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Largest Early World Map Set to Be Unveiled at Rumsey Map Center

Posted on Wednesday, January 24th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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Urbano Monte’s planisphere, digitally stitched together. Source: Rumsey Map Center

On July 25, 01585, near the end of a century of unprecedented change, four Japanese boys stopped in Milan on their way back home to Japan. They’d been sent as the first Japanese Embassy to Europe three years earlier by the Jesuit missionary Alesandro Valignano. Their European tour took them through Spain, where they met King Philip II, and to Rome, where they met with the Pope. Now, in Milan, they encountered Urbano Monte, a gentleman scholar from a wealthy Milanese family whose interests had lately turned to geography. Writing about meeting the Japanese boys, Monte “commented on their appearance and manners; the former he found odd but he thought their manners impressive and their eating habits fascinating.”

Detail of Tavola XXXXII (Antarctica, Urbano Monte Portraits of 1587 and 1589).

The encounter with the Japanese embassy inspired Monte to undertake an ambitious project that would consume his efforts for the next twenty years: the Trattato Universale, a four-volume compendium and geographical treatise that attempted to showcase the entire geographic knowledge of the world. The third volume of the Trattato contained his most impressive and innovative work: a map of the world across sixty individual sheets that, were it to be stitched together as his instructions dictated, would be the largest world map made in the sixteenth century.

But Monte’s project was largely forgotten by history, and his life and work rarely studied. His world map was hidden away in an atlas for centuries, the bound pages belying the visionary scope contained within. In September 02017, David Rumsey, a map collector and Long Now’s Treasurer of the Board of Directors, acquired the map from antique map seller Barry Ruderman for the Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University. Now, the Rumsey Map Center is bringing Monte’s vision to life. Rumsey’s team has digitized and assembled the sixty sheets into a single world map that stands a remarkable nine feet in diameter.

The map is extraordinary for reasons beyond its size. It largely eschewed the Ptolemaic modes of representation that had held sway in mapmaking since the time of the Greeks in favor of contemporary cartographic sources. And, in an unusual choice, Monte used polar azimuthal projection, portraying the spherical Earth with the North Pole at its center — a perspective seldom used in mapmaking until the advent of air travel in the 20th century, most notably on the emblem of the United Nations.

The United Nations emblem, top, and the Urbano Monte planisphere, bottom.

In a recent essay, historian Katherine Parker writes that Monte’s choice of azimuthal projection is a reflection of the experimental and exciting time of sixteenth century Renaissance cartography:

With the advent of circumnavigations, the trade to the East Indies, and the encounter with the Americas, the known world of Renaissance scholars literally expanded, necessitating new ways to depict the round globe on a two-dimensional plane.

Compared to the better-known and more widely-used Mercator projection, Monte’s azimuthal projection has the advantage of accurately displaying the relative size of continents in the Northern Hemisphere, whereas Mercator’s exaggerates the size of land masses like North America, making it seem larger than Africa when it is in fact three times smaller (As has been noted elsewhere, this artifact of the Mercator projection has had significant social and political implications). Like the Mercator projection, polar azimuthal projection results in distortion around the South pole and Antarctica. But as Greg Miller writes, this was in line with the cartographic thinking of the time. “Most cartographers thought [Antarctica] had to be massive to counterbalance the large landmasses to the North,” Rumsey says.

Each region contains notes and images that nod to the location’s myths and histories. Japan in particular contains numerous place names not seen on other maps of the time — an indication both of Monte’s interest in the region and the likelihood that he was given access to Jesuit knowledge of the terrain after the visit by the Japanese embassy.

Like many mapmakers of his era, Monte chose to fill in the blank spaces of his map, which teems with with mermen, unicorns, griffins and large birds. Chet Van Duzer, a renowned History of Cartography scholar, has written extensively on this tendency in mapmaking, which he argues is motivated by horror vacui — a fear of empty spaces.

Tavola XXXXII (Antarctica, Map Dedication, Urbano Monte Portrait)

“Sea monsters certainly expressed a fear of the unknown depths of the ocean,” Van Duzer says, “and also, in some cases, of the unknown dangers of distant regions. The Indian Ocean, the most distant ocean from Europe, tends to have a higher number of sea monsters than other oceans on medieval European maps.”

Van Duzer theorizes that the monsters that persisted among so many sixteenth century maps could be an attempt by mapmakers to hide their ignorance, or to increase the market value for their works (Wealthy patrons preferred lavish decorations). As maps transitioned from ways of illustrating cosmic principles (as in the medieval mappa mundi) to being reliable instruments of navigation, the sea monsters disappeared.

It is an unusual and remarkable map, far ahead of its time. Now, thanks to advances in technology, and 430 years after it was first envisioned, viewers can finally see the world as Urbano Monte intended. The map is viewable online and to visitors to the Rumsey Map Center.

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Music, Time and Long-Term Thinking: Brian Eno Expands the Vocabulary of Human Feeling

Posted on Thursday, November 30th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Brian Eno’s creative activities defy categorization. Widely known as a musician and producer, Eno has expanded the frontiers of audio and visual art for decades, and posited new ways of approaching creativity in general. He is a thinker and speaker, activist and eccentric. He formulated the idea of the Big Here and Long Now—a central conceptual underpinning of The Long Now Foundation, which he helped found with Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis in 01996. Eno’s artistic career has often dealt closely with concepts of time, scale, and, as he puts it in the liner notes to Apollo“expanding the vocabulary of human feeling.”

Ambient and Generative Art

Brian Eno coined the term ‘ambient music’ to describe a kind of music meant to influence an ambience without necessarily demanding the listener’s full attention. The notes accompanying his 01978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports differentiate it from the commercial music produced specifically for background listening by companies such as Muzak, Inc. in the mid-01900s. Eno explains that ambient music should enhance — not blanket — an environment’s acoustic and atmospheric characteristics, to calming and thought-inducing effect. It has to accommodate various levels of listening engagement, and therefore “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” (Eno 296).

Ambient music can have a timeless quality to it. The absence of a traditional structure of musical development withholds a clear beginning or end or middle, tapping into a sense of deeper, slower processes. It lets you “settle into time a little bit,” as Eno said in the first of Long Now’s SALT talks. As TimeMagazine writes, “the theme of time, foreshortened or elongated, is a defining feature of Eno’s musical and visual adventures. But it takes a long lens, pointing back, to bring into focus the ways in which his influence has seeped into the mainstream.”

Eno’s use of the term ‘ambient’ was, however, a product of a long process of musical development. He had been thinking specifically about this kind of music for several years already, and the influence of minimalist artists such as Terry RileySteve Reich and Philip Glass had long shaped his musical ideas and techniques. He also drew on many other genres, including Krautrockbands such as Tangerine Dream and Can, whose music was contemporaneous and influential in Eno’s early collaborations with Robert Fripp, e.g. (No Pussyfooting). While their music might not necessarily fall into the genre ‘ambient,’ David Sheppard notes that “Eno and Fripp’s lengthy essays shared with Krautrock a disavowal of verse/chorus orthodoxy and instead relied on an essentially static musical core with only gradual internal harmonic developments” (142). In his autobiography, Eno also points to developments in audio technology as key in the development of the genre, as well as one particularly insightful experience he had while bedridden after an accident:

New sound-shaping and space-making devices appeared on the market weekly (and still do), synthesizers made their clumsy but crucial debut, and people like me just sat at home night after night fiddling around with all this stuff, amazed at what was now possible, immersed in the new sonic worlds we could create.

And immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.

This became clear to me when I was confined to bed, immobilized by an accident in early 01975. My friend Judy Nylon had visited, and brought with her a record of 17th-century harp music. I asked her to put it on as she left, which she did, but it wasn’t until she’d gone that I realized that the hi-fi was much too quiet and one of the speakers had given up anyway. It was raining hard outside, and I could hardly hear the music above the rain — just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized that this was what I wanted music to be — a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment.

It was not long after this realization that Eno released the album Discreet Music, which he considers to be an ambient work, mentioning a conceptual likeness to Erik Satie’s Furniture Music. One of the premises behind its creation was that it would be background for Robert Fripp to play over in concerts, and the title track is about half an hour long — as much time as was available to Eno on one side of a record.

It is also an early example in his discography of what later became another genre closely associated with Eno and with ambient: generative music. In the liner notes — which include the story of the broken speaker epiphany — he writes:

Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part.

That is to say, I tend towards the roles of planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.

This notion of creating a system that generates an output is an idea that artists had considered previously. In fact, in the 18th century even Mozart and others experimented with a ‘musical dice game’ in which the numerical results of rolling dice ‘generated’ a song. More relevant to Brian Eno’s use of generative systems, however, was the influence of 20th century composers such as John Cage. David Sheppard’s biography of Brian Eno describes how Tom Phillips — a teacher at Ipswich School of Art where Eno studied painting in the mid 01960s — introduced him to the musical avant garde scene with the works of Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and the previously mentioned minimalists Reich, Glass and Riley (Sheppard 35–41). These and other artists exposed Eno to ideas such as aleatory and minimalist music, tape experimentation, and performance or process-based musical concepts.

Eno notes Steve Reich’s influence on his generative music, acknowledging that “indeed a lot of my interest was directly inspired by Steve Reich’s sixties tape pieces such as Come Out) and It’s Gonna Rain” (Eno 332). And looking back on a 01970 performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Royal College of Art, Brian Eno highlights its impact on him:

This was one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life — sound made completely physical and as dense as concrete by sheer volume and repetition. For me it was like a viscous bath of pure, thick energy. Though he was at that time described as a minimalist, this was actually one of the most detailed musics I’d ever heard. It was all intricacy and exotic harmonics. (Sheppard 63–64)

The relationship between minimalism and intricacy, in a sense, is what underlies the concept of generative music. The artist designs a system with inputs which, when compared to the plethora of outputs, appear quite simple. Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain is, in fact, simply a single 1.8 second recording of a preacher shouting “It’s gonna rain!” played simultaneously on two tape recorders. Due to the inconsistencies in the two devices’ hardware, however, the recordings play at slightly different speeds, producing over 17 minutes of phasing in which the relationship between the two recordings constantly changes.

Brian Eno has taken this capacity for generative music to create complexity out of simplicity much further. Discreet Music (01975) used a similar approach, but started with recordings of different lengths, used an echo system, and altered timbre over time. The sonic possibilities opened by adding just a few more variables are vast.

This experimental approach to creativity is just one of many that Eno explored, including some non-musical means of prompting unexpected outputs. The same year that Discreet Music was released, he collaborated with painter Peter Schmidt to produce Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas.

The work is a set of cards, each one with an aphorism designed to help people think differently or to approach a problem from a different angle. These include phrases such as “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed,” and “Use an old idea.” Schmidt had created something a few years earlier along the same lines that he called ‘Thoughts Behind the Thoughts.’ There was also inspiration to be drawn from John Cage’s use of the I Ching to direct his musical compositions and George Brecht’s 01963 Water Yam Box. Like a generative system, the Oblique Strategies provides a guiding rule or principle that is specific enough to focus creativity but general enough to yield an unknown outcome, dependent on a multitude of variables interacting within the framework of the strategy.

Three decades later, generative systems remained a central inspiration for Eno and a source of interesting cross-disciplinary collaboration. In 02006, he discussed them with Will Wright, creator of popular video game series The Sims, at a Long Now SALT talk:

Wright observed that science is all about compressing reality to minimal rule sets, but generative creation goes the opposite direction. You look for a combination of the fewest rules that can generate a whole complex world that will always surprise you, yet within a framework that stays recognizable. “It’s not engineering and design,” he said, “so much as it is gardening. You plant seeds. Richard Dawkins says that a willow seed has only about 800K of data in it.” — Stewart Brand

Eno at the San Francisco opening of 77 Million Paintings in 02007. Photo by Scott Beale.

Brian Eno has always been interested in this explosion of possibilities, and has in recent years created generative art that incorporates both audio and visuals. He notes that his work 77 Million Paintings would take about 10,000 years to run through all of its possibilities — at its slowest setting. Long Now produced the North American premiere of 77 Million Paintings at Yerba Buena center for the Arts in 02007, and members were treated to a surprise visit from Mr. Eno who spoke about his work and Long Now.

Eno also designed an art installation for The Interval, Long Now’s cafe-bar-museum venue in San Francisco. “Ambient Painting #1” is the only example of Brian’s generative light work in America, and the only ambient painting of his that is currently on permanent public display anywhere.

Ambient Painting #1, by Brian Eno. Photo by Gary Wilson.

Another generative work called Bloom, created with Peter Chilvers, is available as an app.

Part instrument, part composition and part artwork, Bloom’s innovative controls allow anyone to create elaborate patterns and unique melodies by simply tapping the screen. A generative music player takes over when Bloom is left idle, creating an infinite selection of compositions and their accompanying visualisations. —

Eno’s interest in time and scale (among other things) was shared by Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand, and they were in close correspondence in the years leading up to the creation of The Long Now Foundation. Eno’s 01995 diary, published in part in his autobiography, describes that correspondence in its introduction:

My conversation with Stewart Brand is primarily a written one — in the form of e-mail that I routinely save, and which in 1995 alone came to about 100,000 words. Often I discuss things with him in much greater detail than I would write about them for my own benefit in the diary, and occasionally I’ve excerpted from that correspondence. — Eno, ix

Out of Eno’s involvement with the establishment of The Long Now Foundation emerged in his essay “The Big Here and Long Now”, which describes his experiences with small-scale perspectives and the need for larger ones, as well as the artist’s role in social change.

This imaginative process can be seeded and nurtured by artists and designers, for, since the beginning of the 20th century, artists have been moving away from an idea of art as something finished, perfect, definitive and unchanging towards a view of artworks as processes or the seeds for processes — things that exist and change in time, things that are never finished. Sometimes this is quite explicit — as in Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field,” a huge grid of metal poles designed to attract lightning. Many musical compositions don’t have one form, but change unrepeatingly over time — many of my own pieces and Jem Finer’s Artangel installation “LongPlayer” are like this. Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds — seeds for processes that need a viewer’s (or a whole culture’s) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our new selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future.

[…] In this, the 21st century, we may need icons more than ever before. Our conversation about time and the future must necessarily be global, so it needs to be inspired and consolidated by images that can transcend language and geography. As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.

The Chime Generator and January 07003

Brian Eno’s involvement with Long Now began through his discussions with Stewart Brand about time and long-term thinking, and the need for a carefully crafted sonic experience to help The Clock evoke deep time for its visitors posed a challenge Eno was uniquely suited to take on.

From its earliest conception, the imagined visit to the 10,000-Year Clock has had aural experience at its core. One of Danny Hillis’ earliest refrains about The Clock evokes this:

It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium. —Danny Hillis

In the years of brainstorming and design that have molded this vision into a tangible object, a much more detailed and complicated picture has come into focus, but sound has remained central; one of the largest components of the 10,000-Year Clock will be its Chime Generator.

Rather than a bong per century, visitors to the Clock will have the opportunity to hear it chime 10 bells in a unique sequence each day at noon. The story of how this came to be is told by Mr. Eno himself in the liner notes of January 07003: Bell Studies for The Clock of the Long Now, a collection of musical experiments he synthesized and recorded in 02003:

When we started thinking about The Clock of the Long Now, we naturally wondered what kind of sound it could make to announce the passage of time. Bells have stood the test of time in their relationship to clocks, and the technology of making them is highly evolved and still evolving. I began reading about bells, discovering the physics of their sounds, and became interested in thinking about what other sorts of bells might exist. My speculations quickly took me out of the bounds of current physical and material possibilities, but I considered some license allowable since the project was conceived in a time scale of thousands of years, and I might therefore imagine bells with quite different physical properties from those we now know (Eno 3).

Bells have a long history of marking time, so their inclusion in The Clock is a natural fit. Throughout this long history, they’ve also commonly been used in churches, meditation halls and yoga studios to offer a resonant ambiance in which to contemplate a connection to something bigger, much as The Clock’s vibrations will help inspire an awareness of one’s place in deep time. Furthermore, bells were central to some early forms of generative music. While learning about their history, Eno found a vast literature on the ways bells had been used in Britain to explore the combinatorial possibilities afforded by following a few simple rules:

Stated briefly, change-ringing is the art (or, to many practitioners, the science) of ringing a given number of bells such that all possible sequences are used without any being repeated. The mathematics of this idea are fairly simple: n bells will yield n! sequences or changes. The ! is not an expression of surprise but the sign for a factorial: a direction to multiply the number by all those lower than it. So 3 bells will yield 3 x 2 x 1 = 6 changes, while 4 bells will yield 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24 changes. The ! process does become rather surprising as you continue it for higher values of n: 5! = 120, and 6! = 720 — and you watch the number of changes increasing dramatically with the number of bells. — Eno 4

Eno noticed that 10 bells in this context will provide 3,628,800 sequences. Ring one of those each day and you’ll be occupied for almost exactly 10,000 years, the proposed lifespan of The Clock.

Following this line of thinking, he imagined using the patterns played by the bells as a method of encoding the amount of time that had elapsed since The Clock had started ringing them. Writing in 02003, he says:

I wanted to hear the bells of the month of January, 07003 — approximately halfway through the life of the Clock.

I had no idea how to generate this series, but I had a good idea who would.

I wrote to Danny Hillis asking whether he could come up with an algorithm for the job. Yes, he wrote back, and in fact he could come up with an algorithm for generating all the possible algorithms for that job. Not having the storage space for a lot of extra algorithms in my studio, I decided to settle for just the one. — Eno 6

And so, the pattern The Clock’s bells will ring was set. Using a start point (02003 in this case), one can extrapolate the order in which the Bells will ring for a given day in the future. The title track of the album features the synthesized bells played in each of the 31 sequences for the month of January in the year 07003. Other tracks on the album use different algorithms or different bells to explore alternative possibilities; taken together, the album is distinctly “ambient” in Eno’s tradition, but also unique within his work for its minimalism and procedurality.

The procedures guiding the composition are strict enough that they can be written in computer code. A Long Now Member named Sean Burke was kind enough to create a webpage that illustrates how this works. The site allows visitors to enter a future date and receive a MIDI file of the chimes from that day. You can also download the algorithm itself in the form of a Perl script or just grab the MIDI data for all 10,000 years and synthesize your own bells.

If the bell ringing algorithm is a seed, in what soil can it be planted and expected to live its full life? Compact disks, Perl scripts and MIDI files have their uses, of course, but The Clock has to really last in a physical, functional sense for many thousands of years. To serve this purpose, the Chime Generator manifests the algorithm in stainless steel Geneva wheels rotating on bearings of silicon nitride.

Eno’s Chime Generator prototype. Photo by Because We Can

One of the first prototypes for this mechanism resides at The Interval. In its operation, one can see that the Geneva wheels rotate at different intervals because of their varying numbers of slots. Together, the Geneva wheels represent the ringing algorithm and sequentially engage the hammers in all 3.6 million permutations. For this prototype, the hammers strike Tibetan Bowl Gongs to sound the notes, but any type of bell can be used.

The full scale Chime Generator will be vertically suspended in the Clock shaft within the mountain. The Geneva wheels will be about 8 feet in diameter, with the full mechanism standing over seventy feet in height.

The bells for the full scale Chime Generator won’t be Tibetan Bowl Gongs like in the smaller prototype above. Though testing has been done within the Clock chamber to find its resonant frequency, the exact tuning and design of the Clock’s bells will be left until the chamber is finished and most of the Clock is installed in order to maximize their ability to resonate within the space.

Like much of Brian Eno’s work, the chimes in the 10,000-Year Clock draw together far-flung traditions, high and low tech, and science and art to create a meditative experience, unique in a given moment, but expansive in scale and scope. They encourage the listener to live and to be present in the moment, the “now,” but to feel that moment expanding forward and backward through time, literally to experience the “Long Now.”

This is the first of a series of articles, “Music, Time and Long-Term Thinking,” in which we will discuss music and musicians who have engaged various aspects of long-term thinking, both historically and in the contemporary scene.

The Orrery at The Interval: An Invitation to Long-Term Thinking

Posted on Monday, April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

As visitors to Fort Mason amble past The Interval, the Long Now Foundation’s cafe-bar-museum-venue space, some are drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to an unusual eight foot-tall stainless steel technological curiosity they glimpse through the glass doors. Metal gears sit stacked one on top of the other to form a tower, with geneva wheels jutting out like staircase steps. Halfway up, the structure blooms into a globe of crisscrossing rings of metal, with seven orbs of differing color and size strung along them.

It is the Long Now Orrery, a twenty-first century interpretation of an ancient device that tracks the relative position of the six planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn) as they make their way around the sun.

Orreries came in vogue in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, where they were deployed as aids to teach a largely non-scientific public about the new heliocentric universe being revealed by the Scientific Revolution. After centuries of believing the Earth was the static, privileged center of the universe, orreries helped the European imagination re-calibrate to a bigger here and a longer now.

The Orrery at the Interval has much the same role. It is both a mechanism and an icon. As a mechanism, it functions as the first working prototype of an orrery that will help the 10,000 Year Clock tell time through the millennia. The one in the clock will be four times as large. As an icon, the Orrery draws people into the orbit of long-term thinking and opens up a space for conversations about our place in the universe.

Here’s how it works.


I. The Center of the Universe (01543)

The Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, with the Earth stationary at the center. By Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmical, (01660).

It is clear, then, that the earth must be at center and immovable.


It was something of an open secret in seventeenth century European astronomy circles: the Earth revolved around the sun.

The notion was not without historical precedent. In 01514, when Nicolaus Copernicus began privately circulating his theory on planetary motion, he cited the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in the third century BCE.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Florentine Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, (c. 01480). Via Wikipedia.

But in the context of early modern Europe, the implications were profound, and appeared to contradict both common sense and the Bible. Since the time of Ptolemy (ca. 150 AD), the West conceived of the cosmos in anthropocentric and geocentric terms. This cosmographic understanding was reflected in calendars, maps and the armillary sphere, an ornate physical model of the cosmos consisting of a spherical framework of rings that mapped celestial longitude and latitude from the Earth’s perspective.

A drawing by Nicolaus Copernicus of the heliocentric model of the Solar System with the Earth revolving around the Sun. From his On The Revolutions of The Heavenly Spheres (01543).


Now, in the model put forth by Copernicus, the Earth was reduced to a mere point in a sun-centered universe, no more special than its celestial neighbors. Anticipating the upheavals his ideas would bring about, Copernicus delayed publishing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until 01543, the year after his death and the year most historians point to as the start of the Scientific Revolution.

Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter using the newly invented telescope in January 01610 proved that the solar system contained celestial bodies that did not orbit Earth. And Newton’s theories of universal gravity and gravitational attraction, first proposed in 01687, explained why planets orbit along elliptical trajectories—something first inferred by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 01609.

But it would take more than observation and theory for Europeans at large to shake the notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

It would take the orrery.


II. Round the Gilded Sun (01704)

An orrery of John Rowley. Detail of an engraving from The Universal Magazine (01749).


O! pray! move on, Sir, said she, this is amazingly fine: I fancy myself travelling along with that little Earth in its course round the gilded Sun, as I know I am in reality with that on which I stand, round the real one.

—JOHN HARRIS, Astronomical Dialogues, (01725)

Astronomers and scientists began constructing orreries to get celestial bearings in this new Copernican universe. The orrery built on the armillary sphere, but with a Copernican twist: viewers would not only be able to see this new universe in miniature; they’d be able to track the movements of its planets over time.

The deeper, theological implications of heliocentrism were baked into the design. As Denis Cosgrove, in his cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (02001), writes:

The Creator’s disengagement from an active presence was implicit in the new cosmology, and had profound implications for global images and meanings. Unlike the armillary, the orrery’s meaning lies in motion: inert matter is driven by forces that once set in motion continue to operate independently as the variously sized spheres revolve at divergent speeds.

George Graham’s orrery and its mechanism, constructed sometime between 01704-01709. Via Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

The credit for inventing the first modern orrery is disputed. The device would not answer to the name until famed inventor John Rowley presented one to Charles Boyle, the Fourth Earl of Orrery, in 01713. Rowley — and, more rarely, Orrery himself — is sometimes credited as the orrery’s inventor, but Rowley based his model’s design on a proto-orrery created in 01704 by English clockmakers George Graham and Thomas Tompion. Graham and Tompion’s model was simple, displaying only the Earth and its orbiting moon as it made its way across the sun.

 Stukeley’s drawing of Hales’ orrery. It bears the inscription: ‘This was a drawing I made at CCCC from a machine invented and executed by Mr. Stephen Hales, about 1705.’ Via Geared to the Stars (01978).

Then there’s the matter of William Stukeley, a physician and friend of Isaac Newton who, as Henry C. King (01978) puts it, “had the unfortunate habit of adding retrospective notes and passages to his early diaries.” Stukeley believed that it was Stephen Hales, a classmate from his days at Cambridge, and not Rowley, who was the orrery’s true inventor. In a 12 December 01752 diary entry, he writes:

about the year whilst I resided in Bennet Coll. [Chorpus Christi] where Dr. Hale [sic] was then fellow, at his request I made a drawing, which I had still by me, of a planetarium made by Dr. Hale. It was a machine to shew the motion of the earth moon & planets, in the nre [nature] of what they have since made in London, by the name of Orrerys. Dr. Hales proposed to me that we shd make another, upon an improv’d design, but my father dying, whilst I was undergraduate, wh making my stay at college somewhat uncertain, the design was dropped.

An animation of the 21 plates of Edward Quin’s 01830 atlas, which mapped the “Known World” from 2348 BCE to 01828. Via Slate.

These competing claims for provenance in the early eighteenth century occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Philosophers and scientists vaunted reason and empirical observation as the sources of authority, contradicting the church. Seafarers and traders navigated across unmapped waters, bringing back with them astronomical knowledge that fueled global competition among European states. This competition, in turn, drove many clockmakers to produce devices of ever greater precision, not just for navigators for the lay public as well. “Knowledge of the terrestrial globe, its place in the solar system, and its geographical patterns,” writes Cosgrove, became “a prerequisite for educated men and women.”

“The Compleat Orrery described by Mr. S. Dunn” (01780). Via Geared to the Stars (01978).

As Henry C. King writes in his history of orreries, planetaria, and astronomical clocks (01978):

Some of the best work went into machines made for kings, princes, and wealthy patrons, but towards the end of the eighteenth century in England public interest in Newtonian natural philosophy encouraged instrument-makers to consider a wider market for their products. Like Blaeu and Moxon of an earlier age, they found it worthwhile to make machines that sacrificed ornamentation, but not necessarily craftsmanship, for scientific excellence and educational merit. The study of astronomy no longer became the prerogative of a chosen few but was laid open to the understanding of any literate person, regardless of social and educational background.

Orreries grew more popular and advanced as the Enlightenment swept Europe over the eighteenth century. They came to be seen as more than just a visual instruction in the new science; they were desirable possessions and icons of the scientific method. Most importantly, they succeeded in reorienting a largely non-scientific public to a perspective that could see the implications of Copernicanism as obvious, instead of radical.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766), by Joseph Wright. Via Wikipedia.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766) underscores the Enlightenment Age shift from traditional religious models towards ones based on reason and empirical observation. A domestic group of eight gathers round an orrery, its sun represented by a candle so illuminating that a man sitting to its right must shield his eyes. A scholar leans over the orrery, explaining its mechanics and underlying Newtonian principles. Breaking from artistic tradition, the faces of the two boys sitting at the orrery’s edge express the kind awe and wonder normally reserved for religious events and icons.

As art historian Abram Fox puts it:

According to the French academies of art, the highest genre of painting was history painting, which depicted Biblical or classical subjects to demonstrate a moral lesson. This high regard for history painting was adopted by the British. Wright took this noble, aggrandizing method of portraying events and applied it to a composition showing a contemporary subject in A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery.

Rather than a moral of leadership or heroism, this painting’s “moral” is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With its collection of non-idealized men, women, boys, and girls informally arranged in a small physical space around a central organizing point, Wright’s painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (an informal group portrait), but with the dramatic lighting and scale expected from a major religious scene.

In effect, A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery does depict a moment of religious epiphany. The figures listening to the philosopher’s lecture in Wright’s painting are experiencing conversion…to science.

The Orrery in Aughra’s observatory in The Dark Crystal (01982).

Orreries eventually fell out of favor as the modern world developed and the Copernican perspective became the default way of understanding the world. Mechanical orreries are still being built, but they are more works of art than instruction aid. Today, few outside horology and cosmography would be familiar with the term “orrery,” though orreries have occasionally made pop culture cameos, notably in climactic, high stakes scenes in The Dark Crystal (01982) and Tomb Raider (02001).

A fragment of the Antikythera mechanism. The scales on Fragment C divide the year by days and signs of the zodiac. Via Smithsonian.

But orreries still have lessons to teach. The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, a proto-orrery and analogue computer dating back to 200 BCE that displayed the diurnal motions of the Sun, Moon and the five known planets, has challenged our assumptions about antiquarian astronomy and technology. Found in a 01901 shipwreck off the Greek coast by sponge divers, the Antikythera mechanism mystified scholars until 02006, when advances in x-ray technology revealed a hidden differential gear — thought to be an eighteenth century invention.

Despite their obscurity, orreries remain a useful tool to educate students about foundational ideas in astronomy. Human orreries have launched at a number of universities, where students play the role of the “planets,” and use their positions as modeled by the orrery to predict what they’ll see in the sky that night. Increased computing power has led to the advent of digital orreries for students to easily track planetary motion.

Photo by Bassam Khabieh / Reuters, March 2, 02017

In March 02017, war photographer Bassam Khabieh visited a school damaged by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Douma in Syria. After six years of civil war, the country’s education system has been decimated. Teachers in ISIS territory risk their lives if they teach lessons that do not cohere to ISIS ideology.

In one of Khabieh’s photographs, a damaged orrery stands amidst the dusty rubble, the plastic sphere of Earth dislodged from its mount.


III. A Prototype for the Queen (01999)

The First Prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock on display at the Science Museum in London


At Long Now Foundation we’ve always resisted the idea of turning the institution into a religion — even though religions may have the best track record for long-term endurance. But the comparison to monks devoting their lives to maintain a remote and long-lived clock is hard to avoid, especially if you show up at a momentous clock event in a hooded robe.


As the seconds ticked towards a new millennium, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand stood contemplatively before the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now in a hooded robe, waiting.

On the left is Brand during his 01966 Whole Earth campaign. On the right, Brand stands before the first Clock prototype on New Year’s Eve, 01999.

Thirty four years earlier, Brand mounted a successful campaign to have NASA release the first photographs of the whole earth from space. Now, on the eve of the millennium, Brand, Danny Hillis, Brian Eno and the Long Now Foundation were attempting to build something that would do for thinking about time what the photographs of the Earth did for thinking about the environment.

“Such icons reframe the way people think,” Brand wrote in 01999.

Cosgrove writes that like the the Copernican orrery, the image of a vital planet floating in the cosmic void helped catalyze a revolution in the global imagination, prefiguring the modern environmental movement and rise of globalization:

The Copernican revolution was secured through the circulation of cosmographic images that challenged ways of imagining and experiencing not only planetary arrangement and movement but the entire arrangement in which human existence was created and performed.

Twentieth-century photographic images of the earth have stimulated equally profound changes in perceptions of society, self, and the world. Both sets of images demarcate key moments in the evolution of the ‘globalized’ earth.

Earthrise, seen for the first time by human eyes, 24 December 01968. Via NASA.

The first step to making an iconic clock is making a clock that works. The clock prototype was completed in a frenzied rush only hours before midnight, after three years of research and design. Brand, Hillis and some dozen others gathered in the offices of the Internet Archive in San Francisco’s Presidio district to see if it would tick.

“It was a very strange scene,” Kevin Kelly recalled.

“Because of hysteria about Y2K, the Presidio was blockaded with a police checkpoint. No one else was around the usually busy park. It was a like a secret society meeting. Stewart had just returned from a vacation in Morocco a day before so he was wearing a djellaba. He looked like a monk overseeing the clock’s big moment.”

A hush swept the room as the final seconds counted down. 3…2…1. Clicking gears whirred into place. And then: GONG! A chime rang in the new century. And: GONG! Another chime signaled the start of a new millennium.

Like clockwork.

In the months that followed, Long Now presented the prototype at TED before installing it at the Science Museum in London. It was the culminating piece of the museum’s “Making of the Modern World” exhibit, which was opened by the Queen of England. The prototype remains there today on permanent loan.

“We realized it was kind of sad to have built the Prototype but not have one of our own,” Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose recalled. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s in a fantastic museum in a fantastic location, but it would’ve been nice to have a prototype for ourselves.”

A wood-engraved frontispiece illustrating “a small portion of Mr Babbage’s Difference Engine,” (01872). Via Hordern House.

Enter Nathan Myhrvold, then-CTO of Microsoft. He was using a unique funding model to finance the Science Museum’s efforts to construct the difference engine that Charles Babbage designed in 01849 but, because of the limits of machine technology at the time, was not able to build. Myhrvold and the Science Museum agreed that if he were to fund the construction of two iterations of Babbage’s machine, he’d get to keep one.

The Babbage Difference Engine, built by the Science Museum of London in 02002, 153 years after it was first designed. Via Computer History.

Myhrvold reached out and made the same deal with Long Now, financing its efforts towards building a second Clock prototype. At the time, Rose and Danny Hillis had only a notional idea as to what that prototype would be.

Hillis decided that, rather than build a full clock, he’d design a part of the clock that would be the planetary display. Like the first prototype, such a device would require tackling unprecedented design problems raised by keeping track of, and lasting through, deep time. Unlike the first prototype, Long Now would get to keep a copy this time.


IV. A Robust and Durable Computer (02005)

“I love that thing,” says Francis Pedraza, an Interval regular, when I ask him about the Orrery over his afternoon tea. He’s never heard the term “orrery,” which he jots down in his notebook as soon as I mention it. But he has a good guess as to what it does.

“Check it out,” Pedraza says, raising his left wrist to show me his Apple Watch. Its face displays a digital orrery of the solar system. A simple twist of the crown by Pedraza sends the planets scurrying forward or backward in time across their celestial trajectories, displaying effortlessly what took Early Modern European scientists painstaking precision to engineer.

“It’s great,” Pedraza says. “People see that I’m wearing a watch, and they ask me the time. And I say: ‘It’s half past Mars!’”

If Pedraza were so inclined, he could twist the crown to 10,000 years into the future (it would likely take a few hours). But with planned obsolescence baked in, Pedraza’s watch would be lucky to last another two years. The Long Now Orrery, on the other hand, must be a precise and durable computer for 10,000 years.

A fragment of a Roman nundinae for the month of April (Aprilis), showing its nundinal letters on the left side. Via Wikipedia.

On its face, an orrery may seem an unlikely technology to depend on for the long term. But it makes sense when one considers how the way we’ve measured time has changed throughout history. It’s likely that our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now.

The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t subject to the whims of those in power or passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock keeps track of these robust units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

Danny Hillis, Long Now Co-Founder and designer of the Clock and Orrery. Via Discover Magazine.

“If you came up to the clock thousands of years from now,” said Danny Hillis, “You could still read the time, even if you did not have the same time system we have now.”

The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, providing something of a kinetic sculpture of the Long Now as a time scale: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the celestial body it represents. The Sun is made of yellow calcite; Mercury of meteorite; Venus of lemon yellow Mexican calcite; Earth of Chilean lapis; Mars of red Namibian Jasper; Jupiter of banded sandstone; and Saturn, of banded Utah onyx.

It took over a year of searching for Alexander Rose to find the perfect stones. “You get the right idea of what stone you want, but then you have to get the right one,” he recalled. “They can come in all shapes and patterns, and by the time it gets ground down to the right size you don’t know if it’s going to look like the planet. With the Earth, we knew wanted Chilean lapis, which has those cloudy inclusions not seen in regular blue lapis, but then it was a question of finding one that had the right cloud patterns and continents.”

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. The lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and the lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists included Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist. The base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.

Most traditional clocks perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number and continuous number of states (an analog representation).

The problem with building a 10,000 year clock using gears is that the gears can slowly wear down and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time. Even the best made clocks in the world will experience this after a few hundred years. To address this, Danny Hillis invented the Serial Bit Adder. The Serial Bit Adder is a simple mechanical binary computer that converts continuous motion from the gear (analog energy), into a digital output.

The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states (digital), even if they become significantly worn. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27 mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states, and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable — these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are, in other words, the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

The Orrery’s base, featuring the serial bit adder.

As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.

Author Neal Stephenson, who based his book Anathem (02008) partly on the 10,000 Year Clock, at the unveiling of the Orrery.

The Orrery was completed in 02005, and displayed at Long Now’s Fort Mason headquarters back when the space was a museum. In the lead up to designing and building the Interval, Alexander Rose knew the Orrery would be crucial component from an experience design perspective.

“It was obviously this shiny metal object,” said Rose. “By centering it by the front doors, it becomes the focal point when you walk in.”

“We had two goals with the walk-in experience: to suck you in from outside with the Orrery, and to force you to look up. That’s what the big wall of books for the Manual for Civilization is about.”

“Studies in psychology have shown that when you look up, you’re primed for an awe experience,” Rose says. “The Orrery was meant as the eye candy visible from outside to get you inside. The books behind it are what change your perspective and inspire you to move around the space.”


V. Human Orreries (02017–10,000)

Back at The Interval, Pedraza brings up what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: despite our post-Copernican knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, many of us still maneuver through the world with the assumption that we are the center of the universe.

The author David Foster Wallace addressed this tendency towards self-centeredness in a commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 02005:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

“If we consider that thing for a second,” Pedraza says, pointing to the Orrery and starting to scribble in his pad. “It’s this expanded long-term view of where we fit into the universe. It’s not where most people are hanging out.”

“If we imagine instead an orrery with a human as the globe at the center,” he continues, “the orbits of their concerns are very immediate in a time sense. Very short-term instant gratification. Very ‘this week’ and ‘what now?’ focused.”

Sketch by illustrator Dan Bransfield.

He shows me a drawing of a human orrery orbited by different spheres of obligations, roles, and time considerations.

“You guys are trying to get them from thinking like this,” he says, pointing to his drawing, “to that,” pointing to the Orrery. “That’s a hell of a challenge.”

Perhaps Pedraza is right. But that does not make the effort any less necessary. And the Orrery at the Interval — mechanism, icon, “shiny metal object” — is an essential component of that effort. It draws passers-by to the threshold of long-term thinking, inviting them to expand the orrery of their concerns to include not just the spheres of their immediate orbit, but the Earth as well; and not just for the present interval, but the next ten thousand years, too.


Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

Posted on Wednesday, February 8th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Thinking, Technology, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

One of the most popular pieces of writing on our site is Long Now co-founder Danny Hillis’ remembrance of building an experimental computer with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. It’s easy to see why: Hillis’ reminisces about Feynman’s final years as they worked together on the Connection Machine are at once illuminating and poignant, and paint a picture of a man who was beloved as much for his eccentricity as his genius.

Photo by Faustin Bray

Photo by Faustin Bray

Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

by W. Daniel Hillis for Physics Today

Reprinted with permission from Phys. Today 42(2), 78 (01989). Copyright 01989, American Institute of Physics.

One day when I was having lunch with Richard Feynman, I mentioned to him that I was planning to start a company to build a parallel computer with a million processors. His reaction was unequivocal, “That is positively the dopiest idea I ever heard.” For Richard a crazy idea was an opportunity to either prove it wrong or prove it right. Either way, he was interested. By the end of lunch he had agreed to spend the summer working at the company.

Richard’s interest in computing went back to his days at Los Alamos, where he supervised the “computers,” that is, the people who operated the mechanical calculators. There he was instrumental in setting up some of the first plug-programmable tabulating machines for physical simulation. His interest in the field was heightened in the late 1970’s when his son, Carl, began studying computers at MIT.

I got to know Richard through his son. I was a graduate student at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Carl was one of the undergraduates helping me with my thesis project. I was trying to design a computer fast enough to solve common sense reasoning problems. The machine, as we envisioned it, would contain a million tiny computers, all connected by a communications network. We called it a “Connection Machine.” Richard, always interested in his son’s activities, followed the project closely. He was skeptical about the idea, but whenever we met at a conference or I visited CalTech, we would stay up until the early hours of the morning discussing details of the planned machine. The first time he ever seemed to believe that we were really going to try to build it was the lunchtime meeting.

Richard arrived in Boston the day after the company was incorporated. We had been busy raising the money, finding a place to rent, issuing stock, etc. We set up in an old mansion just outside of the city, and when Richard showed up we were still recovering from the shock of having the first few million dollars in the bank. No one had thought about anything technical for several months. We were arguing about what the name of the company should be when Richard walked in, saluted, and said, “Richard Feynman reporting for duty. OK, boss, what’s my assignment?” The assembled group of not-quite-graduated MIT students was astounded.

After a hurried private discussion (“I don’t know, you hired him…”), we informed Richard that his assignment would be to advise on the application of parallel processing to scientific problems.

“That sounds like a bunch of baloney,” he said. “Give me something real to do.”

So we sent him out to buy some office supplies. While he was gone, we decided that the part of the machine that we were most worried about was the router that delivered messages from one processor to another. We were not sure that our design was going to work. When Richard returned from buying pencils, we gave him the assignment of analyzing the router.

The Machine

The router of the Connection Machine was the part of the hardware that allowed the processors to communicate. It was a complicated device; by comparison, the processors themselves were simple. Connecting a separate communication wire between each pair of processors was impractical since a million processors would require $10^{12]$ wires. Instead, we planned to connect the processors in a 20-dimensional hypercube so that each processor would only need to talk to 20 others directly. Because many processors had to communicate simultaneously, many messages would contend for the same wires. The router’s job was to find a free path through this 20-dimensional traffic jam or, if it couldn’t, to hold onto the message in a buffer until a path became free. Our question to Richard Feynman was whether we had allowed enough buffers for the router to operate efficiently.

During those first few months, Richard began studying the router circuit diagrams as if they were objects of nature. He was willing to listen to explanations of how and why things worked, but fundamentally he preferred to figure out everything himself by simulating the action of each of the circuits with pencil and paper.

In the meantime, the rest of us, happy to have found something to keep Richard occupied, went about the business of ordering the furniture and computers, hiring the first engineers, and arranging for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to pay for the development of the first prototype. Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”

The technical side of the project was definitely stretching our capacities. We had decided to simplify things by starting with only 64,000 processors, but even then the amount of work to do was overwhelming. We had to design our own silicon integrated circuits, with processors and a router. We also had to invent packaging and cooling mechanisms, write compilers and assemblers, devise ways of testing processors simultaneously, and so on. Even simple problems like wiring the boards together took on a whole new meaning when working with tens of thousands of processors. In retrospect, if we had had any understanding of how complicated the project was going to be, we never would have started.

‘Get These Guys Organized’

I had never managed a large group before and I was clearly in over my head. Richard volunteered to help out. “We’ve got to get these guys organized,” he told me. “Let me tell you how we did it at Los Alamos.”

Every great man that I have known has had a certain time and place in their life that they use as a reference point; a time when things worked as they were supposed to and great things were accomplished. For Richard, that time was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Whenever things got “cockeyed,” Richard would look back and try to understand how now was different than then. Using this approach, Richard decided we should pick an expert in each area of importance in the machine, such as software or packaging or electronics, to become the “group leader” in this area, analogous to the group leaders at Los Alamos.

Part Two of Feynman’s “Let’s Get Organized” campaign was that we should begin a regular seminar series of invited speakers who might have interesting things to do with our machine. Richard’s idea was that we should concentrate on people with new applications, because they would be less conservative about what kind of computer they would use. For our first seminar he invited John Hopfield, a friend of his from CalTech, to give us a talk on his scheme for building neural networks. In 1983, studying neural networks was about as fashionable as studying ESP, so some people considered John Hopfield a little bit crazy. Richard was certain he would fit right in at Thinking Machines Corporation.

What Hopfield had invented was a way of constructing an [associative memory], a device for remembering patterns. To use an associative memory, one trains it on a series of patterns, such as pictures of the letters of the alphabet. Later, when the memory is shown a new pattern it is able to recall a similar pattern that it has seen in the past. A new picture of the letter “A” will “remind” the memory of another “A” that it has seen previously. Hopfield had figured out how such a memory could be built from devices that were similar to biological neurons.

Not only did Hopfield’s method seem to work, but it seemed to work well on the Connection Machine. Feynman figured out the details of how to use one processor to simulate each of Hopfield’s neurons, with the strength of the connections represented as numbers in the processors’ memory. Because of the parallel nature of Hopfield’s algorithm, all of the processors could be used concurrently with 100\% efficiency, so the Connection Machine would be hundreds of times faster than any conventional computer.

An Algorithm For Logarithms

Feynman worked out the program for computing Hopfield’s network on the Connection Machine in some detail. The part that he was proudest of was the subroutine for computing logarithms. I mention it here not only because it is a clever algorithm, but also because it is a specific contribution Richard made to the mainstream of computer science. He invented it at Los Alamos.

Consider the problem of finding the logarithm of a fractional number between 1.0 and 2.0 (the algorithm can be generalized without too much difficulty). Feynman observed that any such number can be uniquely represented as a product of numbers of the form $1 + 2^{-k]$, where $k$ is an integer. Testing each of these factors in a binary number representation is simply a matter of a shift and a subtraction. Once the factors are determined, the logarithm can be computed by adding together the precomputed logarithms of the factors. The algorithm fit especially well on the Connection Machine, since the small table of the logarithms of $1 + 2^{-k]$ could be shared by all the processors. The entire computation took less time than division.

Concentrating on the algorithm for a basic arithmetic operation was typical of Richard’s approach. He loved the details. In studying the router, he paid attention to the action of each individual gate and in writing a program he insisted on understanding the implementation of every instruction. He distrusted abstractions that could not be directly related to the facts. When several years later I wrote a general interest article on the Connection Machine for [Scientific American], he was disappointed that it left out too many details. He asked, “How is anyone supposed to know that this isn’t just a bunch of crap?”

Feynman’s insistence on looking at the details helped us discover the potential of the machine for numerical computing and physical simulation. We had convinced ourselves at the time that the Connection Machine would not be efficient at “number-crunching,” because the first prototype had no special hardware for vectors or floating point arithmetic. Both of these were “known” to be requirements for number-crunching. Feynman decided to test this assumption on a problem that he was familiar with in detail: quantum chromodynamics.

Quantum chromodynamics is a theory of the internal workings of atomic particles such as protons. Using this theory it is possible, in principle, to compute the values of measurable physical quantities, such as a proton’s mass. In practice, such a computation requires so much arithmetic that it could keep the fastest computers in the world busy for years. One way to do this calculation is to use a discrete four-dimensional lattice to model a section of space-time. Finding the solution involves adding up the contributions of all of the possible configurations of certain matrices on the links of the lattice, or at least some large representative sample. (This is essentially a Feynman path integral.) The thing that makes this so difficult is that calculating the contribution of even a single configuration involves multiplying the matrices around every little loop in the lattice, and the number of loops grows as the fourth power of the lattice size. Since all of these multiplications can take place concurrently, there is plenty of opportunity to keep all 64,000 processors busy.

To find out how well this would work in practice, Feynman had to write a computer program for QCD. Since the only computer language Richard was really familiar with was Basic, he made up a parallel version of Basic in which he wrote the program and then simulated it by hand to estimate how fast it would run on the Connection Machine.

He was excited by the results. “Hey Danny, you’re not going to believe this, but that machine of yours can actually do something [useful]!” According to Feynman’s calculations, the Connection Machine, even without any special hardware for floating point arithmetic, would outperform a machine that CalTech was building for doing QCD calculations. From that point on, Richard pushed us more and more toward looking at numerical applications of the machine.

By the end of that summer of 1983, Richard had completed his analysis of the behavior of the router, and much to our surprise and amusement, he presented his answer in the form of a set of partial differential equations. To a physicist this may seem natural, but to a computer designer, treating a set of boolean circuits as a continuous, differentiable system is a bit strange. Feynman’s router equations were in terms of variables representing continuous quantities such as “the average number of 1 bits in a message address.” I was much more accustomed to seeing analysis in terms of inductive proof and case analysis than taking the derivative of “the number of 1’s” with respect to time. Our discrete analysis said we needed seven buffers per chip; Feynman’s equations suggested that we only needed five. We decided to play it safe and ignore Feynman.

The decision to ignore Feynman’s analysis was made in September, but by next spring we were up against a wall. The chips that we had designed were slightly too big to manufacture and the only way to solve the problem was to cut the number of buffers per chip back to five. Since Feynman’s equations claimed we could do this safely, his unconventional methods of analysis started looking better and better to us. We decided to go ahead and make the chips with the smaller number of buffers.

Fortunately, he was right. When we put together the chips the machine worked. The first program run on the machine in April of 1985 was Conway’s game of Life.

Cellular Automata

The game of Life is an example of a class of computations that interested Feynman called [cellular automata]. Like many physicists who had spent their lives going to successively lower and lower levels of atomic detail, Feynman often wondered what was at the bottom. One possible answer was a cellular automaton. The notion is that the “continuum” might, at its lowest levels, be discrete in both space and time, and that the laws of physics might simply be a macro-consequence of the average behavior of tiny cells. Each cell could be a simple automaton that obeys a small set of rules and communicates only with its nearest neighbors, like the lattice calculation for QCD. If the universe in fact worked this way, then it presumably would have testable consequences, such as an upper limit on the density of information per cubic meter of space.

The notion of cellular automata goes back to von Neumann and Ulam, whom Feynman had known at Los Alamos. Richard’s recent interest in the subject was motivated by his friends Ed Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram, both of whom were fascinated by cellular automata models of physics. Feynman was always quick to point out to them that he considered their specific models “kooky,” but like the Connection Machine, he considered the subject sufficiently crazy to put some energy into.

There are many potential problems with cellular automata as a model of physical space and time; for example, finding a set of rules that obeys special relativity. One of the simplest problems is just making the physics so that things look the same in every direction. The most obvious pattern of cellular automata, such as a fixed three-dimensional grid, have preferred directions along the axes of the grid. Is it possible to implement even Newtonian physics on a fixed lattice of automata?

Feynman had a proposed solution to the anisotropy problem which he attempted (without success) to work out in detail. His notion was that the underlying automata, rather than being connected in a regular lattice like a grid or a pattern of hexagons, might be randomly connected. Waves propagating through this medium would, on the average, propagate at the same rate in every direction.

Cellular automata started getting attention at Thinking Machines when Stephen Wolfram, who was also spending time at the company, suggested that we should use such automata not as a model of physics, but as a practical method of simulating physical systems. Specifically, we could use one processor to simulate each cell and rules that were chosen to model something useful, like fluid dynamics. For two-dimensional problems there was a neat solution to the anisotropy problem since [Frisch, Hasslacher, Pomeau] had shown that a hexagonal lattice with a simple set of rules produced isotropic behavior at the macro scale. Wolfram used this method on the Connection Machine to produce a beautiful movie of a turbulent fluid flow in two dimensions. Watching the movie got all of us, especially Feynman, excited about physical simulation. We all started planning additions to the hardware, such as support of floating point arithmetic that would make it possible for us to perform and display a variety of simulations in real time.

Feynman the Explainer

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

Getting Richard to give advice like that was sometimes tricky. He pretended not to like working on any problem that was outside his claimed area of expertise. Often, at Thinking Machines when he was asked for advice he would gruffly refuse with “That’s not my department.” I could never figure out just what his department was, but it did not matter anyway, since he spent most of his time working on those “not-my-department” problems. Sometimes he really would give up, but more often than not he would come back a few days after his refusal and remark, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked the other day and it seems to me…” This worked best if you were careful not to expect it.

I do not mean to imply that Richard was hesitant to do the “dirty work.” In fact, he was always volunteering for it. Many a visitor at Thinking Machines was shocked to see that we had a Nobel Laureate soldering circuit boards or painting walls. But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

A Kind Of Game

Richard worked at the company on and off for the next five years. Floating point hardware was eventually added to the machine, and as the machine and its successors went into commercial production, they were being used more and more for the kind of numerical simulation problems that Richard had pioneered with his QCD program. Richard’s interest shifted from the construction of the machine to its applications. As it turned out, building a big computer is a good excuse to talk to people who are working on some of the most exciting problems in science. We started working with physicists, astronomers, geologists, biologists, chemists — everyone of them trying to solve some problem that it had never been possible to solve before. Figuring out how to do these calculations on a parallel machine requires understanding of the details of the application, which was exactly the kind of thing that Richard loved to do.

For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, “What is the simplest example?” or “How can you tell if the answer is right?” He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. “Don’t bug me. I’m busy,” he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened). In this way he worked on problems in database searches, geophysical modeling, protein folding, analyzing images, and reading insurance forms.

The last project that I worked on with Richard was in simulated evolution. I had written a program that simulated the evolution of populations of sexually reproducing creatures over hundreds of thousands of generations. The results were surprising in that the fitness of the population made progress in sudden leaps rather than by the expected steady improvement. The fossil record shows some evidence that real biological evolution might also exhibit such “punctuated equilibrium,” so Richard and I decided to look more closely at why it happened. He was feeling ill by that time, so I went out and spent the week with him in Pasadena, and we worked out a model of evolution of finite populations based on the Fokker Planck equations. When I got back to Boston I went to the library and discovered a book by Kimura on the subject, and much to my disappointment, all of our “discoveries” were covered in the first few pages. When I called back and told Richard what I had found, he was elated. “Hey, we got it right!” he said. “Not bad for amateurs.”

In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.

Telling The Good Stuff You Know

Actually, I doubt that it was “progress” that most interested Richard. He was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.

I remember a conversation we had a year or so before his death, walking in the hills above Pasadena. We were exploring an unfamiliar trail and Richard, recovering from a major operation for the cancer, was walking more slowly than usual. He was telling a long and funny story about how he had been reading up on his disease and surprising his doctors by predicting their diagnosis and his chances of survival. I was hearing for the first time how far his cancer had progressed, so the jokes did not seem so funny. He must have noticed my mood, because he suddenly stopped the story and asked, “Hey, what’s the matter?”

I hesitated. “I’m sad because you’re going to die.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, “that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think.” And after a few more steps, “When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you’ve told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway.”

We walked along in silence for a few minutes. Then we came to a place where another trail crossed and Richard stopped to look around at the surroundings. Suddenly a grin lit up his face. “Hey,” he said, all trace of sadness forgotten, “I bet I can show you a better way home.”

And so he did.

Visualization of 5,000 Years of War

Posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 12.37.27 PM
1100Lab has developed a visualization mapping all of the battles in Wikipedia in the last 5,000 years. Their blog details how they compiled the data, as well as other projects by the Netherlands based research and development firm.

Apollo 17 Digital Archive

Posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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Relive the sights and sounds of Apollo 17 – the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program, on its 43rd anniversary.  Ben Feist, a developer from Toronto, has built an interface to experience the Apollo 17 mission that syncs the 300 hours of mission audio, 22 hours of video, and 4,200 pictures, along with commentary from the astronauts, into a realtime playback of the mission that you can experience in its entirety.

Mount Tambora Eruption in 01815 Reverberated Across the Planet

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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In April of 01815, Mount Tambora – an active volcano in what is now Indonesia – erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.

A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.

Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.

There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:

… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.

Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.


2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

The World’s Languages, Visualized

Posted on Tuesday, August 11th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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The South China Morning Post recently published an infographic that colorfully illustrates the distribution of the world’s most commonly spoken languages.

With data taken from Ethnologue and UNESCO, among other sources, the graphic offers a variety of ways to understand global language patterns – from visualizing which languages have the largest number of native speakers, to which country boasts the greatest amount of linguistic diversity.

You can explore the full graphic in all its detail on the South China Morning Post’s website.

Himawari-8 Satellite Offers A New Look at Our Planet – 144 Times Per Day

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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A sense of perspective is unavoidable from 22,000 miles out. Looking down at Earth from that distance — almost three times farther than the diameter of the planet itself — allows a view of the globe as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement. (NY Times)

Last month, Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite began sending data back to Earth. Launched in late 02014 to help track storm systems and other weather patterns in the Pacific Rim, it looks down on Earth from a geostationary orbit, at about 36,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) from the surface.

Its considerable distance from Earth isn’t necessarily surprising; most weather satellites do their work in high earth orbit. But what makes Himawari-8 unique among its colleagues is the fact that it is capable of taking full-color photos of the entire planet. Every day, it sends 144 of these “living portraits” back down to Earth – or one photograph every ten minutes.


With an unprecedentedly high resolution that can visualize features as small as 500 square meters, these images will help scientists better understand the genesis, evolution, and outcome of large-scale weather patterns. But on a broader level, the pictures Himawari-8 sends back can’t help but awaken in us what the Planetary Collective has called the Overview Effect: the combined sense of awe and oneness that seems to come over us all when we see images of the whole Earth, framed by the blackness of space.

The data Himawari-8 produces is meant to help us better grasp the ever-changing, fleeting, and highly localized behavior of the Pacific atmosphere. But it also offers us a reminder to step outside of ourselves and consider the fact that we ultimately inhabit a very small corner of a much larger unit of space and time.