Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World was one of the best books I’ve read in years, so as soon as I heard Labatut had written a book about John von Neumann, I pre-ordered it.
I didn’t enjoy The MANIAC nearly as much as I did Labatut’s other book, but it is still certainly worth a read – especially if you’re inclined to have concerns about the existential risks of technology.
Notes and quotes…
169 In truth he still had time, perhaps too much of it, and when he arrived at the train station and sat down to wait, he felt a sudden urge to turn back, to return to his friend’s house, or to his own home, to escape to any moment other than the present. As he looked at the clockface on the opposing side of the rails, its hands appeared to stop and stick in place. Paul closed his eyes and could almost see the gears frozen inside the mechanism; when he was a child, his grandmother, the old woman who had given him the love and attention that his father had denied him, would hand him a chest full of broken clocks when he came to visit her, discards from a shop that had gone out of business, and Paul, that thin, nervous, polite, and inquisitive little boy, would spend the whole afternoon playing with cogs, springs, and coils, trying to put them back together again, a game he endlessly enjoyed, even though he never succeeded in repairing a single one. Those few blissful days stuck out in his memory and gnawed at him like fleas on a dog, each one an example of an irreversible process, little windows through which he could see his former self sketching out the floor plan of his family’s apartment after his older brother, Arthur, who seemed to know everything there was to know about the world, showed him how to do so, in the winter of 1896, when he was the same age that Vassily, poor little Wassik, poor little crawlikins, was now, an age when Paul had gone through his “calendar craze,” collecting all the almanacs, yearbooks, and calendars that he could lay his hands on, or drawing them himself on pieces of scrap paper and food wrappers, arranging the days in neat rows, flicking the corners of the pages to make the months and years pass by in fractions of a second, time flowing on and on and on, in a never-ending series that reminded him of “Chad Gadya,” the Passover song he was taught by the rabbis in school, one he would sing to himself in the many nights during which sleep felt like something that only others could enjoy, a nursery rhyme that tells the story of a father who buys a young goat for two farthings, but then the kid—who the wise men said represented Israel in its purest, most innocent state—is killed by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is wounded by a stick, which is burned by fire, which is quenched by water, which is drunk by an ox, which is slaughtered by a man, in an unbroken chain of cause and effect, sin and penance, crime and punishment, that reaches all the way to heaven, where the Mighty Lord himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, smites the angel of death, establishing the Kingdom of God, a rhyme the true meaning of which Paul had never been able to understand till then, when the hands on the clock started moving again and he felt shaken, strangely chilled, as he checked his pocket to make sure it was still there, afraid, or perhaps hoping, that his ticket had been lost somewhere along the way; but it was there, all things were in their place, exactly where they should be, waiting for the train to arrive, now, now, now, at any moment now, even though he could not hear it, could not feel its faint rumbling in the distance, he still knew that it would come, there was no way of stopping it, in fact it had just arrived, he could see it rolling slowly into the platform, smoke billowing all around him as the whistle shrieked, but even then he still had time to turn back, the dog, the stick, to stand, take stride, the cat, the angel of death, and walk away, he still had time, and yet he stood, machinelike, propelled by a force he neither recognized nor understood, and took five steps with his legs as stiff as an automaton’s, to board the wagon and take his place among the rest.
623 People now think, looking back at what we did, that we were all monsters and madmen, because how could we bring forth those demons into the world, how could we play around with such terrible forces, forces that could very well wipe us from the face of the Earth, or send us back to a time before reason, when the only fire we knew was sparked by the lightning that angry gods hurled down at us as we trembled in our caves. A dirty little secret that almost all of us share, but that hardly anyone speaks aloud, is that what drew us in, what made us fashion those weapons, was not the desire for power or wealth, fame, or glory, but the sheer thrill of the science involved. It was too much to resist. The extremities of pressure and temperature created by the nuclear chain reaction, the rarefied physics, the colossal release of energy … it was unlike anything we had ever known. The hydro-dynamics of the shock and blast waves, or that awesome light that almost blinded us, had never been seen before by human eyes. We were discovering something that not even God had created before us. Because those conditions hadn’t existed elsewhere in the universe; fission is commonplace in the heart of stars or massive celestial engines, but we achieved it inside a little sphere of metal, just a meter and a half in diameter, holding an even tinier core of just six kilograms of plutonium nestled within. It still amazes me that we could do something like that. So it wasn’t just the frantic race to beat the Nazis (and later the Russians, and then the Chinese, and so on and so forth till the world’s end), it was the joy of thinking the unthinkable and doing the impossible, pushing past all human limits by burning Prometheus’s gift to its utmost incandescence.
1162 But I peeked into his notebooks whenever I could.
◊ Make life difficult, but not impossible.
◊ Large number of symbioorganisms arise by chance in few seconds; in matter of minutes all biophenomena can be observed.
◊ Embryonic universe plagued by parasites.
◊ Within a hundred generations, a single primitive variety of symbioorganism invaded the whole universe.
◊ Last surviving organism was a parasite; died of starvation when deprived of host.
1415 The rest of that afternoon is a daze in my memory. I only half remember what I did and what I thought, because everything is colored by my anger and the enormous pain I felt afterward. At first, still slightly in shock, I tried to focus on my own work. I’d brought home the Monte Carlo codes I was supposed to prepare for one of the big weather calculations that were running on the MANIAC. That had been Johnny’s former obsession: numerical weather prediction was one of the most—if not the most—complex, interactive, and highly nonlinear problems that our species had ever tackled, and, precisely because of that, it was completely irresistible to him. All modern weather forecasts owe a debt to the early investigations that my Johnny prompted, but his ambitions were as hyperbolic as ever: he was not simply interested in foreseeing when and where it would rain, he was after what he called the “forever forecast,” an understanding of the weather so mathematically rigorous that we would be capable not only of predicting storms, typhoons, and hurricanes, but of actually controlling them. This possibility enticed the vultures that were always circling above his head, waiting to devour the remains of his kills. And it really was no surprise at all; in the first out-line he wrote for the Navy, he clearly pointed out the enormous military advantages of accurate weather predictions, and even appended a cover letter that, rather coyly, explained that “the mathematical problem of predicting weather is one which can be tackled, and should be tackled, since the most conspicuous meteorological phenomena originate in unstable situations which could be controlled, or at least directed, by the release of perfectly practical amounts of energy.” What he did not say outright—even though it was, nevertheless, clearly understood—was that those “perfectly practical amounts of energy” would be provided by nuclear bombs. His awful rationale went something like this: if weather was sufficiently understood, and we saw a hurricane heading toward the US coast, we could use a thermonuclear explosion at high altitude to divert its path before it touched land. But that paved the way toward a terrifying scenario, since, as he warned in that very first outline, even the most constructive schemes for climate control would have to be based on insights and techniques that would also lend themselves to forms of warfare as yet unimagined; a weather war that would make Zeus’s lightning bolts seem as innocent and harmless as the projectiles fired by a teenager’s BB gun. My husband believed that whoever understood the weather would gain access to a source of power that exceeded that of the most gargantuan nuclear arsenal, because a single average-sized hurricane delivers more energy than ten thousand atomic bombs. His optimism regarding the possibility that we could accurately predict the weather was entirely based on the capabilities provided by computers such as his MANIAC: “All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable, we shall control,” he said, and I, for one, believed him, because I’d never seen him be wrong about anything else before. It later turned out that weather systems are so fundamentally chaotic that even the most advanced weather models are merely speculative beyond a couple of weeks, and become quite useless in the long term. So Johnny’s dream of a “forever forecast” and of titanic climate weapons was hopeless from the start. But neither I nor anyone else knew that for sure in the midfifties, so when I sat down to work on the Monte Carlo codes that I had to feed into the computer the very next day, all of those images of weather war were storming around inside my head, and I found it completely impossible to make any headway. I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach, a sharp prick of guilt, an uncontrollable feeling of personal responsibility, no matter how small my role was in the entire enterprise, that ate away at me just thinking about what the world would look like if my husband succeeded. Because I could never be as rational or practical as he was. To me, it was clear that our species should not wield power over the weather and the climate, but to him, the only important question was not if we should control the weather but who would be sitting behind the controls. So it’s no wonder that I did not manage to stay still for more than half an hour, though I dared not give up, at least not so easily, since I knew that as soon as I let my mind come back to the present, I would have to deal with the murder of my elephant and the rage that was bubbling up inside me, so I made a last-ditch attempt and tried to work on my autobiography, a secret project that I had not even told Johnny about, but I soon tore up the half page I was capable of writing, made peace with my anger, and went downstairs to the kitchen, where I stood sweating before the open refrigerator door, grabbed some ice, and poured myself a drink, and then another, and then another, and it was midway down that third glass of whiskey, as I watched the hands of the kitchen clock slowly marching ahead and the ice cubes bleeding into my drink, that I came up with the most absurd plan, which I followed through on nonetheless, even though I knew—I somehow knew—exactly what the consequences would be.
1446 “Gods are a biological necessity,” he said to me on a particularly warm night at his home in Georgetown, during that last summer when he could still get around on crutches, “as integral to our species as language or opposable thumbs.” According to Jancsi, faith had afforded the primeval peoples of the world a source of strength, power, and meaning that modern man lacked completely; and it was this lack, this profound loss, that now had to be addressed by science. “We have no guiding star,” he told me, “nothing to look up or aspire to, so we are devolving, falling back into animality, losing the very thing that has let us advance so far beyond what was originally intended for us.” Jancsi thought that if our species was to survive the twentieth century, we needed to fill the void left by the departure of the gods, and the one and only candidate that could achieve this strange, esoteric transformation was technology; our ever-expanding technical knowledge was the only thing that separated us from our forefathers, since in morals, philosophy, and general thought, we were no better (indeed, we were much, much worse) than the Greeks, the Vedic people, or the small nomadic tribes that still clung to nature as the sole granter of grace and the true measure of existence. We had stagnated in every other sense. We were stunted in all arts except for one, techne, where our wisdom had become so pro-found and dangerous that it would have made the Titans that terrorized the Earth cower in fear, and the ancient lords of the woods seem as puny as sprites and as quaint as pixies. Their world was gone. So now science and technology would have to provide us with a higher version of ourselves, an image of what we could become. Civilization had progressed to a point where the affairs of our species could no longer be entrusted safely to our own hands; we needed something other, something more. In the long run, for us to have the slimmest chance, we had to find some way of reaching beyond us, looking past the limits of our logic, language, and thought, to find solutions to the many problems that we would undoubtedly face as our dominion spread over the entire planet, and, soon enough, much farther still, all the way to the stars.
1527 He had always been pessimistic about the future, and about mankind in general, but as his disease took hold of him it was as if a black hand began to cloud all his thoughts, tinting his outlook and judgment in the darkest possible light. The nearness of death, the undeniable fact of his own mortality, took him past despair and pushed him beyond logic. By the end, he was looking toward a future so shadowy, and envisioning such macabre scenarios, that he fell silent and refused to share his thoughts with anybody. In his final letter to me, he spoke of an essential phase-change that was rushing forward to meet us: “The present awful possibilities of nuclear warfare may give way to others even more dreadful. Literally and figuratively, we are running out of room. At long last, we begin to feel the effects of the finite, actual size of the Earth in a critical way. This is the maturing crisis of technology. In the years between now and the beginning of the next century, the global crisis will probably develop far beyond all earlier patterns. When or how it will end—or to what state of affairs it will yield—nobody can say. It is a very small comfort to think that the interests of humanity might one day change, the present curiosity in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind. Technology, after all, is a human excretion, and should not be considered as something Other. It is a part of us, just like the web is part of the spider. However, it seems that the ever-accelerating progress of technology gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity, a tipping point in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them cannot continue. Progress will become incomprehensibly rapid and complicated. Technological power as such is always an ambivalent achievement, and science is neutral all through, providing only means of control applicable to any purpose, and indifferent to all. It is not the particularly perverse destructiveness of one specific invention that creates danger. The danger is intrinsic. For progress there is no cure.”
- Read The MANIAC by Benjamin Labatut