Monday, 23 January 2017

Gutenberg's Project 1.0

Johannes Gutenberg is best known for having an amazingly clever idea that changed Europe and the world for ever but, as his Wikipedia entry notes, his experimental printing press wasn't his first attempt at a tech startup:
Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen 
I don't know what to make of the fact that the guy responsible* for one of the modern world's most fundamental, ubiquitous, era-defining pieces of technology was also taking a punt on an idea as bonkers as the recent, infamous £160 Internet-connected hairbrush. On the whole, I find it kind of comforting to think that people who can have brilliant ideas can also come up with something which, with the benefit of hindsight, looks totally insane.

Hindsight, of course, is the key - everybody now knows that printing with movable type worked out really well (even if it never made Gutenberg rich), whereas most people with enough sense to avoid homoeopaths, televangelists and crystal healers would now run a mile from somebody trying to flog them a holiness-infused mirror, allegedly activated by having once been in the vicinity of an splinter that reputedly came from the True Cross, or a finger bone purported to have belonged to St Thomas. But, at the time, printing was new and untried and, for people with a devout upbringing (which would have included almost everybody), the efficacy of relics was probably seen as being as commonsense and uncontroversial as the idea that aspirin works is to us.

People in the past weren't stupid - they just worked with a different level of knowledge and a different set of assumptions. Sure, they had ideas that now look daft, but, as the smart hairbrush reminds us, technically competent people can still do sophisticated versions of daft to this day.

The astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, who was born just over a century after Gutenberg died, took the new and controversial Copernican notion of a solar system with the sun at the centre and worked out how the planets moved (in elliptical orbits) in order to produce the motions that astronomers actually observed.

Like Gutenberg, though, he didn't just have a brilliant idea or insight from nowhere. Before coming up with his laws of planetary motion, based on the mathematics of elliptical orbits, Kepler was looking for a simple underlying principle which might explain why the planets orbited where they did. If our world was just another planet, as Copernicus had suggested, there were (as far as anybody knew then), six planets in all. There were other things in nature that were strictly limited in number, thought Kepler - for example the five Platonic (regular) solids:
The Platonic solids, on a tourist T-shirt I bought in Skiathos (an island with no particular connection to Plato, AFAIK, but it looks good and, hey, it's Greek).

Six planets with five intervals between the spheres of adjoining planets. Kepler's first attempt at explaining the orbits of the planets involved assuming that the spheres to which the planets were presumably fixed were separated by volumes corresponding to those taken up by each of the Platonic solids.To modern eyes, his model looks contrived and artificial:
But, up to a point, it seemed to work, sort of:
Interval between planetary orbits Platonic solid Ratio in Kepler's model Actual ratio
Saturn to Jupiter cube 1.73 1.73
Jupiter to Mars tetrahedron 3.00 3.42
Mars to Earth dodecahedron 1.26 1.52
Earth to Venus icosahedron 1.26 1.38
Venus to Mercury octahedron 1.73 1.87
Although Kepler realised that his figures were close, but no cigar, he never abandoned the idea that the regular solids played some role in ordering the orbits of the planets. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see that one simple, underlying, principle (6 planets ordered by intervals corresponding to the 5 Platonic solids) was an illusion, whilst another (planets move in ellipses with the sun at one focus) matches reality. Not only do the elliptical orbits agree exactly with observation (well, almost exactly - there were still anomalies which weren't explained until Einstein came along), but the approximate correspondence between planetary distances and a system of nested Platonic solids definitively fell apart after 1781, when William Herschel discovered Uranus and proved that the number of planets which could exist, unlike the number of regular solids, wasn't limited by some fundamental law.

Because we've all been taught at school about ideas and innovations that changed the world, versus those outmoded ideas that nobody believes in any more, we tend to imagine that we're smart enough to recognise the good stuff and discard stupid ideas, but I'm not so sure.

Without hindsight, we could just as easily end up looking like Jeremy Paxman in that famous 1999 interview with Bowie, where the self-appointed voice of common sense pours cold water on the pop star's airy-fairy notion that this over-hyped Internet nonsense is somehow going to be important, rather than being just another of those silly fads that doesn't impress an experienced member of the commentariat who's seen it all before:

Although, having said all that, I'm still going to stick with my original assessment of the smart hairbrush as a self-evidently stupid idea. History will be the judge of that.

*OK, the Chinese invented printing some 13 centuries before Gutenberg and beat him to movable type by 400 years and some Dutch people will tell you that Laurens Janszoon Coster beat him to it in Europe, but it was still a big deal, for all the qualifications and squabbles over precedence.