Category Archives: Science

Private Screening: Bell Labs predicts the future

I saw this film in 1992 or 1993 at a screening for employees while finishing my postdoc at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I spent a little over two years there, living in lovely Chatham Township and spending Saturdays enjoying Manhattan. The lab I sat in held the original carbon dioxide laser, nearly thirty years old at the time, and still working. The transistor was invented a couple of doors away, the people who invented Unix were at the other end of a long corridor, and a few future Nobel laureates had their labs in-between. I am still amazed that I got that position and wistful that I didn’t do more with the opportunity.

There was a Q&A session with the speaker who introduced the film and who was participating in the work that underpinned this eerily accurate vision of an always-on, always-connected world. I asked if there was enough (data) bandwidth to support even a small fraction of this. It was the era of low-speed dialup modems and the Internet was limited to universities and academically-oriented labs. His answer, “I guess there will have to be.” A few forward-thinkers had the smarts to set about building that infrastructure, bit by bit. I lacked the foresight to invest even a small amount in any of them.

And so, everyday, off to work I go.

Via the AT&T Tech Channel

Space Music: Paul Novros accompanies the universe

The documentaries below were made in the 1970s by Lester Novros, then a professor at the USC film school where his students included George Lucas.  The understated elegance of these films is nicely framed by Paul Novros‘s music.  The younger Novros is a professor of jazz at CalArts.  I asked him whether he had any soundtracks available.  He was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of the work but has no separate recordings or scores.

Lester Novros and his Graphic Films studio had a major albeit little-known influence on Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Special effects legend Douglas Trumbull worked with him in Los Angeles but ultimately moved to work directly with Kubrick in England. Barbara Miller’s article “Graphic Films and the Inception of 2001: A Space Odyssey” is good reading.

via the U.S. National Archives

via Jeff Quitney

All roads lead to (Mental) home – ‘The Physicists’ at the Hollywood Fringe Festival

Courtesy last tape productions


“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer (1947)

Physics has been unreasonably effective over the centuries in periodically overturning life as people know it. Newton and Einstein loom large in this history along with Galileo. Less well-known but no less important are Carnot, Maxwell, and Planck. Their work, driven by curiosity,  led to inventions of their own and others devising of substantial practical importance and lasting consequence. Most of us are thankful on balance for the engines and electricity, satellites and semiconductors spawned by these discoveries while we fret about the disasters, bombs, and savagery equally enabled by them.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly comic ‘The Physicists’ trenchantly looks for the lines separating the pure from the applied, the moral from the immoral, and, not finding them, shows they never existed in the first place. Knowledge always comes at a price. Three physicists are interned in a posh asylum. Beutner thinks he is Einstein, Ernesti claims to be Newton. Möbius, brightest of all three, thinks he is himself but his frightening discoveries are inspired by visions of King Solomon. The game is to find, in a series of one-on-ones, Möbius’s  secrets and extract them from him.

The production under Ye’ela Rosenfeld’s direction is unexpectedly well-mounted with a large cast, set, costumes, and plotted lights. Surprising because Fringe shows share their space with others and each has to set up before and break down after every performance. The setting may be a posh Swiss sanatorium but some actors mumble in American accents, others stomp in German ones, and the rest interpolate, favoring the comic over the tragic. A two-piece band accompanies entrances and exits with guitar, percussion, recorder, and kazoo but crucial sound cues of Kreisler and Kreutzer are barely audible. A few of the play’s punches land but the overall impact is wildly uneven.

‘The Physicists’ can’t help but be timely – its subject is timeless. As creatures of Prometheus and children of Daedalus the blessings  and the curses of discovery have confronted us for centuries. Dürrenmatt’s deftly voices different aspects of the scientific (and artistic?) process – reason for some, revelation for others – while never taking his jaundiced eye off of the results. What happens once a discovery has been made? Not the workaday findings of workaday minds but the once-in-a-generation revolutions that change the world at a stroke. Can the discoverer hoard the knowledge, direct it, or withhold it at will? History says no. Once started, a fire can’t be unburnt.  Möbius, horrified by his findings, institutionalizes himself, impoverishes his wife, abandons his children, and murders – all for naught.

Fortunately in this instance, Josh Mann as Möbius and Cecily Glouchevitch as Nurse Stettler stand out, especially at the crucial moment when he tosses plausible deniability aside and traps himself forever in the web of the institution’s authentically crazy director.  Jacque Lynn Colton is fine in a Strangelovian turn as Fräulein Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. While the variability in style and pacing doesn’t affect the dark comedy it takes a toll on tension and menace, the latter appearing suddenly toward the end of both acts rather than building up in stages to them.

And yet the play is worth a visit as much for place as for time. Los Angeles County is home to three major research universities, a passel of defense contractors, two Federal R&D centers, and an Air Force base. These are dwarfed by the so-called creative industries. The pursuit of art or science for its own sake, however, is in full retreat with the artists and scientists increasingly pressured for practical, commercially viable results and the attendant profits.  A cursory search shows that ‘The Physicists’ is seldom performed here. The European sensibility, European popularity, overtly political themes, and theatrical possibilities are all in City Garage‘s wheelhouse yet that company has never staged Dürrenmatt.

So, we return to the intractable problem of reaping the benefits of scientific discovery without the remorse. The easy out is to claim that where there is no solution, there is no problem. This is a false simplicity. It is not possible to work in science without a great deal of optimism, it is the only way to survive the constant setbacks. Good scientists are generally their own harshest critics, examining and re-examining the assumptions underlying their theories, experiments, models, and conclusions. In that sense, periodically examining one’s assumptions about the impact of one’s work is equally part of good science.   It can be dangerous (it sank Oppenheimer) but it is nevertheless the right thing to do.  The production deserves  thanks for the reminder.

The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
directed by Ye’ela Rosenfeld
at the Sacred Fools Theatre (Mainstage) /Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017
1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Final Performance: Friday June 23 2017, 7:00 PM
Visit for tickets

Orchestre de Chambre Pelléas
Benjamin Levy, conductor
via the Green Room Creatives channel

Art from compromise: pyCustoms inspects Python packages

Consider technical computing.  Matlab is expensive but simple: One function per .m file – send a function inputs, get outputs.  Python’s adherents claim that it can supplant Matlab for most scientific purposes.  Reality, as usual, is more nuanced.  Since Python supports objects, classes, namespaces, and a lot of other funky features, Python tools are chock full of them.  Pick a package – numpy, scipy, matplotlib, or any of the ‘batteries included’ standard library.  It is difficult to figure out how to pass inputs to something and get outputs, assuming that thing is a function and not an object with methods, a class, a module,  or something else.  Documentation is often lacking so there will be multiple visits to StackOverflow, Usenet and Google Groups, and mailing lists.

I wrote some experimental Python spaghetti code to take a Python package, figure out which of its modules connect to which other modules, and then to recursively list each module’s builtins, classes, functions, submodules, and a bunch of stuff falling into ‘none of the above.’  I also sent the results into graphviz to visualize the results and perhaps gain some insight.  It was one compromise after another, figuring out ‘good enough’ when ‘ideal’ wasn’t convenient or  possible.  The firework-like graphviz output was fun to look at although not practically useful due to the large amount of zooming and panning needed to see details – what you see is all you’ve got.  I may use the plain text output from the pyCustoms algorithm in the future to figure out the lay of the land before studying a package in any detail.

The pyCustoms code is on Github in a Jupyter Notebook.  Here are the graphviz outputs for numpy and matplotlib.  Each image links to a PDF.  Zooming and panning works better in a standalone PDF reader than in a typical browser PDF plugin.  Right-clicking should permit downloading the files.  I normally use the Skim PDF reader for Macs but was surprised to find that Acrobat DC did a better job for these graphics intensive files.



A different time you understand: Woodward on B12

Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives

Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.

Chemistry was and is a huge field but the part that most people see is beakers, retorts, and churning solutions cooking up complex molecules. This is where Woodward became a legend at an early age. His unshared 1965 Nobel Prize was for “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis” and not for any specific synthetic accomplishment. Interestingly, he felt that he deserved a share of the 1973 Nobel to Fischer and Wilkinson and would certainly have shared in the 1981 prize to Fukui and Hoffman, had he lived long enough.

My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.

Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.

Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.

Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.

There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.

Via the Youtube Channel of Dylan Stiles:


Monolith Monograph: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

A young filmmaker dives deeply in five parts into the technical and artistic innards of his (and one of my) favorite movies. One wishes that he spoke a little slower and left some breathing room in his edits but it is an earnest, meticulous, and illuminating effort. The engineering alone that went into 2001 is awe-inspiring. Did Kubrick sleep during the two years it took to make?

Via Channel CinemaTyler

Simon Ramo explains Cloud Computing

The ‘R’ behind the Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge (later TRW) corporation passed away a few months ago at age 103. Simon Ramo saw the future and made a lot of it happen in a bygone era when technical people ran corporations. Here, he explains what we currently call Cloud Computing over a lovely guitar score by Nell Hultgren of whom little, unfortunately, can be found.

Via Jeff Quitney‘s channel:

A star is born: But the details aren’t easy

A large, cold, dilute gas of hydrogen and space dust collapses slowly under its own gravity, compression, heating, and fusion take place aided and abetted by shock waves, and then a star glows for millions to trillions of years.

That’s how it is usually explained but the numbers are hard to grasp. The clouds can be dozens of light years across, the gas pressures are lower than the best vacuums on earth, the shock waves aren’t the kind we associate with sonic booms, and it can take tens of millions of years to get the party started.

Yet it happens and we are here because of it. The details are very tough sledding but equally interesting.

Introductory Astronomy: Star Formation and the Lifetimes of Stars

Watch this video on YouTube.

"Star Formation and Feedback" – Eve Ostriker

Watch this video on YouTube.