Saturday, December 02, 2017

A 'Virtual' Interview of Richard Feynman by Bill Gates

(I wrote this piece on Richard Feynman over two decades ago. Since then, the Internet has ‘changed everything,’ from the way we interact with one another to the way we shop to the way some of us live in our smartphones and much more. What has not changed is our fascination with Feynman. Who was this ‘best brain since Einstein’ who took pleasure in acting the buffoon but was as fluent in deciphering nature’s codes as he was in picking locks? Books and articles on Feynman show up almost every year. The latest (as of this writing) is "The Quantum Labyrinth" by Paul Halpern, published in October 2017. It most likely won’t be the last, because from the perspective of publishers, Feynman sells! I have expanded the original article a bit in the hope that a new set of readers will get some pleasures out of reading it. We Feynman fans are determined never to fade away! – Hasan Zillur Rahim, San Jose, California, December 2017.)

Bill Gates respects and admires "individuals who achieve something inspirational or who possess extraordinary character." Of these, one name comes up more often than others: the late great Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

Gates had planned on meeting with Feynman in 1988 but didn't get a chance. Feynman died of cancer in February of that year. "It’s an opportunity I’m sorry I missed," wrote Gates in the New York Times in 1995. "His book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, is a favorite of mine."

Feynman was a hero because, as Gates put it, "he was incredibly inspirational. He was an independent thinker and gifted teacher who pushed himself to understand new things. I have enjoyed everything I’ve read about him and by him. I admired him deeply…"

In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures at Cornell University, the Messenger Lectures, under the title "The Character of Physical Law." Topics ranged from symmetry, probability and uncertainty in physical laws to techniques by which physicists seek new laws.

The lectures were recognized for their extraordinary quality. "I have videotapes of physics lectures Feynman gave at Cornell decades ago," said Gates. "They are the best lectures I’ve seen on any subject. He shared his enthusiasm and clarity energetically and persuasively."

During an interview with CIO magazine in September 1997, Gates was asked: "Who would you invite to a dinner party?" Feynman was on the list, along with Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. As recently as June, 2017, Gates said in an interview with TIME magazine that "One person I'm sorry I never got to meet is the physicist Richard Feynman. He had a brilliant mind and was a phenomenal teacher."

On July 14, 2009, Microsoft Research, in collaboration with Gates, launched a Web site called Project Tuva that makes The Messenger Lectures freely available to the public for the first time. Gates purchased the rights to the seven lectures in the series to help kids get excited about physics and science. “I think someone who can make science interesting is magical. And the person who did that better than anybody was Richard Feynman. He took the mystery of science, the importance of science, the strangeness of science, and made it fun and interesting and approachable,” said Gates.

At the time of his death, Feynman had become everyone’s favorite physicist, thanks to the popularity of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think. With these books, transcribed by his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton from taped conversations over several years, Feynman captured the public imagination as no other physicists had before him, with the possible exceptions of Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi

The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a set of lectures Feynman gave to undergraduates at Caltech in '62-63, is now a classic. (For a description of how the lectures came about, see the definitive article by Feynman's colleague Matthew Sands in Physics Today, April 2005. The lectures are now available online for free on the Caltech website.

(Feynman fans are all over the world! In the mid ‘60s, I was a student in the physics department at Dhaka University, Bangladesh, when I came across the Lectures at a book fair on campus. I was instantly hooked. After a week or so, I gathered enough courage to write a letter to Feynman expressing my admiration for his unique perspective on physics. I also lamented that in our country (Pakistan at the time), there were no world-class physicists due to lack of quality scientific teaching and training. I never expected a reply but to my surprise, Feynman responded, his generous spirit evident in what he wrote, a quality not shared by his envious and narrow-minded Caltech colleague Murray Gell-Mann. “You do your country an injustice,” Feynman wrote. “Abdus Salam is one of the finest theoretical physicists I know. Every time I talk with him, I learn something new.” Note: Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979.)

Feynman’s fame grew when he was appointed to the Rogers commission in 1986 to investigate the Challenger shuttle explosion. His dramatic demonstration on TV of the loss of resiliency in O-ring at freezing temperature as a principal cause of the Challenger accident made him a national celebrity. 

In applauding his performance, the physicist Freeman Dyson said: "The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks a clear question."

Since his passing in 1988, Feynman lore has continued to growSeveral books have been published, including Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (James Gleick, 1992), Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman (American Institute of Physics, 1993), No Ordinary Genius (Christopher Sykes, 1994), The Beat of a Different Drum (Jagdish Mehra, 1994), Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun (W.W. Norton, 1996), The Meaning of It All (Helix Books, 1998), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (Perseus Books, 1999) Feynman's Rainbow (Leonard Mlodinow, 2003), Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard Feynman (Edited by Michelle Feynman, Basic Books, 2005), Quantum Man (Lawrence M. Krauss, 2011), and The Quantum Labyrinth (Paul Halpern, Basic Books, 2017).

Reminiscences by colleagues also appear from time to time in Physics journals, such as "Capturing the wisdom of Feynman" by Matthew Sands (Physics Today, April 2006) and "Memories of Feynman" by Theodore A. Welton (Physics Today, February 2007). A fascinating article on how Feynman approached the subject of piano tuning ("Stiff-string theory: Richard Feynman on piano tuning" by John C. Bryner) appeared in the December 2009 issue of Physics Today. Two articles in the May 11, 2017, issue of Physics Today, “A Look Inside Feynman’s calculus notebook” by Melinda Baldwin and “The doctoral students of Richard Feynman” by T.S. Van Kortryk shed new lights on the physicist’s early development and his later years.

Feynman even made it into the billboards! When Apple Computer began its "Think Different" series of ads featuring great scientists, artists, humanitarians and the like, (brainchild of the late Steve Jobs), the company chose Einstein and Gandhi among its first examples of the uncommon rewards awaiting those who dared to follow the beat of a different drum. "Can Feynman be far behind?" I wondered.

In November '98, I was driving in San Francisco's Mission District when I suddenly saw that familiar face with the knowing grin inviting commuters to ponder the mysteries of ... what? The photograph showed Feynman wearing the corporate T-shirt of Thinking Machine, a Boston-based company where he had briefly worked as a consultant in 1983. The shirt bore a schematic representation of Connection Machine - a cube of cubes - that he helped design for Thinking Machine. (It's the same photograph on the cover of What Do You Care What Other People Think?) Then, in April '99, Feynman "came" to Silicon Valley where I live. Anyone driving along Highway 101 in the South Bay could "see" Feynman teaching quantum mechanics at the California Institute of Technology, in front of a blackboard on which he had written matrices and differential equations. According to Caltech archives, the photograph was taken on May 2, 1963, during his "Lectures on Physics" period. (Feynman has many fans in Silicon Valley, so there was disappointment when Apple "replaced" him with an image of an iMac five months later.)

Gates may have been most pleased, however, with the publications of “The Feynman Lectures on Computation” (edited by Anthony J. G. Hey and Robin W. Allen - 1996) and “Feynman and Computation” (edited by A. J. G. Hey - 1998.)

The first is a collection of lectures Feynman gave at Caltech from 1983 to 1986 as part of an interdisciplinary course called "Potentialities and Limitations of Computing Machines." The second contains contributions by distinguished computer scientists and physicists who were guest lecturers in Feynman's interdisciplinary course. It also contains reprints of Feynman's prescient articles on the physics of computing: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" (1959!) and "Simulating Physics with Computers" (1982). Anyone reading these two books will agree that Feynman's insight and ingenuity make his lectures on computation almost as timeless as his physics lectures.

Feynman even has his own 37-cent first-class stamp! The US Postal Service has honored four American scientists - physicists Richard Feynman and Josiah Willard Gibbs, mathematician John von Neumann and geneticist Barbara McClintock. The stamps were issued on 4 May 2005. 

The Feynman stamp shows the physicist in his 30s, framed by the unmistakable Feynman diagrams. The stamp came about thanks to the decade-long lobbying effort by Ralph Leighton, who organized a celebration on May 11, 2005, at the post office in Far Rockaway, the New York City neighborhood where Feynman grew up. On the same day, the street in Far Rockaway where Feynman lived, two blocks from the post office - was renamed in his honor, from Cornaga Ave to "Richard Feynman Way." The date was appropriately chosen: May 11 is Feynman's birthday.

Gates never met Feynman but it is fascinating to imagine a meeting between the two. Here is the whiz kid transformed into a wide-eyed pupil, marveling at the master’s facility with ideas and insights, wondering about the source of that magical genius that was uniquely Feynman’s. What does Feynman think of the current state of computing? How does he envision its future? Are any architectural breakthroughs in software imminent? Where is the limit and why?

An autumn afternoon. Gates is at the Feynman house in Altadena, Southern California. Feynman introduces Gates to his menagerie - one horse, two dogs, one cat, and five rabbits. Gates smiles as Feynman addresses each animal by name and inquires of its health.

Afterwards, they settle down in the book-lined living room to talk.

Gates: When did you first take an interest in computers?

Feynman: My interest in computers really grew with my interest in physics, which is to say, very early. I recall reading in high school about mathematical machines, tide predictors, area measuring devices, and all kinds of wonderful things about computing in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Gates: How have computers helped you in physics?  

Feynman: When I try to solve a difficult problem, I ask myself: What can I compute that will explain the properties displayed by a physical system under certain conditions? It’s an approach that has served me well. I am interested in useful results, not abstractions, whether it’s in understanding how light interacts with matter or why helium behaves so strangely at low temperatures. I get useful results by coming up with numbers that can be experimentally verified. Computers play an important role in this verification process.

Gates: But isn’t your kind of computing different from the computing most of us are used to?

Feynman: It’s true the kind of computing I am interested in is based mostly on physical insights and mathematics - mathematics always in the service of physics - but computers are a big help. They can perform millions of important calculations a scientist may never have the time for. Sometimes computers can even suggest ideas one hasn’t thought of before. I find this exciting. For anyone curious about how nature works at the deepest level, a computer can be a valuable tool. I certainly find it so.

Gates: Back in 1942, when you and other scientists were working on the Manhattan Project, digital computers were several years away. What was computing like then?

Feynman: We had these Marchant and Monroe computers - hand calculators with numbers, really - that were good for adding, multiplying, dividing, and so on. They were about a foot across and several inches high, with all kinds of levers on them that you pushed to get results. Unfortunately, they broke down often. Metal parts wore thin and came out of alignment because of the pounding they took, and had to be sent back to the factory for repair. We just couldn’t afford the downtime - this was a wartime effort after all - and so some of us began to tinker. We would take the covers off and try to figure out ways to fix them. Pretty soon we got good at it and kept things going.

Then the calculations became complicated, way beyond the capacity of the Marchants. We had to get IBM machines - multipliers, tabulator, verifier, keypunch, sorter, collator and what have you. They were the best machines at the time. We managed to assemble them ourselves and came up with results that turned out to be very important.

Gates: I am curious about some of those calculations …

Feynman: The biggest challenge was to figure out how much energy would be released from various designs of the bomb. Then we had to narrow it down to how much energy would be released from specific designs that would be used in the actual bomb, and how much fissile material would be needed in each case. This was very complicated, nonlinear equations and all, and we had so little time! The experimentalists couldn’t help; they needed our results to carry on their work. We computed by simulation, using a primitive form of what you would now call parallel processing. But we rose to the challenge. Our calculations told us what we could and couldn’t do. Lots of important results, very accurate.

Gates: Fifty years later, how do you view your wartime efforts?

Feynman becomes pensive. "At Los Alamos, we were doing what we had to. We started for a good reason. We worked hard. It was exciting. We discovered, invented, and pushed the limits of science and technology to create a bomb to help us win the war. We won the war but afterwards many of us weren’t so sure about the bomb itself. We had second thoughts. The bomb took on a life all its own. I remember sitting in a restaurant in New York shortly after returning from Los Alamos to teach at Cornell, wondering: what if New York City were to become another Hiroshima! Everything around me would be smashed. What was the point of life, of all this creativity? It didn’t make any sense at all. It took me a while to shake off this feeling. Eventually I got busy with physics and moved to Caltech, but that’s another story.

Gates: What about your experience with computers, though?

Feynman brightens. "There’s no second thought about that," he replied. "The main idea I came away with from Los Alamos was that even simple, primitive machines could be used to calculate important results. And it keeps getting better!"

Gates: I just finished reading Feynman Lectures on Computation. I am intrigued by a remark you made at the end of one of the chapters: "In 2050, or before, we may have computers that we can’t even see!"

Feynman: What I was investigating in those lectures was the answer to a fundamental question: What is it that we can and cannot do with computers today, and why? One issue was, how small could you make a computer? Was there any physical limitation to its size due to laws of physics? That led me to investigate the characteristics of a computer operating according to the laws of quantum mechanics. If we want to make extremely small computers, no more than the size of a few atoms, we would have to use the laws of quantum mechanics, not classical mechanics. So I began to analyze what you would call quantum computers. People thought that the uncertainty principle would be a limitation: that is, you wouldn’t be able to make a computer as small as you wanted because of the way time and energy, for instance, were related. I found to my surprise that quantum mechanics didn’t impose any limitations on the smallness of a computer, over and above those due to statistical and classical mechanics.

Gates: So you don’t have to worry about any unavoidable limitation arising from natural laws when you are trying to build the smallest possible computer?

Feynman: Exactly. Nature is quantum, not classical, so if you are trying to simulate nature, it had better be built on quantum laws. And if there’s no restriction there, you’re on solid ground! Of course, you have to consider the second law of thermodynamics, reversible computing and so on.

Gates: How would you write software for such a computer?

Feynman: That’s for you to figure out! I did my part!


Gates: I noticed in your lectures that you derived Shannon’s Theorem in three different ways, using concepts from statistics, geometry and physics. How come?

Feynman: I am an explorer. I like to find things out for myself. That’s how I understand anything. What I cannot create, I do not understand. If I can derive a theorem or a result independently, even when I know it has been discovered before, it means I understand it. That’s the only way I know how to learn. In the case of Shannon’s theorem, each method I used to derive it taught me something new.

"Besides," Feynman lowers his voice conspiratorially as Gates instinctively draws nearer, "what one fool can do, so can another!"

More laughter.

Gates: The topics of your lectures - coding and communication theory, Shannon’s theorem, quantum computers and such - are fundamental research topics. We have a growing research department at Microsoft but our focus is somewhat different. We are primarily interested in such things as: How do you increase people’s creativity through software? What will make computers easier to use, more responsive to the needs of the user, more natural? Can computers extend human cognition by assimilating speech and linguistics? These are the issues that interest us. Do you have any interest in these aspects of computing?

Feynman: Of course I do! Any tool that can make computers easier to use and more natural, as you say, is important. My own work in physics reflects this. I invented something called Feynman diagrams that allowed me to make complicated quantum calculations in one evening that used to take physicists six months! It was my moment of triumph, to realize that I had succeeded in working out something worthwhile.

So if you are inventing tools and products that simplify computing and at the same time open up complex problems for intelligent analysis, you are doing right by me.

Gates: Is there anything we should look out for?

Feynman: You need to make sure that the tools you create do not become more complex than the problems they are designed to solve.

Gates: One thing that concerns me very much is trying to anticipate the nature of computing ten or twenty years from now. We want to be as intelligent about it as we can, so that we can begin laying the foundation for it now, if that’s possible. Personally, I am looking for some good ideas to take us there …

Feynman: Well, it seems to me you need a new model for writing software, considering how important software has become in everything we do. I think that the next generation of software ought to be modeled after natural objects defined by natural laws. If you can model software objects after objects of nature, I think you will have moved on to something new and significant.

Gates: How so?

Feynman: For one thing, you can be sure that the software will do what it is meant to. If you push this idea further, the same software should be able to transform itself appropriately if the boundary conditions were to change. No matter how well-thought out a computer program is, there’s always some unforeseen error in it. It’s not the fault of the designer or the developer, it’s the model on which the program is written. A large software system seems to me to be like an elaborate sandcastle one builds at the shore. Suddenly a big wave hits and it’s gone!

Gates: So we have to change the foundation?

Feynman: I think so. You need to bind software development to criteria higher than standards and protocols. Numerical data modified by computers should be treated much as laws of nature govern the way objects behave in the real world.

Gates: But doesn’t that mean people who write software have to be physicists as well?

Feynman: Not really. If you are talking about physical laws, the fundamental laws of nature are simple. That’s where their power and beauty come from. You go through all these complicated calculations and what comes out in the end is unbelievably simple. That’s what I talked about in those videos you have of mine. Besides, it can’t hurt to know a little physics. It’s a part of our culture!

Gates: That’s true. Perhaps the new model could help in the area of testing too. Software testing has become critical. We are always fighting product release deadlines against testing!

Feynman: Exactly. How do you test software against all possible failures? I don’t think you can using current methods, unless you have some sort of
self-correcting software that cleans itself as millions of users simultaneously uses it. If software objects can be modeled after natural objects, testing becomes more straightforward. You have more confidence in the result. If the test fails, you may end up discovering something new and unexpected. That’s how it is in physics. There’s no fooling natural laws!

Gates: I remember the last sentence in your personal report on the Challenger accident: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Feynman (obviously pleased): You get the idea!

Gates: Any example modeling software after natural objects?

Feynman: Some years ago, a bunch of guys were trying to build superfast computers using parallel processors. The company was called "Thinking Machines." My son Carl, who is interested in such things, joined them. Since the kids running the company didn’t know any better, they ended up hiring me too!

Anyway, the problem was to design a router that delivered messages from one processor to another. There were a million processors in that machine and it wasn’t practical to connect every pair of them. We chose a model where each processor needed to talk directly to only a few of its neighbors. The problem came down to figuring out the minimum number of buffers to hold messages for the router to operate efficiently.

I analyzed the problem by treating the router circuit diagrams as if they were objects of nature, the kind of stuff I do all the time in physics, and came up with a set of partial differential equations. The equations said five buffers per chip would do. Others predicted seven but in the end, it turned out to be five, which made building these computers easier. My equations apparently saved the day!

Gates: We use certain types of object models for writing software. Coming to think of it, you can say these objects are quantized software.

Feynman: Yes! Small, self-contained software that solves just one specific problem that makes life easier for people can be called quantized software. See, you are already using concepts from physics, only you don't know!

Gates: What you are suggesting, then, is that future software should include ideas and concepts from physics as well as from computer science.

Feynman: Yes, but I think ideas should also come from biology. In fact, I think the intersection of biology and computer science could prove even more fruitful for developing software than physics.

Gates: It’s already happening. Bioinformatics is an emerging field that brings together ideas from biotechnology and computers. You studied biology for a while, didn’t you?

Feynman: Yes. I actually worked in the field during my sabbatical year at Caltech. This was after Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA spiral. My big moment came when Watson himself invited me to give a seminar on my work at Harvard. I am convinced biology has a lot to offer to computer science, especially in writing software.

Gates: In what specific ways?

Feynman: Well, insights can come from understanding how living organism function, from their adaptive, fault-tolerant, error-handling traits. It can come from studying how human genes are laid out, how the 'book of life' actually unfolds … There are thousands of possibilities, really.

Gates: That’s exciting! If I were not in computers, I would most certainly be working in biotechnology. I think we are only scratching the surface here. Have you been following the Genome project?

Feynman: Yes, and I think what scientists have accomplished is remarkable. It's a historic milestone to have mapped the genetic blueprint for human life and make it available to researchers!

Gates: The way we treat diseases and prevent them will be revolutionized!

Feynman: I certainly hope so. We can end suffering, at least to some extent, only if we know what disease really is. And when that happens, perhaps we can start talking more about health and less about disease.

Gates: One of my goals in life is to help eradicate diseases like smallpox, malaria, cholera and polio from the world. It's terrible that so many people still die from these diseases in our time. The success of the Genome project should certainly help.

Feynman: That will make it all worthwhile, won't it? In many ways, the Genome project reminds me of the Manhattan Project. I feel the same sense of excitement, the same anticipation. I wish I could start over again!

Gates: I am sure there's much you can contribute still.

Feynman: Is there any database that can store the Genome and sift through its data quickly?

Gates (momentarily taken aback): We are working on it. It is extremely important to create a database system that can meet these types of challenges.

Feynman: That should be a milestone for Microsoft. If biological data managers find widespread use, database research will pick up speed too. I want to see this applied to neuroscience as well. If we can track and analyze the activities of billions of neurons simultaneously, we will have made inroads into the working of the brain, perhaps our ultimate frontier.

They ponder the implications of the coming revolution in genetics and neuroscience. Both see beneficial possibilities but recognize that there are important moral and ethical issues to consider too.

Gates: It seems to me a really good software engineer should be able to derive inspiration from different disciplines.

Feynman: Yes! I made the point in my Nobel lecture that a good physicist might find it useful to have a wide range physical viewpoints and mathematical expressions available to him. If everyone follows the current fashion in expressing and thinking about the generally understood areas, then understanding the open problems is limited. It’s possible that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But if it is in another direction, who will find it?

I would make the same point to the new generation of software engineers. Don’t limit yourself to what you know or what already exists. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Look across disciplines. Dare to follow the beat of a different drum. Your inspiration may come from the dance of molecules on a wave in the sea, the complexity of a beehive or an ant colony, the march of stars across the heavens, the nature of memory and language, the symmetry of a snowflake, and so on. There’s no end to it! After all, nature’s imagination is richer than ours, so why not use what we know of it to our advantage?

Gates: It all goes back to childhood curiosity, doesn’t it?

Feynman: Right! And it’s a tragedy we can’t hold onto some of that curiosity as we grow older!

Gates: Who are your scientific heroes?

Feynman (after a pause): There are three, really. Sadi Carnot, James Maxwell, and Paul Dirac.

He explains: "Carnot obtained a general principle of nature from the nuts and bolts of the thermal efficiency of steam engines. In one stroke, Maxwell unified electric, magnetic, and optical phenomena. And Dirac, a hero of mine ever since I read his book The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, discovered the relativistic equation for the electron."

Gates: Can you explain your “sum of histories” idea in simple terms? I can’t quite grasp it. Does it have anything to do with the nature of time?

Feynman: Yes, it does. We are all familiar with cyclical time like the seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, then spring again to continue the cycle. You know, “To everything there is a season.” Then there is linear time, time that we experience as always moving forward. We call it the arrow of time.  It’s irreversible, like the irreversible disorder in a thermodynamic system that we call entropy. But there’s another way of looking at time: as a combination of all possible alternatives. In the classical picture, we witness only the arrow of time but at the quantum level, this arrow has other arrows tangled up with it that must also be considered. When light travels, it travels along a straight line that takes the least amount of time. That’s what we see. But nature also allows for less probable paths at the quantum level. They are like ghosts that we don’t see, yet they influence how the final path appears to us.

Gates: Are you saying that time can fork into multiple branches at the quantum level?

Feynman: Yes, you can say that. I believe in the specific over the general, so I will give you this example: Any interaction between elementary particles happens in all conceivable ways, not just in one, as we think in classical physics, in the collision of two billiard balls, for example. So, to find the final state or path at the quantum level, we must take into consideration the effect of all possible alternatives. One way to look at this is to allow for the possibility that each instant of time can split into many branches, some of which reaches into the future and some even into the past. And these branches can get entangled in all sorts of crazy ways, they can merge and twist and speed up and slow down and form knots and wrinkles. Time at the quantum scale is nothing less than a labyrinth! It’s like you are reading a book, then you put it down, pick up another and start reading at, say, page 50, then you put that down after reading 5 pages and pick up another and start reading it in reverse, the last page first. It’s like there is a fork in the road every few steps. So it is with time at the microscopic level.

Gates: Someone described “sum over histories” as the idea that “reality proceeds by an awareness of all the possibilities before you arrive at actuality.”

Feynman: I like that!

Gates: What do you consider your most interesting discovery since winning the Nobel Prize?

Feynman: I liked my work on the theory of liquid helium. Another was discovering the laws of weak interaction with Gell-Mann, discovered simultaneously by another pair of scientists as well. I also worked out something called the theory of partons to explain some of the properties of protons. Right now I am standing back. I am playing around with some ideas in my mind and I don’t have a clue where I'll come out. I guess that’s what makes it exciting, not knowing what strange territory one will end up in!

Gates: Any disappointments?

Feynman: Certainly. I’ve spent years trying to solve some difficult problems without success. The theory of turbulence is one. In fact, it is still unsolved. Another was my inability to understand superconductivity in which I worked for a couple of years. I should have grasped that one after my success with liquid helium, but I didn’t.

Gates: Do the disappointments linger?

Feynman: Not at all! Even where I failed, I worked very hard and had a terrific time. People only hear of successes but not of failures. The important thing is to decide which problems are important and give them your best shots. If you succeed, fine. If not, you almost always end up learning something new!

Gates: You mentioned turbulence. Is that a part of the study of complexity?

Feynman: Yes. There are many phenomena we do not understand yet, from the flight of a swarm of bees to the self-organizing properties of neural networks in the human brain. How is it that a few basic rules can lead to such extraordinarily complex behavior? This is the fundamental question any theory of complexity must answer. And it’s proving to be a real challenge!

Gates: Does that reflect a failure of conventional methods for understanding complex systems?

Feynman: Probably, or else we would have solved these problems long ago! It’s the same idea in software: How do you make sure a software system consisting of 20 or 30 million lines of code works coherently and correctly? You must maintain a certain amount of skepticism about accepted ideas and keep an open mind about ideas that appear flaky. It also means any serious study of complexity will require us to explore the fundamental relationship between physics and biology to computation.

Gates: Meaning?

Feynman: Meaning whether there is a computational model of the universe and of biological systems that we need to consider and understand. The field is wide open and it’s undoubtedly going to require interdisciplinary research.

Gates: During the Manhattan Project you came in contact with some of the most powerful minds of the twentieth century - Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, Robert Oppenheimer and others. Do you think there will be such a gathering of "monster minds" again?

Feynman: That was a different situation at Los Alamos. The project came about because we had to win a war. Besides, the science was also good, very good. We were discovering and inventing as went along. I don’t know that such a situation will reappear. Times have changed. It’s more structured now, more what you call "market-driven." But it really doesn’t matter, because there are many great minds about, brilliant people working in your field who are pushing the limits of technology, worrying about how people interact with computers, how software is written, and so on.

This was the moment Gates was waiting for, the real reason he had come to Altadena. Everything else was a prelude to this moment.

Gates: Will you consult for Microsoft?

Feynman’s response is instantaneous and unequivocal. "That’s the wackiest idea I ever heard!"

Gates is relieved. He has read enough about Feynman to know that the response really means Feynman is interested.

Gates smiles and suggests that his son Carl can perhaps join him too.

Feynman’s face glows. "Ain’t a bad idea at all," he says in his best Brooklyn accent.

Gates doesn’t want to leave any loose ends behind. "How about next month?" he asks. "We will give you a tour of the Microsoft campus and you can meet the people working on new ideas. I think you will like what they are doing."

But Feynman stops him. "Not possible," he says. "I am going on a trip to," he pauses dramatically and then says with a flourish, "Tannu Tuva!"

Gates is vaguely familiar with the planned trip to this place deep in Central Asia, outside of Outer Mongolia, with a capital named Kyzyl. One reason Feynman is interested in going to Tuva is because, in his own words, "any place that’s got a capital named K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!"

For a moment Gates thinks of asking Feynman if he can come along too. Then he sighs. Too many commitments! With a shock he realizes he too is a prisoner of schedules and deadlines, just like other worker bees!

"After you return from Tuva, then?" he asks, almost plaintively.

Feynman looks out the window. The day has about an hour of sunlight left. Shadows are lengthening, and a small wind is stirring the sycamore leaves.

"Why not?" he says, grinning, and extends his hand. Gates gratefully shakes it.

 "There’s a revolution coming in software and I think you will enjoy being there when it arrives," says Gates.

 "I’m sure I will."

Gates presses on. "Information is our most important asset. We plan to create great stuff out of it."

 "No," replies Feynman softly, "imagination is."


On the flight to Seattle, Gates is restless. He picks up an airline magazine and is immediately repulsed by its banal content. He wishes he can run up and down the aisle to work off the intellectual energy that has gripped him. A mechanical problem has grounded his private jet, so that's not a realistic option.

He reclines as far back as the seat allows and closes his eyes. "Must quickly put a team of good people together," he thinks. "Feynman is coming to Microsoft. Seek inspiration from across disciplines. Learn to tap into nature’s imagination. It’s time to take the company to another dimension."

(c) Hasan Zillur Rahim

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Connecting Reason and Faith on a Social Media Platform

Iconic Silicon Valley companies currently confront a credibility crisis of motive and trust. Helping spread fake news and propaganda, turning users into lab rats, mining personal data through addictive apps, stashing away billions of dollars in off-shore tax havens as disclosed by the Paradise Papers, suggest that under the veneer of connecting all and doing no harm, something more sinister is brewing in these Internet juggernauts.

Recent data reveal that on Facebook alone, as many as 126 million Americans were exposed to fake news stories during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, eroding our democracy. Russian operatives also created close to 3,000 fake Twitter accounts and over 1,100 videos on 18 Google channels. During a recent Congressional hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein bluntly told representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter: “You bear this responsibility. You’ve created these platforms.”

Americans are souring on tech titans who symbolize Silicon Valley and its increasingly questionable ethos. Not only are they accumulating wealth and power at an exponential rate, they are turning their companies into monopolies to silence discordant opinions and diminish, if not destroy, diversity.

Allow me to focus on Facebook. 

As the social media leader with over 2 billion active monthly users worldwide, can the tech giant remove our fears and restore our trust in the company, even if partially?

In his commencement address at Harvard this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg expanded his company’s mission to include ‘three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building communities across the world.” Zuckerberg defined purpose as “that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.”

In other words, it’s not only about connecting all of humanity, it’s infusing these connections with a sense of purpose. Who can argue with that? The problem is that noble mission statements can often mask fiercer motives, especially when a company develops a global reach.

Yet it is plausible that the idea of purpose can transform the way we connect with one another in the virtual world.

Imagine that Facebook creates a platform that connects proponents of reason and faith, two ancient antagonists that have caused much sorrow in the world.

Let me clarify what I mean in a specific context: Silicon Valley.

According to a 2010 survey (the numbers could have only gone up since then) there are over 450 churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in the Santa Clara County alone, serving over 40% of the Valley’s 2 million population. The remaining 60% includes not only atheists but also those with complicated relationship to their faiths, particularly millennials who shun organized religion and pray in their own way but not in traditional places of worship.

If such a platform were created, could that be an example of the kind of meaningful project Zuckerberg envisions? Perhaps. After all, meaning, purpose and transcendence can flow from both the secular and the sacred. Any connection between the two can not only inspire fresh views on, say, stem-cell research and global warming but also deepen our understanding of how love, justice, suffering and forgiveness shape human affairs.

At the same time, we must also note that faith and reason can coexist within the same person. 

Perhaps no one exemplified this as persuasively as physicist Charles Townes (1915-2015). An article he wrote half-a-century ago in the IBM journal “Think” provides insights into the evolving nature of relationship between science and religion. After building the case that the two shared fundamental similarities - revelation in one is epiphany in another, for instance – Townes concluded that the two will eventually converge. “I believe,” he wrote in 1966 in The Convergence of Science and Religion, “this confluence is inevitable. For they both represent man’s efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance.”

A devout Christian, Townes was one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth-century, winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964 for inventing the maser and the laser. He tempered his idea of convergence: “Perhaps by the time this convergence occurs, science will have been through a number of revolutions as striking as those which have occurred in the last century, and taken on a character not readily recognizable by scientists of today. Perhaps our religious understanding will also have seen progress and change. But converge they must, and through this should come new strength for both.”

Can Facebook facilitate this convergence in some way? It's difficult to say but what is clear is that this dialogue in the age of social media will not happen through staged spectacles between well-known cerebral atheists like Richard Dawkins and prominent theologians. It can only happen when practitioners of reason and faith can explore the connection between the two in a spirit of humor, humility and curiosity.

Even if a social media platform makes the flow of ideas between proponents of reason and faith easier, including those who see no conflict between the two, it does not mean it will remove our suspicion of Facebook, or of Amazon, Google or Apple, companies that are also vying for global domination, particularly when the call for regulation and antitrust probes against the Big Four is gaining steam in the Valley and beyond.

But it’s a start. The unexplored region between technology and faith beckons people with open minds seeking rational and spiritual truths. Done right, it may even be that algorithms will someday lead to epiphanies and clicks to catharsis.