Shapes by Philip Ball: a book review

Shapes by Philip Ball

Two years ago, I reviewed Philip Ball’s Branches, the last volume of his excellent Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, following Shapes and Flow. However, a brief review of Shapes is also appropriate. The subject of this book, covered a century ago by D’Arcy Thompson, is endlessly fascinating, and Ball does it justice in this nicely illustrated volume. “Shapes” do not necessarily mean squares, circles, and triangles! Here are some public domain images related to topics in the book:

Ball even gives a nice experiment that can be done at home with gelatine, cobalt chloride, and concentrated ammonia (see picture here). Interestingly enough, this phenomenon was first observed in 1855, and is still not fully understood.

This little volume is well worth a read.

* * * *
Shapes by Philip Ball: 4 stars

A Brief History of Science in English Words

Inspired by this book, here is a brief history of science in ten English words:

Alembic (14th century). The word “alembic” comes to us from the Greek word ἄμβιξ (ambix) via the Arabic الأنبيق (al-anbīq). See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry. As with “algebra,” “Alnitak,” and “alizarin,” the Arabic definite article “al” in the name of this forgotten item of laboratory equipment is a reminder of the debt which medieval European science owes to the Islamic world.

Atom (15th century). The word “atom” also comes from Greek. A school of Greek philosophers used “a-tomos” (“un-cuttable”) as the name for hypothetical indivisible units of matter. The word was revived in 1805 by the English chemist John Dalton, giving it the meaning it still has in modern chemistry (though without any knowledge of atomic structure). See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry. A later age was to give us “atom bomb.”

Fossil (1610s). Originally referring to anything dug up from the ground, and coming to us from Latin via French, the word “fossil” gradually transformed itself into the modern meaning as people became more and more interested in digging up fossilized plants and animals. Geological theories about the formation of these fossils then gave us the verb “fossilize.” See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry.

Microscope (1650s). The microscope was invented around 1590 in the Netherlands, and pioneering microscopic work was done by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) and Robert Hooke (1635–1703). The word itself comes from the Greek μικρός (mikrós, small) and σκοπεῖν (skopeîn, to see). See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry. From the same era, thanks to Galileo, we get “telescope.”

Stamen (1660s). The word “stamen” was adopted from Latin to refer to the (male) pollen-producing organ of a flower. The tip of the stamen is called an “anther” (from Greek via French). See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry. The increasing scientific interest in the internal structure of flowers led to the enormously important taxonomic work of Carl Linnaeus.

Metre (1797). The “metre,” as a new unit of measurement, was proposed by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, and defined to be 1/10,000,000 of the distance between the Equator and the North Pole (measured via Paris). Today, the metre is defined to be the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second. See this Google ngram and this dictionary entry. The Système International d’Unités has also given us “litre,” “gram,” and many units of measurement named after scientists.

Burette (1836). The word “burette” (and likewise “pipette”) comes to us from French, specifically from an 1824 paper by the French chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (see this Google ngram and this dictionary entry). The design of the instrument we use today is due to Karl Friedrich Mohr, but the name serves as a reminder of the significant French contributions to chemistry.

Nova (1877). The adjective “nova” (Latin feminine singular for “new”) has a long history. After being applied as an adjective to new stars, it became a noun in its own right around 1877 (see this Google ngram and this dictionary entry). The word “supernova” followed in 1934.

Transistor (1948). The transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947. John R. Pierce suggested the word the following year, by analogy with words such as “resistor,” and it was adopted after a survey of selected Bell Labs staff (see this Google ngram and this dictionary entry). A decade later, “transistor radio” appeared, as the word “transistor” began to represent a new electronic age.

Laser (1959). The word “laser” was coined in 1957 by Gordon Gould and first used publically in 1959. It was originally an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” by analogy with “maser” (see this Google ngram and this dictionary entry). The first working laser was developed by Theodore Maiman and Irnee D’Haenens in 1960. A few years later, this noun spawned the verb “lase.”

Perhaps as a result of what C. P. Snow called “The Two Cultures,” the past century seems to have seen a movement away from Greek and Latin borrowings. The increasing dominance of English has also seen fewer borrowing from modern languages (like “burette”). And with the development of totally new devices and totally new concepts, invented words like “laser” and “gluon” seem to have become more common.

New eyes on Pluto

The New Horizons spaceprobe (NASA artist’s impression above) is due to arrive at Pluto in July this year. At about 200,000,000 km away, however, New Horizons is already giving us preliminary images of Pluto and its moon Charon. These will only get better as the spaceprobe gets closer and closer.

A new Dawn for Ceres

The Dawn spaceprobe is about a month from arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres. The photograph of Ceres above was taken by Dawn a few days ago, at a distance of 145,000 km. Below is a nice (simulated) NASA image of the view looking back at the probe’s planet of origin (click for up-to-date images). I’m looking forward to the pictures we’ll get on arrival!

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner: a book review

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

I recently read The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. This book tells the story of the legendary Bell Labs, with a focus on six specific individuals: Mervin Kelly (president from 1951 to 1959), James Fisk (president from 1959 to 1973), William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor), Claude Shannon (pioneer of information theory), John Pierce (satellite communications pioneer), and William Baker (president from 1973 to 1979).

Gatehouse of the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, NJ in 1942

Being bankrolled by a telephone monopoly, Bell Labs was essentially government-funded, without being government-controlled. Perhaps that is why it worked so well.

The first transistor, invented at Bell Labs in 1947 (photo: Windell H. Oskay,

In this very readable history, Gertner presents a number of factors that contributed to the success of Bell Labs. These included:

  • A healthy mix of short-term applied and long-term fundamental research;
  • A strong practical focus;
  • Technically competent management;
  • The formation of interdisciplinary teams;
  • Effective processes for bringing new ideas into the organisation; and
  • A tolerance of eccentricity.

A less serious invention: Claude Shannon’s THROBAC calculator, which used Roman numerals (photo: Sami Oinonen)

As it faded away, Bell Labs was overshadowed by the vibrant applied research of Silicon Valley (although this relied heavily on the more fundamental research of universities in the San Francisco Bay Area). Still, Bell Labs has certainly repaid the USA many times over for the money invested in it, and it still offers a good model of how to make a scientific research organisation work.

John Robinson Pierce, satellite communications pioneer at Bell Labs

For other reviews of this excellent book, see The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Verge. I enjoyed it, and I’m giving it 3½ stars.

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner: 3½ stars