Soups and Sparks

My first line is by way of apology, to those of you who are lured to this page to read about history.

It’s not that there’s no history here, but rather that the word history can be used as an adjective, as in History of Science (which could be termed historical science). All of us who learnt history at school equate it with stories of monarchs, battles, and treaties, by and large taught as a chronology.

Children come away from history with a litany of dynasties, people, places, events, and dates. Put another way, the focus is on who, where, and when. Much less attention is paid to the how and above all the why.  Those questions are the ones that anchor The India Road, the ones that are really interesting. Events, locations, and timing develop around those.

It is said that interesting people talk about ideas, regular folk chat about each other. That’s actually my own simplification of:

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

I find the above quote somewhat arrogant, so I prefer my distinction. Either way, I think the reason why I’ve always found science appealing is this focus on the why. In the same way, I find beauty in numbers, and have considered them good friends for many years.

You only have to look around to see how consumed we all are with the lives of others. In the digital world, there’s no better examples (so far, as Homer Simpson would say) than Facebook and Twitter.

Maybe it’s for that reason that Facebook stock has declined by over 50% since its IPO in mid-May. If Facebook was Greece, it would be sinking through the rating agency quicksands. It’s hard to channel gossip into a business model, unless it’s celebrity gossip—regular folk gossip is of very limited interest.

Google, on the other hand, has a totally different capacity to leverage people’s interest in understanding the things that really concern them: illness, education, housing, travel, and a plethora of worldy goods. And these can easily be monetized through advertising.

Even more interesting, governments are now using Google search data for economic predictions. These have traditionally been made on the basis of hindsight (where we all have 20/20 vision). If the housing market has been growing one percent a quarter for the last three quarters, it would not be surprising to see that growth continue.

The problem of course is that past data have no predictive value. At this point, we have no idea whether  Obama or Romney will win in November.

Google searches for medicines and other related terms, used as a predictor for flu. Peaks in certain years are linked to Bird Flu (2004) and the H1N1 virus (2009), comparisons between the US and Spain show interesting lag and peak patterns, and New Zealand is out of phase with the others, because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere.

Google uses search data to look for trends e.g. in public health, but I’m sure in many other areas as well, many of which are not public, but are high value data products for corporate sales. Used in macroeconomic analysis, this approach can provide leading indicators on economic recovery, by analysing the searches for new houses, together with a number of other criteria. The mortgage refinancing prediction by the NY Fed is nothing short of stunning. For this approach to work, two things are required: a large proportion of the population on the net (80% of the US is), and a near monopoly on Search (hello Google). No wonder the US administration sees Google as the apple (sorry) of its eye.

So history can address art, wine, science, or the blues. Within science, it can be further divided. Then again. And again. The picture below was taken in 1909, and shows the early days of the electrocardiogram.

The physiologist Augustus Waller, performing an electrocardiogram on his bulldog, in a demonstration at the Royal Society of London in 1909. Soon you’ll be able to do this on your smartphone. You can already take your heartrate on an IPhone by using the camera.

The history of this invention, and many other wondrous tales, comes from a book called The Spark of Life. After Waller performed the experiment on the hound, loud complaints were heard in the House of Commons about cruelty to animals. In Parliament, Gladstone famously replied:

Had the experiment been painful, the pain no doubt would have been more immediately felt by those nearest the dog.

The stories of the heart in Frances Ashcroft’s history of electricity are wonderful. The whole book is. It talks about Tennessee stiff-legged goats, who fall over when they’re scared, and tells you about the way sharks hunt with electricity—they easily detect a flatfish hiding under the sand due to electrical signals it generates by breathing.

The soups and sparks debate raged for years in the scientific world—a dispute on whether nerves were connected together by electricity or by chemicals. In the end, the chemicals won the war.

One thing I try every week is to tell a tale. Maybe we should change the name to his story.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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