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A second post in a series of posts about Information Theory/Learning based perspectives in Evolution, that started off from the last post.

Although the last post was mostly about a historical perspective, it had a section where the main motivation for some work in metabiology due to Chaitin (now published as a book) was reviewed. The starting point about that work was to view evolution solely through an information processing lens (and hence the use of Algorithmic Information Theory). Ofcourse this lens by itself is not a recent acquisition and goes back a few decades (although in hindsight the fact that it goes back just a few decades is very surprising to me at least). To illustrate this I wanted to share some analogies by John Maynard Smith (perhaps one of my favourite scientists), which I had found to be particularly incisive and clear. To avoid clutter, they are shared here instead (note that most of the stuff he talks about is something we study in high school, however the talk is quite good, especially because it tends to emphasize on the centrality of information throughout). I also want this post to act as a reference for some upcoming posts.

Coda:

Molecular Biology is all about Information. I want to be a little more general than that; the last century, the 19th century was a century in which Science discovered how energy could be transformed from one form to another […] This century will be seen […] where it became clear that information could be translated from one from to another.

[Other parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6]

Throughout this talk he gives wonderful analogies on how information translation underlies the so called Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, and how if the translation was one-way in some stages it could have implications (i.e how August Weismann noted that acquired characters are not inherited by giving a “Chinese telegram translation analogy”; since there was no mechanism to translate acquired traits (acquired information) into the organism so that it could be propagated).

However, the most important point from the talk: One could see evolution as being punctuated by about 6 or so major changes or shifts. Each of these events was marked by the way information was stored and processed in a different way. Some that he talks about are:

1. The origin of replicating molecules.

2. The Evolution of chromosomes: Chromosomes are just strings of the above replicating molecules. The property that they have is that when one of these molecules is replicated, the others have to be as well. The utility of this is the following: Since they are all separate genes, they might have different rates of replication and the gene that replicates fastest will soon outnumber all the others and all the information would be lost. Thus this transition underlies a kind of evolution of cooperation between replicating molecules or in other other words chromosomes are a way for forced cooperation between genes.

3. The Evolution of the Code: That information in the nucleic could be translated to sequences of amino acids i.e. proteins.

4. The Origin of Sex: The evolution of sex is considered an open question. However one argument goes that (details in next or next to next post) the fact that sexual reproduction hastens the acquisition from the environment (as compared to asexual reproduction) explains why it should evolve.

5. The Evolution of multicellular organisms: A large, complex signalling system had to evolve for these different kind of cells to function in an organism properly (like muscle cells or neurons to name some in Humans).

6. Transition from solitary individuals to societies: What made these societies of individuals (ants, humans) possible at all? Say if we stick to humans, this could have only happened only if there was a new way to transmit information from generation to generation – one such possible information transducing machine could be language! Thus giving an additional mechanism to transmit information from one generation to another other than the genetic mechanisms (he compares the genetic code and replication of nucleic acids and the passage of information by language). This momentous event (evolution of language ) itself dependent on genetics. With the evolution of language, other things came by:  Writing, Memes etc. Which might reproduce and self-replicate, mutate and pass on and accelerate the process of evolution. He ends by saying this stage of evolution could perhaps be as profound as the evolution of language itself.

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As a side comment: I highly recommend the following interview of John Maynard Smith as well. I rate it higher than the above lecture, although it is sort of unrelated to the topic.

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Interesting books to perhaps explore:

1. The Major Transitions in EvolutionJohn Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry.

2. The Evolution of Sex: John Maynard Smith (more on this theme in later blog posts, mostly related to learning and information theory).

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“Our federal income tax law defines the tax y to be paid in terms of the income x; it does so in a clumsy enough way by pasting several linear functions together, each valid in another interval or bracket of income. An archeologist who, five thousand years later from now, shall unearth some of our income tax returns together with relics of engineering works and mathematical books, will probably date them a couple of centuries earlier, certainly before Galileo and Vieta. Vieta was instrumental in introducing a consistent algebraic symbolism. Galileo discovered the quadratic law of falling bodies \frac{1}{2} gt^2 […] by this formula Galileo converted a natural law inherent in the actual motion of bodies into an a priori constructed mathematical function, and that is what physics endeavors to accomplish for every phenomenon […]. This law is much better design than our tax laws. It has been designed by nature, who seems to lay her plans with a fine sense for simplicity and harmony. But then nature is not, as our income and excess profits tax laws are, hemmed in having to be comprehensible to our legislators and chambers of commerce. […]”
(Hermann Weyl, Excerpted from “Levels of Infinity”, Essay 3: “The Mathematical Way of Thinking”, Originally published in Science, 1940).
With the tax season in mind, I was thinking that not much has changed since 1940!

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John von Neumann made so many fundamental contributions that Paul Halmos remarked that it was almost like von Neumann maintained a list of various subjects that he wanted to touch and develop and he systematically kept ticking items off. This sounds to be remarkably true if one just has a glance at the dizzyingly long “known for” column below his photograph on his wikipedia entry.

John von Neumann with one of his computers.

John von Neumann with one of his computers.

Since Neumann died (young) in 1957, rather unfortunately, there aren’t very many audio/video recordings of his (if I am correct just one 2 minute video recording exists in the public domain so far).

I recently came across a fantastic film on him that I would very highly recommend. Although it is old and the audio quality is not the best, it is certainly worth spending an hour on. The fact that this film features Eugene Wigner, Stanislaw UlamOskar Morgenstern, Paul Halmos (whose little presentation I really enjoyed), Herman Goldstein, Hans Bethe and Edward Teller (who I heard for the first time, spoke quite interestingly) alone makes it worthwhile.

Update: The following youtube links have been removed for breach of copyright. The producer of the film David Hoffman, tells us that the movie should be available as a DVD for purchase soon. Please check the comments to this post for more information.

Part 1

Find Part 2 here.

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Benoit Mandelbrot Dies

Benoit Mandelbrot (20 November 1924 – 14 October 2010)

Cesaro as quoted by Benoit Mandelbrot on limits in Koch Curves and fractals:

The will is infinite
and the execution confined
The desire is boundless
and the act a slave to limit.

From Mandelbrot’s seminal book on fractal geometry “The Fractal Geometry of Nature” (1982). This book has more digressions and quotations than any other book I think.

Mandelbrot was not like Feynman for me, not the kinds I could call a childhood hero, but the kind of person I liked more and more as I grew up. I was extremely saddened by the news of his demise today morning.

RIP!

As a tribute to Mandelbrot and his immense contribution. I would highly recommend this extremely wonderful PBS documentary.

[Click on the Image to Play]

If for some reason the above does not work – check the documentary out on googlevideo.

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Links:

New York Times Obituary

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I am late with my echo statement on this.

Over the past few days, the internet is abuzz with news of Craig Venter and his team for creating the first fully functional cell, controlled by synthetic DNA and discussions on what might be the ethical consequences of future work in this area.

The fact that this has happened is not surprising at all. Dr Venter has been very open about his work and has been promoting it for some years now.  For instance, a couple of years ago there was a wonderful TED talk in which Venter talks about his team being close to creating synthetic life. The latest news is ofcourse not of synthetic life, but a step closer to that grand aim.

Another Instance : Two years there was a brainstorming session whose transcript was converted by EDGE into a book available for free download too.

Dimitar Sasselov, Max Brockman, Seth Lloyd, George Church, J. Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Image Courtesy - EDGE

The BOOK can be downloaded from here.

So from such updates, it did not surprise me much when Venter made the announcement.

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Ethics : There have been frenzied debates on what this might lead us to on the internet, on television and elsewhere. These discussions on ethics appear to me to be inevitable and I find it most appropriate to quote the legendary Freeman Dyson on it.

“Two Hundred years ago, William Blake engraved The Gates of Paradise, a little book of drawings and verses. One of the drawings, with the title “Aged Ignorance”, shows an old man wearing professional eyeglasses and holding a large pair of scissors. In front of him, a winged child running naked in the light from a rising sun. The old man sits with his back to the sun. With a self satisfied smile he opens his scissors and chips the child’s wings. With the picture goes a little poem :

“In Time’s Ocean falled drown’d,
In aged ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clip’d the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things.”

This picture is an image of the human condition in the era that is now beginning. The rising sun is biological science, throwing light of every increasing intensity onto the processes by which we live and feel and think. The winged child is human life, becoming for the first time aware of itself and its potentialities in the light of science. The old man is our existing human society, shaped by ages of past ignorance. Our laws, our loyalities, our fears and hatreds, our economic and social injustices, all grew slowly and are deeply rooted in the past. Inevitably the advance of biological knowledge will bring clashes between the old institutions and new desires for human improvement. Old institutions will clip the wings of human desire. Up to a point, caution is justified and social constraints are necessary. The new technologies will be dangerous as well as liberating. But in the long run, social constraints must bend to new realities. Humanity can not live forever with clipped wings. The vision of self-improvement which William Blake and Samuel Gompers in their different ways proclaimed, will not vanish from the Earth.”

(The above is an excerpt from a lecture given by Freeman Dyson at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1995. The lecture was pulished by the New York Review of Books in 1997 and later as a chapter in Scientist as Rebel. )

Artificial Life Beyond the Wet Medium :

Life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular mediumJohn Von Neumann

Wet Artificial-Life is what is basically synthetic life (in synthetic life you don’t really abstract the life process into another medium, but you digitize it and recreate it instead as per your requirement).

I do believe abstracting and digitizing life from a “wet chemical medium” to a computer is not very far off either i.e. a software that not only would imitate “life” but also synthesize it. And coupled with something like Koza’s Genetic Programming scheme embedded in it, develop something that possesses some intelligence other than producing more useful programs.

Coded Messages :

This is the fun part from the news about Venter and his team’s groundbreaking work. The synthetic DNA of the bacteria has a few messages coded into it.

1. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to create life out of life.” – from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

James Joyce is one of my favourite writers*, so I was glad that this was encoded too. But I find it funny that what this quote says can also be the undoing of synthetic life or rather a difficult problem to solve. The biggest enemy of synthetic life is evolution (creating life out of life :), evolution would ensure that control of the synthetic bacteria is lost soon enough. I believe that countering this would be the single biggest challenge in synthetic biology.

*When I tried reading Ulysses, I kept giving up. But had this compulsive need to finish it anyway. I had to join an Orkut community called “Who is afraid of James Joyce” and after some motivation could read it! ;-)

2. What I can not build, I can not understand – Richard P. Feynman

This is what Dr Venter announced, isn’t “What I can not create, I do not understand” the correct version?

Feynman's Blackboard at the time of his death: Copyright - Caltech

3. “See things not as they are, but as they might be” – J. Robert Oppenheimer from American Prometheus

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Recommendations :

1. What is Life – Erwin Schrodinger (PDF)

2. Life – What A Concept! – EDGE (PDF)

3. A Life Decoded : My Genome, My Life – C. J. Venter (Google Books)

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For the past couple of years, I have had a couple of questions about machine learning research that I have wanted to ask some experts, but never got the chance to do so. I did not even know if my questions made sense at all. I would probably write about them on a blog post soon enough.

It is however ironical that I came to know my questions were valid and well discussed (I never knew what to search for them, I used expressions not used by researchers) only by the death of Ray Solomonoff (he was one researcher who worked on it, and an obituary on him highlighted his work on it, something I missed). Solomonoff was one of the founding fathers of Artificial Intelligence as a field and Machine Learning as a discipline within it. It must be noted that he was one of the few attendees at the 1956 Dartmouth Conference, basically an extended brain storming session that started AI formally as a field. The other attendees were : Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, Arthur SamuelOliver Selfridge, Claude Shannon, Nathaniel Rochester and Trenchand Moore. His 1950-52 papers on networks are regarded as the first statistical analysis of the same.  Solomonoff was thus a towering figure in AI and Machine Learning.

[Ray Solomonoff  : (25 July 1926- 7 December 2009)]

Solomonoff is widely considered as the father of Machine Learning for circulating the first report on the same in 1956. His particular focus was on the use of probability and its relation to learning. He founded the idea of Algorithmic Probability (ALP)  in a 1960 paper at Caltech, an idea that gives rise to Kolmogorov Complexity as a side product. A. N. Kolmogorov independently discovered similar results and came to know of and acknowledged Solomonoff’s earlier work on Algorithmic Information Theory. His work however was relatively unknown in the west than in the soviet union, which is why Algorithmic Information Theory is mostly referred to as Kolmogorov complexity rather than “Solomonoff Complexity”. Kolmogorov and Solomonoff approached the same framework from different directions. While Kolmogorov was concerned with randomness and Information Theory, Solomonoff was concerned with inductive reasoning. And in doing so he discovered ALP and Kolomogorov Complexity years before anyone did. I would write below on only one aspect of his work that I have studied to some degree in the past year.

Solomonoff With G.J Chaitin, another pioneer in Algorithmic Information Theory

[Image Source]

The Universal Distribution:

His 1956 paper, “An inductive inference machine” was one of the seminal papers that used probability in Machine Learning. He outlined two main problems which he thought (correctly) were linked.

The Problem of Learning in Humans : How do you use all the information that you gather in life in making decisions?

The Problem of Probability : Given you have some data and some a-priori information, how can you make the best possible predictions for the future?

The problem of learning is more general and related to the problem of probability. Solomonoff noted that the Machine learning was simply the process of approximating ideal probabilistic predictions for practical use.

Building on his 1956 paper, he discovered probabilistic languages for induction at a time when it was considered out of fashion. And discovered the Universal Distribution.

All induction problems could be basically reduced to this form : Given a sequence of binary symbols how do you extrapolate it? The answer being that we could assign a probability to a sequence and then use Bayes Theorem to make a prediction on which particular continuation of a string was how likely. That gives rise to an even more difficult question that was the basic question for a lot of Solomonoff’s work and on Algorithmic Probability/Algorithmic Information Theory. This question is : How do you assign probabilities to strings?

Solomonoff approached this problem using the idea of a Universal Turing Machine. Suppose this Turing Machine has three types of tapes, an unidirectional input tape, an unidirectional output tape and a bidirectional working tape. Suppose this machine will take some binary string as input and it may give a binary string as output.

It could do any of the following :

1. Print out a string after a while and then come to a stop.

2. It could print an infinite output string.

3. It could go in an infinite loop for computing the string and not output anything at all (Halting Problem).

For a string x, the ALP would be as follows :

If we feed some bits at random to our Turing Machine, there will always be some probability that the output would start with a string x. This probability is the algorithmic or universal probability of the string x.

The ALP would be given as :

\displaystyle P_M(x) = \sum_{i=0}^{\infty}2^{-\lvert\ S_i(x)\rvert}

Where P_M(x) would be the universal probability of string x with respect to the universal turing machine M. To understand the placement of S_i(x) in the above expression, let’s discuss it a little.

There could be many random strings that after being processed by the Turing Machine give an output string that begins with string x. And S_i(x) is the i^{th} such string. Each such string carries a description of x. And since we want to consider all cases, we take the summation. In the expression above \lvert\ S_i(x)\rvert gives the length of a string and 2^{\lvert\ S_i(x)\rvert} the probability that the random input S_i would output a string starting with x.

This definition of ALP has the following properties that have been stated and proved by Solomonoff in the 60s and the 70s.

1. It assigns higher probabilities to strings with shorter descriptions. This is the reverse of something like Huffman Coding.

2. The value for ALP would be independent of the type of the universal machine used.

3. ALP is incomputible. This is the case because of the halting problem. Infact it is this reason that it has not received much attention. Why get interested in a model that is incomputible? However Solomonoff insisted that approximations to the ALP would be much better than existing systems and that getting the exact ALP is not even needed.

4. P_M(x) is a complete description for x. That means any pattern in the data could be found by using P_M. This means that the universal distribution is the only inductive principle that is complete. And approximations to it would be much desirable.

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Solomonoff also worked on Grammar discovery and was very interested in Koza’s Genetic Programming system, which he believed could lead to efficient and much better machine learning methods. He published papers till the ripe old age of 83 and is definitely inspiring for the love of his work.  Paul Vitanyi notes that :

It is unusual to find a productive major scientist that is not regularly employed at all. But from all the elder people (not only scientists) I know, Ray Solomonoff was the happiest, the most inquisitive, and the most satisfied. He continued publishing papers right up to his death at 83.

Solomonoff’s ideas are still not exploited to their full potential and in my opinion would be necessary to explore to build the Machine Learning dream of never-ending learners and incremental + synergistic Machine Learning. I would write about this in a later post pretty soon. It was a life of great distinction and a life well lived. I also wish strength and peace to his wife Grace and his nephew Alex.

The five surviving (in 2006) founders of AI who met in 2006 to commemorate 50 years of the Dartmouth Conference. From left : Trenchand Moore, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Oliver Selfridge and Ray Solomonoff

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Refernces and Links:

1. Ray Solomonoff’s publications.

2. Obituary: Ray Solomonoff – The founding father of Algorithmic Information Theory by Paul Vitanyi

3. The Universal Distribution and Machine Learning (PDF).

4. Universal Artificial Intelligence by Marcus Hutter (videolectures.net)

5. Minimum Description Length by Peter Grünwald (videolecures.net)

6. Universal Learning Algorithms and Optimal Search (Neural Information Processing Systems 2002 workshop)

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A week ago I observed that there was a wonderful new documentary on you-tube, put-up by none other than author and documentary film-maker Christopher Sykes. This post is about this documentary and some thoughts related to it. Before I talk again about the documentary, I’ll digress for a moment and come back to it in a while.

With the exception of the Feynman Lectures in Physics Volume III, Six not so easy pieces (both of which I don’t intend to read in the conceivable future) there is no book with which Feynman was involved (he never wrote himself) that I have not had the opportunity to read. The last that I read was “Don’t You Have Time to Think“, a collection of delightful letters by Feynman written over the years (Note that “Don’t you have time to think” is the same as “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations”).

Don't You Have Time To Think

A number of people including many of Feynman’s close friends were surprised to learn that Feynman wrote letters and so many of them. He didn’t seem to be the kinds who would write the kind of letters that he did.  These give a very different picture of the man than a conventional biography would. Usually, collections of letters tend to be boring and drab, but I think these are an exception.  They reveal him to be a genius with a human touch. I have written about Feynman before, like I have covered points in an earlier post which now seems to me to be overtly enthusiastic. ;-)

Sean Caroll aptly writes that Feynman worship is often overdone, I think he is right. Let me make my own opinion on the matter.

I don’t consider Feynman god or anywhere close to that (but definitely one of my idols and one man I admire greatly), I actually consider him to be very human and some one who was unashamed of admitting to his weaknesses and who had a certain love for life that’s rare. I only am attracted to Feynman for one reason : People like Feynman are a breath of fresh air in the bunch of supercilious pseudo-intellectual snobs that are abound in academia and industry. A breath of fresh air especially for the lesser mortals like me. That’s why I like that man. Why is he so famous? I have tried writing on it before. And I won’t do so anymore.

I’d like to cite two quotes that would give my point of view on the celebrity-fication of scientists, in this case Feynman. Dave Brooks writes in the Telegraph in an article titled “Physicist still leaves some all shook up” February 5, 2003:

Feynman is the person every geek would want to be: very smart, honored  by the establishment even as he won’t play by his rules, admired by people of both sexes, arrogant without being envied and humble without being pitied. In other words, he’s young Elvis, with the Earth  shaking talent transferred from larynx to brain cells and enough sense to have avoided the fat Las Vegas phase. Is such celebrity-fication of scientists good? I think so, even if people do have a tendency to go overboard. Anything that gets us thinking about science is something to be admired, whether it comes in the form of an algorithm or an anecdote.

I remember reading an essay by the legendary Freeman Dyson that said:

Science too needs its share of super heroes to bring in new talent.

These rest my case I suppose.

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The only other book of Feynman that I have not read and that I have wanted to read for a LONG time is Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman’s Last Journey. Unfortunately I have never been able to find it.

Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman's Last Journey

There was a BBC Horizon documentary on the same. And thankfully Christopher J. Sykes has uploaded that documentary on you-tube.

This is a rare documentary and was the last in which Feynman appeared. It was infact shot just some days before his death. This documents the obsession of Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton with visiting an obscure place in central Asia called Tannu Tuva. During a discussion on geography and in a teasing mood Feynman was reminded of a long forgotten memory and quipped at Leighton, “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva”. Leighton thought it was a joke and confidently said that there was no such country at all. After some searching they found out that Tannu Tuva was once a country and now a soviet satellite. It’s capital was “Kyzyl”, the name was so interesting to Feynman that he though he just had to go to this place. The book and the documentary covers Feynman’s and Leighton’s adventure of scheming of getting to go to Tannu Tuva and to get around Soviet bureaucracy. It is an extremely entertaining film to say the least. The end for it is a little sad though. Feynman passed away three days before he got a letter from the Soviets about permission to visit Tannu Tuva and Leighton appears to be on the verge of tears.

The introduction to the documentary reads as:

The story of physicist Richard Feynman’s fascination with the remote Asian country of Tannu Tuva, and his efforts to go there with his great friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton (co-author of the classic ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman’). Feynman was dying of cancer when this was filmed, and died a few weeks after the filming. Originally shown in the BBC TV science series ‘Horizon’ in 1987, and also shown in the USA on PBS ‘Nova’ under the title ‘Last Journey of a Genius’

Find the five parts to the documentary below:

“I’m an explorer okay? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff”

Part 1

tatu1Click on the above image to watch

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Part 2

tatu2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 3

tatu3-2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 4

tatu4Click on the above image to watch

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Part 5

tatu5-2Click on the above image to watch

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After I got done with the documentary did I realize that the PBS version of the above documentary was available on google video for quite some time.

Find the video here.

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Michelle Feynman

Michelle Feynman

As an aside :  though Feynman could not manage to go to Tuva in his lifetime. His daughter Michelle did visit Tuva last month!

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One of the things that has me in awe after the documentary over the last week is Tuvan throat singing. It is one of the most remarkable things that I have seen in the past month or two. I am strongly attracted to Tibetan chants too, but these are very different and fascinating. The remarkable thing about them being that the singer can produce two pitches as if being sung by two separate singers. Have a look!

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Project Tuva : Character of Physical Law Lectures

On the same day I came across 7 lectures which were given by Feynman at Cornell in 1964 and were put into a book later by the name “The Character of Physical Law”.  These have been made freely available by Microsoft Research. Though some of these lectures have already been on youtube for a while, the ones that were not needless to say were a joy to watch. I had linked to the lectures on Gravitation and Arrow of Time previously.

Project TuvaClick on the above image to be directed to the lectures

I came to know of these lectures on Prof Terence Tao’s page, who I find very inspiring too!

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Quick Links:

1. Christopher J. Sykes’ Youtube channel.

2. Tuva or Bust

3. Project Tuva at Microsoft Research

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Not very long ago, I wrote two rather long posts centered around the charismatic nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer:

>> Peace (Part three of this post – The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer)
>> American Prometheus

Since I have already written considerable amounts on Oppenheimer, I wouldn’t write more, though  I could write more. I would request readers to have a look at the above two posts.

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j-robert-oppenheimer

[J. Robert Oppenheimer]

Click to Enlarge

Just today my friend Rod informed me of a movie on Oppenheimer. Rod’s pretty much a hawk on the Internet. I suspect he either defies causality or has a number of top-secret contacts  as he comes to know of stuff before it is posted on the web. ;-)

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Robert Oppenheimer, once an inspiring character and a charismatic figure was a broken man after the security hearings of 1954, he was never the same person again. The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a very good BBC horizon like documentary on his life with a focus on the security hearings provided by PBS. It explores why Oppenheimer had to go through all the humiliation after doing such a great service to his country. It can be watched for free, even the transcripts are available here.

trial-jro1

Click on the above image to watch the movie

The introduction to the movie goes like this:

J. Robert Oppenheimer was brilliant, arrogant, proud, charismatic — and a national hero. Under his leadership during World War II, the United States succeeded in becoming the first nation to harness the power of nuclear energy to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction — the atomic bomb. But after the bomb brought the war to an end, in spite of his renown and his enormous achievement, America turned on him, humiliated him, and cast him aside. The question this film asks is, “Why?”

“The country asked him to do something and he did it brilliantly, and they repaid him for the tremendous job he did by breaking him.”
— Marvin L. Goldberger, Los Alamos scientist and former director, The Institute for Advanced Studies

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, featuring Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, The Bourne Ultimatum) as Robert Oppenheimer. From multiple Emmy Award-winning producer David Grubin (RFK, LBJ, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided), The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer features interviews with the scientist’s former colleagues and eminent scholars to present a complex and revealing portrait of one of the most important and controversial scientists of the twentieth century. The two-hour film traces the course of Oppenheimer’s life: his rarefied childhood, his troubled adolescence, his emergence as one of America’s leading nuclear physicists, his leadership of the Los Alamos laboratory, and his tragic humiliation

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As is my experience, there would be some people around who would think that Oppenheimer was a moral monster as he was instrumental in getting the bomb made and that his preachings on peace were just hypocrisy. I would not debate on that as I am spent on the matter. For knowing what I have to say on the matter I would direct the reader to this post by me – Peace (Please have a look at the third part of that post). Also Oppenheimer is not just about the bomb, he did some high quality work in theoretical physics as well.

jro-smoking1

[JRO Smoking, Oppenheimer was a chain smoker all of his life. It turned out to be his un-doing. He died of throat cancer]

Coming back, I liked the movie quite a bit in spite of the fact that most of what is in the movie I already read about in American Prometheus (that’s obvious isn’t it?). Oppenheimer is played by David Straithairn and this 110 minute movie has been directed by David Grubin. Just like American Prometheus, the “dialogs” in the movie are from the actual transcripts of the security hearings of 1954. The movie has some rare video sequences that I have always wanted to see, like for instance Oppenheimer’s short speech after getting the Fermi Prize.

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I would have loved to write more on Oppenheimer and his life and what I get to learn from it, but I don’t think it would be a bright idea to put some very personal observations and lessons on a public platform. I might choose to do that sometime later maybe.

I’d direct you all to have a look at the movie, it has lessons for all of us in difficult times. Not just on an individual level but on a national level too. We have a lot to learn from the past.

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Related Posts:

1. American Prometheus

2. Peace. (The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer)

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I recently discovered a series of three lectures by the legendary physicist Hans Bethe given in 1999. Bethe was a professor at  Cornell University almost all his life and these lectures given at age 93 had been made public by the University quite a while ago.

betheblackboard2

[Hans Bethe at the blackboard at Cornell in 1967: Image Source and Copyright – Cornell University ]

These lectures are on the Quantum theory for expert and the non- expert alike. Due to some engagements I am yet to view them, however I am still posting them as I am sure these as given by Bethe himself would be great.

From the Cornell University Webpage for these lectures:

IN 1999, legendary theoretical physicist Hans Bethe delivered three lectures on quantum theory to his neighbors at the Kendal of Ithaca retirement community (near Cornell University). Given by Professor Bethe at age 93, the lectures are presented here as QuickTime videos synchronized with slides of his talking points and archival material.

Intended for an audience of Professor Bethe’s neighbors at Kendal, the lectures hold appeal for experts and non-experts alike. The presentation makes use of limited mathematics while focusing on the personal and historical perspectives of one of the principal architects of quantum theory whose career in physics spans 75 years.

A video introduction and appreciation are provided by Professor Silvan S. Schweber, the physicist and science historian who is Professor Bethe’s biographer, and Edwin E. Salpeter, the J. G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Science Emeritus at Cornell, who was a post-doctoral student of Professor Bethe.


Introduction

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The introduction has been given by Edwin E. Salpeter and Silvan S. Schweber.


Lecture 1

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Lecture 2

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Lecture 3

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Appreciation

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Note: All the images above and also the text giving an introduction to the lectures are a copyright of Cornell. Please comply with the terms of use associated with them.

Links:

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I wrote rather passionately about J. Robert Oppenheimer in one part of a previous post marking an anniversary of the first nuclear bombings. Those interested in Oppenheimer’s life might be interested in reading that part.

I read American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Buy it) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin between 14-29 October. And it is amongst the best biographies I have read. It is a very different book, it is not inspiring like some biographies on great men are. It is not philosophical or based on some mad pursuit. I have never seen such a well researched biography before. Sometimes I found the details about Oppenheimer’s personal life nauseating, but that just indicates the amount of surveillance he was under.

This book is not inspiring, it is haunting*.

american_prometheus_oppenheimer

[American Prometheus- Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin. Image Source ]

A Pulitzer prize winner (2006), this book chronicles the life of physicist, administrator, poet, American patriot and the father of the atomic bomb from his very early days to his last. The authors delve into every aspect of Oppenheimer’s life from his birth, to his time in England and Germany as a student. His leftist days at Berkeley, his love interests, his role in the Manhattan project, his public humiliation in the security hearings of 1954 at the height of the red scare and his quiet life after that, till his death. Twenty five years of research by the authors culminated into a devastatingly sad biography of one of the most famous men of all time.

The prologue in the book quotes George Kennan (1904-2005) the famous American diplomat now known as the father of the containment policy during the red scare as saying the following about him:

“In the dark day of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcomed in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking academic residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country’

The book is divided into 5 parts and 40 chapters, each part covering a stage in his life. I would request all who get the opportunity to read this book, even those who have personal enmity with science and scientists but read once in a while about general things.

Some sections of the book are striking and stunning and represent major turning points in the book and just stand out.

While reading I observed that the authors place very clearly facts about the “Apple Incident” in which I was interested ever since I read about it, where in a state of depression and enormous emotional distress in his troubled student days at Cambridge, England in the autumn of 1925 Oppenheimer placed a “poisoned” apple on the desk of his head tutor, Patrick Blackett (few people know that Blackett was an adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru). The authorities learned of the incident and after some talking with his parents he was allowed to stay at Cambridge subject to the condition that he visit the psychiatrist as per a mandated chart. Oppenheimer gradually recovered and thrived in his golden intellectual days at Gottingen, Germany shortly afterwards when he produced some fundamental research and became known as one of the best quantum physicists of the time. The time bracket from this period at gottingen to his days as the Director of the Manhattan Project were his best days. By the end of 1945 Oppenheimer was one of the most famous physicists of the time.

Oppenheimer_Porkpie_Hat

[The above photo of Oppenheimer’s porkpie hat was the cover of Physics Today in May 1948, exemplifying the high regard and respect Oppenheimer commanded at that time. Image Soure]

Taking a brief digression, I’d cite two of my favorite quotes from the book:

After the emotional turmoil of his student days in England, Oppenheimer was always trying to be above that. His guiding principles were discipline and work. Quoting him from a letter to his brother.

Discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation…I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable.

There is another fantastic quote attributed to P.A.M Dirac, the legendary physicist who was known to be eccentrically single minded to his dedication of science. Once Oppenheimer gave him several books as a gift. Dirac politely refused and remarked:

Reading books interfered with thought.


The Beast In the Jungle: I mentioned just a paragraph earlier that there were some very strong parts in the book that represented a watershed in his life. Some of them were just stunning. Like this part named “The Beast In the Jungle“. Until this section of the book Oppenheimer had been doing fine even though the number of his enemies were increasing. It was after this chapter that his decline began or rather accelerated.

The authors mention that Oppenheimer had harbored a vague sort of a premonition that something dark was in store for him in the future for a while. In the late 40s he read a novella by Henry James written in 1903 titled “The Beast in the Jungle“. James’ story was one of obsession, tormented egotism and as the authors put it, of existential foreboding. The story is very short, I have placed a link below to read the book from, for those interested. I could finish it under a couple of hours only. The basic plot of this story is as (from wikipedia):

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she got from her Great-Aunt who passed away, and to spend her days with Marcher curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.

Oppenheimer was struck by the charge of the story and asked his friend Herb Marks to read it. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the authors write citing evidence Oppenheimer lived with a similar feelings that someday he would be struck by his “beast in the jungle” which would alter his whole life. Oppenheimer knew he was kept track of and that people in the Govt and the intelligence were looking for evidence to destroy him. As it turned out, his beast in the jungle was Lewis Strauss, who destroyed him.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The parts on Einstein in the book were interesting.

Oppenheimer and Einstein at IAS[Einstein and Oppenheimer at IAS: Image source]

The book mentions Einstein in numerous instances throughout. However the ones related to Oppenheimer are the ones that I intend to touch upon.

Einstein could not understand why Oppenheimer was so keen on maintaining access to Washington and the echelons of the government. Einstein by instinct disliked politicians, and figures of authority. I quoted him in one previous post on this:

To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate made me an authority myself.

Einstein was always uncomfortable with attention is a well known fact to all those who admire him. There was this unforgettable quote in the book by him. On Einstein’s 71st birthday, Oppenheimer was walking him to his residence and Einstein said:

You know, when it’s once been given to a man to do something sensible, afterward life is a little strange.

Einstein suggested to Oppenheimer that he resign just taking into account the sheer outrageousness of the attacks on him. Einstein had left Germany when the Nazi nationalist frenzy swept the country and never set his foot on Germany again. He believed that the rise of McCarthyism in America was alarming, and he thought that Oppenheimer would end up humiliating himself.

As the authors note that Einstein’s instincts were right. He confided to a friend:

Oppenheimer is not a gypsy like me, I was born with the skin of an Elephant; there is no one who can hurt me.

and he thought that Oppenheimer was the reverse.

I would once again suggest the book to everyone who can set his/her hands on it. I would also congratulate the authors for the extremely gripping and compelling biography, it is amazing to think that the authors could piece together research spread over 25 years in such a wonderful way and I am already not able to get myself to complete a 60 page report on a project based on Support Vector Machines, in which I don’t even have to “piece together” things.

* This line is in no way borrowed from, or inspired by the newsweek review on this book.

Links:

1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

2. The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James (Download it from Project Gutenberg)

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