The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Can a scientist see the beauty of a flower the same way an artist sees it? Not really, said world famous physicist, Richard Feynman, back in 1981. The scientist sees much more beauty than the artist ever could. He understands the marvelous compatibility of its cells, the colours that attract insects, the beautiful actions of things inside too small to see. Most importantly though, the scientist sees the mystery in this flower and understands there is much more to find out about it.

This is the tone for many of the short works from “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” a collection of interviews, lectures, and articles from the 1965 Nobel Prize winner. The collection offers many interesting insights into the life of Feynman, tracing his love of science and deep-seated curiosity for the nature of things back to their roots. From his childhood walks in the woods with his father to the Manhattan project, where disagreement arose with censorship officials because he and his wife were exchanging encoded letters for fun.

In these amusing and often profound anecdotes, we as readers quickly discover that Feynman’s genius cannot be separated from his eccentricity. The same obsessive curiosity that led to his Nobel Prize is also the reason why his college roommates found him leaning outside his university dorm room window one night in the middle of winter – he was stirring Jell-O to see if it would coagulate in the cold.

While a few of the lectures and reports from this collection are intensely technical, aimed at an audience with a firm grasp of more advanced concepts, most are accessible to a lay audience. The only pre-requisite seems to be the sort of scientific curiosity that Feynman advocates so strongly. It is his love for science that ties together this entire collection: the point is not to ‘know’ anything but to love finding out. The scientist is, above all else, a friend of the unknown.

The book covers topics ranging from nanotechnology to the Challenger disaster and also shifts to his musings on softer topics like the role of science in our modern society or its relationship to religion. The transcripts from lectures are sprinkled with the laughs, turns of phrase, and spontaneity that will conjure a familiar image for anyone who has seen him speak before. Though, there is some repetition, the editor of the collection acknowledges it from the outset, attempting to remove some of these repeated “gems.” Although, the editor seems to think most are worth repeating. It reminds me of a comedian I heard on the radio a while ago. After one show, a lady asked for her money back saying “Hey, you told that joke last week!” to which the comedian responded, “You’re not getting your money back. Don’t come every week.”

Most readers, I think, won’t find themselves so discontented. I read it over and over again, enjoying the Cargo Cult Science story about the Solomon Islanders no matter how many times it became relevant to any one of Feynman’s topics. Here, the editor does a good job, picking and choosing where to keep which stories, inviting a new context every time an old example appears.

But the most gratifying aspect of this read is Feynman’s refreshing honesty, even if his modesty does appear to be lacking. Feynman was famously nonchalant about his winning the Nobel Prize. Apparently, he didn’t care much for winning awards. Instead, we learn of a much simpler sense of reward: in knowing that other people are using his work, advancing the knowledge of the field and finding out new things for themselves. This same honesty shines through in other examples from the collection. It is the root of his brash courage when, in his younger years, he challenged wiser scientists working on the Manhattan project yet it allowed him, in the same passage, to admit he was “‘dumb’ for never knowing who he was talking to.”

This honesty makes his viewpoints more organic, adding credence to his calls to action. He dispels many stereotypes of scientists pegged as mechanical and boring, introducing new nouns he hopes will become associated with the scientific process: wonder, awe, mystery. Not only does Feynman convince us that we too often lose sight of the importance of scientific venturing, he makes us want to venture off ourselves. He urges us to revisit the world with the sense of childlike abandon we soon forgot after we grew up.

This collection may be simple enough for a child but it is definitely meant for adults. It is a reminder that discovering something means more than knowing what it’s called; it’s about opening it up and looking at it…

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

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An Interview with a Computer Scientist

Anil Somayaji is fascinated by sex. Not the way most computer scientists – or people, in general – are. He is interested in sex from a defence standpoint. Somayaji and Saran Neti, one of his Master’s students, believe they have found a way to better defend the security of computer systems we rely on everyday. The answer: Sex.

Somayaji began his time at MIT in biology. After switching his major to math, he was on track to complete his undergraduate degree as a pre-med. That was when he began to explore different research fields.

The first field he found was called computational biology – a way of applying computers to analyzing biological problems. The Human Genome project is a classic example of work in this field, he said.

“I saw that and I thought…meh, kind of boring,” he said with a shrug. “But then there was this other field called artificial life.” This was a later offshoot of artificial intelligence that studied how to create computer systems with lifelike properties, he said.  Today, this is a common thread that runs through Somayaji’s research. He studies the way computers programs work based on our knowledge of living systems.

For the purposes of the project he worked on during the summer, sex is the biological means of creating diversity. Diversity is very important to the security of a computer program. He used agriculture as an analogy. “If you grow a whole field of wheat and everyone is growing the same kind of wheat everywhere, when some disease comes along, it doesn’t just kill one field – it kills everyone’s field.”

As he explained, he erased several equations off the whiteboard and began drawing circles to demonstrate the host/vulnerability relationship, crisscrossing lines to show how – in the current model for programming – several host programs will have common vulnerabilities.

The trick is figuring out how many different kinds of programs (wheat) are necessary to ensure that they are no longer vulnerable to the same kinds of attacks (disease). Somayaji said often programmers are more focused on cutting down the total number of vulnerabilities. If they instead focused on making sure each program had different or obscure vulnerabilities, it wouldn’t matter if there were more of them – one attack couldn’t compromise the security of multiple programs. In other words, they wouldn’t lose all their wheat to one disease.

Somayaji is also working with some other students on automating the diversification process in programs. In plain English, they found a way to breed programs the way you would breed puppies. “How do you customize an animal?” he asked, “You don’t understand the way a dog works but you can still breed away yappiness.” If the research ever gets to a phase where it can be implemented, it will be possible to slightly modify the essential characteristics of a program without rebuilding (or even understanding) its source code – the most basic foundation for any program.

His thoughts on sex and diversity stem from, what he hypothesizes to be, the essential function of sex. For Somayaji, sexual reproduction is primarily a defence. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense, he pointed out. Compared to asexual reproduction it is extremely wasteful. Simply speaking, “half of the population [men] can’t have offspring,” he said. “We reproduce every 20 years, bacteria reproduce every 20 minutes. In terms of an arms race they can beat us every time.” Unless, he chuckled, we have that diversity.

Though computer security is Somyaji primary interest, living systems can be very helpful for understanding other aspects of computer systems. For example, the way the brain and the immune system work can be thought of as a kind of computation he said. However, it would be an oversimplification to think of these systems as fleshy programs. Living systems are far more “contingent”– everything is naturally connected. Computer systems are the opposite – everything is separate except for the things that need to be connected. “That way we can understand what they do,” he said.

But computer programs aren’t always that simple. This is where Somayaji comes in. He’s trying to understand what computers do rather than what they can do. “Because when you’re dealing with millions of lines of code in systems, no human understands it,” he said. “We just know that it works.”

Digital Reproduction