Paris, who discovered new sound revelations in the Arcy-sur-Cure caves, where you can hear seven distinct echoes of your voice if you utter a sound while standing under Paleolithic images. "Reznikoff's theory is that Neanderthal communities gathered beside the images they had painted, and they chanted or sang in some kind of shamanic ritual, using the reverberations of the cave to magically widen the sound of their voices."

Where Neanderthals once stood and created art – visual and aural?
Johnson says there's a hopeful lesson in the story of the science of sound and story of development of sonar and ultrasound, "which is how quickly our ingenuity is able to leap boundaries of conventional influence."
"Our ancestors first noticed the power of echo and reverberation to change the sonic properties of the human voice tens of thousands of years ago; for centuries we have used those properties to enhance the range and power of our vocal chords, from cathedrals to the Wall of Sound. But it's hard to imagine anyone studying the physics of sound two hundred years ago predicting that those echoes would be used to track undersea weapons or determine the sex of an unborn child. What began with the most moving and intuitive sound to the human ear – the sound of our voices in song, in laughter, sharing news or gossip – has been transformed into the tools of both war and peace, death and life. Like those distorted wails of the tube amp, it is not always a happy sound. Yet, again and again, it turns out to have unsuspected resonance."
This book, which is filled with great photos and art, is a companion to a PBS Special that aired in late 2014 and continues to reverberate. Author Walter Isaacson, author of "The Innovators," said, "Steven Johnson is the Darwin of technology. Through fascinating observations and insights, he enlightens us about the origin of ideas."

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