Breaking the Code – Royal Opera House, Manchester

Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a theatre binge lately. This is mostly because going to the theatre triggers more theatre because I find out about other interesting things I need to see. But this Manchester Science Festival play was my first time in the Royal Opera House in about a decade: its a good place to go, a fully “in the round” (or heptogon/octogon) space where the action is surrounded by the audience.

Breaking the Code is of course quite light on actual code, and much heavier on Turing’s personal life and relationships. There are however a couple of lovely little maths monologues. I was most puzzled however by the line:

“You haven’t heard of Hilbert. Its a great shame”

Because to my mind, everyone knows of Hilbert’s Hotel. A wonderful place, although it is somewhat tiresome to always be moving rooms. But then probably we can’t assume the whole audience does!

However even knowing what was going to happen next, the ending is still somewhat out of the blue. The problem seems to be simply that there was too much material between mathematics, personal life and legal trouble to be fitted into a two hour play and therefore something had to give.

It was very well produced in the Royal Exchange: a simple system of horizontal and vertical light bars were moved up and down to form room outlines, with the only other set pieces used being a few chairs and a single table that were moved about to form different rooms. Gave a real sense to movement between scenes, even if poor Daniel Rigby (playing Alan Turing) hardly left the stage for the whole play.

What If? – Randall Munroe

I’ve followed xkcd for years, and love Randall’s other projects. In What If? he tackles hypothetical questions with Science!

The majority of the questions are handled in much greater detail than usual, looking at cutting edge research and extrapolating it well-beyond existing usage, to an extent that only the IgNobel prizewinners can hope to match. And even when evidence doesn’t exist, he just acknowledges the current data limits…

If anyone puts a steak in a hypersonic wind tunnel to get better data on this, please, send me the video.

This is a book of a whole heap of ideas that made me think about what I really know about how the world behaves. When do our internal classical mechanical understandings of the way the physics behaves break down, and what replaces them? It bridges that gap elegantly, in small steps from “this is what happens in classic mechanics” to “the whole world is broken”.

I laughed may times at outrageous claims, or at questions that Randall identified as making no sense at all. And I think I learnt a few things.

Human Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

Cox calls this book a love letter to mankind, but it is more than that. It is a humanist manifesto for the future.

We learn about how the universe came to be, and how we came to be in it. This includes a fly-through of physics from the classical view of the world to general relativity and beyond. All described in language which feels accessible (although having failed Gen. Relativity at final year degree level, my starting point might be higher than expected). Then we cover biology, and the whole thing is wrapped up with basic statistics, and especially that our high level of unlikeliness is irrelevant, because to be asking that question we had to have happened.

Of course, being Cox he wants to see us in space, an idea I support, given the whole universe out there.

It is a desire to reach out to others, to attempt contact even when the chances are vanishingly small; a wish not to be alone. The golden disks are futile and yet filled with hope.

(on the Voyager space probes)

He has an infectious enthusiasm for what humanity is capable of, given how little we’ve changed since we walked out of the Rift Valley, and inspires a belief in the idea that we can do more.

Being in the midst of rereading The Sense of Style, I really appreciated the Classic Style writing in this book, it is beautifully written, and flows fantastically. I however appreciated less the thought experiment as to how I could tell I wasn’t on an aeroplane. Pro tip: works better if you aren’t really on an aeroplane at the time.

Remarkable Minds – Pendred E. Noyce

17 other remarkable women in science & medicine

Noyce has decided not to mess with her formula, and has produced a second book full of essays outlining the lives and careers of historical women scientists. It is enough to make a modern woman feel inadequate, reading about women who continued scientific research in the face of not only sexism, but also in secret as Jewish women against the rise of fascism or African-Americans before the civil rights movement.

The message definitely comes through loud and clear that anyone sufficiently intelligent and determined can contribute to the world, just that some barriers have been swept away.

Sophie couldn’t stay away from her mathematics. She smuggled in more candles, wrapped herself in blankets, and managed to study through the night anyway, even when her ink froze in its pot. Finally her parents gave in, and once convinced he couldn’t stop her, her father supported her study of mathematics for the rest of her life.

This is a powerful message for young people working out who they are, and who they want to work to be, especially girls. I appreciate Noyce noting that family life is possible, although careful choices have to be made, and that some of these scientists were noted as elegant and beautiful. If this was a statement made in isolation it would be problematic, but combined with the acknowledgement of their achievements it tackles some unhelpful stereotypes.

I had only heard of two of these women before: Germain (I am a mathematician by training) and Franklin, but many of the rest had made discoveries I am familiar with, and it was fascinating to read how they managed their lives to achieve what they did. It was also a sterling example of how parenting makes a difference, with almost every woman having had supportive parents who encouraged ambition, even if they were reluctant at first.

Each essay was prefaced by a timeline showing how wider history intersects key points in that woman’s life, putting them into a historical and cultural context. This may however have worked better woven into the margins/headings rather than on a standalone page.

My only quibble is that I wanted a bit more of the detail of the science for many of the essays, as opposed to hinting about the science then swinging back to discuss personal and academic further, even if that was the actual subject of the book.

 I received Remarkable Minds as an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review