Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Tag: history

Homo Deus by Yoval Noah Harari

It took me a while, but it was definitely worth it !

An insightful, intelligent and witty book.  Yoval Noah Harari suggests that as science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing, human nature will be transformed because intelligence will be uncoupled from consciousness. The advances in sciences, more specific to neurosciences, nanotechnology and computer science, will change fundamentally the society, politics and our daily lives.


Who are we and how did we get here?

Some books can follow you around. That appeared to have happened in the past few months with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  (HarperCollins). It just seemed to be popping up everywhere.

I got curious and before long, I placed a reservation request to the library. The moment I got my hands on it, I got engrossed, immediately. Sapiens, is an extraordinary and provocative book, often funny and wonderfully written.  Its scope is ambitious, it traces the evolution of our species from the rise of our ancient and insignificant ancestors, around 70,000 years ago, when Sapiens “started doing very special things,” to our current place in the modern, technological age of the twenty-first century.

SapiensIn his book, Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attempts to answer how we did it, how humans succeeded to become the most significant species, to basically rule the planet Earth. His thesis is that Homo Sapiens has succeeded to become the dominant species and control the world because of his ability to cooperate flexibly in very big numbers. Humans are the only animals that can do that. Using their imagination, they are able to create imaginative realities, such as religions, empires, states, ideologies, companies, human rights, and money.  The latter is the most important story ever, because it has enabled humans to construct complex and sophisticated economic cooperative networks.

Three big revolutions shaped the Sapiens. First, the ‘cognitive’ revolution, about 11,000 years ago when humans began to change the way they live, by shifting from hunting and gathering to agricultural economies. Second, it was the ‘scientific’ revolution which began about 500 years ago when humans discovered their own ignorance, and they  decided to do something about it. It was the beginning of science which brought major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation and had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions, in Britain initially, and then in Europe and North America. It also led to the Industrial revolution, about 250 years ago.

We are now experiencing the third one, the ‘biotechnological’ evolution which started after the World War II, about 70 years ago.  Harari’s conclusion is that humans are about to change again and he is trying to identify the new possibilities and choices we are facing.  We are entering a new era where the inevitable merger of human and machine might signal the end of Sapiens as a biological species, and the beginning of post-humans, bioengineered cyborgs that will be able to live forever.

When Bill Bryson stays "At Home"

Just a short note about the book I just read, ‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life’  by Bill Bryson.

Despite the enormous amount of information, more than someone can actually process, this is a fascinating and enjoyable book. Bill Bryson did a prodigious amount of research on the history of nearly everything from architecture to epidemics and toilets to crinolines and wigs.

We discover that there is a lot of history, excitement, even danger in the rooms and the corners of our houses and the domestic life is certainly more spicy, interesting and complicated than we thought. Bill Bryson’s irresistible wit and humour makes it an entertaining reading.

By the way did you know that Thomas Jefferson, as well as being the author of the Declaration of Independence, was also the father of the American French fry.

And, that… rats have a lot of sex – up to twenty times a day and if a male rat can’t find a female, he will willingly – even happily – find relief in a male.

Ancient optical communication networks

All latest developments in telecommunications are optical-data networks. You may think that these networks are recent technological and scientific breakthroughs. They are not.

The first recorded history of high-speed optical data transmissions began with the fall of Troy to the Greek army, around 1184 B.C.

You look surprised!! I assure you, it is true.

When Troy was taken, a prearranged signal was relayed overnight from Troy to Mycanae, the kingdom of Agamemnon (he has promised to his wife Clytaemnestra to send news when the war was over), via a line of fire beacons, a distance of 600km (375 miles), much of it over the sea.


Image Credit: The Remnantz

The event is chronicled by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) in his tragedy Agamemnon, with Clytemnestra receiving news of the signal from her watchman. The chorus, totally surprised, asks: “What Messenger is there that could arrive with such speed as this?”

Clytaemnestra answers:

“Hephaistos (the god of fire), sending forth from Ida a bright radiation. And beacon ever sent beacon hither by means of a courier fire.
Ida (sent it) to the rock of Hermes in Lemnos; and paying more than was due, so as to skim the back of the sea……..transmitting, like a sun, its golden radiance to the look out of Makistos.
And he, not dallying nor heedlessly overcome by sleep, did not neglect its share in the messenger’s duty, and afar, over the streams of Euripus, the beacon’s light gave the watchers of Messapion the sign of its arrival.
They kindled an answering flare and sent the tidings onward, by setting fire to a stack of aged heath. And the vigorous torch, not yet growing dim, leaped, like the shining moon, over the plain of Asopus to the rock of Kithairon and there waked a new relay of the sender fire.
And the far-sent light….shot down over the Gorgon-eyed lake and reaching the mountain of the roaming goats……
And they with stintless might kindled and sent on a great beard of flame, and it passed beyond the promontory that looks down on the Saronic straits, blazing onward, and shot down when it reached the Arachnaean peak, the watch-post that is neighbour to our city;
And then it shot down here to the house of the Atridae, this light, the genuine offspring of its ancestor, the fire from Mount Ida……transmitted to me by my husband from Troy.”

Also, in Egypt they have been remnants of towers that may have been part of a network of communications towers running along the north African coast by which signals of bonfires where used to communicate messages of state. They may have been used also as lighthouses, a navigation beacon for sailing ships out there in the Mediterranean sea.

Source: Aeschylus, Agamemnon, lines 280-316 trans. Eduard Frankel, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), pages 109-111

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

What was happening in England, during the Georgian period, was dramatic. In two generations, roughly from 1730 to 1800, the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. The same time, new political ideas and revolutions, transformed the social and political status quo and forged the British Empire, affecting the lives of millions and opening the way to the industrialised age.

Within this political and social unrest, a diverse group of men, in Birmingham, are pursuing, as a hobby, scientific knowledge. Each of them has its own strong character and temperament. All are passionate, venturous, and progressive. They found a society, the Lunar Society of  Birmingham. Their meetings are held every month, on a date near the full moon, starting with dinner at two and following with discussions and experiments until late evening. The discussed topics are many and diverse, from literature and philosophy to chemistry and engineering. These are the Lunar men, the men that by using science and technology, transform the way of doing things and lead the way towards the industrial revolution.

The ingenious engineer James Watt, who improved the Newcomen’s design and created with his partner Matthew Boulton, a market for a new, improved steam engine. The same Matthew Boulton, the “toymaker” who also established the Soho manufactory north of Birmingham and when asked by the George III what he was doing for living, he replied: “I am engaged, your majesty, in the production of a commodity which is the desire of Kings”. When the King what was that, Boulton said “Power, your Majesty”.

The potter Josiah Wedgwood, the fist to industrialise pottery manufacturing; he experimented with a wide variety of pottery techniques and used artists to garnish his vases. His interests were many and diverse, and it was in his house, the Etruria Hall, where photography was first invented.

Joseph Priestley, a theologian and natural philosopher, a teacher and political theorist. His work is vast, it is expanded to scientific inventions, most considerable his invention of soda water. He wrote about electricity and photosynthesis but become famous with the discovery of oxygen – the “dephlogisticated air” as he dubbed it. He was a minister within the Unitarian church and his theses about political and civil liberties caused strong opposition. His house and books were burnt by the mobs during the riots against intellectualism; his exile to America was the start of the end for the Lunar Society.

Perhaps the most interesting figure in the book is Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, the founder of the theory of Evolution. He was a doctor by profession, but his interests were many and diverse. Gardening, agriculture, chemistry and engineering, poetry and philosophy, even cosmology, were some of his intellectual passions and pursuits. He also had a vague idea about evolution; he increasingly felt that every living organism had descended from one common microscopic organism, a single filament. Darwin would construct the first coherent theory of evolution, of competition and survival. He added to his family crest the motto E conchis omnia “everything from shells”, an action that outraged his clerical friends. Canon Seward sputtered that Darwin was a follower of Epicurus, who claimed that the world was created by accident and not God. Fearing for his practice, Darwin caved in and painted out his blasphemous Latin. (pages 152-153)

 After her excellent biography of Hogarth, Jenny Uglow gives us a nice and detailed history of the Lunar men. Their personal adventures and family stories and tragedies are intertwined beautifully with their intellectual passions and scientific pursuits. She describes sufficiently the revolutions of this period that changed the political and social systems, such as the French and the American Revolutions as well as, the revolutionary advances in science, such as these of Linnaeus and Lavoisier.

She has researched her subject widely and indeed, the reference list is detailed and extensive. It is a useful tool for anyone who wants to examine and study more extensively the period and the lives of these extraordinary men. The book is supported by beautiful illustrations and portraits of these passionate men and their inventions. It is a very well written book that demonstrates that even in difficult periods there are determined and passionate people that can lead the way and really change the world.

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