Monday, 19 May 2014

A colossal hello: reflections through time

Bletchley's evocative 'digitised' statue of the tragically iconic
Alan Turing, shown holding an Enigma encoder on his lap.
Last week was full: two days as a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Diamond Light Source - 'swimming' in excellent science at a world-class research facility which is at the threshold of an exciting new phase in its work - and then a bit of R'nR via Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing. In truth, it was Bletchley Park I had planned to visit, but the Computing Museum is on the same sight - and crucially, it houses working reconstructions of two of the first digital computers ever designed and constructed, both of which were central to the code-breaking work of the Bletchley Park/Station-X operation. It's out of the juxtaposition of these two parts of my week that the reflections in this post emerge.

The Bletchley Park Trust has done a good job in renovating important parts of the original World War 2 site and in explaining the background to the work undertaken there. It is still a 'work in progress' - and I suspect it'll remain so for many years to come since there's a lot that's in need of re-building and then 'populating' with exhibits. What is there, however, is more than enough to illustrate the staggeringly high levels of intellectual ingenuity, doggedness and resourcefulness associated with this critical period in Britain's recent history. The Bombe and then Colossus computers, for instance, represented the first of their kind: the very beginning of digital electronic computing. To have taken this step at any time would have been a remarkable feat - to have done so as rapidly and successfully as they did under the pressures and privations of war-time is mind-blowing. The prototype Colossus, built from components used in the telephone industry of the day, contained 1500 valves - the forerunner to the transistor, thousands of which are built into even the simplest of  modern-day computer chips - and the final version, now reconstructed, required 2500 valves and consumed large quantities of electricity.
My simple video of this beast in operation illustrates the rhythm of its operations, but the noise of having several of these running simultaneously must have been unpleasant (although the heat output was presumably welcome in Winter-time). The 'program' is written/input using the small bank of switches on the grey panel (centre front, about 20s in - the thumbnail image above) and the 'data' is in the form of a loop of punched paper tape* (shown at the far end, whizzing around over motor-driven wheels, at about 25-35s). The banks of valves - one of which is still running from the 1940s - and the clank of relays are self-evident.

Enough of this nerdy eulogy. What struck me as I reflected on this week-of-two-halves was the degree to which the life of someone working at the forefront of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) today resonates with that of 70 or so years ago, and yet is so very different. For example, my own research career has been characterized by a desire to work across the traditional boundaries between subject disciplines; although a physicist by training, my research team has comprised almost equal numbers of chemists and physicists. This conveyed enormous strength in that we could make the very best novel materials for experiments and then handle sophisticated mathematical models with which to analyse the data. Later on I also began working with industrial and bio-medical materials scientists. In more recent years, the call of 'science communication' and 'public engagement' has become a key passion in my working life and this has given me some golden opportunities to work with talented and creative people in the arts and humanities; I've written about some of this in earlier posts (here, and here). Two words encapsulate the generic approach: multi-disciplinary, i.e. synthesizing the distinct contributions from more than one area to provide a 'solution', and inter-disciplinary - wherein one uses from the outset the insights from more than one discipline (i.e. this is a 'new' avenue altogether: rather like the generation of chemical physics as a new subject by inter-twining physics and chemistry). Unquestionably, one gives up some depth of physics per se in order to bring in the other scientific disciplines, but the reward is being able to illuminate scientific puzzles that would not have yielded to any one discipline/method on its own. It struck me that the work at Bletchley, as portrayed at the Park site and in the various TV documentaries I have seen over the years, was multi-disciplinary more than it was inter-disciplinary, although a good deal of the latter was evident also. However, the resonance fades fairly rapidly at that point. For easily understood security reasons, the various experts at Bletchley - mathematicians, technicians, linguists, chess masters and so on - mostly worked in compartmentalized 'huts', often literally - such that no-one ever had sight of the wider picture as it were. This contrasts with the approach possible nowadays in which open research partnership is seen as the more valuable avenue.

There are other differences it seems to me: the rise of the spirit of individuality for instance, which can, if left unchecked, wreck the sort of research partnership I've just described, is arguably far stronger now than seems to have been the case in the 1930-40s. Would it be practicable to constrain the leading minds of today to work in the sort of way deemed necessary back then? Perhaps the times would dictate: I hope never to have to find out.

There is one other set of reflections that emerged from my mind's rubbing together of Bletchley and Diamond, and what they respectively signify in terms of approaches to research and the life scientific. In a famous lecture delivered by C.P. Snow - himself both a chemist and a writer -  a little over a decade after the creation of Colossus and which is still raised in debate today (see tweets/blog posts by Becky Higgitt for example for some sane analysis) we are presented with the Two Cultures model. Scientists, it is said, cannot converse meaningfully about their scientific endeavours with those from the arts and humanities; one can today hear terms like 'computer /scientific /mathematical literacy' - and by implication, illiteracy' - banded about relatively frequently. There is certainly an issue here, although it's often discussed in too simplistic a fashion, but there is also a fast-growing number of scientists (and those from across the STEM and related disciplines) who are committed to building bridges between these 'two cultures'. Were those working at Bletchley Park in the 1930s (when it began life as Station-X) and 1940s afflicted less in this way than it's claimed we are today? Certainly, the mix of experts working to a common overall cause was such that it's tempting to think there was the possibility of some remarkable meeting of minds - and the astonishing output from the place might lend support to that conclusion - but the intense security consciousness of their working environment might also degrade that opportunity. Evidently, one of the mistakes I made on this particular trip was to fail to buy an authoritative account: there were plenty of tempting books on sale there, but I already have such a deep pile of books awaiting my attention ...

As a visitor to the rebuild of Colossus I was handed a short
section of tape: I show a scan of it here, with my 'translation'.
* Punched paper tape? Although I'm not quite old enough to have been alive when these very first electronic digital computers emerged I have witnessed a lot of the key stages in their development thus far. I first started using punched cards, and then the paper tape analogue, when I was a student; all the way through to my first salaried research contract the other side of my PhD I was still using them - only later did magnetic tape arrive in force, to be followed by a multitude of magnetic-based storage thereafter all the way to hard drives, flash memory and so on. The 'code' was developed a century ago when the first teleprinters emerged (think text messaging crossed with Morse code) and in an efficient series of holes punched in a paper ribbon about 17 mm (3/4") wide it was possible to convey all the alphanumeric characters. The tape developed over time (e.g. to end up 25 mm, 1", wide) but the fundamentals remained the same.

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