I overheard a clip on the radio last week in which someone was parodying the quote from Marvin, the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don’t.’ It set me thinking about something that I read a few months ago in Max Tegmark’s book: ‘Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence‘ [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. Tegmark speculates that since consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks or neuronal assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], then the thoughts of large systems will be slower by necessity. Hence, the process of forming thoughts in a planet-sized brain will take much longer than in a normal-sized human brain. However, the more complex assemblies that are achievable with a planet-sized brain might imply that the thoughts and experiences would be much more sophisticated, if few and far between. Tegmark suggests that a cosmic mind with physical dimensions of a billion light-years would only have time for about ten thoughts before dark energy fragmented it into disconnected parts; however, these thoughts and associated experiences would be quite deep.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Penguin Random House, 2007.
One of the benefits of supervising research students is that you can read a large number of scientific papers by proxy. In other words, my research students read more papers than I would ever have time to read and then they write reviews of the scientific literature that allow me to quickly gain an understanding of research in a particular field. Every now and again, a student refers to a paper that raises my curiosity to read it for myself. One of these was a paper published by Waldo Tobler in 1970 in which he describes the computational modelling of urban growth in Detroit, Michigan. Although, I used to live in Michigan, it was not the geographical connection that interested me but his invocation of the first law of geography: ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’. Professor Tobler was writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which he used in an example by highlighting that the population growth in Ann Arbor from 1930 to 1940 depended not only on the 1930 population of Ann Arbor, but also on the 1930 population of Vancouver, Singapore, Cape Town, Berlin and so on. Perhaps if he had been writing in 2020 he would have suggested that the rate of infection from coronavirus in Ann Arbor depends not only on the number of cases in Ann Arbor, but also on the number of cases Taipei, Milan, Toulouse, Dublin and so on.
Everyone who attends a certain type of English school is given a nickname. Mine was Floyd Patterson. In 1956, Floyd Patterson was the youngest boxer to become the world heavyweight champion. I was certainly not a heavyweight but perhaps I was pugnacious in defending myself against larger and older boys. Floyd Patterson had a maxim that drove his career: ‘you try the impossible to achieve the unusual’. I have used this approach in various leadership roles and in guiding my research students for many years by encouraging them to throw away caution in planning their PhD programmes. I only made the connection with Floyd Patterson recently when reading Edward O. Wilson‘s book, ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘. Previously, I had associated it with Edmund Hillary’s biography that is titled ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, which is peculiar corruption of a quote, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but that probably originated much earlier, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. I read Hillary’s book as a young student and was influenced by his statement that ‘even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve’.
Edmund Hillary, ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, The Travel Book Club, London, 1976.
Last month when I was in Taiwan [see ‘Ancient Standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] , I visited Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant which has a pair of boiling water reactors that each generate 986 MWe, or between them about 7% of Taiwan’s electricity. The power station is approaching the end of its licensed life in around 2023 after being constructed in 1978 and delivering electricity commercially for about 40 years, since the early 1980’s. There is an excellent exhibition centre at the power station that includes the life-size mock-up of the reinforcement rods in the concrete of the reactors shown in the photograph. I am used to seeing reinforcing bar, or rebar as it is known, between 6 to 12mm in diameter on building site, but I had never seen any of this diameter (about 40 to 50mm diameter) or in such a dense grid. On the other hand, we are not building any nuclear power stations in the UK at the moment so there aren’t many opportunities to see closeup the scale of structure required.