State of Humanity in 2017 – A view from 1920

Following is an excerpt from Beyond the Planet Earth by the Russian scientist and science fiction author Konstantin Tsiolkovsky about the life in 2017, from approximately 100 years ago.

State of Humanity in 2017

What was our Earth like in the year 2017, in which our story is set?
On all Earth there was one beginning: congress, consisting of elective repre­sentatives from all states. It had existed already more than 70 years and resolved all questions concerning humanity. Wars were impossible. Misunderstandings between people were settled by peaceful means. Armies were very limited. Actually, these were armies of labor. Population, with happy enough conditions in the last one hundred years, was trebled. Trade, technology, art, and agriculture attained signif­icant success. Huge metallic dirigibles, lifting thousand of tons, communicated, transported goods conveniently and inexpensively.
Especially beneficial were the huge air ships, sending inexpensive loads, such as trees, coal, metals, and so forth downstream with the wind almost for nothing. Aircraft served for especially fast transfer of small number of passengers or pre­cious cargo; the most commonly used were airplanes for one or two persons.
Humanity marched peaceful on the path of progress. However, fast growth of population forced all thinking people and rulers concern.
Ideas regarding the possibility of technical conquest of use of world deserts were considered long ago, — still more than one hundred years ago. In 1903, one Russian thinker wrote a serious work on this matter and proved mathematically, on the basis of the scientific data of that time, the complete possibility of settle­ment of solar system. But these ideas were almost forgotten, and only our company of scientists revived them and partly carried them out.

Let us first talk about the technological changes he has predicted. He predicts that airships or dirigibles would be a major form of transport for cargo, while aircrafts are used for smaller cargo and passengers. Also, there is an indication in the last paragraph that some space travel has happened.
The political and social scene is something that is off the charts. Tsiolkovsky shows a lot of optimism in how humans are able to resolve their differences and bring forth peace and happiness in all. I think this is a reflection of the zeitgeist of the era. Lot of revolutionary changes were happening which resulted in progress in the fields in almost all fields. So it wouldn’t be a deviation to think that humans would also progress along the same lines and resolve their differences peacefully to live a prosperous and happy life.
You can read Beyond the Planet Earth here as a part the his collected works.

Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.
During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.
The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Conditioning hatred for books

INFANT NURSERIES. NEO-PAVLOVIAN CONDITIONING ROOMS, announced the notice board.
The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.
The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.
“Set out the books,” he said curtly.
In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.
“Now bring in the children.”
They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in
khaki.
“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.
“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”
Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.
The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”
The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.
The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.
There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.
The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.
“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”
He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.
“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.
The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.
“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”
The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.
“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”
Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.
“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

Sidenotes and label in LaTeX

Recently I have been using the sidenotes package in LaTeX. It provides many options which I find aesthetically pleasing. For example, instead of footnotes, it gives sidenotes. This particular typesetting has been used beautifully by Tufte in his books. But even before Tufte’s books this option has been used, for example, see the beautifully designed book The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John. T. Bonner.

Not the recent reprint, some idiots at Princeton University Press have completely killed the aesthetically pleasing landscaped typesetting to portrait one (and a not very good one)! In general Bonner’s book are a visual treat in terms of designing and of course the content as well. His meticulous detail to the images, and use of log-scales to depict biological scale in time and space it something that I have not seen very often.
The Evolution of Culture in Animals uses a landscape mode with sidenotes and figures in margins extensively. This is the exact functionality that the sidenotes package provides. Even the tufte-book and tufte-handout classes use this package in a modified manner.
When using sidenotes package, I found that the marginfigure and margintable environments worked without a problem when using a label and referring them to in the document. But when it came to the sidecaption option for wider figures and tables, somehow I could not get the referencing to work. The hyperref showed the correct page and even the captions had the correct numbers for tables and figures. But the label and \ref{} to it didn’t work.
For example, if a figure was created as such:

\begin{figure} \includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg} \sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.} \label{eagle1} \end{figure}

The first [] controls the text that appears in the List of Figures, while the second [] controls the vertical placement of the caption.
Now when I referred to this figure in the document using Figure~\ref{eagle1}, it gave an error and typeset it as Figure ??, instead of Figure 1.1 or something similar. The same problem was there for a sidecaption used for tables as well. A common mistake which usually causes this error is placing the label before the caption. So the golden rule seems to be:

Always place your \label{} after the \caption{}.

But it was not the case in my example. A bit of digging in the log file showed this error:

 Package caption Warning: \label without proper reference on input line xxx. See the caption package documentation for explanation.
LaTeX Warning: Reference eagle1′ on page 7 undefined on input line 415.

Now back to caption package documentation, it had this explanation for this error (page 44):

\label without proper \caption
Regarding \label the floating environments behave differently than its non-floating counter-parts: The internal reference will not be generated at the beginning of the environment, but at \caption instead. So you have to place the \label command either just after or inside the caption text (mandatory argument of \caption).

So that was it. You have to place the \label{} inside the \caption{} environment and the issue was solved. Placing it just after the caption did not work for me.
\begin{figure} \includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg} \sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.\label{eagle1}} \end{figure}`

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making great commotion, You should remember That he who writes for fools Always finds a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Very relevant quote with the kind of circus main stream media has become in India.

The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

… And then last year, when I saw the Pen­dulum, I understood everything.”
“Everything?”
“Almost everything. You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conserva­toire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”
– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

On Books and Bookcases

“But I am apt to use my books at any time,” I explain to the salesman. “I never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don’t want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don’t want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.
–  Robert Benchley

Review of His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem

The book is an autobiographical tale by one of the mathematician-scientist who looks at a mysterious signal from the cosmos. The title is from the title given to the top secret project which tries to decipher this signal. The signal in the form of a neutrino stream is discovered accidentally and is hidden well in the general noise of neutrino signal. Only if you know where to tune in to is the signal readable/recordable/visible. The signal is attacked upon by a team of experts from different domains like physics, chemistry, biology, language, mathematics. They are able to know that the signal has an “alphabet” but are not able to crack the code as a whole. Though they discover some properties of the signal to interact with matter. For example, they discover that this letter from cosmos has a positive effect on the formation and consolidation of large protein molecules. They also discover a “recipe” for building a substance which is dubbed as “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the flies”. This substance with a consistency of frog eggs can absorb energy from radioactive fission within itself and has some peculiar properties.

even though, receiving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by a fire of burning books, the writings of the wisest men, believes that he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find!

That not withstanding, the entire operation is under government supervision and there are plots and counter-plots of bureaucracy enmeshed within the narrative. This also includes an effect termed as “TX” in which a small nuclear detonation can have its energy transmitted to another place. But large scale implementation fails as the energy is dissipated over a very large area rendering any weapons created from them unusable. After these initial success, there is not further “code-breaking” possible and things come to a standstill

We are proceeding like a man who looks for a lost thing not everywhere, but only beneath a lighted street lamp, because there it is bright.

They also discover there is another parallel team working on the same problem but under the command of the military. Finally, the two units are merged.

At this point, various theories are put forth which try to explain the origin of the “letter”. Doubts are even raised to know if the signal is “natural” or “artificial”.  One of the military members uses the oscillating universe model to suggest that the neutrino signal is information from the past universe, from a ‘fissure” in between the universes, to the current one. One more hypothesis is given in the form that the frog eggs naturally evolved and the neutrino signal is just a by-product and the “organisms” do not know if this signal is being sent. A closer example of this is plants doing photosynthesis, they are not aware that their photosynthetic activity is helping other organisms grow, they do it nonetheless.

And surely it was unintentional on the part of the grass to give us the opportunity to exist!

While the author genuinely believes that the signal is from a very old and highly evolved “civilisation”, and we are at a stage such that we cannot understand the letter fully. We are not meant to, not at this stage of our technological evolution. The signal has been there for billions of years, and it takes an enormous amount of power (at least by our standards) to send it, so whoever (or whatever)  is sending it must have a purpose, just that we don’t know ( and perhaps will never know) what the purpose is.

We will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready; but we must go further in our caution — so that even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them.

The book is an interesting take on the status of technological progress and its ramification for civilisation as a whole. Some of the themes that one can identify is the survival of the species and not of a particular nation. The concerns expressed over the “TX” discovery make the smaller group privy to this very anxious as we would then have a weapon which at the speed of light can deliver an atomic explosion anywhere. Some of the musings about the senders of the signal and the kind of evolution the civilisation that must have are interesting to read.