Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.

The Man Who Knew Infinity: a book review

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel (1991)

I recently, and somewhat belatedly, read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A partly fictionalised film based on the book was released in 2015 (see Scott Aaronson’s review of the film here).

Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, where Ramanujan lived when he first arrived in England in 1914 (photo: Cmglee)

Ramanujan had one of the greatest mathematical intuitions of all time (he himself credited his insights to the goddess Namagiri). However, his brilliant guesses were as likely to be wrong as right. Furthermore, Ramanujan often neglected formal mathematical proofs, so that the work of separating the many diamonds from the occasional paste was frequently left to collaborators (like G. H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to England, and who wrote several joint papers with him). There are still results in Ramanujan’s journals which have neither been proved nor disproved (see this perspective on Ramanujan by Stephen Wolfram).

One of Ramanujan’s formulae for π

Interest in Ramanujan seems to have peaked at around the year 2000, according to Google Ngrams (although this does not include the influence of the recent film):

Google Ngrams search for Ramanujan’s name in books

I found Kanigel’s book a very enjoyable read. There is extensive biographical detail, albeit with a few misquotes, and with apparent confusion at times about the language of a century ago (e.g. the word “cult,” used in a technical sense to mean “a particular system of religious belief,” referring to the Brahmin version of Hinduism which Ramanujan followed). Kanigel does not quite succeed in fitting Ramanujan into a larger context – I would have liked a bit more discussion of Ramanujan by other mathematicians. And I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had illness (probably chronic hepatic amoebiasis, although Kanigel suggests tuberculosis) not killed Ramanujan at the tragically young age of 32. I guess nobody can imagine what further mathematics we might have seen.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel: 3.5 stars

Aliens: A Study in Leadership

The upcoming World Solar Challenge has turned my mind to teamwork and leadership again – since good leadership is essential to success in that event. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is an excellent film for illustrating different leadership styles:

Lieutenant Scott Gorman, the incompetent leader

Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) is completely out of his depth leading the mission in Aliens. Not because of any personal flaws, but simply through inexperience:

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty-eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Unlike incompetent leaders suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect, however, Gorman is at least aware of his limitations, and of the fact that his lack of experience is a problem – that is why he is nervous. In the film, he was chosen as leader precisely because of his inexperience, in order to facilitate…

Carter J. Burke, the sociopathic leader

Carter J. Burke (played by Paul Reiser) has an immoral hidden agenda. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, to sacrifice the innocent, and to risk the human race itself. Such sociopaths are not unknown in the workplace. Fortunately, in the film, Burke is forestalled by…

Ellen Ripley, the emergent leader

Emergent leaders can be good or bad. When there are rewards to be had, the incompetent and/or sociopathic are often quick to volunteer:

Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people eagerly respond,
even unasked, and shout: I’ll take it on.

(Dante, Purgatorio VI:133–135, tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Incompetent leaders can turn victory into defeat by persuading an entire team to choose the wrong course of action, or by turning a team into a crowd of uncoordinated individuals. In moments of crisis, however, quietly competent individuals often step forward to fill a leadership vacuum. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of these good emergent leaders. She has both the technical knowledge and the interpersonal skills needed to turn the survivors into a unified team, fighting against an almost indestructible enemy. Eventually she hands over to…

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the designated leader

Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn) holds just about the lowest possible military leadership position, but the rules require him to step up when the commissioned officers and more senior NCOs have died. The buck stops with him.

Ripley: Well, I believe Corporal Hicks has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks has…?
Ripley: This operation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in chain of command. Am I right, Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah… yeah, that’s right.

Hicks reveals his leadership abilities by the way he remains calm in the crisis, by his interactions with others, and by the way he relies on Ripley’s advice.

For a team to achieve success, either the powers that be must designate a competent leader like Hicks, or a competent emergent leader like Ripley must step forward. Otherwise, even though the team may not be eaten alive by hideous aliens with acid for blood, failure is nonetheless assured.

Chaotic dinosaurs?

In the comic above, XKCD is objecting to Jurassic Park (21 years after the movie was released):

MALCOLM: You see? The tyrannosaur doesn’t obey set patterns or park schedules. The essence of Chaos.

ELLIE: I’m still not clear on Chaos.

MALCOLM: It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

No, Ian Malcolm, XKCD is right. That doesn’t really clear things up. And I’m pretty sure that topological mixing is actually more fundamental to the concept of Chaos:

Wired also has a piece on the anniversary of the film (concentrating on the special effects).

Angels and (Foolish) Demons

I recently got around to watching the 2009 film Angels and Demons. Like The Da Vinci Code, this is a very silly film, with both the science and the history being wildly wrong. Galileo’s condemned book was widely printed outside Italy, for example. Publishers of the day were too discreet to plaster BANNED IN ITALY! READ IT FOR YOURSELF! on the cover, but the controversy was nevertheless a publisher’s dream. Even today, the house of Elsevier (who originally printed the book) prides itself on the connection (see photo of Elzevir edition by Angelina Ward below). The book has also kept up with the times; it can be read electronically.

Galileo did not, as the film suggests, argue for elliptical planetary orbits. Kepler did that, and failing to believe Kepler was one of Galileo’s biggest mistakes (had he believed Kepler, Galileo knew enough mathematics to see what ellipses and parabolae had in common, and might have gone on to formulate a theory of gravity).

The movie gives the viewer some wonderful images of Rome, but here the facts are wrong too. Raphael was never buried anywhere but in the Pantheon, for example. The book tells us that “Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World: The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata” – even though the Río de la Plata is in South America. And the list goes on. Among other things, Bernini did not place the “West Wind” marker on St Peter’s Square, nor is that marker distinct from the other fifteen:

“What’s new, Buenos Aires?
I’m new, I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you.
You’ll be on me too…
And if ever I go too far,
It’s because of the things you are.
Beautiful town, I love you…
Río de la Plata, Florida, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio,
All I want to know…”

Possibly Dan Brown did indeed go a little too far here.

Telescope: a short film

Telescope ( is a fantastic short film directed by Collin Davis and Matt Litwiller, written by Eric Bodge, and shot by Travis Labella, with production design by Molly Burgess. In the year 2183, when all life on Earth has ceased, an archaeologist takes a telescope aboard a faster-than-light spaceship to see the living planet that once existed.

Take 10 minutes to watch this wonderful short film on Vimeo below!

See Telescope on Vimeo.

The Dish: a movie review

Movie poster

The Dish is a classic Australian comedy from 2000, telling the story of how the CSIRO Parkes Observatory assisted with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Movie trailer

The film contains some technical errors and oversimplifications, notably inventing some episodes for dramatic effect, cutting the telescope’s staff headcount, and downplaying the role of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station (which was closed in 1981). However, those simplifications were probably necessary for dramatic reasons (see also CSIRO’s “fact vs fiction” list and history pages). The movie does get across the sense of excitement of the Apollo programme, as well as reminding us what the 60’s were like, and giving a light-hearted view of the cultural differences between Australia and the USA. And, of course, it’s very funny.

PDP-9 at the Monash University Computer Museum

Veteran actor Sam Neill does a great job in the film, as does the rest of the cast. The Dish also has superb props, including authentic vintage technology, such as the DEC PDP-9 shown above. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 96% rating. It’s certainly worth watching!

The dish is still operating at Parkes (photo: John Sarkissian, CSIRO Parkes Observatory)

Parkes is still very active scientifically; recent papers include “The Parkes Pulsar Timing Array Project” and “Parkes full polarization spectra of OH masers – I. Galactic longitudes 350° through the Galactic Centre to 41°.”

* * * *
The Dish: 4 stars