Hypolinks I

 

Wright, the chemist who first synthesized heroin in 1874, was looking for a “non-addictive alternative to morphine”. Good job, Mr Wright. Let’s hope that the AI alignment researchers working on wireheading have better luck.

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Speaking of heroin addicts in the late 19th century, it’s funny to see that the “cold like a computer” analogy was already in vogue at the time of Doyle used it to describe Sherlock.

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Speaking of computers, John von Neumann’s 1945 First Draft of a Report on EDVAC is quite a fun thing to skim. Interesting to realize that the modern “ultra-fast computing machine” was built in the context of WW2 and the primary purpose was solving complicated differential equations for ballistics.

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I was quite surprised that von Neumann cites the McCulloch-Pitts model (1943!!!) as an inspiration for the von Neumann architecture. Also notice the cute pre-transistor technologies he has in mind for implementation.

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A less successful proposal was sent to Vannevar Bush 5 years ago from one Norbert Wiener (excerpt from Cybernetics). The radical memo proposed a computer that was

  • Digital (as opposed to the analog differential analyzer)
  • Electronic (as opposed to the mechanical switches that computers were then based on)
  • Binary (as opposed to decimal)

Unfortunately, Bush was an analog guy with a tight budget, so Wiener had to wait a few years before such a machine saw the light of day.

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All of this engineering stuff would probably fail to impress Archimedes. I always thought of him as the first well-known engineer, but apparently he thought of inventions like the turbine as “diversions of geometry at play”, far inferior to the abstract art of mathematics.

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I’d like to see Archimedes talk with Richard Hamming. The question here is: would it be net positive for humanity if Hamming managed to persuade Archimedes to switch to engineering. Quite a lot of competing considerations in differential technological development and counterfactual value of research. Would removing one brilliant engineer cause a bigger lag time in tech progress than removing one brilliant mathematician?

My weak prior is that, at least then, removing an engineer would have a bigger impact. This is partly based on some thoughts on the underlying cognition necessary for the task, but also on the observed lag for things like Leonardo’s unshared sketches. For ball bearings, it took ±300 years. For his discovery of the principles of aortic valves, ±450 years. (Sure, the latter is a piece of science, but he only found out because he spotted analogies with eddies in rivers, which he knew about because he was involved in building diversion dams.) His calculator design was 2 centuries ahead of Pascal and Leibniz.

Speaking of ball bearings and the Archimedes turbine, there is a really cool 3D visualization of Leo’s helicopter design on YouTube

Either way, You and Your Research by Hamming is clearly worth reading, not only for Archimedes. His immortal story from Bell Labs:

I begin with the choice of problem. Most scientists spend almost all of their time working on problems that even they admit are neither great or are likely to lead to great work; hence, almost surely, they will not do important work. Note that importance of the results of a solution does not make the problem important. In all the 30 years I spent at Bell Telephone Laboratories (before it was broken up) no one to my knowledge worked on time travel, teleportation, or anti-gravity. Why? Because they had no attack on the problem. Thus an important aspect of any problem is that you have a good attack, a good starting place, some reasonable idea of how to begin.

To illustrate, consider my experience at BTL. For the first few years I ate lunch with he mathematicians. I soon found that they were more interested in fun and games than in serious work, so I shifted to eating with the physics table. There I stayed for a number of years until the Nobel Prize, promotions, and offers from other companies, removed most of the interesting people. So I shifted to the corresponding chemistry table where I had a friend.

At first I asked what were the important problems in chemistry, then what important problems they were working on, or problems that might lead to important results. One day I asked, “if what they were working on was not important, and was not likely to lead to important things, they why were they working on them?” After that I had to eat with the engineers!

About four months later, my friend stopped me in the hall and remarked that my question had bothered him. He had spent the summer thinking about the important problems in his area, and while had had not changed his research he thought it was well worth the effort. I thanked him and kept walking. A few weeks later I noticed that he was made head of the department. Many years later he became a member of the National Academy of Engineering. The one person who could hear the question went on to do important things and all the others — so far as I know — did not do anything worth public attention.

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