Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

3 posts from March 2016

23 March 2016

Science and Art in the rehearsal room

Ziggy Jacobs is Lighting Designer for Calculating Kindness, which is presented by Undercurrent and Camden People’s Theatre in partnership with the British Library. The production was researched using the papers of George R Price and W.D. Hamilton held at the British Library. George Price (1922-1975) was an evolutionary biologist who formulated the Price equation which is widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism.

Tell us a little about your usual creative process, and how this differs when working on a Science & Art project?

I specialize in the intersection between science, technology, art, maths, and performance – so a show like this is a gift, and it’s why I was contacted by Laura Farnworth (Director). 2
I don’t think of “art” and “science” as separate things at all, so I find exploratory processes in all fields immensely creative. There’s a flip side to that coin however, in that I find some performance and scientific work can be equally dry and un-creative, when they are not exploratory or experimental. I think we have become unfortunately stuck in a cycle of creating theatre lighting in a very limited way, working from what our existing tools can achieve. This breeds a kind of expected repertoire of pretty techniques which are applied over and over again, a lexicon of colour temperatures and shapes which are signifiers for a regular and dedicated audience of mostly other performance makers.

7I wholeheartedly believe in beginning from scratch – asking what we want to achieve, what story are we telling, and thinking sky-high about what visual elements can support that, discussing them in initial meetings and devising sessions. During rehearsals, those ideas can be pared back to the achievable, and engineered from the ground up. It may require building an app, creating a new source of light, learning from the technology of completely disparate or unexpected industries, or engineering a brand new concept – and sometimes it needs a 2kW Fresnel and a good old fashioned profile fixture. The point is that I never know what the show needs, simple, complex, or unheard of, until I work within it, and I like it that way. I like to learn new skills, hone old ones, and start from total scratch each time – I think it’s the only way to inject innovation into performance tech. Lucy Sierra is an incredible designer to work with for this kind of process. We work in a very similar way – she doesn’t start outside or inside a box. There just isn’t a box to consider. It means that she comes up with these incredible visual images that I can bounce technological ideas off of, and every time we work together I am very proud of an original concept and execution that we create. 6

How have you related the Price equation to your design?

I went through a number of ideas about how to relate the equation – from creating a “population” of sources that could demonstrate “fitness” and attrition in a live way every night, to a brain-world that reflected neurological activity through the light. In the end, we have decided to create a corner of George’s mind, where this story lives, and the lighting is related to the things that occupy this mind. The equation, and George’s mind, are reflected in an organized, angular way, but also have a natural and dynamic quality to their movement, a sort of spontaneous variable. The most important sources attached to the equation exist as they are, they do not make a judgement, or attempt to lead perception in a single direction – just like the equation doesn’t. They are neutral factors, their spread and activity is inevitable, fractal.

3To an extent the individual sources are a population, and each one has had to survive the selection process; you will see clearly that the successful attributes and the “fittest” type of sources certainly demonstrate a covariance with their frequency in the population of lighting objects. If you view the entire lighting of the Camden People’s Theatre as a population of controllable sources, we have increased the figure dramatically – and the frequency of one type of source is drastically higher by the same amount. This can be seen as very much like genetic frequency; when the frequency of one gene (this type of source) increases in a population, the fitness of the population is covariant (the fitness of lighting objects in the theatre). Obviously they are not able to reproduce (although that could be an amazingly cost-effective idea!), but the concept is sort of beautifully similar! 

Undercurrent’s Calculating Kindness opens at Camden People’s Theatre on 29 March until 16 April. All images used with kind permission of Undercurrent UK.

15 March 2016

Tunny and Colossus: Donald Michie and Bletchley Park

In honour of British Science Week Jonathan Pledge explores the work of Donald Michie, a code-breaker at Bletchley Park from 1942 to 1945. The Donald Michie papers are held at the British Library.

Donald Michie (1923-2007) was a scientist who made key contributions in the fields of cryptography, mammalian genetics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Copy of a photograph of Donald Michie taken while he was at Bletchley Park (Add MS 89072/1/5). Copyright the estate of Donald Michie/Crown Copyright.

In 1942, Michie began working at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire as a code-breaker under Max H. A. Newman. His role was to decrypt the German Lorenz teleprinter cypher - codenamed ‘Tunny’.

The Tunny machine was attached to a teleprinter and encoded messages via a system of two sets of five rotating wheels, named ‘psi’ and ‘chi’, by the code-breakers. The starting position of the wheels, known as a wheel pattern, was decided by a predetermined code before the operator entered the message. The encryption worked by generating an additional letter, derived from the addition of each letter generated by the psi and chi wheels to each letter of the unencrypted message entered by the operator. The addition worked by using a simple rule represented here as dots and crosses:

• + • = •

x + x = •

• + x = x

x + • = x

Therefore using these rules, M in the teleprinter alphabet, represented as:  • • x x x, added to N: • • x x •, gives • • • • x, the letter T.

Detail of the Lorenz machine showing the encoding wheels. Creative Commons Licence.

In order for messages to be decrypted it was initially necessary to know the position of the encoding wheels before the message was sent. These were initially established by the use of ‘depths’. A depth occurred when the Tunny operator mistakenly repeated the same message with subtle textual differences without first resetting the encoding wheels.

A depth was first intercepted on 30 August 1941 and the encoding text was deciphered by John Tiltman. From this the working details of Tunny were established by the mathematician William Tutte without his ever having seen the machine itself; an astonishing feat. Using Tutte’s deduction the mathematician Alan Turing came up with a system for devising the wheel patterns; known as ‘Turingery’.

Turing, known today for his role in breaking the German navy’s ‘Enigma ‘code, was at the time best known for his 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’ in which he had theorised about a ‘Universal Turing Machine’ which today we would recognise as a computer. Turing’s ideas on ‘intelligent machines’, along with his friendship, were to have a lasting effect on Michie and his future career in AI and robotics. 

Between July and October 1942, all German Tunny messages were decrypted by hand. However changes to the way the cypher was generated meant that finding the wheel setting by hand was no longer feasible. It was again William Tutte who came up with a statistical method for finding the wheels settings and it was the mathematician Max Newman who suggested using a machine for processing the data.

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Colossus computer [c 1944]. By the end of the War there were ten such machines at Bletchley. Crown Copyright.

Initially an electronic counter dubbed ‘Heath Robinson’ was used for data processing. However it was not until the engineer Thomas Flowers, designed and built Colossus, the world’s first large scale electronic computer, that wheel patterns and therefore the messages could be decrypted at speed. Michie too, along with Jack Good, played a part, discovering a way of using Colossus to dramatically reduce the processing time for ciphered texts.

The decrypting of Tunny messages was critical in providing the Allies with information on high level German military planning in particular for the Battle of Kursk in 1943 and surrounding preparations for the D-Day invasion of 1944

One of the great ironies is that much of this pioneering and critical work remained a state secret until 1996. It was only through Donald Michie’s tireless campaigning that the General Report on Tunny, written in 1945 by Michie, Jack Good and Geoffrey Timmins, was finally declassified by the British Government; providing proof of the code-breakers collective achievements during the War. 

Pages from Donald Michie’s copy of the General Report on Tunny. (Add MS 89072/1/6). Crown Copyright.

 Donald Michie at the British Library

The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2007. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.


Jonathan Pledge: Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life

Read more about ciphers in the British Library's collections on Untold Lives

14 March 2016

The secret lives of scientists

From Brian Cox and his past life as a pop star to Albert Einstein’s career as a patent clerk, PhD placement student Eleanor Sherwood delves into the more unknown pursuits and occupations of well-known scientists. 

Brian Cox 

©Vconnare at English Wikipedia

Brian Cox is an Advanced Fellow of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and also conducts research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  Although a well-known face in the media, presenting popular TV shows such as The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe1, Professor Cox has had previous brushes with fame as a member of two separate bands.  Between 1986 and 1992, Cox was a keyboard player in hard rock band Dare and, during the completion of his Physics PhD, Cox also played the keyboard in the more well-known pop rock/dance group D:Ream2,3.  The band’s best-known single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was performed live on Top of the Pops in 1994 and was featured heavily in Labour’s 1997 election campaign3

Read Brian Cox’s PhD thesis here via the British Library's online e-theses service, EThOS.

Albert Einstein

© Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist born in Germany.  He is probably one of the most famous scientists of modern times and his most well-known work, the general theory of relativity, forms the basis of modern physics.  However, after graduating from the Swiss Polytechnic School in Zurich in 19004, Einstein struggled to find a job in academia and so found work as a clerk in the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern. He worked here throughout his ‘miracle year’ of 1905, where he was awarded his PhD and also published four groundbreaking papers, and only left in 1909 to accept the post of ‘Professor Extraordinarius’ in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich5.


Read some of Einstein's many books at the British Library, ranging from explanations of the Theory of Relativity to autobiographical writings

William HerschelWilhelm_Herschel_03

Friedrich William Herschel was born in Hannover yet moved to Bath, England at age 19.  An accomplished astronomer, Herschel is credited with the discovery of Uranus, the confirmation of the theory that nebulae were composed of stars rather than a luminous fluid, as was the opposing theory, and a theory of stellar evolution6. However, Herschel was only a professional astronomer from the age of 43; until this time, William Herschel taught, performed and composed music and was employed for some time as the organist of a chapel in Bath.

Alexander Graham Bell

By Moffett Studio, via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh to a family of elocutionists.  Although he is most notably credited with the invention of the telephone,Bell contributed to many other inventions including metal detectors and early aircraft7, and was also a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University8.  However, as well as his scientific endeavours, Bell was a teacher of his father’s ‘Visible Speech’ system at a number of institutions for deaf or deaf-mute students.  He also opened his own ‘School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech’; a notable student being Helen Keller, with whom he worked and was friends for over 30 years9.

Polly Matzinger

Polly Matzinger is an American immunologist and has held research posts at The University of   727px-Polly_&_Annie
Cambridge, The Basel Institute for Immunology and most recently at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Maryland10.  She is most well-known for her work on ‘The Danger Model’, a theory explaining how immune cells can sense when the body is under attack and thus when to mount an immune response.  Leading up to her scientific career however, Matzinger undertook a number of ‘unconventional’ career paths.  Among many jobs, Matzinger worked as a jazz musician, problem dog trainer and even a playboy ‘bunny’, however it was her job as a cocktail waitress and an evening serving two university professors which led to her being persuaded to pursue a career in science11

Read Matzinger's 1994 review on the Danger Theory published in Annual Reviews of Immunology at the British Library - available to order as a hard copy here from the British Library collections.

Alan Turing

Alan_Turing_Aged_16 (1)
Author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing was a British computer scientist, cryptanalyst, logician and mathematician, and is widely regarded to be the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence.  Turing is also credited with the design and development of the ‘Bombe’- an electromechanical device which was used during World War II to decipher Enigma-encrypted messages from the German military.  Aside from this, Turing was a talented long distance runner and used to frequently run the 40 miles from his work station at Bletchley Park to London for meetings.  Turing even tried out for the 1948 British Olympics marathon team and, despite being injured at the time, finished with a time only 12 minutes slower than winning time for that year12.

Read all about the life of Alan Turing in the book by Robert Hodges: 'Alan Turing: The Enigma'. Available to order here from the British Library collections