Kickstarter Campaign Begins for Babbage & Lovelace

Babbage and Lovelace cover smallJust in time for Ada Lovelace Day I’m starting off the Kickstarter campaign to fund my newest book Babbage & Lovelace: The Victorian Computer Wizard and the Enchantress of Numbers. It’s the completely true story of the efforts of two of the most intriguing individuals in the history of science, and their efforts to build an actual working computer in the mid-1800’s, Charles Babbage was an iconoclastic mathematician willing to explore radical new technologies who conceived of a mechanical gearwork computer. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the notorious poet Lord Byron and a brilliant DifferenceEngine1mathematician in her own right. She took Babbage’s ideas, translated them for the public and then expanded upon them. Together they dedicated their lives to  bringing the computer revolution to Victorian England, and they very nearly succeeded. Therein lies one of the great what if questions of history as well as the spark that helped launch the Steampunk movement.

If you’d like to learn more about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, please check out the Kickstarter campaign page.


Marie Curie Tops BBC List of Women Who Changed the World

marie-curie_postcardMarie Curie, the woman who discovered radioactivity, found and named two elements and became the only scientist in history to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences recently came in at the top of a BBC poll on the 100 most influential women in history. In her honor, here is a brief excerpt about her and her groundbreaking work from my book They Called Me Mad: Genius, Madness and the Scientists Who Pushed the Outer Limits of Knowledge.


“When she recovered, Marie began working on her doctoral thesis. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had recently discovered X-rays. A short time later, Antoine-Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered something similar being given off by uranium salts. He shamelessly named them Becquerel rays, but then abandoned research when he found them too difficult to measure.

Marie decided to take up where Becquerel had left off. Initially she didn’t have much success measuring the strength of the rays until Pierre modified and improved his electroscope. Such devices were so notoriously difficult to work with that the scientist Lord Rayleigh once wrote all electrometers were “designed by the devil.” Undeterred, Marie spent day after day laboriously measuring samples of pulverized uranium.

madame-curie-8b1e1fde10c1373230bab21eceeae2ed00701efe-s6-c30Once Marie had established the strength of the rays given off by pure uranium, she used that as a standard against which to measure other substances. She measured samples of the element thorium and found that they gave off rays too, although not as strongly as the uranium. She then measured a type of ore known as pitchblende. It was a heavy, black ore from which uranium was extracted. Surprisingly, Marie found that even after the extraction, the pitchblende continued to emit rays. In fact the rays she detected coming from the pitchblende were stronger than the rays from pure uranium.

Intrigued, she began exhaustively looking at other elements and compounds to determine if they gave off similar rays and if so at what strength. By April of 1898 she had reached a startling conclusion. She wrote up her findings in a formal paper, but since neither she nor Pierre were members of the Academy of Sciences, her professor, Gabriel Lippmann presented the paper in her stead:

It was necessary at this point to find a new term to define this new property of matter manifested by the elements of uranium and thorium. I proposed the word radioactivity.

During the course of my research, I had occasion to examine not only simple compounds, salts and oxides, but also a great number of minerals. Certain ores containing uranium and thorium proved radioactive, but their radioactivity seemed abnormal, for it was much greater than…I had been led to expect. This abnormality greatly surprised us. When I had assured myself that it was not due to an error in the experiment, it became necessary to find an explanation. I then made the hypothesis that the ores of uranium and thorium contain in small quantity a substance much more strongly radioactive than either uranium or thorium itself. This substance could not be one of the known elements, because these had already been examined; it must therefore, be a new chemical element. (Goldsmith)

As the scientist Frederick Soddy later put it, “Pierre Curie’s greatest discovery was Marie Sklodowska. Her greatest discovery was…radioactivity.” She had not only discovered and named an entirely new property of atoms, but had postulated that it could be used to find new elements. Shortly after Marie’s paper was presented, Pierre quit his work with crystals to assist her full-time. Other scientists became interested, including Becquerel. The race to discover these new elements was on.

Soon Marie was competing against scientists in Germany, Italy and England. She managed to isolate a substance from the pitchblende that behaved like the element bismuth, but was 17 times more radioactive than pure uranium. As she continued to purify her samples, the radioactivity increased. Within two weeks she had produced samples 150 times as radioactive, then 300 times as radioactive, and finally 400 times as radioactive as pure uranium. Marie was confident that she had discovered an entirely new element, and she named it in honor of her beloved Polish homeland polonium.

marie-curie---pioneering-scientistShe didn’t stop there. By December, she found a second substance in the pitchblende that behaved like barium. This one was 900 times as radioactive as pure uranium. Believing she had discovered yet another new element, she wanted to confirm her results. One of her colleagues at EPCI, Eugene Demarcay was using a method called spectroscopy. It consisted of heating an element until it became a glowing gas and then using a prism to refract the light given off. The light would form a rainbow pattern or spectra, and each element gave off a unique pattern. On December 19, 1898, Demarcay tested Marie’s new sample and confirmed she had discovered a new element. She named it using the Latin word for ray, radius, and christened the new element radium.

Although Marie and Pierre were certain of her results, others were unsure. The physics community was relatively comfortable with theoretical discoveries, but the chemistry community demanded something more tangible. To convince them, the Curies would need to isolate enough of the new elements to actually be measured and tested. That would prove to be a monumental task.

Pierre applied for laboratory space at the Sorbonne. He was turned down. He then applied at the EPCI, but the best they could provide was an abandoned hangar that had formerly been used by students to perform human dissections in. It had an asphalt floor and a leaky roof, and was in such deplorable condition, that it was no longer suitable to house the cadavers. This was where Marie and Pierre carried out their great work.

The next hurtle was to acquire the vast amounts of pitchblende necessary to isolate a usable amount of the new elements. Fortunately, Pierre learned that there was a mountain of pitchblende sitting in a waste pile in the woods of St. Joachimsthal, then part of Austria. The uranium had already been extracted and the piles of pitchblende sludge were simply dumped there. The Austrians were only too happy to get rid of what they considered waste material, so the Curies only needed to come up with enough money to pay for its transport. A wealthy philanthropist, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild anonymously provided a modest donation for the purpose.

anundatedpicOnce the first few tons of pitchblende arrived in the courtyard outside the hangar, the real back-breaking work could begin. It quickly became apparent that radium would be the easier of the two elements to extract, so the Curies focused on that. They divided the work, Pierre concentrating on the physics and determining its physical properties, and Marie on the chemistry of the extraction process. She carried out an exhaustive series of successive cleanings and boilings of the pitchblende in great twenty kilogram [forty-four pound] batches, stirring the enormous pots with an iron rod almost as tall as she was. She then used chemical processes to purify it further, and crystallize the residues. Initially, she had thought that radium made up approximately one percent of the pitchblende. It turned out that the actual figure was closer to one millionth of one percent. It took her thousands of purifications and almost seven tons of pitchblende to produce a single gram of radium.

Working tirelessly, day after day, under the most abominable of conditions, the Curies were at their best. As Marie describe the time:

We were very happy in spite of the difficult conditions under which we worked. We passed our days at the laboratory, often eating a simple student’s lunch there. A great tranquility reigned in our poor, shabby hangar; occasionally, while observing an operation, we would walk up and down talking of our work, present and future. When we were cold, a cup of hot tea, drunk beside the stove, cheered us. We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.

One evening, after tucking Irene into bed, Marie and Pierre returned to the laboratory to continue their work. As they stepped into the darkened hangar, they saw a faint glow upon the shelves. It was the jars of radium salts that Marie had been purifying. Each contained only a few grains of the precious radium, but it was enough to make them glow in the dark. They reminded Marie of “faint, fairy lights,” and she described her and Pierre’s reaction, “From all sides we could see their slightly luminous silhouettes, and these gleaming, which seemed suspended in the darkness, stirred us with ever new emotion and enchantment.” (Curie, Pierre Curie)

They were blissfully unaware that the radiation responsible for those enchanting lights was also taking a heavy toll on their health. Pierre began suffering from excruciating pain in his legs. He thought it was rheumatism, and attributed it to the dampness in the hangar. His fingers became hard and cracked from handling the radium salts. Marie began to lose weight. Her doctors suspected that she had come down with tuberculosis, the disease which had killed her mother, and recommended rest and country air. She ignored them.

After four years, all of their suffering was rewarded. Marie was able to produce a tenth of a gram of radium. It was a minuscule amount, the equivalent of a few grains of sand, but it was enough for the Curies to determine its atomic weight and place it correctly as number 88 on Mendeleev’s periodic table. Like Priestley before them, they shared their knowledge freely and would soon send samples of radium even to competing scientists like Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and Great Brittan’s Lord Kelvin.”


Fighting Disinformation with Science

2015.06.25-Authoritarian-Disinformation-All-the-News-Unfit-to-PrintWe are living today in a maelstrom of misinformation. Whether the Earth is flat or spherical, do vaccines cause autism or not, is the climate changing or is climate change just a vast left-wing conspiracy, these were once questions easily answered by research, empirical evidence and facts. Now they are matters of opinion in which everyone brings their own version of reality to the table and the winner is the one who can shout the loudest and dig in his heels the hardest. No civilized society, no democracy can stand without some fundamental agreement about how to determine what is real and what is not. We can agree to disagree on matters of opinion, like whether vanilla is better than chocolate. We cannot agree to disagree on matters of fact, like whether or not vanilla and chocolate exist.

What used to be the market of ideas is now the box store of intellectual gratification. No matter how outrageous someone’s opinion is, from Holocaust deniers to moon landing conspiracy buffs, they can quickly and easily find someone, via a Google or Facebook search, with a site willing and able to back them up. We have an almost infinite number of choices for which universe we would like to live in. That is the problem.

24-different-jamsThere is a body of research showing that too many choices actually interfere with our ability to determine which choice is best. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar andMark Lepper conducted a simple experiment to determine the effects of too much choice. They set up a table with a display of 24 varieties of gourmet jam in an upscale supermarket. Shoppers who sampled the jams received a $1 off coupon for any of the varieties. The next day the researchers set up a similar table, but this one only had six types of jam. As expected, the display with the larger number of varieties garnered more attention, but when it actually came time to make a purchase, consumers who were only given six types to choose from were ten types more likely to actually buy some. Those who were given the 24 choices seemed to be so befuddled by the number of varieties that they could not or would not make a choice and were much less likely to buy any of them.

cheerios-recall2This effect isn’t limited to jams. Coffee, breakfast cereals, pasta and even beer, all force us to make choices between a baffling plethora of flavors and tastes. Do you realize that there are 16 varieties of Cheerios alone? Now imagine this when extrapolated to the number of colleges, housing options, retirement and healthcare plans we have to choose from. We now live in an internet age in which this can even be applied to our individual reality.

Additional research has shown that too many choices leaves consumers dissatisfied with the choice they make, second guessing themselves and experiencing what has been termed “choice paralysis.” In his book The Paradox of Choice psychologist Barry Schwartz summarizes it this way.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

If too much choice, even in news and information is bad, what can we do about it? Currently, Google, the world’s most popular search engine, uses algorithms that rank sites primarily according to the number of hits that they get and how well they match with the previous websites the person making the search frequents. That means that someone who frequents conspiracy websites is more likely to have additional conspiracy websites appear higher in their search results. This tends to reinforce their biases. Making matters worse is the practice of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) used by many websites to manipulate where they appear in search results. Sites use key words and the way they link to other sites in order to appear higher in searches.

I2014. 2015 Google conducted research on whether it would be possible to instead rank sites according to their accuracy and organize them based on that. As the researchers described it:

The quality of web sources has been traditionally evaluated using exogenous signals such as the hyperlink structure of the graph. We propose a new approach that relies on endogenous signals, namely, the correctness of factual information provided by the source. A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy.

13673791_f520Although this was simply research, not an actual plan by Google to implement this type of ranking, it would fundamentally change the way people use the web, or more precisely, how website owners use the people who use the web. Sites notorious for putting out false or misleading information, such as InfoWars or Natural News, would appear lower in listings and thus have fewer clicks. That would reduce their revenue and in some cases even threaten their ability to exist.

This would reduce the number of information sources the public uses to the ones with the best reputation for accuracy, but it has also sparked a strong backlash from those who question whether Google or any company should be the arbiter of what is considered true and call it censorship. Regardless, this will be a continuing debate as we struggle to establish what is and isn’t the truth.

Will 3D Printed Guns Kill Gun Control?

images (1)The average person will now be able to freely download the plans for a 3D printed gun off of the internet. That means they will, with the aid of a 3D printer of CNC machine, be able to print their very own gun in the privacy of their home. This has gotten a lot of play in the media and alarmed a number of people, and while some of the public concern about this may be warranted, it does not create an insurmountable problem.

First, by way of background, the way that 3D printers work is by melting and depositing layers of plastic like an automated hot glue gun, or by using a liquid or powdered medium that is selectively solidified via the use of lasers. CNC machines are more properly called Computer Numerical Control milling machines. They work by having a computer controlled carving tool that cuts the desired object out of a block of material.

imagesObviously, the idea of someone using this emerging technology to create their own gun raises a number of issues. The weapon would not have any serial number or require any form of registration, raising the specter of untraceable weapons that could be used to commit all manner of crimes and terrorist attacks. It is not widely known, however, but it has always been legal in the United States for someone to make their own gun. The difference is that until now, the knowledge of how to do so was in the hands of a rather small and manageable number of people. The new technology doesn’t create the risk of untraceable weapons, but it does massively expand the number of people able to do so.

A second concern is that this technology would produce fully plastic weapons that wouldn’t be detectable by metal detectors. While this is possible, it’s more likely that users would simply 3D print the frame or receiver of the gun, the part that legally makes something a gun, and then purchase the barrel and other parts online or from their local gun shop. These would be metal and thus fully detectible.

metallic-barrel-liner-strengthens-newly-developed-3d-printed-gun-songbird-02Additionally, while it is currently possible for the home hobbyist to print a gun, they can’t print the ammunition. A bullets are metal and require an explosive, typically in the form of what’s called smokeless powder, to propel themselves. Neither 3D printers nor CNC machines can produce that, so for the foreseeable future all those 3D printed guns will still need commercially available ammunition. This provides two ways to legally eliminate most of the problems that 3D printed guns create.

Switzerland has long been the darling of much of the anti-gun control crowd because it has the highest per capita gun ownership in the industrialize world. The country has only 8.3 million people, but 2 million of them own guns for a gun ownership rate of 45.7 per 100 people. Despite this, Switzerland has a very low rate of gun related deaths compared to the U.S. One of the reasons is that while guns are relatively easy to get in Switzerland, ammunition for said guns is not.

In order to buy ammunition the purchaser must follow most of the same rules and regulations required to purchase a gun. They must be over 18 years of age and present:

  • a passport or other valid official identification
  • proof of residence
  • a copy of their criminal record or police check that is less than 3 months old
  • a weapon acquisition permit less than 2 years old and/or carrying permit less than 5 years old

On top of all that, they may only purchase ammunition for weapons that they may legally own. If similar laws would be put into use here you might be able to 3D print a gun, but you’d have a difficult time illegally buying the ammo for it.

bulletmarking-452x480It’s also possible that we might be able to use one emerging technology to solve problems created by another. It is now possible for ammunition manufacturers to use lasers to inexpensively engrave the inside of every bullet casing with a unique identification number. Since the number would be on the inside of the casing, any attempt to obscure or change it would destroy the bullet. This would allow the police to match any casings found at a crime scene to the person who purchased the ammo, regardless of whether the bullet was fired from a conventional firearm or a 3D printed one.

This wouldn’t be a perfect solution. It would still be possible for criminals to steal  ammunition, thus making it harder to trace, but police would still be able to trace the casings to the manufacturer and the individual shipment they were stolen from. That would make crimes committed using that ammo much easier to solve. The other thing to consider is that many murders and other gun crimes are committed on impulse. Someone, in the heat of the moment, picks up a gun and does something stupid. The type of person who commits such a crime is unlikely to have either the mental wherewithal or the impulse control to plan ahead and buy illegal ammunition off the black market before they pull the trigger.


Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace

adaThis Saturday marks the 201st birthday of Ada Lovelace. Born Ada Byron, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, she defied the conventions of her time and became a brilliant mathematician. Along the way she and her mentor turned partner Charles Babbage tried to jump start the computer revolution a century before its time, and although they fell somewhat short of that goal, she became recognized as the world’s first computer programmer.

In her honor, I have just completed a book about her and Babbage titled Babbage & Lovelace: the Victorian Computer Wizard and the Enchantress of Numbers. I’ll be giving out details soon on its publication date, but as a special gift to all of Ada’s many admirers, here’s a little sneak preview. Let me know what you think, and if you’re interested in the coming KickStarter campaign for the book, just send me an email address. Thank you.


Babbage & Lovelace: the Victorian Computer Wizard and the Enchantress of Numbers

Chapter 1: The Great Meeting of Minds


What began as the cold, rainy winter of 1833 gave way to a warm and glorious spring and with it the opening of the London Season. Traditionally beginning after Easter and coinciding more or less with the opening of parliament, it extended through the summer. The Season was the height of the English social calendar. All of the finest families left their country estates and flocked to the city for a seemingly endless array of concerts, balls, sporting events and assorted soirees. However, underlying this façade of frivolity was a deadly serious purpose upon which rested the foundation of upper crust society. This was when young, eligible women, having reached the age of seventeen or eighteen, were formally presented to Court, marking their entrance into adulthood and what was frequently described as the largest marriage market in history.

Young ladies, constantly under the watchful eyes of their chaperones, had only a season or two, three at most, to attract the attention of a suitable husband from a respectable family. Longer than that and they might as well be old maids. With that in mind, they were expected to attend as many as “50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts” over the course of the two or three month period in pursuit of a prospective mate. All this, of course, had to be done within the adamantine restraints of proper etiquette. That was the atmosphere into which young Ada Byron was thrust, with a mixture of excitement and dread.

Ada was the only legitimate daughter of the notorious Lord Byron. At seventeen, she was young, beautiful and wealthy, but the scandal of her parent’s divorce limited her prospects. Her mother, the Lady Annabelle Byron, had tirelessly worked for years to control the rebellious child. She had forbidden Ada from seeing or writing to her father or even reading his works. She had even gone so far as to prevent Ada from seeing pictures of her world famous sire. This was all a concerted effort on the part of Lady Byron to expunge any taint of her ex-husband. In spite of these efforts, Ada developed into a young woman of fierce intellect and consuming passions, every bit the heir to her mad, bad and dangerous to know father.

When confronted with the prospect of marriage, Ada put her considerable intellectual talents to work analyzing the task before her. On the one hand, marriage offered her a chance to be seen as an adult, to leave behind the anonymous role of child and at long last enjoy the rights and privileges so long denied her. It was the opportunity she had longed for, to be able to meet and converse openly with her intellectual peers, to make a name for herself as more than simply the infamous poet’s daughter. More importantly, it was a chance to finally escape the controlling clutches of her mother. On the other hand, Ada knew that any freedom marriage offered would only extend as far as the rigid boundaries of her ascribed role as wife and mother. All of this was weighing heavily upon Ada on the evening she met the queen.

On the appointed evening, May 10, Ada traveled by coach to St. James Palace, one of London’s oldest palaces. It was originally commissioned by Henry VIII, and was the setting for all the most important of royal events. Ada was dressed for the occasion in an elegant custom made gown of white satin and tulle, and adorned with the feathered head dress, considered de rigueur for a young lady’s presentation at court. That year, there seemed to be an unusually high volume of marriageable debutants, and she and the others were ushered into the reception hall. There, they were forced to wait in the sweltering confines of the hall until Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV, was ready to receive them.

Anticipation and apprehension ran high, as this was considered one of the most important events in a young lady’s life, restricted exclusively to members of the peerage and daughters of clergymen, military or naval officers, and members of the “aristocratic professions,” such as physician, barrister or banker.  The only one possibly more nervous than Ada that evening was her mother. What if the girl fainted or panicked and ran from the room, Lady Byron wondered. Worse still, what if Ada were indiscrete enough to blurt out something that would remind those present of her scandalous father? Everything rested upon that one moment.

When at last it arrived, and Ada was escorted into the main hall to be formally introduced to the Queen, she conducted herself admirably. When the necessarily brief introduction was done, Ada and the others were allowed to mingle with the rest of those in attendance. Over much needed refreshments, she met the Duke of Wellington and Duchess of Leeds. Across the crowded hall, she could also catch glimpses of two princes visiting from the Continent, the Duke or Orleans and the Duke of Brunswick, as well as the controversial Tallyrand, whom Ada impudently described later as an “old monkey.” She also had the opportunity to meet the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, a distant relative.

Having survived the evening, the matrimonial hunt could begin in earnest. What followed was a whirlwind of public and private events carefully choreographed by Ada’s mother to maximize her marriage potential. Ada attended piano concerts by Mendelssohn, lectures by Michael Faraday at the Royal Society and her first opera, a performance of Anna Bolena. By June, Ada was exhausted, Her notoriety as Byron’s daughter, as well as her own beauty and charm, had netted her a great deal of attention, but no proposals were forthcoming. Nevertheless, Lady Byron secured for herself and Ada the most coveted prize of London society, an invitation to attend one of the fashionable parties held by the renowned scientific polymath and eligible widower, Charles Babbage.

Babbage, like Ada’s father, was a Cambridge man, and while he lacked the notoriety of Byron, he had made quite a name for himself in British social and scientific circles. While still at university, he earned a reputation as an iconoclast for openly rebelling against some of the schools more hidebound academic traditions. By the time he graduated in 1814, he had already published a handful of influential mathematical papers, and he became a member of the prestigious Royal Society at the age of 25. Within the span of a few years, he would have an instrumental hand in the founding of the Analytical Society, the Astronomical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1828, the Cambridge University that had once considered Charles Babbage to be a troublesome and disruptive influence, bestowed upon him the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, a position once held by the legendary Isaac Newton himself.

Babbage’s conquests were not limited to the worlds of science and math. He was also a gifted raconteur, whose quick wit and disposition towards unconventional views made him one of the most sought after dinner guests in England. Over the years, he had also cultivated relationships with some of the most influential people of the time. He counted among his closest friends the noted astronomer John Herschel, whose father, Sir William Herschel, had discovered the planet Uranus; George Peacock, who went on to become one of the leading mathematicians in England; Richard Jones, considered one of the father’s of economics; and William Whewell, who, the very season that Ada Byron made her debut, coined a new term to describe the individuals who made science their life’s work. He combined the word “science” with the word “artist” and called them “scientists.”

A few years after the tragic death of his beloved wife, Georgiana, Babbage and his daughter, named Georgiana for her mother, began hosting parties at their home on Dorset Street. What began as a modest Saturday night affair soon blossomed into one of the premier events for British society. On any given Saturday, upwards of 200 guests would arrive at the Babbage’s townhouse for an evening of mingling and intellectual intercourse with the brightest stars of the London glitterati.  The famous Charles Dickens was a frequent guest, as was Mary Somerville, widely considered to be the grande dame of British science. Charles Lyell, whose book, Principals of Geology, had shocked so many by contending that the Earth was much older than biblical accounts, often attended, accompanied by his young protégé, Charles Darwin. At these events writers conversed with aristocrats, industrialists acquainted themselves with artists, politicians rubbed shoulders with actors and actresses, all in an atmosphere of elegant conviviality, while enjoying music, dance and demonstrations of the latest scientific discoveries. It was just such a demonstration that Ada and her mother were invited to. Babbage had promised to present his most ingenious creation to date, a thinking machine.

On the evening of July 6th, Ada Lovelace, accompanied by Lady Byron, arrived at the Dorset Street townhome of Mr. Babbage. They were, of course, fashionably late, getting there some time after 9:00. Babbage and his daughter were greeting the guests, and, after exchanging pleasantries, he invited them inside. As Ada drifted through the well appointed home and entered the main room, she engaged in polite conversation with gentlemen in fashionable swallow tailed jackets and ladies in ball gowns of organdy and brocade. A smaller room had been set aside for some of the older guests to play card games like whist, loo or vingt-et-un. Another room held tables lavishly set with refreshments of smoked salmon, oysters, finger sandwiches and various croquets and salads. Another table held a large crystal punch bowl, as well as cakes, cookies, tarts, nuts and fresh and dried fruit. It had been an unusually warm summer and even though off the shoulder dresses were all the rage that spring, Ada and the other ladies quickly became overheated in their corsets and long gloves. Fortunately servants circulated among the guests offering glasses of Madera or flavored ices.

Eventually, Babbage invited them into one of the drawing rooms for the main event. Once inside, Ada and the others saw, displayed prominently upon one of the tables, a mechanical wonder of science and engineering. Babbage called it his “Difference Engine,” for the mathematical technique it used to perform its calculations. The engine stood two and a half feet high, by two feet wide and two feet deep, and sat upon a polished wooden base. Constructed of bronze and steel, it featured three columns, each with six engraved figure wheels, connected to a complex network of gears and levers. Although this was only a small prototype of the full machine Babbage had in the works, it represented the single most complex bit of precision engineering the world had seen to date.

Once Babbage had quieted the group and focused their attention, he began to explain his machine and its fantastic potential. Shortly, he began to prove his point by turning the machine’s hand crank, its sole supply of power. The device’s myriad brass and steel gears began to spin and gleam in the reflected light of the newly fashionable gas fixtures. Before the assembled crowd, as the clicking and clacking of metal upon metal reached a furious pace, the device began to perform calculations faster and with greater accuracy than any human being possibly could. The audience was fascinated. They could scarcely believe their eyes. True, this was the age that had been dubbed the Industrial Revolution, and all of them had witnessed technological wonders become reality in just a few short decade, but this, a machine capable of doing the work of the human mind was something altogether new.

When the demonstration was complete, the crowd applauded and congratulated Babbage upon his accomplishment. However, as they returned to the rest of the party and turned their attention once more to their fellow partiers, much of their enthusiasm seemed to fade. In conversations among themselves, most concluded the wondrous automation, although quite impressive, was simply an amusing plaything with no practical applications. Not so Ada.

Almost immediately she grasped the revolutionary significance of such a machine and spent many hours that night asking Mr. Babbage about its inner workings. Babbage, for his part, was flattered by the attention of such a curious and intellectually gifted young woman. Within a few weeks, he was helping her obtain the finest mathematical tutors so that she might fully appreciate the elegance of the engine’s design. What started over pleasant party conversation, grew into a lifelong friendship and one of the most fascinating and complex partnerships in the history of science.

You might not know it, but the world is much better off than it’s ever been

3442-comic-face-fear-fright-horror-man-panic-retro-scared-scary-scream-spooked-suit-terror-vintage-free-vector-graphics-free-illustrations-free-images-royalty-freeIt’s kind of difficult to plan where you’re going if you don’t know where your at. That’s increasingly a problem as we become more and more detached about the state the world is in. Our picture of our world is skewed by the press, politicians, social media and frequently, our own brains.

If you get your news only from network and cable news you should be scared to death. We’re bombarded 24/7 with stories of murders, atrocities and terrorist attacks. Most people are convinced that crime is skyrocketing, mass shootings are common, terrorists are hiding around every corner and the world is increasingly at war. The problem is that all of that is wrong.

k6279015According to FBI statistics, crime has been falling steadily for the better part of a generation. Between the years 1993 and 2000 the murder rate dropped from 7 homicides per 100,000 people to 3.8 per 100,000. That’s nearly a 50% decrease, and it’s not just homicides. During the same period non-homicides involving guns, such as robberies dropped from 725 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 175 in per 100,000 in 2000. In other words, it fell approximately 75%. Other crimes, assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, thefts, rape have all had similar declines.

It’s not just the U.S. Crime has dropped in virtually every large, industrialized country. Murders in England and Wales dropped 66%. Property crimes in France are down by a third. Homicide rates in Japan haven’t been this low since shortly after World War 2. Nobody is quite sure why. Possible explanations range from demographic shifts to the banning of lead in gasoline, but for whatever reason, crime is down throughout the industrialized world.

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Paratroopers from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division establish position behind cover in the early evening hours of an air-assault, live-fire exercise, April 3, 2009. (U.S. Army photo Spc. Benjamin Watson, 49th Public Affairs Detachment (Airborne))

On a larger scale, wars are down as well. Both the rate of deaths due to war and the actual number of people dying in battle are down. In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, there were approximately 850,000 battle deaths, according to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. By 2008, the number had fallen to less than 50,000. Despite debates over what constitutes a “war” in the modern world, and an uptick in battle deaths due to the war in Syria, it’s pretty clear that wars are claiming fewer lives. According to Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, “There was a slight uptick in 2012, and I expect it will continue to rise a bit in 2013 and 2014 because of Syria and Iraq, but not nearly enough to bring us to the levels seen during the Chinese Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Iran-Iraq, USSR-Afghanistan, and the many now-quiescent regions of Africa.”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Worldwide, infant and maternal mortality are down, as are deaths due to disease and malnutrition. Combine that with reductions in auto fatalities and other forms of accidental death and this may be safest time in human history. So, if the world is so much safer, then why does everyone think it’s more dangerous? The short answer is that there’s a lot of money to be made by scaring people.

Both print and TV news, along with web-based news outlets work under the adage “If it bleeds it leads.” People tune in to hear about tragedy and violence. Good news is harder to sell. A study of news preferences conducted by Pew Research in 2014 found that people ranked war and terrorism as their highest news priority, followed closely by natural and man made disasters. We create a ready market for scary news and the media is only too willing to cater to it.

donald-trump-you-re-fired-18191625Politicians too use fear as a way to bring in voters and get them to the polls. That’s why Donald Trump claimed rapists were illegally pouring in from Mexico and recently tweeted, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!” It’s absolutely false, but it gets people’s attention. It mobilizes the base. Politicians use the politics of fear because it works.

So, why does it work? Why is fear so effective and why do we keep coming back for more? From an evolutionary point of view, being afraid is a very useful thing. Those who reacted at the first sign of danger were more likely to survive, while those who took the time for a more reasoned response frequently became someone’s lunch. Today there aren’t many things around to eat humans, but our fear response is hard wired. In the absence of actual threats, our brains frequently latch onto any slight threat and blow it out of proportion.

This has a range of negative effects. The stress of being constantly afraid can compromise the immune system and cause long term damage to the heart. More generally, it clouds our judgment. Preoccupation with imagined threats can blind us to the real things. It causes us to act irrationally and allows others to prey upon our fears. If we can set those fears aside, we can make more reasoned decisions about our world. We can celebrate the advances we have made and continue to advance in the future.