Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Really great book - a mix of the history of science and technology with personalities and social-political forces. It reads like a detective story with questions of morality raised but unanswered. The book is long – 886 pages, but it is definitely worth the effort. I’ve collected a few examples from the book that I really liked. I have not put them in quotes but they all come straight from the book. In some cases I’ve added my footnotes to help understand the selection.

I hope that someone writes a screen play around the struggles that the emigrant scientists had with politicians and the military when they tried to convey the potential of the atomic and later the thermonuclear bombs, and their impacts on political systems.

This is a personal selection of excerpts that appealed to me as I read the book. It’s by no means complete. For an excellent review, read the New York Times book review, “The Men Who Made the Sun Rise” by William J. Broad (

Monday, January 28, 2013

Nur die Fulle fuhrt zur Klarheit (only wholeness leads to clarity)

"At Como[1] in pleasant September Bohr[2] began with a polite reference to Volta, "the great genius whom we are here assembled to commemorate," then plunged in. He proposed to try to develop "a certain general point of view" which might help "to harmonize the apparently conflicting views taken by different scientists." The problem, Bohr said, was that quantum conditions ruled on the atomic scale but our instruments for measuring those conditions---our senses, ultimately-worked in classical ways. That inadequacy imposed necessary limitations on what we could know. An experiment that demonstrates that light travels in photons is valid within the limits of its terms. An experiment that demonstrates that light travels in waves is equally valid within its limits. The same is true of particles and waves of matter. The reason both could be accepted as valid is that "particles" and "waves" are words, are abstractions. What we know is not particles and waves but the equipment of our experiments and how that equipment changes in experimental use. The equipment is large, the interiors of atoms small, and between the two must be interposed a necessary and limiting translation. 

The solution, Bohr went on, is to accept the different and mutually exclusive results as equally valid and stand them side by side to build up a composite picture of the atomic domain. Nur die Fulle fuhrt zur Klarheit: only wholeness leads to clarity. Bohr was never interested in an arrogant reductionism. He called instead-the word appears repeatedly in his Como lecture for "renunciation," renunciation of the- godlike determinism of classical physics where the intimate scale of the atomic interior was concerned. The name he chose for this "general point of view" was complementarity, a word that derives from the Latin complementum, "that which fills up or completes." Light as particle and light as wave, matter as particle and matter as wave, were mutually exclusive abstractions that complemented each other. They could not be merged or resolved; they had to stand side by side in their seeming paradox and contradiction; but accepting that uncomfortably non-Aristotelian condition meant physics could know more than it otherwise knew. And furthermore, as Heisenberg's recently published uncertainty principle demonstrated within its limited context, the universe appeared to be arranged that way as far down as human senses would ever be able to see. 

Emilio Segre[3], who heard Bohr lecture at Como in 1927 as a young engineering student, explains complementarity simply and clearly in a history of modern physics he wrote in retirement: "Two magnitudes are complementary when the measurement of one of them prevents the accurate simultaneous measurement of the other. Similarly, two concepts are complementary when one imposes limitations on the other." 

Carefully Bohr then examined the conflicts of classical and quantum physics one at a time and showed how complementarity clarified them. In conclusion he briefly pointed to complementarity's connection to philosophy. The situation in physics, he said, "bears a deep-going analogy to the general difficulty in the formation of human ideas, inherent in the distinction between subject and object." That reached back all the way to the licentiate's[4] dilemma in Adventures of a Danish Student[5], and resolved it: the I who thinks and the I who acts are different, mutually exclusive, but complementary abstractions of the self. 

In the years to come Bohr would extend the compass of his "certain general point of view" far into the world. It would serve him as a guide not only in questions of physics but in the largest questions of statesmanship as well. But it never commanded the central place in physics he hoped it would."

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Perhaps we need a concept like complentarity to help explain how a system can appear simple, complicated or complex at the same time.

[1] a city and comune in Lombardy, Italy. It is the administrative capital of the Province of Como.
[2] a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.
[3] an Italian physicist and Nobel laureate in physics, who with Owen Chamberlain, discovered antiprotons, a sub-atomic antiparticle.
[4] the title of a person who holds an academic degree known as a licence or a licentiate.
[5] A novel by Pohl Moller that gained lasting fame. It tells the comedic story of the romantic escapades of an eccentric student and his philosophical musings. Years later it became a favorite book of the Danish physicist and thinker Niels Bohr, who often quoted it during lectures

Discernment of a Complex System

"This esoteric strategizing - this misplaced obsession with credibility, this dangerously expansive concept of what constitutes security-which has afflicted both Democratic and Republican administrations, and both liberals and conservatives, is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discernment based on power, interest, and circumstance. It is a stance toward the world that can easily doom the United States to military commitments and interventions in strategically insignificant places over intrinsically trivial issues. It is a stance that can engender a foreign policy approximating paranoia in an obdurately chaotic world abounding in states, personalities, and ideologies that are unsavory and uncongenial-but not necessarily mortally hazardous."

Benjamin Schwartz, The Real Cuban Missile Crisis, The Atlantic, Jan-Feb 2013

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Public Death vs. Man-Made Death

“Our societies are dedicated to the preservation and care of life .... Public death was first recognized as a matter of civilized concern in the nineteenth century, when some health workers decided that untimely death was a question between men and society, not between men and God. Infant mortality and endemic disease became matters of social responsibility. Since then, and for that reason, millions of lives have been saved. They are not saved by accident or goodwill. Human life is daily deliberately protected from nature by accepted practices of hygiene and medical care, by the control of living conditions and the guidance of human relationships. Mortality statistics are constantly examined to see if the causes of death reveal any areas needing special attention. Because of the success of these practices, the area of public death has, in advanced societies, been taken over by man-made death--once an insignificant or "merged" part of the spectrum, now almost the whole. 

When politicians, in tones of grave wonder, characterize our age as one of vast effort in saving human life, and enormous vigor in destroying it, they seem to feel they are indicating some mysterious paradox of the human spirit. 

There is no paradox and no mystery. The difference is that one area of public death has been tackled and secured by the forces of reason; the other has not. The pioneers of public health did not change nature, or men, but adjusted the active relationship of men to certain aspects of nature so that the relationship became one of watchful and healthy respect. In doing so they had to contend with and struggle against the suspicious opposition of those who believed that to interfere with nature was sinful, and even that disease and plague were the result of something sinful in the nature of man himself.”

Gil Elliot, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fear: How It Affects Actions

If an asteroid were headed for Earth, we'd all band together and figure out how to stop it, just like in the movies, right? And yet, when faced with major, data-supported, end-of-the-world problems in real life, too often we retreat into partisan shouting and stalemate. Jonathan Haidt shows us a few of the very real asteroids headed our way -- some pet causes of the left wing, some of the right -- and suggests how both wings could work together productively to benefit humanity as a whole.

Jonathan Haidt studies how -- and why -- we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded.

Imagine you're a shipwrecked sailor adrift in the enormous Pacific. You can choose one of three directions and save yourself and your shipmates -- but each choice comes with a fearful consequence too. How do you choose? In telling the story of the whaleship Essex, novelist Karen Thompson Walker shows how fear propels imagination, as it forces us to imagine the possible futures and how to cope with them. Fiction writer Karen Thompson Walker explores the connection between fear and the imagination.
A complex system composed of intelligent agents exhibiting emergent properties.

Making David and Goliath from Octavio Aburto on Vimeo.

Solving for $

Solving for $ by Floyd Norris
The New York Times Book Review, January 6, 2013

This article is a critical review of James Owen Weatherall’s book The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable.

“Ever since the financial crisis, James Owen Weatherall writes in his new book, “The Physics of Wall Street,” “words like ‘quant,’ ‘derivative’ and ‘model’ have taken on some nasty connotations.” He is out to change that.

What finance and economics need, he says, is more physics, not less. So what if the quantitative models that underlay such products as mortgage-backed securities blew up, nearly bringing down the world financial system in the process? Models always have assumptions; it is up to the users to pay attention to whether those assumptions hold.”

He describes that the first part of the book on the history of the use of quantitative modeling in economics is well written.

“But Weatherall has a grander aim. “The Physics of Wall Street” “is a book about the future of finance,” he writes in his introduction. “It’s about why we should look to new ideas from physics and related fields to solve the ongoing economic problems faced by countries around the world. It’s a story that should change how we think about economic policy forever.”

This is a lofty goal, made all the more ambitious by the blunders of physicists on Wall Street in recent decades, blunders he describes well but with an extremely generous view. Sure, he concedes, the crisis “was partly a failure of mathematical modeling,” but he declares that the real problem “was a failure of some very sophisticated financial institutions to think like physicists.””

Norris writes, “He has little use for Nassim Taleb, whose best-­selling book “The Black Swan” argues that the models used by traders disastrously underestimated the possibility of very negative outcomes — the black swans. To say that a model failed, Weatherall contends, is not to say that no models can work. “We use mathematical models cut from the same cloth to build bridges and to design airplane engines, to plan the electric grid and to launch spacecraft,” he writes. If you don’t trust them, why are you driving over the George Washington Bridge? “After all, at any moment an unprecedented earthquake could occur.””

This thought by Weatherall demonstrates his lack of knowledge of complexity science. His examples are certainly complicated but are far from being a complex system like a market or an economic system.

Norris ends his short article with, “The world’s economic problems are far too complex to be reduced to a matter of physics and mathematics. Reading this book brought to mind the adage that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

It is amazing to me how most economists consistently refuse to think that economic systems are complex systems in a state of criticality, and hence not subject to cause and effect rules we normally live by.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Mechanical Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk: The Digital Sweatshop by Ellen Cushing
Utne Reader, Jan-Feb 2013

The Turk or Mechanical Turk or Automatron[1] Chess Player was a hoax of the late 1700s. The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine.

“The funny thing about the biggest shift in production in years is that almost nobody knows it happened. Which makes sense, if you think about it: It occurred invisibly, online, anonymously, all over the world, but at the same time, nowhere in particular. And it’s poised—if most people who know about it are to be believed—to completely change the way we think about work, the way we consume technology, and the way the global economy functions.

It’s called microtasking[2], and it works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies. These tasks vary widely in scope and substance, but what links them all is that they’re essentially too difficult or too dependent on human analysis for a computer to do, but too simple for skilled labor. And they’re the bedrock of the internet.

Crowdsourced[3] microtasking—conducted largely via’s Mechanical Turk site—is now a multimillion-dollar industry, and one that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Even as the global economy continues to falter, Turk is thriving, due in no small part to what it can do for companies under pressure to do more with less.

“There’s this sort of competitive insanity of the business environment,” said Six Silberman, a longtime observer of the field who helped create a forum, Turkopticon, for people doing this kind of work. “And everyone’s trying to cut costs as strenuously and as rapidly as possible.” In a globalized economy, that’s easy to do: Mechanical Turkers—even those who live in the U.S.—make somewhere around $1.50 an hour on average, enjoy no worker protections, and have no benefits.”

Read more at Utne Reader.

 Bezos describes the work as “artificial artificial intelligence”. Hence the nod to the Mechanical Turk.

It’s not only being used to add a few bucks to people’s income, it’s being used to replace a lost job.

Laws don’t exist to cover this type of work.

The output of a Turker can be rejected for any reason and the Turker gets no feedback, just the rejection.

This is another commercialization of the trend begun by open source projects[4] in the world of programming.

It’s touted as a revolution as important as the industrial revolution and the future for the Internet.

In my opinion, it’s a trend headed in exactly the wrong direction. It’s the industrial revolution on steroids – hierarchy, segmentalism, exploitation, fragmentation, purposelessness, siloing, soullessness and all the other ills we should be trying to get away from. It like the Mechanical Turk is a fraud, a cruel hoax, perpetrated on the people.

[1] “An automaton is a self-operating machine. The word is sometimes used to describe an old-fashioned robot, more specifically an autonomous robot.” Wikipedia
[2] “Microtasking is the act of breaking a large project into tiny, well defined tasks. The resultant microtasks are proposed to a crowd and are characterized because: it can be performed independently, it requires human participation or intelligence (so it cannot be performed automatically by a computer) and because it can be done in a short period of time. Some experts, like Sharon Chiarella, vice president of Amazon Mechanical Turk, indicates that this “short period” should be less than an hour.”  Crowd Sourcing Blog
[3] “Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline. Crowdsourcing is different from an ordinary outsourcing since it is a task or problem that is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body. Crowdsourcing is related to, but not the same as, human-based computation, which refers to the ways in which humans and computers can work together to solve problems. These two methods can be used together to accomplish tasks.” Wikipedia
[4] “In production and development, open source is a philosophy, or pragmatic methodology that promotes free redistribution and access to an end product's design and implementation details. Before the phrase open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of terms for the concept; open source gained hold with the rise of the Internet, and the attendant need for massive retooling of the computing source code. Opening the source code enabled a self-enhancing diversity of production models, communication paths, and interactive communities. The open-source software movement arose to clarify the environment that the new copyright, licensing, domain, and consumer issues created.” Wikipedia