Wednesday, December 29, 2010

the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations

On this day in 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". In his talk, he provided several examples of how miniaturization could change the focus of science - and human society. He said:
I don't know how to do this on a small scale in a practical way, but I do know that computing machines are very large; they fill rooms. Why can't we make them very small, make them of little wires, little elements---and by little, I mean little. For instance, the wires should be 10 or 100 atoms in diameter, and the circuits should be a few thousand angstroms across. Everybody who has analyzed the logical theory of computers has come to the conclusion that the possibilities of computers are very interesting---if they could be made to be more complicated by several orders of magnitude.

Feynman was attempting to get his colleagues to envision new contexts for scientific research, which he claimed "might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations".

I myself am more interested in how "strange phenomena" over time become commonplace, then once again strange after falling out of general use. What is the border between "strange" and "commonplace"? How exotic do we find the giant computers of Feynman's time, which were less powerful than a mobile telephone of today? How can we put ourselves into the shoes of Feynman's associates in understanding the "laws of nature"?

I work in a museum, with collections that might have been "everyday" objects earlier, but now can act as windows into how we interpret our world. For example, while leading a group of children through the museum depot several months ago, one child stopped and pointed to an old phonograph turntable from the 1950's, saying "My grandmother has one of these. It plays black CDs." Had the children been a bit older, I might have stopped and discussed the difference between the encoding of music in a record groove and that of digital media. But as it was, the child's statement was a fine analogical interpretation of the phonograph: You put on a disk, which turns around and plays music. Just like a CD player.

The world is full of strange phenomena occurring in complex situations. The task of the museum is to remove some of that strangeness, and provide tools for understanding complexity.

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