Thursday, June 7, 2012

What does the internet's physical structure look like?


Sally Adee, features editor

SCIENCE fiction author William Gibson famously described cyberspace as a shared hallucination. Most people struggle to imagine what the internet's physical structure looks like, but in Tubes, Andrew Blum sets out to find it. His first task is to disentangle our familiar, if not strictly accurate, conceptions about the internet from its actual cables, boxes and routers.

One such notion is the idea that the internet finds a route around censorship. This is true of the metaphorical overlay - take down a website and it can pop up elsewhere in an instant. But when it comes to the physical processes that prop up the metaphor, there is no going around them, as the grandmother who accidentally cut off Armenia by slicing through a cable buried in her garden showed.

In reality, every bit of information sent between New York and London - every email, Facebook status update, financial transaction and bid on an eBay teapot - makes its way through the same thin 4300-kilometre-long garden hose that submerges in Long Island and surfaces in Penzance. This marvellous shared hallucination is built on a series of tubes.

Tying the backstory and issues of the internet to its physical manifestations makes hard-to-grasp concepts easy to understand, even obvious. The history, in particular, is one of the best and most memorable I have ever read. And it is a satisfying postmodern quest, too: when Blum finds the centre of the internet, he is nonplussed to find something as unremarkable as a router.

Book information
Tubes: A journey to the center of the internet by Andrew Blum
University of Ecco

Crows are far from bird-brained


Adrian Barnett, contributor

HUMANS originally vilified crows and their relatives as harbingers of misfortune, and the modern view has not moved on much: winged vandals who steal windscreen wipers and gobble nestlings. Even their collective nouns sound nasty - a scold of jays, a conspiracy of ravens, a murder of crows.

But there is more to the family Corvidae than Hitchcock-inspiring horror antics, and in Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff and Tony Angell show the birds' positive side. Crows that mourn, give gifts and tease all serve to show why the authors are passionate about their study subjects.

The 120-odd corvid species include some of the world's most intelligent birds, who use tools, show self-awareness when seeing their reflection, display advanced planning abilities and have clear capacities for abstract thought. In nature, this helps them recognise and exploit novel foods and conduct complex social lives. But when smart, hungry birds meet wasteful, profligate primates, things can get tense, and that's where bad reputations begin.

Combining academic observation with the collated reports of citizen scientists, Marzluff and Angell explore corvid capacities for, among other things, language, insight, play, emotion and awareness. What makes this enjoyable book work so well is the pairing of behavioural observations with cutting-edge knowledge of physiology and brain function. Not only are the authors out to dismiss the idea that crows are feathered delinquents whose birdbrains run winged automata, they also want to link crow behaviours with changes in cerebral neurochemistry.

The upshot is that while being introduced to the idea that crows windsurf - holding bits of curved bark in both feet and extending wings to ride, for minutes at a time, on a cliff-hitting updraft - you are also informed about what is going on with dopamine and opioid levels in the amygdala and hypothalamus. They also fill you in on how neuron-linkages are strengthened by feedback loops that help watchful young crows learn from the more experienced flock-members as they have fun.

There are a few tiny zoological errors once the authors stray from ornithology - fireflies are not flies but beetles, for example - but the wry yet enthusiastic style, reporting amazing behaviours and the neuronal and hormonal changes underlying cognition, results in a truly enlightening book. A challenge to our fully fledged cultural prejudices, Gifts of the Crow provides a new perspective on what is happening inside those sleek, black-feathered skulls.

Book information
Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
Free Press

When scientists fight dirty


Andrew Robinson, contributor

THE "dark side" of scientific research is the focus of US physician Morton Meyers's enjoyable, if disquieting, book Prize Fight. More particularly, the Machiavellian behaviour that inevitably arises from scientists' desire for recognition and reward - especially a Nobel prize - alongside the more publicly acceptable satisfaction of discovering and applying ground-breaking knowledge. Think James Watson's famed account of discovering the structure of DNA, The Double Helix.

While innovation in science is generally seen as a force for good, it too often comes at a high price - in rampant egotism, bitter denunciation of co-workers and unscrupulous peer-review, not to mention failure to acknowledge influences, plagiarism and even fraud. As Machiavelli himself wrote: "The innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

The book's examples come from across the sciences - although the notorious rivalry to invent the transistor goes unmentioned - but the bias is towards biomedical science, Meyers's speciality.

Indeed, half the book is devoted to two biomedical disputes: that between microbiologist Selman Waksman and his star pupil Albert Schatz over the credit for the discovery of the anti-tuberculosis drug streptomycin in the 1940s, and the rivalry between chemist Paul Lauterbur and physician-turned-entrepreneur Raymond Damadian over the invention of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the 1970s. The first battle ended up in court; the second in full-page adverts in The New York Times. Waksman and Lauterbur won Nobel prizes; Schatz and Damadian did not. None of the four emerges smelling of roses.

At the end, Meyers calls for scientists to be more open about the extent of the problem. But he admits that it is difficult to solve without stultifying innovative science. After all, there is still no widespread agreement as to how to order the names of joint contributors to a scientific paper - the first step in assigning credit for a discovery.

Book information
Prize Fight: The race and the rivalry to be the first in science by Morton Meyers
Palgrave Macmillan

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