Tag Archives: MIT

The Technologists – Matthew Pearl

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Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists is a classic thriller set in late nineteenth century Boston, in the early days of MIT. The first graduating class of the upstart university, built on landfill and operating under principles that challenged the Harvard model of education, came close to not receiving their diplomas. Historically, that was because MIT was not granted degree-awarding authorization until a few weeks before the scheduled graduation. Pearl invents a plot to obliterate Boston, aimed at silencing MIT and reversing the progress of science and technology, that nearly takes down the university.

Events in The Technologists are wonky but urgent and understandable. The plot is constructed around science as it intersects with the darker recesses of the human heart and the combination is volatile. A thick fog and wildly spinning compasses send ships crashing into each other and the docks in Boston Harbor. A horrifying moment in the downtown financial district kills and maims in a nightmare of melting glass, windows that liquefy and encase bodies before hardening, clocks with their faces permanently melted and time stopped. And even more devastating incidents loom.

Students at MIT engage in constant banter and battle with their Harvard counterparts—there is no love lost between the scientists of either university. Pranks become deadly and class distinctions lead to violence. MIT’s lone woman student, Ellen Swallow, is assigned a solitary lab in the basement and private tutoring to maintain propriety and isolate her from the men. A scholarship student, a senior class brain and a Harvard humanities washout who is a natural engineer team up to expose the mad scientist who is terrorizing Boston. When they find an empty basement lab to hatch plans and perform experiments to determine the methods of the killer, Ellen, a brilliant chemist, is drafted onto the secret team.

Pearl has created a very good thriller and a very good book. The real history that informs some of the plot provides a convincing backdrop as the tension mounts. The effort to unravel the intrigue demands more than a whodunit approach from the reader. Science supplies the clues but elements as disparate as envy, the Civil War, suffrage, family dysfunction, probable Asperger’s or mild autism, professorial careerism, the properties of metals, disbanded secret societies, the evolution of street lighting, wheat mold, and the labor movement of the late 1800s are integral to the solution. What seems fantastical for the time is merely prototype to the commonplace of today. The satisfying battle between good and evil is, of course, timeless.

The Technologists is complex—full of twists, turns, dead ends, and slippery characters. It might keep you up late, as eager as any scientist to see what transpires once the test tube is suspended over the flame.

The Technologists: A Novel   Matthew Pearl | Random House  2012


Complexity and Simplicity — books to blog, and not

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 I opened Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, read a chapter or so and set it down, repelled. Eco is brilliant and he does not deal in simple, easy or comfortable. I have The Name of the Rose on my shelves, a hardcover that I bought when it came out and immediately devoured. I sold Foucault’s Pendulum to a used bookstore before I left Washington DC—read it, knew I wouldn’t tackle it again. Dug into The Prague Cemetery and sighed. Picked it up and put it down all week. Finally determined that Eco is still brilliant, his subject matter and his characters are repugnant and I just couldn’t push myself to absorb the book, reflect on it and find something intelligent to say about it.

Eco takes on the dark underbelly of late nineteenth century Europe and weaves together manipulative Jesuits, Freemasons, murderous madmen, insane Americans, Black Masses, the Paris Commune, Italian politics, the sewers and back alleys of Paris, and a forger who hates everyone and plagiarizes from everywhere to create documents that excoriate Jews and scapegoat them disastrously. The documents turn into The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and I leave it at that. Brilliant or not, back to the library it goes.

Instead, I read John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity, a skinny book dense with deliberation about how we insist on complexity but crave its opposite, in design, in gadgets and in managing our lives. Maeda was an MIT Media Lab professor when he published the book—he is now head of the Rhode Island School of Design so his focus on design is logical. But he doesn’t stop at Apple innovations. He wrestles with just how much to leave out when reducing a thing to its simplest iteration. He trumpets organization as a means to make multiple objects, steps, chaos-in-general seem simpler, more transparent, less. He exposes how saving time creates the illusion of simplicity. He extols knowledge as the way to simplify. And he admits some things cannot be simplified and sometimes the big picture, with all its side roads and entanglements, is essential to the design of a functional object.

Maeda recounts a moment on a trip to Japan when he stood before a mysterious empty rectangle of space, set apart with a rope perimeter festooned with white paper streamers. He spent some time puzzling over the meaning of this Zen statement, feeling himself growing calmer and more focused as he observed it. Just when he determined it was a clever trick to encourage inner tranquility, a car pulled up and a monk lowered the rope, waved the car into the space and gave it a blessing against accidents. Empty space as a parking space. Emptiness, whatever its purpose, is simplicity.

An ability to undo something offers simplicity. You don’t have to agonize over the exactly right decision when acquiring a new pot or pushing just the right key to produce a desired result on your computer screen. You can return the pot if it isn’t right; you can delete the action if you pushed the wrong button. Less of your attention and less of a commitment are required when you can undo an action. iPods are simple but require a leap of faith. The controls gradually evolved to a single, integrated circle. There are no directions, extra buttons, scroll markers on the iPod control wheel. You have to trust that you will achieve your desired result and take a chance on it. Once you discover this is possible, you use the paper-thin music player without thinking. Simple.

There are human tendencies to complicate things, naturally, and those operate against simplicity. Buy a notepad device or an eReader and marvel at its sleek, unfussy design. Then select from a number of styles of fancy covers to decorate and protect it. Suddenly not so simple. Maeda adds three keys to his ten laws of simplicity—and promises he has more to say on the whole subject. But the book is a straightforward meditation on the appeal and utility of minimalism and his coda encourages you to add your own reflections to what simplicity is and means. Maeda’s keys are that more appears less the farther away it is; openness simplifies complexity; and using less power gains you more. Dig into his brief but packed contemplation to discover what the keys mean to him and might mean to you.   

The Laws of Simplicity    John Maeda | The MIT Press   2006