THE RATIO CLUB

Between 1949 and 1955 a group of UK medics, scientists, mathematicians and engineers met regularly for beer and sandwiches, and to discuss the new field of cybernetics (information and systems theory) and its application to their work. They called their meetings the ‘Ratio Club’ (‘ratio’ being the latin for reasoning). The meetings were mostly held in the basement of a nurses home in Queen Square, London, next to the hospital were two of the members worked. 

Several club members had worked on projects during the recent war in which information theory proved useful – developing automatic pilots for planes, more accurate gun aiming etc.. After the war they began to apply the approach, named ‘cybernetics’ by Weiner in the US, in many fields, including neuroscience, robotics and computing.

Research for this project initially focussed on five individuals who were to become particularly influential, Grey Walter, Alan Turing, Ross Ashby,  Horace Barlow, and Kenneth Craik. The latter died in a bicycling accident in 1945, but was included because his ideas influenced the creation of the club and, according to one member, cast a ‘luminous shadow’ over proceedings.  Sources included biographical and historical material, academic papers and books.   Much useful information was also gleaned from Phil Husbands, an academic writing a book about the club who was more than generous with his time.  

This material, these stories, are the starting point for creative work in a variety of media. Creating portraits based on contemporary photographs was the beginning, followed by collaborations that are in process.

Why choose cybernetics/information processing?  Why not? And, 40 years ago my doctoral thesis was on brain indicators of information processing so this stuff wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.

RATIO SUITE – Five cyber songs.

Music to be composed by Stephen Brown, text prepared by Ken Barrett.

 In 1911 Vaughan Williams published his Five Mystical Songs, settings of a text by 17th century priest-poet George Herbert. That gave us the idea….

Text for these ‘cyber songs’ was assembled from key words and phrases, drawn from books and papers of the five, reconfigured to give a flavour (however partial) of them, and their ideas. 

The assistance of  Andy Platman is also gratefully acknowledged.

 

 

 Walter

Creatures of sorcery, owning

earthborn, vital, beauty…

neurotic molecules

cybernetic loops,

incomputable assemblies,

beholding

electrobiologic futures,

vast and strange,

deeper than we know.

Superhuman nous-

not atomised but fertile,

brings fallacious intimacies

to nature’s  prodigality

notorious with

anonymous hecatombs…

 W Grey Walter (1910-1967) clinical neurophysiology, robotics, cyberbetics  

 

 

Turing

Shall I compare thee

To a winter’s day? 

Utopian dreamer

Calculating

To bemuse? 

Thought machine

Instigator,

Myopic

Investigator

Of space-time.

Digital prophet

Outside of then

And steps ahead

Of next.

Alan M Turing (1912 -1954)  mathematics, cryptography, computer science.

 

 

Ashby

The chisel

in a sculptor’s hand…

the bones of her arm…

are part of the

turbulant

biophysical

mechanism

her nervous system

is trying

to govern…

her brain’s

myriad variables

tumble away from

chaos to

stablility and

control. 

Whence came

this serially adapting

ultrastable

nervous system?

Faultless answers…

elude.

W Ross Ashby (1903-1972) psychiatry, cybernetics.

 

 

Barlow

Student cybernaut

you roamed the

 preconscious..

casting neurones,

heavy with inputs,

as bean counters,

natural statisticians

sifting sensory torrents

for salience…

tireless artists

surfing entropy,

carving worlds

from fragments.

Horace H Barlow (1921-2020) vision science. neurophysiology.

 

 

Craik

Evanescent,

yet still so

luminous,

sublimely free,

you modelled

the mind….

A world of

symbols

impartially sampled,

transmute to

synaptic patterns,

impressionable,

interacting,

excited…

neural states

that model,

that parallel,

reality.

 Kenneth J W Craik (1914-45) philosophy, psychology

The portraits are in charcoal pencil and white pastel.

The texts  from which the songs  are derived are listed below.

Sources for text

W. Grey Walter, The Living Brain, Pelican edition, 1961. (Originally published in 1953, reprinted by Penguin with a new long preface. Most of his text was selected from that preface and the final chapter, ‘The Brain Tomorrow’) 

Alan M Turing, Computing machinery and intelligence, Mind 49:433-460.

Alan M Turing, Lecture to the London Mathematical Society, 20 February 1947, quoted in Hodges 2014, pp 299-401.

https://www.csee.umbc.edu/courses/471/papers/turing.pdf

W Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain, 1954 (read at archive .org)

https://archive.org/details/designforbrainor0000ashb/mode/2up 

Horace B Barlow, Sensory mechanism, the reduction of redundancy and intelligence, National Physical Laboritory, 1959.

Horace B Barlow, Possible principles udnerlying the transformation of sensory messages, 1961.

Kenneth J W Craik, The Nature of Explanation, 1943 9read at archive.org)

https://archive.org/details/natureofexplanat0000crai

 

History and biography.

Husbands P & Holland O, The Ratio Club:A Hub of British Cybernetics. In The Mechanical Mind in History, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2008.

Husbands P.  Robots: What everyone needs to know, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2021.

Hodges A.    Alan Turing: the Enigma, Vintage Books, London, 2014.

Turing D, Reflections of Alan Turing, The History Press, London, 2021.

Turing S,  Alan M Turing, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Rid T, The Rise of the Machines, Scribe: London, 2016.

Bartlett F C, Obituary Notice Kenneth J W Craik, 1914-1945, British journal of Psychology, May 1946, 34, 109-116

Zangwill O L,  Kenneth Craik: The man and his work,  British Journal of Psychology,(1980), 71, 1-16.

This is a digital archive of material from W Ross Ashby, including over 7000 pages of hand written journals.

http://www.rossashby.info

 Interview with Horace Barlow from 2014 in two parts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBAdK0fdTdY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sujg21H2dzc