Friday, 27 April 2012

Charles Babbage's Brain

When I heard James Gleick on Radio 4 he immediately commanded my attention. In conversation with his interviewer his relaxed tones had authority and I knew I had to read his newest book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Fourth Estate, London 2011). I ordered it from Amazon and waited expectantly for its UK publication.

When the heavy paperback arrived I devoured its contents. The Information connected so many strands of my life, information science and the IT revolution that has been going on around us for several decades now. Gleick writes with clarity and insight and I would recommend it to anyone that is interested in how the modern world ticks, running as it increasingly does on pure information, coursing through its electronic nervous system.

Gleick devotes a fair amount of space to the nineteenth century mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and his far-sighted ideas about pure information which were embodied in his Difference Engine and its more advanced successor the Analytical Engine, a design for the world's first programmable computer. I was also introduced to, and rather captivated by, the precocious talent of his young pupil Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) who is credited with conceiving and actually writing the world's first computer program. She was an insatiable mathematical thinker and very sure of her own abilities, nor shy of telling everyone so.

Babbage had an amazing brain which he used to solve numerous problems in his lifetime by rigorous analysis and the application of logic. He was also a great London socialite and though he held the Lucasian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post held by Isaac Newton no less) he was not required to attend the university very often and so he remained free to pursue his curiosity wherever it led him.

Imagine how captivated I was then to come face to face, so to speak, with all that remains of Charles Babbage. Well almost face to face. For in an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, suspended in a numbered glass jar, was the pickled left hemisphere of Charles Babbage's brain. I looked and looked, transfixed. It seemed a good size but not exceptional. The preparator had severed the two hemispheres through the brain stem and the knife had strayed off course, cutting into a fold in his cerebral cortex. What damage might that have inflicted had Babbage been alive! What path might the history of information science taken without the insights conceived in that colossus of an intellect that inhabited those delicate folds in this organ before me?

Such is the power of museum collections to connect and such was my amazing good fortune to have stumbled upon this artefact, while waiting for my appointment at the eye hospital along the road. I just love serendipity. By another coincidence Babbage also invented the opththalmoscope, a device which allows surgeons to see inside the eye but like his early mechanical computers his invention was forgotten and had to be independently invented by Helman von Helmholtz. I found myself seated before a modern version of one later that afternoon.

Seek out and your luck comes to you.

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