Others’ Thoughts on Science and the Humanities

by Richard Passov

Researching the history of a particular computer has taken me along an arc spanning George Boole to Claude Shannon. By some measures the works of these men combine to give us our modern, programmable computer. 

Shannon recast Boole’s Calculus of Thought into the modern symbolism for computer logic. And while that work has been labeled as the most important master’s thesis of the 20th century, ten years later Shannon would release a more profound work – his Theory of Information.

Profound works are sometimes simple and perhaps this is why a few mathematicians derided Information Theory. Shannon, secure in his finding, generally ignored his critics. Among his many endeavors and though unnecessary, John Pierce took up Shannon’s defense. That’s how I found his writings. 

Sometimes men have been concerned with religion, sometimes with mathematics and philosophy, sometimes with exploration, trade and conquest, sometimes with the theory and practice of government, sometimes with ancient learning, sometimes with the arts. —John R. Pierce in Electrons, Waves and Messages

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Pierce and Shannon worked together at Bell Labs. By the time Shannon came aboard Pierce was a mainstay, having risen to director of “…all research concerned with Electrical Communications.”

In the two decades after WWII according to its then Executive Vice President of Research, William O. Baker, Bell Labs was full of “Young Turks” – Shannon and Pierce – who were proving that “… the hard, fundamental questions of science…” were no longer captive to the “… great universities like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard.”  

Describing the Bell Labs of his time for the New Yorker, Baker offered: “It was really a sort of revolution of expectations for the industrial lab, and, in effect, it created a new kind of science – one that was ‘deep’ but at the same time closely coupled with human affairs.”

Indeed, it may have well been a high-water mark for the industrialization of science in the western world. Coming from those labs – The Transistor (invented by Shockley, named by Pierce), the first measurements of matter as a wave, radio astronomy, information theory, the communications satellite, masars, lasers, along with eight Nobel prizes.

Early on Pierce proved adept at ‘… telling lay audiences what their telephone rates were helping to buy in the way of research.’ And he wrote. Science papers and various technical writings, beginning with a how-to manual for building gliders, penned while attending Woodrow Wilson High School in San Diego. Royalties from the manual contributed to the tuition that his parents paid and which carried him through a B.S., M.S. and, finally, a PhD all from Cal Tech.  

Pierce joined Bell straight from his PhD program. Thirty-five years later he would return to Cal Tech, first to the School of Engineering and then as Chief Technologist for the Jet Propulsion Labs. After JPL, he took the curious title of Visiting Professor of Music, Emeritus at Stanford, serving for twelve years, never asking for a salary.

In addition to technical and journal writing, Pierce wrote science fiction. His stories began to appear in the mid-1940’s in the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction – Astounding Science Fiction – whose publisher happened to be the same as that of the glider manual. Early works include Don’t Write!: Telegraph and Unthinking Cap. 

Clarkson Potter, of his eponymous publishing house, looking for someone to translate the scientific progress of the post-war era into layman’s terms, found Pierce, two decades into his career at Bell, ” … distressed … ” by ” … scientific illiteracy … ” and more than willing to take on the task. 

… the most effective thinking of our age, and a great deal of its energy and enterprise, go into science, and especially into the sort of science which guides an immensely complicated technology in doing new things and in doing old things cheaper and better.  This prodigious technology in turn supports science with a lavishness unprecedented in any former age.—John R. Pierce in Electrons, Waves and Messages

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Recently, my research brought me to the MIT museum. The second floor was a mixture of art and science; together as in fantastic patterns in blown glass and apart, as in a giant tuning fork delightfully playing to the rhythm of marching on stairs.

After drifting I found myself at a desk facing a robot, a foot taller than the average man, housed in a white plastic exoskeleton as though straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. Housed except for its right thigh and below which, exposed, revealed a collection of powerful pistons, wires and tubes.  

A woman sat behind the desk. “This is where the children cry. Every time,” she said. “Something about the robot scares them.”

“It seems to me that the outstanding feature of modern technology is that skill … and … art are rapidly being replaced or explained by science, by understanding.” —John R. Pierce in Electrons, Waves and Messages

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R. W. Hamming also worked at Bell Labs, for a period sharing an office with Shannon.  Among other things Hamming is known for key contributions to error detection, establishing the concept of the Hamming distance, a measure of how far errors may have taken the intended message.

The University of Chicago offered a full ride in math. After Chicago, Hamming earned a PhD from the University of Illinois at Champagne. He came to Bell Labs from the Manhattan Project where he had managed the  calculating machine while it determined the critical mass of fissionable material necessary to sustain the reactions above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Well into his career, Hamming joined a long running discussion on the place of mathematics in understanding the natural world. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics was his response to a paper, with a similar title, written by the Nobel Prize winning Physicist, Eugene Wigner.  

Wigner fell on the side of those who believe that mathematics, since it translates natural laws, is discovered. Influenced by Boole who understood mathematics as an abstraction, and the possibility for other abstractions to expose alternative truths, Hamming believed that mathematics evolves as our capacity to observe grows and therefore, there is no fixed sense of mathematics.  

Science gives so many details about ‘how’ that we have the feeling that we understand ‘why’. —R. W. Hammond in The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics

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I’m … a computer scientist, and it occurred to me that the principles needed to build … planetary-scale inference-and-decision-making systems …, blending computer science with statistics, and taking into account human utilities, were nowhere to be found in my education. —Michael I. Jordan in Artificial Intelligence — The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet

Michael Jordan is the Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Statistics, at the University of California, Berkeley. On his wiki page, among other accolades, is the fact that in 2016 the Semantic Scholar project identified Jordan as the”most influential computer scientist.”

Recently (Medium, April 18th and at 3QD) Jordan shared his thoughts on the need for a ‘new branch of engineering” that will bring together “… computers and humans in ways that enhance human life.’  In this endeavor, Jordan sees a place for the humanities:    

Moreover, since much of the focus of the new discipline will be on data from and about humans, its development will require perspectives from the social sciences and humanities. —Michael I. Jordan in Artificial Intelligence — The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet

Jordan warns of the “… many problems arising … from … societal-scale systems … capable of analyzing … data streams to discover facts about the world, and interacting with humans and other things at a far higher level of abstraction than mere bits.” But, he writes, while the problems might be many in number, they “… should properly be viewed as challenges, not show-stoppers.”

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Around the time that Pierce started writing his book Walter Gropius, the father of the Bauhaus school of design, began a world tour that continued for ten years, eventually leading to a collection of essays published under the title of the lead essay, Apollo in the Democracy, originally penned in 1956.

In his essay Gropius defined his version of democracy as that which is “… without political identification … slowly spreading over the whole world establishing itself upon the foundation of increasing industrialization, growing communication and information services, and the broad admission of the masses to higher education and the right to vote.”

This democratization, combined with what Gropius saw as a science-driven, increasingly ‘mechanized’ society led to his writing the following: 

The profound changes in our life resulting therefrom have taken place mostly during the last half century of industrial development and have effected in this short period of time more comprehensive transformation of all human living conditions than have the sum of all events of all the centuries since the birth of Christ. —Walter Gropius in Apollo in the Democracy

This observation led him to ask, “… what is the relationship of this form of life to art …?”

He formulated his answer through summarizing Tolstoy’s criticism of our technical modernity – that science, from its study of everything, results in our tearing “… ourselves to pieces, instead of making clear what was most important to us.”

After writing, as only a cultural elitist could, of how “… a few generations ago our society was actually still a balanced entity in which every man found his place and where respect for established customs was unquestioned …” Gropius brought his piece home.

In our technological society we must passionately emphasize that we are still a world of human beings and that man must stand in his natural surroundings as the center point of all planning. —Walter Gropius in Apollo in the Democracy

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Pierce, in his later years, drifted in Alzheimer’s, unable to see the circle of his own thoughts close. Unable to witness “… prodigious technology … ” supporting ” …science with a lavishness unprecedented in any former age …”

If he were alive today, seeing the fear on the child peering inside the robot, Pierce might feel unsettled witnessing the pace at which science begets more science. Perhaps he would struggle with communicating his feelings, even reaching for art. 

“Today we live in something of an imbalance between what we know of the physical world … and what we know of the human world.” —Robert Oppenheimer in Space and Time