Douglas Summers-Stay's Reviews > The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right REV. John Wilkins, Late Lord Bishop of Chester (Volume 1); II. That It Is Probable Our Earth Is One of the Planets

The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right REV. Jo... by John   Wilkins
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Aug 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: classic
Read in August, 2010

This consists of books on secret writing, simple and compound machines, automata, perpetual motion, and the universal character.
John Wilkins was the inventor of the metric system. He has a section on codes of equal length (ciphers) of greater length (where each word stands for a letter, etc...) but the most interesting is the section on codes of shorter length. I like his idea of the text of the Bible being a source of pure (completely compressed) information. Wilkins does recognize that the mapping of many words onto one symbol introduces dangerous ambiguities in interpretation.
The next few sections talk about representing sentences as images (using pairs of letters as coordinates); The universal character (or analytical language) which is explained very clearly; sign languages; magic symbols; the speed of light as the limit on transferring information, short of angels ("But this way there is little hopes to advantage our enquiry, because it is not so easy to employ a good angel, nor safe dealing with a bad one."); encoding words in musical notes; on the possibility of using a lodestone to allow instantaneous communication (he rejects it on the grounds that the magnetic influence grows too weak after about three feet), communication via crystal balls, and by shining letters onto the moon with an overhead projector.
The section on machines has an interesting discussion of how one might build a submarine, or a flying machine (he considers the possibility of tying strings to a whole flock of birds, among other ideas), or an underground lamp. He designs a gear rack capable of rotating at something approaching light speed-- I get the feeling he didn't have a good appreciation of friction.
On the universal character, he points out that numbers, alchemical and astrological symbols, musical notes, and symbols for currency all are universal among languages. He also correctly notes that the Chinese kanji are used by the Japanese for the same meanings, even though they stand for completely foreign words in the two languages (the two languages are only related by their writing system.)
Wilkins proposes that one could design such a system, based on a logical, encyclopedic ontology, that would not only be able to be understood by anyone (using intuitive icons or pictographs as symbols) but would also communicate scientific truths through the very structure of the compound words.
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