Tag Archives: Ed Regis

The Info Mesa, Ed Regis

W.W.Norton, 2003, 268 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 0-393-02123-8

I have no perceptible interest in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but contemporary science interests me and I’ll read anything by Ed Regis… so that’s how I ended up with The Info Mesa, an exploration of “Science, Business, and New Age Alchemy on the Santa Fe Plateau”.  It’s a non-fiction account of how science is increasingly being funneled through computers, as shown through the biography of four men who founded high-tech companies in Santa Fe.  As with other Regis book, it couples engaging portraits of scientists at work with broader consideration of science as it is being practiced today.  Much like other Regis books, The Info Mesa is sometimes superficial and often more triumphant than latter events (or an impartial observer) would suggest.  But as far as science nonfiction goes, it’s another pleasant read and it even has a few things to teach its readers.

The story of how Santa Fe became a hotbed of scientific research begins with the Manhattan project, which grew in the nearby city of Los Alamos.  With such a formidable gathering of scientists, it was only natural that some of them would remember the area fondly and propose it years later as a location for a research institute specializing in unusual problems.  Whenever there’s a research institute, there’s also high probability of start-ups, and that’s how Santa Fe (population: less than 200,000 in the entire metro area) ended up with a small specialized number of companies specializing in high-end computer research as applied to science.

The broad scientific development that Regis tackles in The Info Mesa, beyond some wonderful descriptions of Santa Fe that would make the local Chamber of Commerce give him an honorary membership, is how science has gradually shifted its research in the digital realm.  This happened early in physics, as computer simulations of physical events were relatively easy to model in software: Nuclear explosions are non-trivial to simulate well in silico, but they’re considerably easier to clean up than the real thing.  Meanwhile, the computerization of fields such as biology and chemistry would have to wait for a few crucial developments: The wide availability of powerful computers, and the codification of a common descriptive language.  One of The Info Mesa’s most fascinating tangents is about how David Weininger refined a way to codify the presentation of chemical compounds.  SMILES (Simplified Molecular Input Line Entry Specification) neatly cuts through centuries of chemical confusion to present an unambiguous, human-readable and machine-usable way to present complex chemical compounds.  It’s nothing less than a small study in human ingenuity.

It’s also a neat entry in the biographies of the four men that Regis follows in an attempt to illustrate the development of the Info Mesa.  Weininger is described as a rock-star scientist: He flies his own jet planes (one of them, a decommissioned Russian fighter jet, bought cash-in-hand on an airport tarmac from a weapons dealer), lives in a house that once belonged to SF/Fantasy writer Roger Zelazny and helped build a molecule statue in front of his company’s building.  Meanwhile, The Info Mesa also tracks the lives of Anthony Rippo, Stuart Kauffman and Anthony Nicholls, writing warm portraits of them as scientists and entrepreneurs as they transform knowledge into money.  (Regis is notably glib about the latter, and scrupulously avoids discussing the darker side of, say, bulk-patenting molecules.  But that’s another book in itself.)

The net effect of efforts like those from the Santa Fe companies is that biology and chemistry research is now, in many ways, susceptible to primarily take place within computer simulation.  Drug research stems from new molecules, and digital simulations allow to generate reams of “dry” theoretical data (seeking which molecular structure would bond with a certain neuro-receptor, for instance) in far less time than it would to perform actual “wet” chemical experiments.  Properly applied, computers can speed up vital research by orders of magnitude, and the field is still young.  Apply those same computers to data mining large amount of existing data, and you may even find something new and invisible to earlier methods of analysis.  (In between the gosh-wows, I couldn’t help but notice how many of those innovations post-dated my own formal science education.)

An expansion of Regis’ own Wired June 2000 article “Greeting from Info Mesa”, The Info Mesa is another readable account of how science, technology and humanity interact in new ways.  It’s occasionally scattered, obviously present the best side of everyone involved and probably overestimate their importance in the grand scheme of things, but there’s plenty of fascinating stuff here to make up for the rest.

Who Got Einstein’s Office?, Ed Regis

Addison Wesley, 1987, 316 pages, $17.95 hc, ISBN 0-201-12065-8 nov28

I’m never too fond of reading older, unrevised pop-science books.  Science evolves, revises its own theories and even a decade can mark significant shifts in thinking.  Reading older science books can actually be harmful: readers can end up putting the wrong information in their head from well-meaning but outdated work.

Ed Regis’ Who Got Einstein’s Office? may be pushing almost a quarter of a century by now, but it’s unusually free of obsolescence issues.  A work of science history rather than science fact, it tackles the legacy of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a think-tank set up to provide a place of study for theoretical scientists.  The first decades of the Institute’s history read like a who’s who of American science superstars: Einstein spent his last two decade there, where he rubbed shoulders with people such as Kurt Gödel.  Over the years, names such as Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann and Stephen Wolfram all come to spend time at the Institute.  Who Got Einstein’s Office? is not just the story of the institution, but a look at the personalities that it attracted, the research it fostered and the place of such institutes in science.

The best reason to read the book, even today, remains the portrait of the scientists who worked there.  The book’s title question ends up being a pretext to spend an early chapter looking at Einstein’s history with the institute, and peek a bit beyond the stereotypical image of the one who remains the most famous scientist of all time.  Subsequent chapters study the eccentricities of people such as Kurt Gödel (who ended up starving himself to death out of sheer paranoia), the flamboyance of John von Neumann (“Good Time Johnny”) and the declining years of a politically-persecuted Oppenheimer.

In-between, we get a great portrait of pure scientists at work and play.  The institute being set up to cater to elderly scientists so that they can spend their time thinking without worrying about research money or even getting lunch, it offers an environment where science dominates over more mundane concerns.  Esoteric practical jokes aren’t rare, and eccentricity abounds as Regis offers a look at the various habits of the Institute’s members circa 1986.  It’s a fascinating book, especially when it focuses more on the way science is conducted than the actual content of the science.  I picked up the book in good part because of Regis’ latter work, and wasn’t disappointed to find out that his gift for clear accessible writing is obvious even in his early work.

Needless to say, some aspects of Who Got Einstein’s Office? haven’t aged well.  The illustration in the book are recognizably Macintosh-generated low-resolution graphics, while the lengthy passages on chaos theory, fractal graphics, cellular automata, Conway’s Game of Life and then-current computer technology instantly date the book.  Stephen Wolfram has moved from the Institute to quite a number of astonishing things, which leads one to wonder what has happened to the Institute since then.  After all, one of Regis’ conclusions is that the Institute not only had a harder time attracting big names, it didn’t seem to produce as much good science as it should: it worked better as a decent pre-retirement home for elderly scientists than a boiling think-tank for cutting-edge science.

But none of this reflects badly on the book itself, which is filled with anecdotes, quotes, science and surprises.  Science Fiction fans (once they get over the profiles of Dyson and von Neumann) may be thrilled to see a quick quote from a mathematician named “Rudolf Rucker” [P.47] –the same Rudy Rucker known for his outlandish SF.  Other good stories involve Einstein distracting Gödel long enough for him to pass his American citizenship exam, the grander-than life personality of von Neumann and the various Faculty munities during the Institute’s history.

It all combines in a book that could use a minor revision for details, but can still be read with pleasure and interest today.  Students of twentieth-century science will find a lot to like here, and even those who can’t remember any scientist’s name except for Einstein will learn a lot about some of the finest minds of the twentieth century.

Virus Ground Zero, Ed Regis

Pocket, 1996, 244 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-55361-5

In 1995, a book titled The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, caused a stir among the American public. A dramatic non-fiction account of Ebola outbreaks in Africa and in a Washington DC suburb, it was propelled to the top of the bestseller lists by a combination of good writing, great reviews and an uncanny sense of timing: A few weeks after its initial release, another Ebola outbreak in Zaire made headlines and bolstered sales of the book.

Virus Ground Zero is, in many ways, a follow-up to The Hot Zone. It describes in detail the 1995 African outbreak. It draws an unofficial history of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the world’s foremost anti-viral agency. It also aims to puncture the myth of “the coming plague”, fostered in part by books like The Hot Zone. The result is a triumph of anecdotic storytelling, but a dismal structural failure.

The framework of Virus Ground Zero is provided by the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire. Regis meticulously -but entertainingly- describes the evolution of the outbreak from the initial cases to the ceremonial end of the emergency. It’s a naturally gripping tale, with the detective-like work of tracking down the origin of the virus and the culture clash between American experts and third-world Zaire. Additionally, this being the nineties, the epidemic naturally becomes a media event, and the most blackly amusing parts of the book describe how the media presence in Kikwit was more numerous than the CDC virus experts, and far more obnoxious.

Regis adds to this report an unofficial (read; not always laudatory) history of the Center for Disease Control. Born out of the need to control Malaria in the United States in the 1940s, the CDC quickly grew outside its first assigned bounds to take on more and more duties outside malaria control or even disease control. By the nineties, the CDC had become a massive bureaucracy where only a tenth of all resources were directly assigned to infectious diseases. But the CDC can at least boasts of some significant successes: In the seventies, their efforts managed to erase smallpox, one of humankind’s oldest enemies, from the face of the Earth. This story, and many others, are interwoven in the book.

And there lies the most significant weakness of Virus Ground Zero; a lack of organization. From the beginning, Kikwit crisis and CDC history are alternately covered, without clear chapter distinctions or indications. It’s as if Regis flits from subject to subject as he likes it, ignoring chronology and often leaving “cliffhangers” at the end of each snippet, which won’t be answered until much later in the book. Such a structure is fine for novels, but for a serious nonfiction scientific vulgarization, it’s a fatal mistake. Even worse; there is no index. You can’t reasonably use Virus Ground Zero as a reference book because there’s no way of quickly locating an element. How these types of blatant omission still make it in today’s publishing industry are left as a perverse exercise to the reader.

The real shame of Virus Ground Zero is that Regis is, basically, a rather good vulgarizer. His writing style is clear and witty. He selects good anecdotes and presents them in a way that make a point clear. He isn’t afraid to criticize when it’s appropriate. His explanations are clear and to the point. His central thesis -based on his examination of the non-event that was the Kikwit outbreak- that there’s no such thing as “a coming plague” is carefully documented and does seem reasonable.

But presentation is often as important as content, and so Virus Ground Zero fails on factors external to the content. There would be several easy way to “fix” the book, from a simple index to a complete chronological re-organization of the book, but the current product is a nightmare of structure, a bunch of good stories impossible to consult efficiently.

Nano, Ed Regis

Little Brown, 1995, 325 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73858-1

If you don’t find the future terrifying, you haven’t been there. Yet.

I just made up this epigram, (write to me if you use it) but maybe it should be the motto of every serious futurist. More and more, the pace of progress is increasing. The old adage about how things change to remain the same simply doesn’t hold true anymore: What we’re seeing in the crystal ball is that we’re on the brink of massive, irreversible and completely alien changes that will forever alter the face of the human race.

I’m overreacting? Barely. Consider Genetic Engineering. In maybe a decade (probably less), we’ll be able to fiddle with genes well enough to correct most of humankind’s worst flaws. Myopia? Diabetes? Arrhythmia? Crooked teeth? Gone, gone, all of them! You’ve heard it from elsewhere; let’s not go in more detail here. Genetic Engineering has the potential to do… well… almost everything.

(Digression: Genengineering might be, evolutionary speaking, the only way for a sufficiently advanced civilization to survive. Reason being that civilization stops natural evolution, and there must be something -short of eugenics- to ensure the betterment of the species, right?)

Even before reading Nano, I thought that nanotechnology might have an even bigger impact. Now I’m sure of it.

Nano is a layman’s account of the new proto-science of nanotechnology. I say proto-science because it’s fairly young, and it’s not a “traditional” science that fits in easily with physics, chemistry or biology. Nanotech is, simply, the study and manipulation of objects at the atomic level. What can you do with it? Everything.

Machines able to rearrange matter atom-by atom could be tailored to build any imaginable object. Repair your body. Kill viruses. Provide food from dirt. Power your car. Completely destroy any object and re-use the raw atoms to make a brand-new (or well-thumbed) copy of Dune. Whatever. Nano explains it in crystal-clear details. Make no mistake, Nano is a book-length pamphlet about nanotech and why you should be prepared for it.

But Nano is also very much the story of Eric Drexler. Drexler, while still an undergraduate, hit upon the theoretical notion of manipulating atoms. The remainder of his life so far has been dedicated at making this concept a reality and Nano describes the obstacles he had to face, from incredulity to lack of academic recognition.

The book advances more or less chronologically, following Drexler’s career and occasionally looking into parallel tracks. We progressively get caught in the excitement of the subject, and by the end of the book, you should be as much a convert to nanotech than Regis wants you to be. A few photos (not enough) illustrate this book.

The two biggest assets of Nano are its mind-blowing subject, and a limpid style. Ed Regis should get kudos for an exceptional job of bringing a heady subject to everyone’s level. I learned stuff, and I had a good time while doing it. I can’t think of higher praise for non-fiction books.

What’s more, Nanotech is important. It’s the wildcard of all of our future, it’s the siren song for most SF, it could be the last technical innovation. When it will happen (and there are few theoretical reasons why it should not), everything will change. Read Nano.  Be prepared. Preview the future.