HistoryofScience.com Blog

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Deciphering the Operations of the Earliest Analog Computer

Though the Antikthera Mechanism was discovered over 100 years ago, the functions of this device, which is thought to date from 150 to 100 BCE, are only now beginning to be fully understood.

Possibly as significant as understanding its operations are the latest methods of high resolution imaging and three-dimension x-ray tomography used to make the discoveries. The Antikythera Mechanism discovered off Antikythera, Greece in 1901, includes the only specimen preserved from antiquity of a scientifically graduated instrument. It may also be thought of as the earliest extant mechanical calculator, or analog computer.

Applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, experts deciphered inscriptions and reconstructed functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. This research revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. Scientists found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The discoveries and the methods used are the subject of an absolutely fascinating video available from the Nature website. It includes animations of the way that the Antikthera Mechanism is thought to have operated.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 7:41 AM   18 Comments

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Digital Literacy Different from Traditional Literacy?

An article with the cute headline, Literacy Debate: Online R U Reading?, discusses the question of whether reading online, with its searchability, hyperlinks, and interactive aspects, is the same as traditional reading of narratives, such as novels. As the article and its excellent associated chart indicate, clearly the answer is no, with a qualification pointed out by a commenter on this blog. Reading a long narrative like a novel, or a long work of non-fiction, requires a different kind of concentration than reading short articles or blogs like this with their numerous hyperlinks. In addition, reading a book that has been carefully edited and reviewed may require less critical judgment than reading a post or a news article that may have appeared on the web only a few moments ago. On the other hand, reading articles in carefully edited publications like the New York Times online or Harpers Magazine online may not involve literacy skills that different from reading the publications on paper.

Given the fairly obvious differences, what is most interesting, I think, is how long it has taken for mainstream researchers to ask the question. Another question we should ask is, assuming that styles of reading are evolving along with the new electronic media, how does this matter? With respect to this question, probably only the passage of time will tell.

As a student of the history of media, and a persistent user of new media alongside traditional media, my view is that different people have always used media in different ways. Just as there is a unbelievable range of quality of information available on the web, there has always been a equal range of quality in print media. Because information appears in a book, periodical, or newspaper does that make it objective or reliable? Are some of the sensational websites really that much less reliable than some of the tabloids available at the supermarket check-out counter? Is reading a precis of a novel on the web instead of the book really any different than reading the old Cliff's Notes or the Classic Comic of my boyhood?

One major difference between the world before the Internet and now is that most of us now have virtually instantaneous access to an ocean of information from our computer or our web-enabled cell phone that is far greater than would have been available at any university library twenty years ago. Thus, rather than struggling with the traditional problem of finding enough information on a given topic within the available time, we now typically have the problem of finding too much information. As a result, we often have a greater challenge in evaluating the quality of information we find than in finding the information itself.

Working at my computer surrounded by books on my library shelves, I find myself moving back and forth all day between reading online and reading on paper. In contrast to the New York Times image, which shows younger people reading online while older people read on paper, I find that I prefer to read newspapers online rather than on paper, though I still subscribe to the print version of my local paper. On the other hand, just like the New York Times image, my two teen-aged children are often found surfing the web from their laptops, while they I M, perhaps while they watch a movie. My daughter sometimes I M's from her phone while she walks down the street. She calls this multi-tasking. From time to time I remind her about the woman who was killed when she tried to I M while driving.

While I own thousands of books and am always referring to books and reading several at one time, writing I do entirely online. Like most people, nearly all of my correspondence is electronic, and I also receive and send email from my Blackberry. In addition to the speed of transmission of emails, for me a great advantage is ease of filing and searchability of emails. The less filing of papers and the less searching through filing cabinets the better, as far as I am concerned.
As the chart in the New York Times article indicates, one way that the Internet has changed reading is that with so much information to chose from we may find ourselves picking and choosing from numerous information sources rather than carefully analyzing a single source, if that is all we have. With so much information available we may, if we are not careful, find that we skim over more information uncritically than we should. Information of all quality levels spreads on the Internet at electron speed, making evaluation of its quality more important than ever.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 4:50 PM   6 Comments

The 25 Most Modern Libraries in the World

With a touch of irony, perhaps, an excellent selection of twenty-five of the most modern "brick and mortar" libraries in the world appeared on a blog in the virtual global library we call the Internet. Yet most modern libraries are repositories for electronic information as well as traditional media on paper or on film, and some larger libraries are developing functions as meeting places, or even eating places, along with their traditional functions for reading and research.

In the category of Architecture the blogger, Christina Laun, selected eight libraries from around the world, including two in the United States--the fantastic Seattle Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas, and the Geisel Library at the University of California at San Diego. The Seattle Public Library is my absolute favorite of recently constructed library buildings. I have attached images that I took during a visit in 2006.

In the category of Innovation the author selected eleven libraries, of which, surprising to me, eight are in the United States. The most unusual was an English library concept called the Ideastore. Why not, for kids used to finding what they want at other "stores"?

For Digital Collections the blogger selected four national libraries from the United States, Japan, England, and Australia, and the Bavarian State Library in Germany. Here, I suspect, selecting was more difficult, as many large academic or state libraries have vast digital repositories available on the web.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 1:24 PM   24 Comments

Friday, July 25, 2008

One of the Oldest Bibles, Divided Geographically, to be United in Cyberspace

The story of the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, by Constantin von Tischendorf, during his three visits to the monastery from 1844 to 1859, is one of the most romantic and complicated in book history. Along with the the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Vaticanus, this is one of the three earliest complete manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments in Greek. As a result of its unusual history, the sheets of the Codex Sinaitcus are divided between the British Library, the National Library of Russia, Saint Catherine's Monastery, and Leipzig University Library, with the largest portion of the manuscript preserved in the British Library, having been purchased in 1933 by the British Museum from the Russian Government for 100,000 pounds.

By cooperative agreement between the four institutions, the geographically separated portions of the manuscript will be united on a new website, which opened on July 24, 2008. Among its many attractive and useful features, the new website states in its history section that the "recent" history of the manuscript is being researched, using documents that were previously unavailable, with the intriguing implication that the romantic history of the discovery and dispersal of the manuscript may be revised. One detail from this section is already different from the traditional view of the history. Previous authorities stated that von Tischendorf discovered the manuscript in 1859, at which time he took it back to Russia. The website seems to indicate that Tischendorf removed leaves from the Codex Sinaiticus from Saint Catherine's Monastery on his first two visits in 1844 and 1853, and not just in 1859.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 7:35 AM   7 Comments

Monday, July 21, 2008

The One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Since writing From Gutenberg to the Internet I have continued to research the history of information -- particularly the history of the methods used for its creation, organization, distribution, and storage. The From Gutenberg to the Internet Timeline on my website may be considered a chronological outline of some of my research. Eventually this may result in a more comprehensive book.
A recurring theme in the history of information is the way that new media overlap with old, more in the form of gradual transitions than in sudden, disruptive revolutions. For example, the development of printing by moveable type in Europe by Gutenberg in the first half of the fifteenth century did not immediately replace the traditional method of book production by manuscript copying. Instead printing presses were established in cities and towns throughout Europe over several decades, and by the end of the fifteenth century the great majority of books were produced by printing, leading to a great expansion of both the creation and distribution of information. By the end of the 15th century it has been estimated that roughly 25,000 different individual publications and books had been issued by printers in Europe. This may have been about one hundred times the number of texts available in the largest library of Europe, the University of Paris, before the invention of printing. But, the expansion of information caused by printing was actually far greater than that since most European libraries in monasteries and universities contained even a smaller number of different texts before the invention of printing.
However, even after the growth of printing, a market for deluxe manuscript books--especially books of hours and other illuminated manuscripts-- continued to exist, to a diminished extent, of course, well into the sixteenth century. From the late fifteenth century through the eighteenth century certain books, on a variety of subjects--including surreptitious books-- continued to be published in small editions through manuscript copying. As late as the mid-nineteenth century editions of lectures, too small for printing, continued to circulate as manuscript copies. Though these later manuscript copies were, of course, no longer written by scribes in monastic scriptoria, the out-dated process of manuscript copying remained reflective, centuries later, of the medieval manuscript tradition.

It is hard to measure the explosive expansion of the quality of information that has been taking place on the Internet, but one of the ways we can do so is to reflect upon the number of distinct URLS that have been indexed. In the past Google has kept this information private. Recently, however, on Google's blog, they stated that the first Google index, built after the company was founded in 1998, indexed 26,000,000 URLs. By comparison, on July 25, 2008, Google announced that they had passed the milestone of indexing one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) unique URLs. A URL may be a web page, an image--anything with a distinct web address. As the volume of information expands at this unimaginable rate, we are witnessing the overlap of the traditional information technology of printing, established for over 500 years, with the new electronic media, rather than the replacement of printing on paper. And more printing may going on than ever, if you count the hundreds of millions of computer printers attached to the billion plus personal computers connected to the Internet. Nevertheless certain kinds of information, previously distributed through printing on paper are now distributed exclusively in electronic form. But even vastly far more information is being distributed in electronic form than on paper, printing technology has continued to improve, and millions of books--including some very spectacular examples of book production-- continue to be produced. Today there are roughly 4,000,000 new titles in print, and over 100,000,000 copies of second-hand, out of print and antiquarian titles for sale on the web.
An ironic example of how the printed book is continuing to adapt to the Internet is the announced “The One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia." This book, announced by Bertelsmann for publication in September, is expected to be an annual compilation, and perhaps abridgement, of what the editors think are the best Wikipedia articles, selected, and presumably translated, from the German language version of the Wikipedia. There are currently roughly 2,500,000 articles in the English language Wikipedia. Since the whole point of the Wikipedia is how it is constantly improved and updated by thousands of collaborators on the Internet, one wonders how the printed book will be accepted.
The publishers appear not to be overly optimistic as the initial press run is supposed to 20,000--just a tiny smidgeon of the millions of people who use the Wikipedia. In any case the book will, apparently, have the historic distinction of crediting more authors--about 90,000 listed in small print on many pages--than any other single volume in the history of printed books.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 10:18 AM   22 Comments

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Robert Darnton's The Library in the New Age

On June 12, Robert Darnton, distinguished historian and director of Harvard University Libraries, published in the New York Review of Books one of the most incisive analyses of the value of physical books and physical libraries in a world of information increasingly populated by digital books, digital libraries, and the Internet. This article I greatly recommend. There is also follow-up correspondence in the New York Review of Books published on July 17.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 6:43 AM   3 Comments

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Collecting Strands of Hair: Not just a Quaint Victorian Preoccupation

Honestly I was always rather turned-off by the what I used to think was the quaint Victorian pre-occupation with collecting locks of hair of celebrities. It always seemed to me more the kind of thing that a mom would save in her baby album. That was till I read the article in today's The New York Times entitled A Little off the Top for History. It is available at the link above. Seems there are still a lot of people collecting hair. And with the possibility of DNA analysis from hair strands maybe something new can actually be learned about the personalities from their hair. The article mentions the legal issue of collecting the hair of living people, and one has to emphasize that an intact provenance is essential for authentically attributing the hair to the historical personality involved. Otherwise you just have plain old hair.
As fascinating as hair-collecting may be to some, I will stick to rare books, autographs & manuscripts, prints, and the occasional painting, drawing, or medical or scientific instrument.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 8:35 AM   20 Comments

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Addition to the G2I Timeline: Forster's The Machine Stops

In November 1909 E. M. Forster published a short story entitled The Machine Stops. Describing a world in which people live beneath the surface of the earth, with technology running virtually all aspects of their lives, the story anticipates instant messaging and videoconferencing with a machine called "the speaking apparatus." It also anticipates television with a machine called the "cinematophote." The only book that the main character uses is an enormous technical manual about "the Machine." Fearing that man might be unable to live without the technology that he created, or eventually might not even remember that the technology was man-made, Forster wrote the story to dramatize the value of actual or direct experience versus "virtual" experience.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 10:18 PM   10 Comments

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Previously Unknown Painting by Leonardo Discovered

In one of the most remarkable art-historical developments ever, a previously unknown painting has been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:
"The painting, a nuptial portrait of a young woman in profile, dates from Leonardo's first Lombard period, ca.1485. The finding is one of the most amazing recent examples of intuition, detective work, technical innovation and connoisseurship. An American collector discovered the masterpiece in a private Swiss collection. The portrait, actually a mixed-media of white, red and black chalks with additions of watercolor, is executed on vellum and measures approximately 24X33 centimeters. Originally purchased in a New York auction 10 years ago, the painting was catalogued as "German early 19th century," and sold for $20,000. This is the first known Da Vinci work executed on vellum, a factor that probably led experts to believe that it was painted by a 19th century German "Nazarene" artist. Moreover, the portrait appears to have been somewhat painted over in the 19th century during a very sensitive restoration. The first to have fully understood the importance of this work was Dr. Nicholas Turner, former Curator of Drawings for the British and Getty Museums. The attribution has been subsequently confirmed by a number of experts, including Dr. Mina Gregori and Dr. Cristina Geddo. The owner is a private Swiss collector who was "overwhelmed" when told of the true attribution. Allesandro Vezzosi, Director of Italy's Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci will feature the work in his new monograph on the artist "Leonardo Infinito" to be published July 5th. Lumiere Technology, a Paris based institute under the guidance of inventor Pascal Cotte and Jean Penicaut confirmed the portrait's attribution and performed the technical analysis. " (artdaily.org, July 6, 2008)

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 8:20 AM   10 Comments

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 1776 to July 4, 2008

On July 4, 1776 John Dunlap printed approximately 200 copies of The Declaration of Independence as a broadside."There is evidence that it was done quickly, and in excitement — watermarks are reversed, some copies look as if they were folded before the ink could dry and bits of punctuation move around from one copy to another. 'We were all in haste,' John Adams later wrote."
Surprisingly these printed broadsides are the earliest records of the final draft of the document, as the manuscript dated July 4, 1776 in the National Archives was back-dated, and the manuscript from which Dunlap worked has never been found. Today 25 copies of the Dunlap broadside remain extant, mostly in institutions.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 9:44 AM   6 Comments

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Richard Green Auction Meets Expectations

Confirming that there is a disconnect between elements of the rare book market and the overall economy, the library of rare scientific books assembled by our former client, Richard Green, auctioned on June 17, met expectations by achieving a sales total of $11,019,687 including buyer's premium. New price levels were reached for the majority of items in the sale. Notable, but expected high prices included $2,210,500 for the first edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (1543), $194,500 for the first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), $506,500 for the first edition of Galileo's Le operazioni del compasso geometrico, et militare. (1606). There were also numerous unexpectedly high prices realized, including: $170,500 for the offprint of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's translation of Menabrea's paper describing the theoretical operations of Babbage's never-realized Analytical Engine (1843), $170,500 for the earliest available telephone directory published in New Haven, 1878, $182,500 for the three separate issues of Turing's On Computable Numbers (1936-37). These prices included the buyer's premium.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 8:40 AM   36 Comments

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