How Comic Sans got useful

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Whenever I want to impress someone at a party, I let them know I’m distantly related to Eric Gill. There’s always a pause as it sinks in. You know, Eric Gill. Eric Gill, for God’s sake – yes, the Eric Gill! They’re usually too polite to make a big deal of it, but to make sure they feel comfortable around me, I often end up doing most of the talking from then on in.

Well, he invented the typeface Gill Sans. It’s a sans-serif font and a British font – indeed, it would be hard to find a more British font. Its clean lines permeate the railways, the BBC, Penguin Books and the Church of England, and it has meshed itself with the establishment so deeply that it was a surprise to everyone to discover, in the late '80s, that its inventor once shagged his dog.

Yes. This font has a dark, dark history. So dark, in fact, that on unearthing it last year, Digital Arts magazine announced an immediate boycott, along with every typeface Gill ever molested (Perpetua, Joanna), in a piece titled “Art versus Evil”.

Digital Arts, I apologise for him. And perhaps you are right to leave this beautiful, clear-cut lettering out of your publication – but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

A recent paper by Daniel M. Oppenheimer entitled, pleasingly, “Fortune favours the Bold (and the italicised)” delivered a blow to lovely fonts everywhere by demonstrating that we absorb information better when it is a little hard to read. It seems our eyes just skim over Times New Roman and Helvetica, but stick when we reach a smudged, cramped line of type, finally ready to engage.

The researchers took classroom material and altered the fonts, switching from Helvetica and Arial to Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicised and Haettenschweiler. The teachers already taught each class in two sections. One section was taught using the “fluent” texts, the other, the “disfluent”. After several weeks, the researchers put the students through some tests. They found that those taught using dirtier fonts retained information significantly better.

To the experimenters this was a challenge to one of teaching’s basic assumptions - that when learning is easier, it’s better. Rather, adding a few superficial difficulties to the reading experience is more likely to make pupils engage with the text. This ties in with other studies in “disfluency” - which show that a slightly challenging delivery can make people process information more carefully.

Difficult by design

The results are counterintuitive, and not only for the world of teaching. Neuroscientists expanding on the study note that the field of digital advancements also relies on the same idea - that the easier and more fluent our access to information, the better. But perhaps our oversensitive brains demand a strategy with a little more nuance.

The novelist Jonathan Franzen touched on the problem recently when he said that e-books make for a less fulfilling reading experience. He associates this with the permanence of books (“A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around”), but perhaps the feeling is also something to do with the uncanny ease of moving the text into view. Words presented to us with the effortlessness and clarity of motorway signs demand shallow engagement. A screen’s familiar form presents no mental barrier between an advert for Starbucks and lines from Shakespeare.

Perhaps then we should take cues then from Gill’s life, if not his works, and seek out our information in unfamiliar and dog-eared forms.

Gill Sans.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.