Category Archives: science

Backstory to the industrial revolution: part 3

In the last post, we traced the origins of colonialism, first with the Portuguese mapping a route around the tip of Africa to Asia, rapidly followed by the Spanish discovering and colonizing America. Drawn to the east by trade, and to the west by the appetite for land and resources, Europeans spread across the globe.


In this part, I want to cover what went down within Europe over the same time period.

Thing is, a lot went down. On the cultural side, there was the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, just to name the major watersheds.

On the political side, European supremacy was contested by a shifting cast of major powers, alongside a multitude of smaller political entities. In the 1600s and 1700s, conflicts within Europe were increasingly mirrored by wars in the colonies in America and Asia.

To compress the story into a single blog post, and at the risk of committing the sin of teleology, I’m going to emphasise a single cultural development that seems crucial as a precursor to the Industrial Revolution: the so-called ‘scientific revolution.’ This was the transformation of the natural sciences, over a century or so, from a medieval framework into more or less the form we know today.

As I noted in a previous post, the IR was in large part a technological phenomenon. The rapid technological change that took place is inexplicable without the knowledge and the techniques that were introduced by the scientific revolution. Continue reading


Writing: it’s all about the reader

I said in the last post that I wanted to impart some tips on writing which have been very useful to me. These are all taken from a great article, The Science of Scientific Writing, by George Gopen and Judy Swan.

Gopen & Swan’s big theme is ‘reader expectations.’ Readers, it turns out, don’t just suck up all the words in a text indiscriminately, scramble them all in a mental blender, and absorb the resulting purée as pure information. Instead they look for a running story in any stretch of prose. And, semi-consciously, they – we – look for clues to that story in the structural choices made by the writer. I’ll explain what this really means below. Continue reading

What’s in a Turing test?

The Turing test is one of those snippets of technological folklore that, every so often, triggers a flurry of media excitement. Wild claims are made, dubious headlines are run up the flagpole, much fun is had by all.

Partly, no doubt, because it’s beautifully simple to explain. The idea was articulated by British cryptographer Alan Turing, back in 1950. Turing posed the simple question: could a machine think? Being a no-nonsense chap with a distaste for definitional wrangling, he illustrated his question with an objective test. Take one human judge. Have the judge communicate with two subjects. One is a regular-issue human being, the other is a machine. The trick is, the judge doesn’t know which is which. The subjects are in a physically separate location to the judge, and can only communicate via text message. The judge’s job is to detect the human, by posing any questions they see fit. Continue reading