Archive for January, 2007

Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1)

January 17, 2007

After first seeing Comet McNaught two nights ago from a beach in Adelaide (Australia) with my son Nicholas, my wife Karen and I had a great view of it tonight from suburban Adelaide (after the kids were in bed) starting at around 8:55 pm, eventually peering through a gap in a neighbour’s fence to see it for as long as possible low on the horizon.

The tail was striking whether to the naked eye or in 7×50 binoculars. One particularly beautiful moment was when the coma emerged from under a thin bank of passing cloud, appearing brighter than before and orange-hued.

Comets Hale-Bopp (1997) and Hyakutake (1996) were impressive, but McNaught is something else, truly deserving of being placed in the Great Comet category.

On the importance of pure research

January 14, 2007

I recently finished reading the book Engines of Logic (2000) by Martin Davis (apparently published as The Universal Computer in some countries) of Davis-Putnam SAT-solver algorithm fame, a book about the origins of computer science from the viewpoint of the mathematicians who founded it, in particular: Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Cantor, Hilbert, Godel and Turing.

Leibniz had the notion that it ought to be possible to be able to write down ideas in a language (he called this a universal characteristic) such that “serious men of good will” could sit together to solve some problem by calculation using an algebra of logic he referred to as the calculus ratiocinator.

Despite attempts at such a language and algebra of logic by Leibniz, it was ultimately the work of his successors that gave rise to the logic that made automated computation possible.

Of Leibniz’s work Davis said that “What Leibniz has left us is his dream, but even this dream can fill us with admiration for the power of human speculative thought and serve as a yardstick for judging later developments.” 

In the epilogue, Davis had this to say:

The Dukes of Hanover thought they knew what Leibniz should be doing with his time: working on their family history. Too often today, those who provide scientists with the resources necessary for their lives and work try to steer them in directions deemed most likely to provide quick results. This is not only likely to be futile in the short run, but more importantly, by discouraging investigations with no obvious immediate payoff, it shortchanges the future. 

These days, universities and it seems, too many aspects of society are becoming shackled to the oft-times short sighted and petty expectations of business, as if it mattered as an end in itself. We would do well to pay attention to history.

On the subject of history, it occurs to me increasingly that most of what we study is in fact historical in nature. Incremental advances in computer science, software engineering,  astronomy, and Science in general are mere blips on the vast landscape of accumulated knowledge. When I read books such as Engines of Logic and The Art of Electronics, I am overwhelmed by the contributions of countless scientists and engineers over decades, to say nothing of the work of the founders of Science such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.