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Dreams of a technocrat: Review of William Perry's "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink"

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Technocrats have had a mixed record in guiding major policies of the United States government. Perhaps the most famous technocrat of the postwar years was Robert McNamara, the longest serving secretary of defense who worked for both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Before joining Kennedy’s cabinet McNamara was the president of Ford Motor Company, the first person from outside the Ford family to occupy that position. Before coming to Ford, McNamara had done statistical analysis of the bombing campaign over Japan during the Second World War. Working under the famously ruthless General Curtis LeMay, McNamara worked out the most efficient ways to destroy the maximum amount of Japanese war infrastructure. On March 9, 1945, this kind of analysis contributed to the virtual destruction of Tokyo through bombing and the deaths of a hundred thousand civilians in a firestorm. While McNamara later expressed some regrets about large-scale destruction of cities, he generally subscribed to LeMay’s philosophy. LeMay’s philosophy was simple: once a war has started, you need to end it as soon as possible, and if this involves killing large numbers of civilians, so be it.

The Second World War was a transformational conflict in terms of applying the techniques of statistics and engineering to war problems. In many ways the war belonged to technocrats like McNamara and Vannevar Bush who was one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project. The success that these technocrats achieved through inventions like radar, the atomic bomb and the development of the computer were self-evident, so it was not surprising that scientists became a highly sought after voice in the corridors of power after the war. Some like Richard Feynman wanted nothing to do with weapons research after the war ended. Others like Robert Oppenheimer embraced this power. Unfortunately Oppenheimer’s naiveté combined with the beginnings of the Cold War generated paranoia and resulted in a disgraceful public hearing that stripped him of his security clearance.

After McNamara was appointed to the position by Kennedy, he began a tight restructuring of the defense forces by adopting the same kinds of statistical research techniques that he had used at Ford. Some of these techniques go by the name of operations research. McNamara’s policies led to cost reduction and consolidation of weapons systems. He brought a much more scientific approach to thinking about defense problems. One of his important successes was to change official US nuclear posture from the massive retaliation adopted by the Eisenhower administration to a strategy of more proportionate response adopted by the Kennedy administration. At this point in time McNamara was playing the role of the good technocrat. Then Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War started. Lyndon Johnson put pressure on McNamara and his other advisors to expand American military presence in Vietnam.

To obey Johnson’s wishes, McNamara used the same techniques as he had before, but this time to increase the number of American troops and firepower in a remote country halfway around the world. Just like he had during the Second World War, he organized a series of bombing campaigns that laid waste not just to North Vietnamese military installations but to their dams and rice fields. Just like it had during the previous war, the bombing killed a large number of civilians without having a measurable impact on the morale or determination of Ho Chi Minh’s troops. The lessons of the Second World War should have told McNamara that bombing by itself couldn’t end a war. The man who had studied moral philosophy at Berkeley before he got ensnared by the trappings of power failed to realize that you cannot win over a nation through technology and military action. You can only do that by winning over the hearts and minds of its citizens and understanding their culture and history. Not just McNamara but most of Kennedy and Johnson’s other advisors also failed to understand this. They had reached the limits of technocratic problem solving.

William Perry seems to have avoided many of the problems that beset technocrats like McNamara. Perry was secretary of defense under Bill Clinton. His memoir is titled “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink”. As the memoir makes clear, this journey is one the entire world shares. The book is essentially a brisk and personal ride through the journey but there is little historical detail that puts some of the stories in context; for this readers would have to look at some of the references cited at the back. Perry came from a bonafide technical background. After serving at the end of the war and seeing the destruction in Tokyo and Okinawa, he returned to college and obtained bachelors and graduate degrees in mathematics. He then took the then unusual step of going to California, at a time when Silicon Valley did not exist and the transistor had just been invented. Perry joined an electronics company called Sylvania whose products started getting traction with the defense department. By this time the Cold War was in full swing, and the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations wanted to harness the full potential of science and technology in the fight against communism. To provide advice to the government, Eisenhower set up a president’s science advisory committee (PSAC) which included accomplished scientists like Hans Bethe and George Kistiakowsky, both of whom had held senior positions in the Manhattan project.

One of the most important uses of technology was in reconnaissance of enemy planes and missiles. Perry’s company developed some of the first sensors for detecting radar signatures of Soviet ICBM’s and their transmitters. He also contributed to some of the first communication satellites and played an important role in deciphering the images of medium range nuclear missiles installed in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perry understood well the great contribution technology could make not just to offense but also to defense. He recognized early that electronic technology was moving from analog to digital with the invention of the integrated chip and decided to start his own company to exploit its potential. His new company built sophisticated systems for detecting enemy weapons. It was successful and ultimately employed more than a thousand people, making Perry a wealthy man. It was while heading this company that Perry was invited to serve in the administration of Jimmy Carter in the position of undersecretary of defense for research and development. He had to make a significant personal financial sacrifice in divesting himself of the shares of his and other companies in order to be eligible for government service.

Perry’s background was ideal for this position, and it was in this capacity that he made what I think was his greatest contribution. At this point in history, the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity with the United States. They could achieve parity by building missiles called MIRVs which could house multiple nuclear warheads on one missile and target them independently against multiple cities. The introduction of MIRVs was not banned by the ABM treaty which Nixon had signed in the early 70s. Because of MIRV’s the Soviets could now field many more nuclear weapons than they could before. The US already possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, most of them at hair trigger alert. Perry wisely recognized that the response to the Soviet buildup was not a blind increase in the US nuclear arsenal. Instead it was an increase not in nuclear but in conventional forces. Over the next few years Perry saw the development of some of the most important conventional weapons systems in the armamentarium. This included the Blackbird stealth fighter which had a very small radar signature as well as smart sensors and smart bombs which could target enemy installations with pinpoint accuracy. These weapons were very useful in the first Iraq War, fought two decades later. Today Perry’s contribution remains enduring. The strength of the US military’s conventional weapons is vast and this fact remains one of the best arguments for drastically reducing America’s nuclear weapons.

When Ronald Reagan became president he adopted a much tougher stance against the Soviets. His famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech cast the Soviet Union in a fundamentally irreconcilable light while his ‘Star Wars’ speech promised the American people a system of ballistic missile defense against Soviet ICBMs. Both these announcements were deeply flawed. The Evil Empire speech was flawed from a political standpoint. The Star Wars speech was flawed from a technical standpoint. On the political side, the Soviets would only construe Reagan’s stand as an excuse to build more offensive weapons. On the technical side, it had been shown comprehensively that any defense system would be cheaply overwhelmed using decoys and countermeasures, and it would take only a fraction of the launched missiles to get through to cause terrible destruction. Standing on the outside Perry could not do much, but because of his years of experience in both weapons development and talking to leaders and scientists from other countries, he initiated what he called ‘Track 2 diplomacy’, that is diplomacy outside official channels. He established good relationships with Soviet and Chinese generals and politicians and made many trips to these two and other nations. Like others before and after him, Perry understood that some of the most important geopolitical problem solving happens at the personal level. This fact was especially driven home when Perry spent a lot of his time as secretary of defense advocating for better living conditions for American troops.

In his second term Reagan completely reversed his stand and sought reconciliation with the Soviets. This change was driven partly by his own thinking about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and largely by the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev. As Freeman Dyson has pointed out, it's worth noting that the largest arms reductions in history were carried out by supposedly hawkish right-wing Republicans. Reagan and George H W Bush and Gorbachev dismantled an entire class of nuclear weapons. Before that, Republican president Richard Nixon had unilaterally got rid of chemical and biological weapons. Republican presidents can do this when Democratic presidents cannot because they cannot be easily accused of being doves by their own party. I believe that even in the future it is Republicans rather than Democrats who stand the best chance of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Because people like William Perry have strengthened the conventional military forces of the US so well, the country can now afford to not need nuclear weapons for deterrence.

When Bill Clinton became president Perry again stepped into the limelight. The Soviet Union was collapsing and it suddenly presented a problem of very serious magnitude. The former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan suddenly found themselves with thousands of nuclear weapons without centralized Soviet authority. Many of these weapons were unsecured and loose, and rogue terrorists or states could have easily obtained access to them. Two American senators from opposing parties, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, proposed a plan through which the US could help the Soviets dismantle their weapons and buy the nuclear material from them. Nunn and Lugar worked with Perry and weapons expert Ash Carter to secure this material from thousands of warheads, blending it down from weapons-grade to reactor-grade. In return the US destroyed several of its own missile silos and weapons. In one of the most poignant facts of history, a sizable fraction of US electricity today comes from uranium and plutonium from Russian nuclear bombs which had been targeted on New York, Washington DC and San Francisco. The Nunn-Lugar program of denuclearizing Russia is one of the greatest and most important bipartisan triumphs in American history. It has undoubtedly made the world a safer place, and Nunn and Lugar perhaps along with Perry and his Russian counterparts surely deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

When Perry became secretary of defense under Clinton, much of his time was occupied with North Korea, an issue that continues to confront the world today. North Korea has been fighting an extended war with the United States and South Korea since the 1950s ever since the Korean War ended only in a truce. In the 90s the North Koreans announced that they would start reprocessing plutonium from their nuclear reactors. This would be the first step toward quickly building a plutonium bomb. Both South Korea and the US had serious concerns about this. Perry engaged in a series of diplomatic talks, some involving former president Jimmy Carter, at the end of which the North Koreans decided to forgo reprocessing in return for fuel to help their impoverished country. Perry’s accounts of North Korea contains amusing facts, such as the New York Philharmonic organizing a concert in Pyongyang and Perry entertaining a top North Korean general in Silicon Valley. Today the problem of North Korea seems serious, but it’s worth remembering that someone like Kim Jong Un who relishes such total control over his people would be reluctant to lose that control willingly by initiating a nuclear war in which his country would be completely destroyed.

The greatest problem, however, was Russia and today many of Perry’s thoughts and actions from the nineties about Russia sound prescient. After the Cold War ended, for some time US-Russia relations were at an all time high. The main bone of contention was NATO. Many former Soviet-controlled countries like Poland and Ukraine wanted to join NATO to enjoy the same security that other NATO members had. Perry was in favor of letting these countries join NATO, but he wisely understood that too rapid an assimilation of too many nations into NATO would make Russia uneasy and start seeing the US as a threat again. He proposed asking these nations to join NATO along a leisurely timeline. Against his opinion Clinton provided immediate support for NATO membership for these countries. A few years later, after George W Bush became president, partly because of US actions and partly because of Russia’s, Perry’s fears turned out to be true. The US withdrew from the ABM treaty because they wanted to put ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe, ostensibly against Iranian ICBMs. Notwithstanding the technical flaws still inherent in missile defense, the Russians unsurprisingly questioned why the US needed this defense against a country which was still years away from building ICBMs and construed it as a bulwark against Russia. The Russians therefore started working on their own missile defense and a MIRV missile as well as new tactical nuclear weapons themselves. Unlike high-yield strategic weapons which can wipe out cities, low-yield tactical weapons ironically increase the probability of nuclear war since they can be used locally on battlefields. When Obama became president of the United States and Medvedev became president of Russia, there was a small window of hope for reduction of nuclear weapons on both sides, but the election of Putin and Trump has dimmed the chances of reaching an agreement in the near future. North Korea has also gone nuclear by conducting a nuclear test in 2006.

Perry’s greatest concern throughout his career has been to reduce the risk of nuclear war. He thinks that nuclear war is quite low on the list of public concerns, and this is a strange fact indeed. Even a small nuclear bomb used in a major city would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and severe social and economic disruption. It would be a catastrophe unlike any we have faced until now and would make 9/11 look like child’s play. With so many countries having nuclear weapons, even the small risk of a rogue terrorist stealing a weapon is greatly amplified by the horrific consequences. If nuclear weapons are such a serious problem, why are they largely absent from the public consciousness?

It seems that nuclear weapons don’t enter the public consciousness because of a confluence of factors. Firstly, most of us take deterrence for granted. We think that as long as most countries have nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction and rationality would keep us safe. But this is little more than a false sense of security; mutually assured destruction is not a rational strategy, it is simply an unfortunate reality that emerged from our collective actions. We are very lucky that no nuclear attack has taken place after Nagasaki, but there have been scores of nuclear accidents that almost led to bombs being exploded, some near American cities. The book “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser describes dozens of such frightening accidents. Just a few years ago there was an incident in which American military planes flew from North Dakota to Louisiana without realizing that there were nuclear bombs onboard. In addition, even during events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world came very close to nuclear war, and a slight misunderstanding could have triggered a nuclear launch: in fact it is now widely acknowledged that dumb luck played as big a role in the crisis not escalating as any rational action. There are also false alarms, one of which Perry recollects: an accidental playing of a training exercise tape led a general to the erroneous conclusion that two hundred nuclear tipped missiles were heading from the Soviet Union toward the US. Fortunately it was discovered that this was a false alarm in seconds, but if it had not, according to protocol American ICBMs would have been launched against Russia within minutes, and the Russians would have retaliated massively. The problem with nuclear weapons is that the window of prevention is very small, and therefore accidents are quite likely. The reason the American public does not fear nuclear weapons as much as it should is because it sees that the red line has never been crossed and it believes that the line will never be crossed, but it does not see how close we already came to crossing it.

Secondly, the media is much more concerned with reporting on the latest political or celebrity scandal and important but much less precipitous problems like climate change rather than on nuclear weapons. Of the two major problems confronting humanity – nuclear war and climate change – I believe nuclear war is the more urgent. The impacts of climate change are mixed, longer term and more unpredictable. The impacts of nuclear war are unambiguously bad, immediate and more predictable. Unfortunately climate change especially has been an obsession with both the media and the public in spite of its uncertainties, whereas the certain consequences of a nuclear attack have been ignored by both. The supposed dangers of climate change have been widely publicized by self-proclaimed prophets like Al Gore, but there are no such prophets publicizing the dangers of nuclear weapons. For one reason or another, both the public and the media consider nuclear weapons to be a low priority because no nuclear accident has happened during the last fifty years, but they keep on ignoring the very high costs of even a low risk attack. If nuclear weapons received the kind of massive publicity that global warming has received, there is no doubt that they too would loom large on everyone’s mind.

Changing attitudes is hard, although Perry certainly has tried. Nuclear weapons were born of science, but their solution is not technical. With his colleagues Sam Nunn, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Sidney Drell, Perry started an initiative whose goal is the reduction of nuclear weapons through both official and unofficial diplomacy. All four of these people have had deep experience with both nuclear weapons and diplomacy. Encouraging economic and trade relationships between traditional rivals like India and Pakistan for instance would be a key strategy in reducing the risk of nuclear conflict between such nations: one reason why an actual war between the US and China is highly unlikely is because both countries depend heavily on each other for economic benefits. The key objective in caging the nuclear genie is to remind nations of their common security and the fact that individual lives are precious on all sides. During the Cold War, it was only when the US and the Soviet Union recognized that even a “win” for one country in a nuclear war would involve large-scale destruction of both countries did they finally realize how important it was to cooperate.


Finally, Perry has made it his life’s goal to educate young people about these dangers, both through his classes at Stanford University as well as through his website. The future is in these young people’s hands, and as much of the world including Russia seems to be reverting to the old ways of thinking, it’s young people whose minds are unspoiled by preconceived notions who give us our best chance of ridding the world of the nuclear menace.

This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.
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drgunn
174 days ago
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We want people to be ambitious, but we also want them to have the sense of responsibility that these men had.
Menlo Park
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February 28th, 2018: Hobby / Obsession

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A lot of people have hobbies. Occasionally they turn into vocations. And rarely turn into obsessions.
I’m not sure which it is for Liisa Hietanen, but sure as hell way passed a hobby.

Quote:

Knitting is a popular pastime in Finland. Even the Finnish Olympic team could be seen knitting before and after their competitions at the 2018 Winter Olympics! But Finnish artist Liisa Hietanen takes it to a whole new level with her knitted and crocheted sculptures of real-life people. Hietanen painstakingly crochets, knits and sometimes embroiders every single piece of her sculpture — from the clothes and accessories down to the objects a sculpture is holding.


Quote:

Hietanen's process begins with the people in her village, Hämeenkyrö, Finland. She asks them to model. "We then meet and create the pose," Hietanen told MNN. "I photograph the person from all directions and take a few measurements." Hietanen mostly works off the photographs. However, when she starts working on the face and hands, she meets with the model again. "We might go for coffee or lunch. Meanwhile, I study their characteristics." By watching her model's mannerisms, Hietanen is able to perfectly capture their personality and mood.


Maybe she’s a serial killer and plans to replace the whole village so nobody suspects.
I’m pretty sure it’s an obsession after seeing this bathroom.
The fixtures, trash can, toilet paper = hobby.
But wall tile, paper towels and the damn mirror = obsession.:yesnod:



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samuel
207 days ago
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Well that bathroom's a first
The Haight in San Francisco
drgunn
197 days ago
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Menlo Park
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Who's the greatest physicist in American history?

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A photo of an impish Richard Feynman playing the bongos appears in Ray Monk's sweeping biography of Robert Oppenheimer. It is accompanied by the caption "Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger's main rival for the title of greatest American physicist in history". That got me thinking; who is the greatest American physicist in history? What would your choice be?

The question is interesting because it's not as simple as asking who's the "greatest physicist in history". The answer to that question tends to usually settle on Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; in fact few American physicists if any would show up on the top ten list of greatest physicists ever. But limit the question to American physicists and the matter becomes more complicated. Contrast this to asking who's the greatest American chemist in history; there the answer - Linus Pauling - appears much more unambiguous and widely agreed upon.

Any discussion of "greatest scientist" is always harder than it sounds. By what measure do you judge greatness?: A single, monumental discovery? Contributions to diverse fields? Theory or experiment? Creation of an influential school of physics? Or by looking at lifetime achievement which, rather than focusing on one fundamental discovery, involves many important ones? There are contenders for "greatest American physicist" who encompass all these metrics of achievement.

Here's what's concerning: Even a generous, expansive list of contenders for "greatest American physicist" in history is embarrassingly thin compared to a comparable list of European physicists. For instance, let's consider the last three hundred years or so and think up a selection which includes both Nobel Laureates and non-Nobel Laureates. The condition is to only include American-born physicists.

Here's my personal list for the title of greatest American physicist in history, in no particular order: Joseph Henry, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Albert Michelson, Robert Millikan, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger, Ernest Lawrence, Edward Witten, John Bardeen, John Slater, John Wheeler and Steven Weinberg. I am sure I am leaving someone out but I suspect other lists would be similar in length. It's pretty obvious that this list pales in comparison with an equivalent list of European physicists which would include names like Einstein, Dirac, Rutherford, Bohr, Pauli and Heisenberg; and this is just if we include twentieth-century physicists. Not only are the European physicists greater in number but their ideas are also more foundational; as brilliant as the American physicists are, almost none of them made a contribution comparable in importance to the exclusion principle or general relativity.

Note that I said "almost none". If you ask who's my personal favorite for "greatest American physicist in history", it would not be Feynman or Schwinger or Witten; instead it would be Josiah Willard Gibbs, a man who seems destined to remain one of the most underappreciated scientists of all time but who Einstein called "the greatest mind in American history". Feynman and Schwinger may have invented quantum electrodynamics, but Gibbs invented the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, a truly seminal contribution that was key to the development of both physics and chemistry. 

It's hard to overestimate the importance of concepts like free energy, chemical potential, enthalpy and the phase rule for physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and everything in between. In fact, so influential was Gibbs's work that it inspired that of Paul Samuelson - who unlike physicists, is actually agreed upon as the greatest American economist in history. If you really want to discuss lists of great American physicists (or scientists in general), you simply cannot exclude Gibbs. In my dictionary Gibbs's contributions are comparable to that of any famous relativist or atomic physicist. Unfortunately Gibbs also remains one of the most little known scientists in America, largely because of his introverted nature and tendency to publish groundbreaking papers in journals like the Proceedings of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences.

More importantly though, the sparse list of great homegrown American physicists makes two things clear. Firstly, that America is truly a land of immigrants; it's only by including foreign-born physicists like Fermi, Bethe, Einstein, Chandrasekhar, Wigner, Yang and Ulam can the list of American physicists start to compete with the European list. Secondly and even more importantly, the selection demonstrates that even in 2018, physics in America is a very young science compared to European physics. Consider that even into the 1920s or so, the Physical Review which is now regarded as the top physics journal in the world was considered a backwater publication, if not a joke in Europe (Rhodes, 1987). Until the 1930s American physicists had to go to Cambridge, Gottingen and Copenhagen to study at the frontiers of physics. It was only in the 30s that, partly due to heavy investment in science by both private foundations and the government and partly due to the immigration of European physicists from totalitarian countries, American physics started on the road to the preeminence that it enjoys today. Thus as far as cutting-edge physics goes, America is not even a hundred years old. The Europeans had a head start of three hundred years; no wonder their physicists feature in top ten lists. And considering the very short time that this country has enjoyed at the forefront of science, we have to admit that America has done pretty well.

The embarrassingly thin list of famous American physicists is good news. It means that the greatest American physicist is yet to be born. Now that's an event we can all look forward to.
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drgunn
208 days ago
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"It was only in the 30s that, partly due to heavy investment in science by both private foundations and the government and partly due to the immigration of European physicists from totalitarian countries, American physics started on the road to the preeminence that it enjoys today. "
Menlo Park
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Book review: "John von Neumann" by Norman Macrae

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What could one possibly say about good time Johnny von Neumann that isn’t known? His was widely considered to be the fastest, most wide-ranging, most original mind of the twentieth century. That the same man who laid the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics also became the father of both game theory and (with Alan Turing) the modern computer is simply astonishing. In addition he helped build the atomic bomb, axiomatized set theory as Hilbert’s assistant, did early work in weather prediction and helped the United States get started on ICBMs. And he was just getting warmed up. It seemed that even the greatest scientists of the 20th century could talk about von Neumann only in superlatives. For instance, Enrico Fermi said that von Neumann often left him feeling that he knew no mathematics at all. And Hans Bethe said something truly interesting: if there were ever a race of superhumans, he wondered if the members of this more advanced species would not resemble Johnny von Neumann.

Norman Macrae – highly accomplished editor of The Economist for thirty years - brings a light touch, a genuine appreciation and an amusing style to the story of von Neumann, a bit like von Neumann’s mind itself. Macrae is not a scientist so this book is more about von Neumann the human being than von Neumann the mathematician. Johnny was a certified child prodigy who at age eight could multiply two eight digit numbers in his head, already knew six languages and had a photographic memory because of which he could recite entire books by heart. Combined with these qualities was an amazing ability to concentrate, and with great speed. Infused with a lifelong passion for history, he finished all 40 volumes of a multi-volume series of world history in a few days, and rumor has it that he would take two books with him to the bathroom, just in case he finished one and still had time left. When asked a question he would instantly jump ten steps ahead and solve a whole family of related questions. He would invent entire fields on train and plane trips. It helped tremendously that he grew up as the son of a wealthy banker in Budapest, at a time when the empire was crumbling. Along with his fellow émigrés Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard, he became part of the group of Martians, men with rarefied intelligence who had apparently disguised themselves to fit well in human society. Many years later, Wigner who won the Nobel Prize and was one of the foremost theoretical physicists of his time was asked why Hungary in that short time produced so many geniuses like himself. You are wrong, said Wigner. Hungary produced only one genius, Johnny von Neumann. But anti-Semitism and political turmoil certainly helped, as did Hungary’s high schools which were among the best in the world.

Macrae’s book does an excellent job tracing von Neumann’s background and the political developments during and between the wars in Europe. Only Szilard was more prescient in seeing the cloud of fascism blow over the continent. Along with Einstein, von Neumann thus became one of the first scientists to leave Europe in the early 30s. He settled down at the Institute for Advanced Study, helping other émigrés like Kurt Gödel (whose incompleteness theorem he was the only one to truly appreciate when Gödel first presented it in 1931) settle down. It was at the institute that he built his famous computer until the pure mathematicians who wanted to preserve the sanctimony of the place howled and shut it down, passing a motion not to build anything smacking of engineering in the place ever again.

Equally comfortable in the highest reaches of both pure and applied science, von Neumann quickly adapted to his country’s war needs, first working on ballistics and then making himself the country’s foremost expert on shock waves. It was this work that led to an invitation from Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, and he contributed a key idea to the plutonium implosion bomb regarding the squeezing of plutonium using explosive lenses. Everyone could rely on him to transform their thinking in a few minutes or hours. After the war he continued to be the most highly valued defense consultant in the country, advising every government organization except the Coast Guard on ballistics, nuclear weapons, submarines and missiles. And all this time he continued to lay the foundations of computing and its applications to fields as diverse as hydrogen bomb design and meteorology, first with J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania where he worked on the ENIAC, and then with Julian Bigelow and Herman Goldstine at the Institute for Advanced Study (a story nicely told in George Dyson’s book “Turing’s Cathedral”). Von Neumann came up with the idea of the stored program, realizing along with a select few others that numbers could be used to encode both instructions and their results. The von Neumann architecture remains a part of computers to this day. In the last days of his life he also worked on self-replicating automata and drew prescient parallels between human and machine thinking. The latter were published as “The Computer and the Brain” which still makes for highly original reading. There is little doubt that many of von Neumann's prophesies about the weather, the brain and computing are still waiting to be tested.

But enough about his amazing mind and scientific feats which are well known. Two things about von Neumann from the book are perhaps not as widely known or appreciated. First was his unusual personality. Von Neumann defied the image of the mathematician with his head in the clouds. He exuded bon homie and loved fast cars, rich food, dirty jokes, expensive suits (he wore one even on a mule during a hike in the mountains) and raucous parties (in the middle of which he could intensely concentrate on and solve important mathematical problems). Unlike other mathematicians he felt more at home with generals and admirals rather than with fellow academics. Unfortunately, similar to other great scientists, his family life was messy. His first wife Mariette left him for another man, partly because of his self-obsession with mathematics. His second wife Klari was very intelligent but also neurotic, and she committed suicide by walking into the ocean a few years after his death. Fortunately his daughter Marina became one of the most prominent women of her time, serving as the first woman on Nixon’s council of economic advisors and then on the board of directors of General Motors. She has written a first-rate memoir of her own life titled “The Martian’s Daughter”.

What really stands out, however, is Johnny's perpetually jovial nature and his friendships. During those troubled times he called himself a cheerful pessimist. Of all the important people of the time, he is the only one I know who managed to be friends with people who were each other’s sworn enemies. For instance, he testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf at the latter’s infamous security trial. The man who orchestrated the trial was Oppenheimer’s sworn enemy Lewis Strauss, the vindictive politician who had initially offered Oppenheimer the position of director of the IAS in Princeton. And yet Strauss remained one of von Neumann’s most steadfast supporters and genuine admirers, nominating him to the Atomic Energy Commission and making sure he got special treatment during his last days when he was struck down too early by cancer. Von Neumann similarly stayed good friends with both Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam who clashed severely over a priority dispute about the hydrogen bomb. Everyone seemed to like Johnny, and the main reason was that he would stay away from public insults or political arguments, often defusing political disagreements with a ribald joke. His philosophy was simple: keep on doing good work and be a decent person and then don’t worry about anything else. You are not responsible for what others think about you; a philosophy that Richard Feynman said he imbibed from Johnny.

The other interesting thing about von Neumann was his politics. Unlike the vast majority of his friends, he was a conservative, right wing Republican. His opinion that the US should be ready not just for a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union but a preventive one was admittedly an extreme one. He did not seem to realize that even talk of such things would raise the risk of nuclear annihilation. And yet there was a certain logic to his thinking. If a hydrogen bomb or a whole fleet of ICBMs was possible, he wanted the United States to be the country that got them first. Many others thought similarly, and while one can disagree with their thinking, one can also understand their internal logic. In our own times, von Neumann provides a role model of how people can vehemently disagree on politics and still be good friends.

Von Neumann’s death was heartbreaking, and there is no sugarcoating it. Here was a man whose sole purpose for existence seemed to be to think. When he realized at the early age of fifty-three that he had terminal brain cancer, he also realized that his mind would soon stop thinking. This was unimaginable for him and he had nightmares. He had so many military secrets in his head that he was moved to a special suite at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington and surrounded day and night by armed security guards to make sure he did not accidentally give out secret information. His friends constantly visited him and came away distraught. Lewis Strauss once recounted an extraordinary spectacle; this recent immigrant lying on a hospital bed, surrounded by the secretaries of the army, navy, air force and defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, everyone hanging on to his every word and squeezing every bit of information from his extraordinary mind. His brother Michael would read Goethe’s Faust to him, and until the very end, with his prodigious memory he would start reading the next page automatically. His daughter Marina recalls one particularly heartbreaking incident when he called her into his hospital room and asked her to ask him to add and divide simple numbers to test whether his mind was still intact. She could not stand it after a few minutes and left the room.

As the end drew near, von Neumann had a Catholic priest summoned and converted to Catholicism, hedging his bets, hoping that the small chance of an afterlife promised by religion might yet save him. Everyone was horrified and confused by this action. They could not believe that the most rational mind of the century would cling to this seemingly irrational thinking. On the other hand, his act could point at truths that only Johnny von Neumann’s mind could access that were entirely rational. I would like to believe the latter.
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drgunn
208 days ago
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Tesla is all the rage now, but von Neumann was really something.
Menlo Park
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A neuroscientist explains a concept at five different levels

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Wired recently challenged neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri to explain what a connectome is to people with five different levels of potential understanding: a 5-year-old, a 13-year-old, a college student, a neuroscience grad student, and an expert neuroscientist. His goal: “every person here can leave with understanding it at some level”.

Watching this, I kept thinking of Richard Feynman, who was particularly adept at describing concepts to non-experts without sacrificing truth or even nuance. See him explain fire, rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and magnets.

Tags: Bobby Kasthuri   neuroscience   Richard Feynman   science   video
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drgunn
569 days ago
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digdoug
567 days ago
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I love this video. I like the concept. I like the subject matter. Please do more, WIRED
Louisville, KY

Play around with this trippy Julia set fractal

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Julia Set Fractal

Yay! It’s Fractal Friday! (It’s not, I just made that up.) But anyway, courtesy of Christopher Night, you can play around with this Julia set fractal. It works in a desktop browser (by moving the mouse) or on your phone (by dragging your finger).

The Julia set, if you don’t remember, goes thusly: Let f(z) be a complex rational function from the plane into itself, that is, f(z)=p(z)/q(z) f(z)=p(z)/q(z), where p(z) and q(z) are complex polynomials. Then there is a finite number of open sets F1, …, Fr, that are left invariant by f(z) which, uh, is um… yay! Fractal Friday! The colors are so pretty!

Tags: Christopher Night   design   fractals   mathematics
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drgunn
579 days ago
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I remember waiting hours and hours for fractals to render on my old 386. Now you can just dynamically re-render with a swipe of you finger on your phone.
Menlo Park
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glenn
584 days ago
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c = -0.762 + 0.097i
Waterloo, Canada
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