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“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness

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As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.

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“Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe”*…

 

Karen-fungal-computing-2

 

In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks. The components are mined from the Earth at great cost, and they eventually return to the Earth, however poisoned. This rock-and-metal paradigm has mostly served us well. The miniaturization of metallic components onto wafers of silicon — an empirical trend we call Moore’s Law — has defined the last half-century of life on Earth, giving us wristwatch computers, pocket-sized satellites and enough raw computational power to model the climate, discover unknown molecules, and emulate human learning.

But there are limits to what a rock can do. Computer scientists have been predicting the end of Moore’s Law for decades. The cost of fabricating next-generation chips is growing more prohibitive the closer we draw to the physical limits of miniaturization. And there are only so many rocks left. Demand for the high-purity silica sand used to manufacture silicon chips is so high that we’re facing a global, and irreversible, sand shortage; and the supply chain for commonly-used minerals, like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, fuels bloody conflicts all over the world. If we expect 21st century computers to process the ever-growing amounts of data our culture produces — and we expect them to do so sustainably — we will need to reimagine how computers are built. We may even need to reimagine what a computer is to begin with.

It’s tempting to believe that computing paradigms are set in stone, so to speak. But there are already alternatives on the horizon. Quantum computing, for one, would shift us from a realm of binary ones and zeroes to one of qubits, making computers drastically faster than we can currently imagine, and the impossible — like unbreakable cryptography — newly possible. Still further off are computer architectures rebuilt around a novel electronic component called a memristor. Speculatively proposed by the physicist Leon Chua in 1971, first proven to exist in 2008, a memristor is a resistor with memory, which makes it capable of retaining data without power. A computer built around memristors could turn off and on like a light switch. It wouldn’t require the conductive layer of silicon necessary for traditional resistors. This would open computing to new substrates — the possibility, even, of integrating computers into atomically thin nano-materials. But these are architectural changes, not material ones.

For material changes, we must look farther afield, to an organism that occurs naturally only in the most fleeting of places. We need to glimpse into the loamy rot of a felled tree in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, or examine the glistening walls of a damp cave. That’s where we may just find the answer to computing’s intractable rock problem: down there, among the slime molds…

It’s time to reimagine what a computer could be: “Beyond Smart Rocks.”

(TotH to Patrick Tanguay.)

* “Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe about what is possible.”  – Carver Mead

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As we celebrate slime, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

[UPDATE- With thanks to friend MK for the catch:  your correspondent was relying on an apocryphal tale in attributing the Philco brand name to to Philo Farnsworth.  Farsworth did work with the company, and helped them enter the television business.  But the Philco trademark dates back to 1919– pre-television days– as a label for what was then the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company.]

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

source

 

 

“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…

 

The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

 

Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm

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As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

Yikes!…

If yesterday’s missive was about headlines that amuse, today’s is corrective:  From the BBC (Friday the 13th, natch)…

Peru battles rabid vampire bats…

(TotH to The Rumpus)

As we adjust our necklaces of garlic, we might spare a memorial thought for Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he died on this date in 1967 at the age of 83.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing his invention, TV Glasses (source: Life)

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