Locklin on science

Great physicists: Pyotr Kapitza

Posted in history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 8, 2021

Pyotr Kapitza is one of those physicists whose greatness isn’t fully appreciated. In fact, I think other than the memory of him in the low temperature community, weirdoes who are Nobel Prize autistes, and a few mentions in L&L books, he’s largely forgotten in the West (I assume there are Russian language biographies as his son ended up a famous TV personality ). Not only was he a very great physicist, he was also a great man in every way. Principled, a leader and talented in multiple fields; his enormous indirect influence was almost important as his direct contributions. A biography of Kapitza would make for wonderful reading.

He was a Russian-Pole who landed in Cambridge working for Rutherford in the 1920s. He proceeded to make big contributions in ultra-high magnetic field physics, low temperature physics (liquefaction of helium), and he created the enormously influential Kapitza club.

The idea of the Kapitza club was that young physicists were too deferential to older ones, and older ones too dismissive. The lectures were done informally with chalk and board only, with jokey Kapitza introductions to loosen people up. Guys like Dirac, Hartree and Heisenberg built courage and had big ideas here which changed the world. These were invite only affairs, done in student housing; much like early Christianity met in the catacombs to avoid detection by the establishment of the day. It was unapologetically elitist group (again; invite only), but also radically egalitarian. Kapitza would warm them up by making deliberate blunders in his introductory remarks which he encouraged shy people to correct to get into the spirit of things. Very much in the spirit of the ancient Greek philosophers.

“In setting up the Kapitza Club in October 1922, he [Kapitza] had shaken his postgraduate colleagues out of their lethargy and persuaded them to attend a weekly seminar on a topical subject in physics. The talks usually took place in Trinity College on Tuesday evenings, after a good dinner. The speakers, normally volunteers from the club’s members, spoke with the aid only of a piece of chalk and a blackboard mounted on an easel and had to be prepared for a series of interruptions, mediated by Kapitza with the quick wit and elan of a modern-day game-show host.”

Those of you who are still in the game should take note. In this era of mediocrities, “company men,” policed speech codes and professional and personal cowardice: such meetings and societies are the only way to drive scientific research forward. People have tried inclusiveness for decades now and the results are in: it doesn’t work. Forming tightly knit, non-hierarchical groups of elite minds who are interested in science rather than all the bullshit that goes with it in “fn-leeerb merp derp science” current year is the only way forward. I encourage all kinds of people to try this; exclude more people: exclude most people, you’ll get more done. Finding scientific shitlords willing to do a presentation via chalkboard is a great filter. Doing this for F=MA tier shit is difficult, having a bunch of fellow loons who will throw buns at your head when you goof up on some arcane and novel subject: even better.

Though Kapitza was primarily considered an experimental physicist, he could hang with the greatest theorists. He and Dirac came up with a cute quantum diffraction effect in one of these BS sessions which was later proved out. This is sort of the Platonic ideal of a physicist to my mind; you have to be able to roll with the theorists, but you have to be able to deal with matter. That’s what physics is, after all: the study of matter. Others who had this quality were Fermi and Oppenheimer. While some theoretical and experimental specialists were required even back in those days; it was expected that even the most allergic-to-experiment theorists like Wolfgang Pauli would be able to think deeply about matter and experimental apparatus. Even if such apparatus would spontaneously combust if Pauli were in the same room with it. This is something that is forgotten by contemporary noodle and symmetry fetishists playing in the particle soup.

Kapitza was kidnapped by the Soviets while visiting his parents and did most of his important work in the Soviet Union. As a pioneer in liquid helium research he was the first to discover superfluidity which he eventually won a Nobel Prize for (oddly shared with Penzias and Wilson). He also worked closely with Lev Landau whose book is why I remembered Kapitza -for a cute little effect called the Kapitza pendulum; a sort of mechanical phase locked loop that is marvelous and beautiful in its action.

Incidentally he didn’t come up with the actual mechanical effect: someone told him about the effect described many decades ago. Kapitza was the one who sat down, did experiments and figured out the detailed math that explains it. This is the type of thing that could theoretically have been done by anyone using simple apparatus; it is literally F=MA tier physics. Kapitza, a man who had already done his Nobel prize winning work; arguably work which would earn him two Nobels in current year, a man who helped develop the Soviet atom bomb: he didn’t think it was beneath him to figure this out. Proper physicists rather than career drudges are actually curious. It’s on page 714 volume 2 of his collected works if you’re curious; a really beautiful piece of work. In fact open his collected works at random and it’s filled with treasures like this. The previous paper in this collection was on how the wind induces waves on the sea. First paper in volume 3 is a learned seminar on the Russian cod liver oil business.

For his next couple of important contributions he developed industrial scale processes for air liquefaction, microwave oscillators and new contributions in plasma physics. As a scientific administrator he made contributions to the Soviet nuclear program and founded multiple technical journals and the Kapitza Institute. Any of these contributions would have made him a first rate scientist, scientific administrator and technologist; the fact that he managed to fit them in one life is amazing and awesome.

Beyond all this, he was a badass with a life filled with appropriately Russian tragedy. He drove an ambulance on the Polish front in WW-1, his wife and two children died of the 1919 flu afterwords, and in Soviet times he both stood up to arch commie monster Beria and lived, and was the only member of the Russian academy of sciences who never joined the Communist party.

Kapitza was a universal man; not only did he contribute numerous physical and mathematical inventions to his field, he was a great administrator, and a good man who made the world and all the people around him better wherever he went. Despite great tragedy he lived an admirable and courageous life. People like this do not go into physics or any kind of scientific endeavor any more. Maybe a few applied math people in startups or hedge funds for considerably lower stakes.

Office chairs are a scam

Posted in Design by Scott Locklin on April 23, 2021

A younger self employed pal asked me if he should dump $2k on a Herman Miller Aeron recently. The TLDR is “no.” It’s like spending $2k on a pair of sneakers blessed by a devil worshipping blood-drinking pothead. Worse; unlike the $2k devil worshipping blood sneakers (which I suppose will eventually be mandatory for corporate dress codes), it’s become something that everyone unquestionably accepts.


Let’s do a little history here; there was a first office chair, and it existed for a reason. Originally it was because Charles Darwin had a giant room filled with biological specimens and he needed to flit from object to object to invent evolution. So he stuck some wheels on a comfy Victorian chair. I’ve used caster-chairs in laboratories for their intended purpose. They’re great and they exist for a reason. Thank you based Charles Darwin for inventing laboratory caster chair.

Darwin chair; respek

Later, such chairs were used as an integral part in early information technologies systems. Aka office workers with filing cabinets; yards and yards of filing cabinets, performing essentially the same functions done by a roughly equivalent volume of IT professionals and computer databases. The little casters on the bottom of the chair; that’s for flitting from cabinet to cabinet without getting up. They’re sort of like the actuator arms of the R/W head of magnetic spinney disk drives. The innovation in this era of office chair is they have a swivel mechanism, making it even easier to maneuver around, bring files back to your desk, and do clerical work with a typewriter and Marchant calculator. This also made total sense and it was both healthy and civilized having such aids to efficiency in offices.

At some point they put another joint in the things so self-important executives (who were actually glorified clerks: otherwise they’d have sat in stuffed armchairs) could sit in such a chair with their feet on the desk; this was never needed, but it was popular anyway. I inherited such a 50s era chair from a friend and kind of wish I had kept it going by bringing the metal parts to the machine shop, as it looked cool at least.

By the 70s, such chairs were pretty universal and made out of plastic. By then, information technology was an important factor, so swiveling and rolling past the filing cabinet was vastly less important. However physical decay and the workman’s comp lawsuit had become important factors in the workplace. People sued their employers for having a bad back. In reality, your bad back is some combination of genetic factors and poor maintenance. But whatever: this is when ergonomics became a factor in office chair design.

Now, the reality is, there is absolutely no such thing as “ergonomics.” Nobody who isn’t a 60s era fighter plane or space capsule designer, has any idea how to make a chair that is “ergonomic” -nobody really has any idea what “ergonomic” means in terms of office chairs. It’s just a sort of virtue word with vaguely medical connotations. Cargo cult science at its best, designed to ward off bad juju like lawsuits. This is where it started to go bad really quickly. Herman Miller who invented the office cubicle: the second most dystopian form of office, started producing “ergonomic” chairs festooned with gas-lift levers to alter the height, and lots of sliding doodads to move arm rests and knee flex points and so on.  The idea was based on factory/industrial designs. Cube farms are a sort of production line for clerical work. I’m pretty sure casters were completely irrelevant at this point, but since cube farms were all covered in filthy plastic carpet, and non-casters would ruin the shitty rugs, the casters stayed. Rotations same thing. And I guess you could still put your feet up in your smelly little carpeted cube.

the ergon; this atrocity is considered “iconic”

Finally we come to the Herman Miller Aeron chair; the throne of the bugman open office. Add even more slidey “ergonomic” pieces. Because we’re doing “ergonomics” don’t you know. You can raise and lower the arms, cant the thing at all kinds of odd angles, roll around; it is endlessly ergonomic (whatever that means). Truly the Aeron chair is like the restaurant with 100 specialties on the menu; infinite choices for propping up your ridiculous clerical meatsack. Since by the 90s not  only were office workers completely gelatinous and in need of 10,000 adjustments to hold them in front of their computers against the ravages of gravity, they were also enormously fat sweathogs. The plastic carpeted cushions of Herman Miller’s Ergon gave way to a sort of polyester hammock-net so they wouldn’t develop grotesque sweat and fart stains on their office chairs and kakhis and cotton shirts. Something that was somehow missing when everyone wore wool and weren’t disgusting gelatinous ham planets. The chair itself, as a chair is, like most aspects of modernity, almost unspeakably ugly: it looks like some kind of arachnid or brine shrimp.

I came to the realization that office chairs are a scam when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. Up until that point in life, I had spent most of my time as a free range physicist, bounding up and down vacuum chamber platforms, dashing to the machine shop, rolling the helium leak checker over and crawling over piles of conflat flanges; even practicing martial arts with the Filipino janitor who studied with Remy Presas. Suddenly though, I was strapped to a chair answering emails, doing Fortran, gnuplot and LaTeX all day; then goofing off by making fun of people on the internet. I actually developed mild carpal tunnel and a sore lower back. Since I worked for the government they sent a safety and ergonomics expert over who upgraded my chair from an Ergon looking thing to something more like an Aeron and gave me training and a new “ergonomic” keyboard. It very obviously didn’t help one whit. Moving to the LBNL physics library and sitting on hard wood and metal chairs from 50s Army offices helped some. Going back to the gym and lifting heavy objects cured it for all time. Your body isn’t a tub of shit when you exercise and so you can happily sit on a log or boulder and be just fine.

Best open office chair I had was one of those exercise balls; it kept my posture good and was way more comfy than any other kind of plastic chair could be. Plus it flexed on my coworkers who would get sore in the midsection if they attempted it. For my home-office; I mostly sit in tub chairs. It’s been right for 250+ years; peak chair.

The more “advanced” a chair gets, the more degenerate it is. If you train your body to decant itself into some arbitrary chair shape (with 1001 “ergonomic” positions) like a living jello mold or octopus hiding in a mayonnaise jar,  you will eventually inevitably experience back problems. This happens because despite your bugman lifestyle, you actually are a vertebrate. Look at how the spinal column is made; it’s not made to be held up by stupid chairs; all those little pointy deely boppers on your spine are muscle attachments. Those muscles are meant to never relax: they’re structural, just as much as the ligament, cartilage and bone in your spinal column. That’s why people with back problems do better sleeping on the floor rather than a waterbed.

The other thing that makes these things a scam; in addition to being made of materials which are both fragile and uncleanable (unlike, say, steel, wood, leather or even hard plastic) it is made up of numerous fragile parts which wear out and break. People own leather tub chairs for decades; assuming there is no plastic foam in them, for centuries even.

Literally all of this could be discerned if people paid attention or had the rudiments of common sense. Instead of using humble powers of observation, office drones have been brainwashed into uncritically accepting the claims of the vendors of these ridiculous contrivances. Instead of demanding a comfy tub chair and their own damn office, modern invertebrates accept the swindles of their bugman overlords, and feel important sitting in horrific open offices on their intricate, smelly and insubstantial $2000 plastic thrones. Anyway when you get back to the office after the covidiocy abates, tell them to sell the chair and give you an office with a regular chair in it; even a metal folding chair or a stool in your own office is an improvement. They won’t, because the chairs cost way less than urban commercial real estate, but that’s the future you should be aiming for anyway. At least as good as the one portrayed in Brazil.

The Physicists: a history of a scientific community in modern America

Posted in Book reviews, physics, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 8, 2021

My reading on innovation in technology lead me to this book by Daniel J. Kevles. I don’t know if I can recommend the thing unless you’re trying to build a thesis on how to create Klein’s Type-1 innovative organizations. The book suffers from many flaws; its fine focus on physics with only incidental mention of astronomy probably skews the view into the history of American physics. On the other hand it is a fairly unique historical document chronicling the rise and fall of a scientific community up to the 1970s. Nothing interesting has happened in physics since the 1970s, no major figures have risen up, and the social organization remains ossified since then, so it can probably be viewed as complete.

There are a couple of striking things about the subject I was only dimly aware of. American physics didn’t exist as a social program involving multiple collaborating scientists with useful technical journals until around the turn of the century. There were a few very productive individuals, and some government organizations and advisory boards (NAS was chartered in wartime to give advice to the government, and various naval and military laboratories existed), but America was mostly a shitty frontier area with no physics to speak of until after the civil war. Two important figures in the early days: Henry Rowland and Albert Michelson. Rowland can be considered the first important physicist to have been trained in the US (at RPI) who helped create the American physics community. He founded the physics department at the newly endowed Johns Hopkins university, and, like Michelson, received some of his training in Berlin. Michelson was a particularly amusing character; like so many great physicists, of Jewish descent; he grew up as a boxing nerd in a frontier town who got his first major educational experience in Annapolis. Both of these guys were tinkering experimental physicists; inventing various forms of interferometry, optical gratings and spectroscopy, doing various forms of precision measurement. There were a couple hundred mostly academic physicists in the US in those days, but most of what they did was only vaguely recognizable as physics; these two stood out as distinctly modern and world class figures in a subject that was mostly being developed in the UK and Germany at the time. Gibbs was the first great American theorist; he was mostly ignored until Rowland created a position for him at Johns Hopkins.

Rowland was father of American physics

There were various government funded efforts around this time (1880s); weather services, the National Bureau of Standards (the first national lab that wasn’t military related), geological and coastal surveys; physicists were involved in such government scientific programs from the get go. Various factions in the government thought these efforts were a waste of money (in particular populist types of the era, which was a time of economic difficulty with the great recession), and there were the typical internal political machinations in the scientific community designed to accrue power and influence over them; just like today. The NBS is worth a few words; the shopkeeps of the country were wildly corrupt at the time, and the physicists and chemists of the NBS were a hugely popular group of consumer protection crusaders for the common people.

Michelson; uncle of American physics

Scientists of the current year who wonder why nobody respects them ought to remember this, and frankly, things like this are urgently needed in the US where everything from meat to vegetables is contaminated with disgusting chemicals, the big tech companies censor and spy on people for little reason, financial firms parasitize and dump risk on the common man, drug companies dump useless garbage on an increasingly medicated and unhealthy population and the “public health official” morons impose medical fascism on people who are in greater danger from eating too many cheeseburgers than the Wuhan coof. I mean there are obvious and enormous national health problems with …. obesity, autism, mental illness, rampant food allergies: people seem peculiarly incurious about all of these. Of course there are few scientists of the current year who could even stand up against regulatory capture of the candy industry, let alone the drug or soy industry, so I’m not holding my breath.

Contemporary with these fellows were America’s great inventors and industrialists, who were completely different people. Alexander Graham Bell, Westinghouse, Tesla, Edison: none of these guys had any sort of physics background, though eventually there was some social overlap. Similarly the great industrialists such as Stanford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller were dumping their charity money into university endowments, grad schools (the Ph.D. was a fairly recent innovation), laboratories and foundations. Around this time, the early journals were started. Still weren’t too many physicists in the country, but it was coming; demand for physics coursework was high, from new engineering students. The giants at Johns Hopkins started planting seeds in other institutions in Chicago, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. George Hale’s Palomar observatory bred Caltech. In the decade of the 1890s, there were a total of 54 new physics Ph.D.s, but by 1909 it was 25 a year. Two years after Michelson became the first American physics Nobelist.

If you know physics history, you know these dates are the beginning period in the greatest flowering of physics creativity in human history. Most of the theory was done by Germans, many ethnic Jewish, while the US remained more or less a hub of experimental activity (similarly Britain I think). It was also a flowering of industrial activity; as larger areas became electrified and were hooked up to the new telephone technology. Industrial labs started hiring some of the new physicists, and they immediately began producing returns; even the humble light bulb was assisted by Irving Langmuir. Aircraft became a thing; also refrigeration, automobiles, vacuum cleaners, escalators, air conditioners, motion pictures, washing machines, safety razors; inventions which changed daily human life forever in ways which were absurdly huge. Radio; very classic physicist achievement (entirely by foreigners) it is worth remembering the distance from theory of Maxwell in 1865 to demonstration by Hertz in 1886 to practical implementations by Marconi in 1896 to widespread adoption after 1900 when contemplating imaginary bugaboos like quantum computing; (Benioff in 1982, to Shor in 1994; one of them should be the QC Maxwell and there still hasn’t been a Hertz yet).

Then the cataclysm of WW-1. I’ve always said this is the great changepoint of human history. Had it never happened the world would be completely different. It was a war fought with the new industrial technologies; a war of chemicals and steel production, of submarines,  telephones and airplanes. As soon as the war started, the US had an industrial policy; if nothing else, we (meaning we Americans, sorry overseas bros) needed to replace critical items which were unavailable due to British blockades and war needs. Political operators including Palomar’s George Hale began to advocate for government funding through the National Research Council. There were various political machinations between different factions in the US technological establishment, but in the end the war happened and the physicists were utilized and found helpful. Optical glass industry had to be grown and developed at home to replace all the Zeiss optics and whatever the British were using. But the most important innovations the American physicists delivered was submarine finder technologies.

Up to this moment in time, the only great theorist the US ever had was Gibbs, and he didn’t have any noteworthy descendants. Most American physicists were experimentalists; tinkerers in the same sense that the Edisons of the world were tinkerers, except they knew stuff like how sound travels in water, how to detect the electron’s charge to mass ratio using oil droplets, or how to make nice telescopes. There were a number of very amusing characters from those days; Max Mason of U Wisconsin is one who stuck with me; a clubbable type guy with talents including chess, golf, violin and billiards; he pretty much came up with the submarine passive detection systems we used today. Another pair of characters involved in artillery range-finding was Augustus Trowbridge and Theodore Lyman, a couple of Boston Brahmin types who had to teach a bunch of roughnecks “splendid specimens …. like the big trees of their native Oregon” about differentials and hyperbolas and such while having fine wines and a mess featuring a french cook in the trenches of evenings. Lyman didn’t mind being shelled at least, he had hunted big game dontchaknow. The miniature portraits of these fellows gives a vivid picture of the old WASP elites, more or less acting like American versions of Bertie Wooster and Augustus Fink-Nottle.

Max Mason

The aftermath of WW-1 demonstrated  a lot of analogues to current year problems. Thanks to the British propaganda agencies, Germans were demonized. America used to have a large German speaking minority; WW-1 ended this. Rather astoundingly Hale and his allies in the NRC tried demonizing and bureaucratically “canceling” German scientists in Germany who had the temerity to support their own country during the war. This was completely bonkers. In addition to it being a ridiculous nationalistic thing to do, disguised, as is usual with Anglos as moralistic preening,  the Germans were literally the leading members of the physics community. Hale instead of building bridges and returning physics to the international enterprise it always had been, was attempting to burn them; trying to get physicists from neutral countries to see things the Anglo-American perfidy way. All of it was ridiculous and disgusting, and is very much like current-year cancel culture.  It went on through the dawn of modern Quantum Mechanics; Hale wouldn’t even allow his organization to cosponsor a visit to America by Einstein, who was Swiss, but spoke with a German accent.

The 20s started the real rise of colleges as a sort of US cottage industry; land grant schools, R&D research, university presidents as fund raisers; this was the birth of the whole encrusted edifice that threatens to destroy its host population. It was also the rise of PR used as a tool by scientists in fundraising, and it was very consciously deployed as such. Mind you it was mostly baloney: physics took a lot of credit from, like chemists, electrical engineers and statisticians for the recent technological evolutions; but the physicists had better PR -a pattern which continues to the present day.

The 1930s were fairly hard times for the physics community as everyone else. By this time there was a fair amount of populist religious people (mitigated by the number of high profile Christian physicists such as Millikan and Compton) and left wing rumbling against the pretensions of scientist types and their affiliation with monied interests and wealthy foundations, as well as their perceived involvement in “progress” which caused economic dislocations. As such there were, for the first time, layoffs. There were also New Deal government efforts which are the origin of most “Big Science.” Cyclotron research also got bound up in health care back then; something that always confused me (it persists to this day despite its generally dubious utility), but which seemed to be a funding scam by Lawrence. Interestingly many physicists were extremely conservative and against the New Deal due to their associations with business. This is a sort of bifurcation that persists to this day: industrial and military physics people are different from the rest of the scientific establishment, which is mostly a product of New Deal organizations. Of course, they were all united in preparations for war, for different reasons; a microcosm of what was going on in the country at large.

Vannevar Bush (despite his engineering background, or perhaps because of it) was one of the most crucial people in the development both of wartime physics and American technology in general, and the book paints a decent outline of his flinty New England “grandson of a whaling captain” character and early achievements. Interestingly he was not a New Deal man, but he saw the utility in using government agencies directly instead of going through independent bodies like the NRC as happened in WW-1 research. He was able to sell it with a single sheet of paper in front of FDR in 1940 based on already-existing NACA (aka NASA later); originally called the NDRC which was more research oriented, it later changed its name to OSRD which was more production oriented. Rather than setting up new labs as was attempted in WW-1 era, the idea was to use already existing scientific facilities as much as possible. OSRD management techniques persisted into the 50s with a few hot spots of innovation like Skunkworks and China Lake, but they’re largely extinct now. Entirely Klein type-1 organizational principles, and entirely entrepreneurial. You look at national lab operations now: it’s basically a big welfare pyramid where people continue to work on …. the same funding priorities people have literally been working on since the 1950s. No moving fast and breaking things, no innovation, no shuffling people into concentrations of excellence; just a bunch of nervous bureaucrats feathering their beds and playing bureaucratic power games with each other.

One of the characters who came up here who was of crucial importance: Alfred L. Loomis; a retired investment banker who had his own hobby physics lab; cousin of the Secretary of War, who ended up leading up the radar efforts as well as inventing LORAN (Loomis Radio Navigation), muzzle velocity chronos and a number of other things which are forgotten. He was an absolute giant, a figure who would be familiar to the Ancient Greeks representing all that was heroic and good in men of his time: he was from a first rate family, served his country as a soldier in WW-1, got a law degree, bought an investment bank, funded electrification of rural America, was an astute trader who called market top in 1928, and taught himself how to be a goddamned experimental physicist in the 1930s. There is literally nobody alive today like this: all you retired quants need to get to work in your personal laboratories.

Alfred Lee Loomis

Other figures; Lee Dubridge founded MIT’s radiation lab where much radar and electronics oriented work got done: a middle class aw-shucks methodist who went on to a career managing other scientific facilities, most notably CalTech. Edward Bowles; former fur-trapper Missouri redneck EE professor who helped manage the growing enterprise. His experience as a hunter helped him manage growing Pentagon bureaucracy. Amusingly he hated all the physicists and didn’t get along well with flinty New England Bush very well either. His management and advice changed a bunch of key research directions and made the US much more effective in warfighting. Operations Research; aka 1940’s version of “data science” was founded by pioneers like Philip Morse. Amusingly, he was one of only a few of explicitly mathematical physicists who made large contributions, presumably by keeping to very practical real-world solutions. I always knew him as being one of the “Handbook of Mathematical Functions” guys, but he continued his work of managing large scale scientific enterprises. Ultimately this famous book probably came from wartime experience where people had to go look up Bessel functions in various other tomes; books like this were of vital importance before the existence of tools like Macsyma. Arguably still more useful. Donald Trump’s uncle John was also an important figure in these days.

Oppenheimer, Fermi and the Bomb are the most famous product of OSRD; everyone knows what happened there, but one highlight: the physicists, particularly Lawrence got cocky. The Calutrons were a preposterous waste of time and resources in hindsight. Because it was OSRD, they did have multiple approaches to deliver the final product, but it’s absolutely staggering how many resources were wasted in this efforts. It’s also hilarious redneck Ozarks ladies were more productive than physicists on similar equipment. Of course, plutonium chemistry at Hanford and the Gas diffusion efforts at Oak Ridge delivered the real product (the latter, further enriched by absurdly wasteful Calutrons). This is a great historical example to bring up when physicists try to get too fancy or egotistical about their ability to deliver some complicated atrocity where simpler techniques would do; humble chemists did most of the real work and other than a few guys like Seaborg (often mistaken for a physicist) got little of the credit. FWIIW Kevles just presented the facts; this is entirely my emphasis and interpretation of what happened. Similarly for subsequent comments.

Virgin physicists versus Chad Calutron Girls

Postwar physics, like postwar everything else, was a completely different civilization. It had almost nothing to do with what came before and the first decade after Bush’s 1945 “Science the endless frontier” define the field to this day. Bush opened the government funded research chuckwagon. It also did away with the OSRD practicality and urgency. Bush basically opened the funding trough as an ongoing national investment with zero expectation of return. And zero returns is basically what we’ve gotten. The high energy physics of the 1940s were the nuclear guys; they kept the highest prestige and funding, getting bigger and bigger particle accelerators, and more and more seats in the physics departments. WW-2 put a crimp in the supply of new physicists; they weren’t going to get any more European braniacs, and the war had stopped the Ph.D. pipeline. 1946 was probably peak year for power and prestige of the American physics community. There weren’t enough of them, they were well paid and actually had significant political power; enough to put the Atomic Energy Commission under their civilian control. It’s also very obviously been downhill since then. The 50s and early 60s saw some interesting if wildly impractical results; the field has plummeted since then, to the point where it is best known for inventing glass-bead games for imaginary computers.

People on college campuses resented the expensive physicists of the postwar era, and it was extremely obvious the field became a sort of cargo-cult prestige scam over time. Quoting Kevles:

The younger physicists seemed interested too little in physics and accomplishment, too much in pay scales and security. They also expected a remarkable degree of luxury in the conditions of re­search. At Brookhaven, everyone seemed to want a new $3,500 (1953 dollars) oscillo­scope. “Someone walked into my office the other day,” reported Samuel Goudsmit, who headed the laboratory physics department, “and complained that he had to share the one we’d got for him with another re­searcher.” The new recruits also seemed disturbingly content to submerge themselves in team research, publish papers jointly, often with as many as twenty other authors (lol; try 2000 now a days) — to become, in short, organization men.

We all know by now that the research program of the last two generations of high energy physicists have been an abject failure. It is little acknowledged when the sweet smelling putrefaction set in, not at some nebulous later date: post-WW-2 physics was largely a failure. By mid-1950s there were 21,000 practicing physicists in the US. These days the APS is about 60,000 people. In 1930 when things were actually happening there was 3,000. Even if we don’t think 60,000 physicists is too many for a country of 330 million, it’s abundantly obvious via the output (which is entirely …. papers) that the vast majority of these people are not engaged in any kind of useful work. While these people either loaf in some leafy ivory tower or scramble in some CERN slave factory horror show: even assuming they’re capable or hard headed enough to do useful work, they’re not mobilized to do so.

It’s a weird sort of irony that Vannevar Bush mobilized one of the great technological and scientific leaps forward in history, then killed physics with welfare cheese because he … more or less forgot how the Promethean fire was created. He remembered the money part, but that was only useful for certain kinds of problems, and only with the correct management, correct social structure and correct people. These days you can’t even get the correct people, and people labor away LARPing as Einsteins or Oppenheimers. The rest of the book goes into the various hippy protests against physicists and grubby rooting around for new sources of funding.

Assuming the US continues as an identifiable polity in 100 years, I’m pretty sure “physics as scam” rather than “physics as a study of nature and how it may be put to use by humanity” will continue. They’ll continue screwing around with particle accelerators because Livermore did. They’ll continue ridiculous mathemagical nonsense like noodle theory because they don’t know how to do anything else, other than live action role play they’re Einstein. The only way I could see it changing for the better is a geopolitical upheaval which would effectively end what remains of the post WW-2 order and the current reign of corrupt imbeciles running the US.  Most of the West basically does what the US does. I suppose there could be new progress in China, Japan or Russia, but I don’t see much happening here for the next 50 or 100 years on the present trajectory.

Anyway, good book; depressing, but good.

Obvious and possible software innovations nobody does

Posted in tools by Scott Locklin on April 1, 2021

There are a number of things that people theoretically know how to do, but which aren’t possible because of how software gets made. Some of these are almost forgotten, but there are at least examples of all of them in existence.

  1. Automated FFI parsers. In 2021 I should be able to point any interpreted language at a C include file and have all the functions described in it turned into reasonably safe FFIed function calls, complete with autogenerated documentation. For example, if I want javascript calls to libsodium, I shouldn’t have to write anything; javascript knows about C APIs. I’m not asking for runtimes to talk to each other, you can keep up the insipid RPC-serialization conga dance for that. I’m just asking for a technology that encapsulates C (and Fortran and …. maybe C++) function calls and makes them accessible to other runtimes without actually doing any work. Of course parsers that do useful things are hard; people would rather write new serialization protocols. There will always be exceptions where such things don’t work, but you should be able to do 95% of the work using metaprogramming. Crap that runs on the JVM; same story -not only could you technically parse .h files and turn them into JNI, you should be able to have all your hooks into Clojure or Scala or whatever without writing anything. Clojure at least seems well equipped to do it, but I’m pretty sure this hasn’t happened yet. You see pieces of this idea here and there, but like everything else about modernity, they suck.
  2. While I’m talking about FFIs to high level languages, how about a VM that recognizes that it is not a unique snowflake, and that sometimes you have to call a function which may allocate memory outside its stack or something similarly routine but insane. Most VM designs I’ve seen are basically just student exercises; why not assume the outside world exists and has useful things to say? I think Racket has some good ideas in this domain, but I’m pretty sure it could be done better and there should be a higher standard.
  3. Cloud providers should admit they’re basically mainframes and write an operating system instead of the ad-hoc collection of horse shit they foist on developers. Imagine if the EC2 were as clean as, I dunno, z/OS, which has more or less been around since the 1960s. That would be pretty cool. I could read a single book instead of 100 books on all the myriad tools and services and frameworks offered by Oligarch Bezos. He would be hailed as a Jobs-like technical innovator if he had some of his slaves do this, and he would be remembered with gratitude, rather than as the sperdo who dumped his wife for sexorz with lip filler Cthulhu. There’s no excuse for this from an engineering perspective; Bezos was smart enough to know he was going to do timesharing, he was also smart enough to constrain the spaghetti into something resembling an OS. Same story with all the other cloud services. Really, they should all run like Heroku and you’d never notice they were there. You could also draw flowcharts for most of this shit and replace devops with something that looks like labview. Nobody will do that either, as innovation in core software engineering, or even learning from the past in core software engineering is basically dead.
  4. Front ends could be drag and drop native GUIs instead of electron apps. There are still examples of this around, but it seems to be a dying paradigm. It’s fascinating to me that people find it easier to write a pile of React and HTML on top of electron rather than dragging and dropping native widgets for a framework like we did in the old days. Literally this was possible on a 286 PC/XT running DOS; it worked great, looked great, had fewer problems. You know why it doesn’t get done? Because doing it is kind of hard, and electron apps are “easy” in that there are tons of cheap, fungible engineers with those skills.  In general native GUI frameworks are shit and they almost never include a GUI to develop them in. Even if you made something not as shitty as electron; maybe something that took 10mb instead of 500mb and didn’t gobble up all memory on your system that would be amazing. This is completely possible. People used to make GUI frameworks which did more than electron apps, looked better and fit in the tens of kilobytes range.
  5. Compilers and interpreters should learn how modern computers work. Pretty much all compilers and interpreters think computers are a PDP-11 stack machine. There are consequences to this everyone knows about: security is fairly execrable. There’s other consequences though! For example, the fact that memory is godawful slow and there are multiple cache speeds is a very serious performance problem unless you’re dealing with trivial amounts of memory. There are no compilers which can help you with this, unless you count meta-compilers on limited problems like ATLAS-BLAS or FFTW. There are a few interpreted languages whose designers have awareness of this and at least don’t fight the OS over these facts, or attempt to insist they’re really running on a PDP-11.
  6. Operating systems don’t have to look like your crazy hoarder aunt’s house. I know it’s hard to believe, but in my lifetime there were excellent multitasking operating systems with superior GUIs, networking, development toolchains, RTOS subsystems, cryptography that made the NSA nervous, and they all fit on a 70mb tape drive, and they would support something like 20 people checking their email and compiling Fortran for general relativity calculations from emacs terms. Meanwhile, my phone needs a constant diet of gigabyte upgrades to continue functioning reliably as a fucking telephone; telephones theoretically don’t even need a single transistor. Even my linux machines are ridiculously bloated and seem to require daily updates and patches. Why does shit like DPDK exist? Because your OS is stuck in the 1990s when ethernet was 10mbps. There’s zero reason or excuse for this, other than modern programmers are like your crazy hoarder aunt because storage is cheap and competent coder time is expensive. Clean OS design has a lot of follow on benefits, such as rare patching, higher security and lower maintenance in general. I have 4 objects in my house who require constant OS  upgrades (used to be 5, but my macbook committed suicide after an “OS upgrade” so I now use it as a paperweight), not including my TV or my car; make a cleaner OS and life actually gets better instead of everyone being a sort of shitty IT slave to keep their refrigerator and telephone running. Instead of a nice OS, current year innovation  is the open source “code of conduct” -apparently hoping you’ll attract enough people mentally ill enough to work for free, but sane enough to do useful work; arguably a narrow demographic.

The funny thing is, the same people who absolutely insist that the Church Turing thesis means muh computer is all-powerful simulator of everything, or repeat the fantasy that AI will replace everyone’s jobs will come up with elaborate reasons why these things listed above are too hard to achieve in the corporeal world, despite most of them being solved problems from the VLSI era of computer engineering. The reality is they’re all quite possible, but nobody makes money doing them. Engineers are a defeated tribe; it’s cheaper to hire an “AI” (Alien or Immigrant) slave to write the terraform or electron front end rather than paying clever engineers well enough to build themselves useful tooling to make them more productive and the world a better place. Consumers will suck it up and buy more memory, along with planned obsolescence, keeping the hardware industry in business. Computers aren’t for making your life easier; they’re for surveillance and marketing, and for manufacturers a consumer good they hope you buy lots of add-ons and  upgrades for, and which wears out as soon as possible.