Communicating

Engineers use patterns to understand and manipulate energy and information

Information is abstract and immaterial and so requires embodiment in material form for it to have energy, potential and flow. This kind of understanding has revolutionised the way we human communicate. Language is, of course central – both to communication and to our sense of identity. Language and other important forms of communication such as body language, dress, ornamentation, music, dance, songs and festivals can all be understood as patterns. Intrinsic to each and every one of these patterns is that it and its components are holons i.e. both parts and wholes at the same time.

We tend to think of information as static and passive like written words and numbers – constant and unchanging. We receive it, don’t interact with it to change it such as when we read a book. The first static clay and wooden block type for printing developed into moveable metal stereotype – now it is held in computer memory.

The information in our brains, in the spoken word, in social media and in our increasingly dynamic world of change is different – it is active information. Active information is material but changing all of the time because of almost continuous interactions between the sources. Coping with it in our social media interconnected world is increasingly a challenge.

The history of communication is our search for ways to improve on transmission of information – from jungle drums, through semaphore and the telgraph to satellites. Modern comms stem from the discoveries of Michael Faraday – the father of electrical engineering. Electromagnetism is all about the physical interaction between electrically charged particles. Faraday showed that electricity could generate physical work. James Clerk Maxwell  developed Faraday’s intuitions into field theory. The idea of electromagnetic radiation in Maxwell’s equations led to the discovery of radiation at other wave lengths. We now use the whole spectrum of electromagnetic waves ranging from the longest – which are radio waves with frequencies of around 105 Hz or lower and wave lengths expressed in kilometres and greater – down to the very short gamma rays with frequencies of 1020 Hz and wave lengths expressed in nanometres (10-9 metres). In between there are microwaves, infrared waves, the visible region or light, ultraviolet light and X-rays.

Radio signals are transmitted via analogue (continuous) carrier waves which are modulated (changed or modified) by an input signal or wave. The input signal contains the information we wish to transmit such as that from someone speaking into a microphone. The two main ways this was done are AM or Amplitude Modulation and FM or Frequency Modulation. The modulated signals – AM or FM – are detected by a radio receiver tuned to that particular frequency by turning a knob that varies the capacitance of the capacitor until the receiver circuit resonates. The signal is then demodulated or decoded to reproduce the original sound which is then amplified and sent to a speaker. Edwin Armstrong (1890-1954) developed FM radio in the 1930s. In FM the frequency rather than the amplitude of the carrier wave is varied. The BBC started FM transmissions in 1955.

Modern computing began in the late 1930s when punched cards were used to input programs and data. The first commercial computer was the UNIVAC in the 1940s. By the early 1950s many large companies were using computers for billing, payroll management, cost accounting and were exploring more complex tasks like sales forecasting, factory scheduling and inventory management. By 1960 there were a number of companies supplying large ‘mainframe’ computers. These were institutional machines run by specialists. Individual programmers had little access but could be given ‘driving lessons’. Software for large numerical calculations enabled engineers to begin to use them and new techniques of numerical analysis began to be developed. These first computers were physically large as pointed out earlier. The miniaturisation of electronics started when semiconductors and the transistor were invented – work for which William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. In the 1960s and 70s transistors and then microprocessors with integrated circuits, took over leading eventually to the personal computer, lap top and hand held media player and personal digital assistant.

In simple terms computers and computer networks pass messages to each other using a set of communication protocols or rules for governing the format of messages. Looking vertically down into the subsystems of your computer is a layer of interconnected semiconductors working together to make the logic gates in the next layer up. The gates work together in a third layer to make flip-flops and other devices making up patterns of bits and bytes. Next are the registers, memory cells and arithmetic units made of connected flip-flops and all put together into integrated circuits that make up the brains of a computer – the microprocessor or central processing unit CPU. The top hardware layer contains several other connected components such as memory, disc drives, monitor, power supply, key board and mouse all working together to make up the characteristics of your particular machine. The next layer is the first software layer with the set of instructions that make the microprocessor work. The lowest of these are the machine languages, the next layer contains the programmable languages such as Fortran, C, and the Object Oriented Programming (OOP) languages such as Java and C++ that use message passing between software objects. Then come operating systems such as Windows and finally applications such as word processors, spread sheets, web browsers, emails and internet protocols and connections.

We can look outwards from your computer both horizontally to the servers to which you are connected directly and upwards to the internet itself. The way the internet works is analogous to the posting of ordinary letters and parcel mail. The complicated behaviour of the internet emerges from the layers of interacting simplicity. Each operation in the system is on its own quite simple, but when connected to all of the other simple processes a complicated whole is created. Emergent properties are those that apply to the whole at every layer in the system but not necessarily to the interacting parts. These emergent properties can exhibit complex characteristics for example when the message passing fails and the diagnosis is not obvious because the failure has cascaded through the network.

How small can we get in the future? Quantum computing is a fast developing research topic in which bits of 0 or 1 in electronic computing are replaced by quantum phenomena at the atomic level. It may provide as big a change in scale as that from valves to transistors though getting from theory to practice is not easy. Nanotechnology works with very small particles that are comparable to the size of a biological cell.