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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

01 APRIL, 2013

Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah: An Uncommon Portrait of Alan Turing, Godfather of Modern Computing

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“He might ask you … whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.”

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight.

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Alan Turing

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age goes on to trace the making of an extraordinary mind and extraordinary life, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

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20 MARCH, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Behind the Bomb

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From janitor to chemist, the women of Oak Ridge worked hard and talked little.

The civil servant was given only one clue where she would be going: a train ticket to Knoxville, Tennessee. She packed her best clothes, wore a new pair of shoes, and gave herself entirely to the project at hand: don’t ask questions, don’t talk unnecessarily, do your part to win the war. She arrived at a place that was more of a camp than a town, half-built prefabricated houses, an administration center, three reactors, and a foot of mud sure to suck off any shoe that stepped in it. On the books, she had arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works, a refinery plant for “Tubealloy.” Off the books, she had arrived at Site X of the Manhattan Project, where uranium would be enriched before it was shipped to Site Y in Los Alamos for use in “The Gadget.”

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (public library), Denise Kiernan tells the story of the Oak Ridge center of the Manhattan Project, a town of 70,000 workers — primarily women — who lived in a camp-like environment of propaganda, barbed wire, checkpoints, code words, and spies, while working a thousand different jobs, all of which contributed to the events of August 6, 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Operator at a reactor control panel.

Women who had graduated from high school but couldn’t afford college could take the civil service exam. In a matter of months, they might be transferred to jobs in Washington, D.C., New York, or even abroad, without being informed where they were going or how long they would be there. Workers transferred to Oak Ridge were told to get on a train to Knoxville. College-educated women were recruited for their skills, but not always for their specialties. One woman who had wanted to be an engineer accepted a job as a statistician, which was considered more appropriate for her gender. Unskilled local women were also necessary to the project, and these locals often found themselves applying for work at the very place which had evicted their families.

Reactor operators worked multiple shifts to keep the plant going twenty-four hours a day.

Once at Oak Ridge, the workers were fingerprinted, interviewed, assigned a job, and given a clearance badge. Housing was limited and cramped in dormitories that often didn’t have heat. Food at the cafeteria was in short supply and lines were long. Everywhere there was mud, ruining shoes and clothes, and dirtying hallways. One employee remarked that the entire operation seemed more like camping than living, but work had opened up for women and it was their patriotic duty to take it.

Control room at one of three reactor plants.

Officially members of the Clinton Engineer Works, the employees at Oak Ridge adhered to a coded language whose real meanings were known to few. The Clinton Engineer Works was a waystation for “Tubealloy,” or uranium. Those higher up knew that the Tubealloy was being enriched at the Oak Ridge power plants for “the Gadget.” In official documents, Oak Ridge was known as “Site X,” and Los Alamos as “Site Y.” Billboards greeted workers throughout the day: “Your pen and your tongue can be enemy weapons. Watch what you write and say…” The local newspaper, the Oak Ridge Journal, wasn’t allowed to print the names of anyone in its columns. Some women were specially recruited to spy on each other, reporting any breaches in security to the higher-ups.

Workers were encouraged by billboards hung all over the town to to keep to themselves.

A patriotic billboard encouraging fast work and an end to the war.

A billboard emphasizing secrecy.

Tennessee was a Jim Crow state, and while the project wasn’t officially segregated, it abided by segregation in practice. All African-Americans on the project were laborers, domestics, or janitors. Married men and women were forced to live apart in huts with up to five people, while white workers were housed in dormitories and single family dwellings. Women were only allowed to visit their husbands if they had the proper clearance and documentation, proving they were married.

Trailers were brought in to alleviate a housing shortage.

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed in an instant the equivalent population of the project at Oak Ridge—more than 70,000 people. In the President’s address to the nation about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he mentioned the work done at sites near Santa Fe, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This was the first that anyone had heard about their involvement with the atomic bomb. Secretary of War Henry L Stimson, explained that the workers had been rigorously kept in the dark:

The work has been completely compartmentalized so that while many thousands of people have been associated with the program in one way or another, no one has been given more information concerning it than was particularly necessary to do the job.

This, however, was giving the employees at Oak Ridge little credit. One chemist, who analyzed product from one of the reactors, knew that she was doing was atomic in nature — but she didn’t have enough pieces to puzzle together the larger picture. Her superiors knew more, but they never talked about it. No one talked in this town of 70,000. For three years. they had kept their work a secret from the outside world, and most impressively, from each other.

Shift change at a uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge.

A Girl Scout troop visits X-10 in 1951.

A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb — from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden — The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class.

Photographs by Ed Westcott courtesy American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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12 MARCH, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell on Success, Innovation, and Creativity

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“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Success is one of those grab-bag terms — like happiness — that defies universal definition. Thoreau saw it as a matter of greeting each day with gratitude and for designer Paula Scher, it’s about the capacity for growth; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world. But the best kind of success is the kind you define yourself.

And yet, those who share a certain culturally agreed-upon degree of success might have some timeless and widely relevant tips. Take, for instance, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone, romantic, proponent of remix culture. In the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) — which also gave us novelist Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success — writer Orion Swett Marden interviews Bell, at the time 54, about his life’s learnings regarding the secrets of what we call “success.”

Marden writes of Bell with deep admiration:

Extremely polite, always anxious to render courtesy, no one carries great success more gracefully than Alexander G. Bell the inventor of the telephone. His graciousness has won many a friend, the admiration of many more, and has smoothed many a rugged spot in life.

When asked about the key factors of success, Bell sides with Ray Bradbury and replies:

Perseverance is the chief; but perseverance must have some practical end, or it does not avail the man possessing it. A person without a practical end in view becomes a crank or an idiot. Such persons fill our insane asylums. The same perseverance that they show in some idiotic idea, if exercised in the accomplishment of something practicable, would no doubt bring success. Perseverance is first, but practicability is chief. The success of the Americans as a nation is due to their great practicability.

And yet he recognizes, to borrow Bertrand Russell’s words, that “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric” and leaves room for the usefulness of useless knowledge:

But often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical, does it not? You were called crazy, too, once, were you not?

Bell affirms the role of “unconscious processing” — what T. S. Eliot called the “long incubation” of ideas — in the creative process:

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results. Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning? We are thinking all the time; it is impossible not to think.

Paralleling Thomas Edison’s sleep habits, Bell offers a fine addition to other famous daily routines:

I begin my work at about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, and continue until four or five in the morning. Night is a more quiet time to work. It aids thought.

When Marden asks whether everyone can become an inventor, Bell is adamant:

Oh, no; not all minds are constituted alike. Some minds are only adapted to certain things. But as one’s mind grows, and one’s knowledge of the world’s industries widens, it adapts itself to such things as naturally fall to it.

Echoing Thoreau, Bell advocates for the creative stimulation of nature and makes a strong case for physical health:

I believe it to be a primary principle of success; ‘mens sana in corpora sano’ — a sound mind in a sound body. The mind in a weak body produces weak ideas; a strong body gives strength to the thought of the mind. Ill health is due to man’s artificiality of living. He lives indoors. He becomes, as it were, a hothouse plant. Such a plant is never as successful as a hardy garden plant is. An outdoor life is necessary to health and success, especially in a youth.

Bell, like John Dewey, believes that ideas can’t be willed and aren’t the product of the fabled Eureka! moment — rather, he advocates for slow creative gestation, echoing Thomas Edison’s insistence on singularly focused effort and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land’s conception of the 5,000 steps to success:

You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.

Next must come concentration of purpose and study. That is another thing I mean to emphasize. Concentrate all your thought upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn
until brought to a focus.

[…]

Man is the result of slow growth … The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Bell offers a poignant, if overly violent, metaphor for how the factory model of education stifles the creative spirit and the capacity for success:

In Paris, they fatten geese to create a diseased condition of the liver. A man stands with a box of very finely prepared and very rich food beside a revolving stand, and, as it revolves, one goose after another passes before him. Taking the first goose by the neck, he clamps down its throat a large lump of the food, whether the goose will or no, until its crop is well stuffed out, and then he proceeds with the rest in the same very mechanical manner. Now, I think, if those geese had to work hard for their own food, they would digest it better, and be far healthier geese. How many young American geese are stuffed in about the same manner at college and at home, by their rich and fond parents!

Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent drawing and oath, March 7, 1876

In considering the different mindsets towards innovation in Europe vs. the United States, Bell applauds the American gift for embracing the unfamiliar and remaining open to the new, pointing to risk-aversion as a killer of the culture of innovation:

It is harder to attain success in Europe. There is hardly the same appreciation of progress there is here. Appreciation is an element of success. Encouragement is needed. My thoughts run mostly toward inventions. In England, people are conservative. They are well contented with the old, and do not readily adopt new ideas. Americans more quickly appreciate new inventions. Take an invention to an Englishman or a Scot, and he will ask you all about it, and then say your invention may be all right, but let somebody else try it first.

Take the same invention to an American, and if it is intelligently explained, he is generally quick to see the feasibility of it. America is an inspiration to inventors. It is quicker to adopt advanced ideas than England or Europe. The most valuable inventions of this century have been made in America.

When asked about the roles of heredity and environment in creativity — the good old nature-vs.-nurture debate — Bell offers a biological spin on John Locke’s “blank slate” theory and ultimately extols the American spirit of innovation as an enormously fertile environment for nurturing great minds:

Environment, certainly; heredity, not so distinctly. In heredity, a man may stamp out the faults he has inherited. There is no chance for the proper working of heredity. If selection could be carried out, a man might owe much to heredity. But as it is, only opposites marry. Blonde and light-complexioned people marry brunettes, and the tall marry the short. In our scientific societies, men only are admitted. If women who were interested especially in any science were allowed to affiliate with the men in these societies, we might hope to see some wonderful workings of the laws of heredity. A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.

Environment counts for a great deal. A man’s particular idea may have no chance for growth or encouragement in his community. Real success is denied that man, until he finds a proper environment.

America is a good environment for young men. It breathes the very spirit of success. I noticed at once, when I first came to this country, how the people were all striving for success, and helping others to attain success. It is an inspiration you cannot help feeling. America is the land of success.

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