Idiosyncrasies of Some Great Scientists – By M. Gill

Idiosyncrasies of Some Great Scientists

Idiosyncrasies of Some Great Scientists

Idiosyncrasies of Some Great Scientists – By M. Gill

Alan Turing is considered to be the father of the theory of modern computers. His paper on Computable Numbers was published about the same time (in 1930s) as Alonzo Church’s paper on Lambda Calculus; both of them dealt with computation of numbers. Turing’s paper directly addressed the feasibility

of making computing machines. Incidentally, Church was also the first one to call Turing’s conceptual artifact as the Turing machine.

Turing was a graduate student at King’s college, Cambridge University, when he wrote his paper. He showed it to his teacher, M.H.A. Newman, who was impressed and recommended him to work with Church for his Ph.D. Alonzo Church was an assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University

On arrival in Princeton, Turing couldn’t help noticing certain quirkiness of American speech. He remarked, “These Americans have various peculiarities in conversation which catch the ear somehow. Whenever you thank them for any thing, they say “you’re welcome.” I rather liked it at first, thinking I was welcome, but now I find it comes back like a ball thrown against a wall, and become positively apprehensive. Another habit they have is to make the sound described by authors as ‘Aha.’ They use it when they have no suitable reply to a remark, but think that silence could be rude.”

Professor Church was quite idiosyncratic in several ways. One of his students, Gian-Carlo Rota, described Church’s idiosyncrasies rather eloquently. He wrote, “He (Church) looked like a cross between a panda and a large owl. He spoke slowly in complete paragraphs which seemed to have been read out of a book, evenly and slowly enunciated, as by a talking machine. When interrupted, he would pause for an uncomfortably long period to recover the thread of the argument. He never made casual remarks: they did not belong in the baggage of formal logic (Church was the editor of Journal of Symbolic Logic). For example, he wouldn’t say: ‘It’s raining.’ Such a statement, taken in isolation, makes no sense….He would say instead, ‘I must postpone my departure for Nassau Street, in as much as it is raining, a fact which I can verify by looking out of the window’…He owned a sizable collection of science-fiction novels, most of which looked well thumbed. Each volume was mysteriously marked either with a circle or with a cross. Corrections to wrong page numberings in the table of contents had been penciled into several volumes…Every lecture began with a ten-minute ceremony of erasing the blackboard until it was spotless. We tried to save him the effort by erasing the board before his arrival, but to no avail. The ritual could not be disposed of; often it required water, soap, and brush, and was followed by another ten minutes of total silence while the blackboard was drying. Perhaps he was preparing the lecture while erasing; I don’t think so. His lectures hardly needed any preparation. They were a literal repetition of the type-written text he had written over a period of twenty years, a copy of which was to be found upstairs in the Fine Hall library.”

The reference to rain (weather) reminds me of another great scientist, Paul Dirac. Dirac was quite shy and a man of few words. Timothy Ferris observed about him that he was so laconic that the ‘people who met him thought him rude.” He also wrote, “My (Dirac’s) father made the rule that I should only talk to him in French. He thought it would be good for me to learn French in that way. Since I found that I couldn’t express myself in French, it was better for me to stay silent than to talk in English. So I became very silent at that time.” However, the hesitation lasted a life time. Sadly, when his father died, he felt relieved and liberated. He didn’t express any feelings of grief or sorrow.

Jagdish Mehra described an anecdote about Dirac’s meticulousness about being accurate, based on his first meeting with him. He wrote, “We sat down. The weather was very bad, and since in England it is always quite respectable to start a conversation with the weather, I said to Dirac, “It is very windy, Professor.” He said nothing at all, and a few seconds later he got up and left. I was mortified, as I thought that I had somehow offended him. He went to the door, opened it, looked out, came back, sat down, and said, ‘Yes’.”

According to Timothy Ferris, “Dirac spoke so precisely and carefully that he approached the Delphic; when he taught quantum mechanics, he stood behind the podium and read to the class from the book he had written on the subject, believing that he had set down his point of view there as well as he could.”

Wolfgang Pauli said of him, “Dirac has a new religion – There is no God and Dirac is the prophet of God.”

Mathematics and science have become so very complex that the practitioners of these disciplines are usually held in great awe by the common people. Although they live in this world, they somehow belong to another one. It is such idiosyncrasies and odd behavior which make them ‘human’ and affable to common people. When you think of Einstein, the picture of an unkempt shock of hair on the head of a mustached elderly man emerges in your mind.

Richard Feynman was considered to be the greatest scientist of the twentieth century after Einstein. He contributed to quantum mechanics fundamentally. He showed the way out of the problem of infinities that had marred quantum mechanics. Schwinger and Tomonaga found the same method (renormalization) using purely mathematical techniques which was more difficult to use than Feynman’s method. Three of them shared the Nobel Prize for their work. Feynman led the way to nanotechnology and the theoretical development of quantum computers (There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, lecture to the American Physical Society, December 29, 1959) among his numerous other contributions. In addition to his contributions to physics, Feynman is fondly remembered for the lighter and human side of his life.

His first wife, Arline Greenbaum, died of TB. He knew she had TB before he married her against the wishes of his parents. His explanation was simple; he was in love with her and he wanted to take care of her. He married her but did not consummate his marriage right away considering her condition. When they traveled to Los Alamos from Princeton for his assignment on the Manhattan Project, they booked a private suite on the train, “treating the long cross-country ride as a holiday. Arline had hoped that it might also be something of a honeymoon – as yet, the marriage had not been consummated, partly through lack of opportunity, partly through fear of the effect on Arline’s health, and the possibility of Richard’s becoming infected with TB. But it seems nothing came of these hopes,” (Richard Feynman – A Life inScience, by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, pp. 93-94).

But they did consummate their marriage toward Arline’s end of life. According to Gribbins, “..they at last, at Arline’s instigation, made love. It was a last stand against the inevitable, perhaps Arline’s desperate attempt to leave Richard with the child that they both yearned for, even if she could not stay with him herself. She missed her next period, and was overjoyed at the prospect of being pregnant. But she was not; it was another symptom of her illness.”

At Los Alamos, besides his prominent contributions to the project, which impressed every one including Bethe, under whom Feynman worked, and Oppenheimer, the project director, he was known as an expert safe-cracker and lock picker in addition to other pranks. He had arduously developed his method of decoding the safe locks and could open them quite easily. He described in his essay “Los Alamos from Below” (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman, pp. 93-94) how colleagues would come to him for help. He wrote, “So, I got an excellent reputation for safe cracking. They would say to me, ‘Mr. Schmultz is out of town, we need a document from his safe. Can you open it?’ Yes, I can open it; I have to go and get my tools (I don’t need any tools). I go to my office and I’d look at the numbers of his safe. I had the last two numbers. I had everybody’s safe numbers in my office. I put a screw driver in my back pocket, to account for the tool I claimed I needed. I go to the room and I would close the door. The attitude is that this business is about how you open safes is not something that everybody should know because it makes everything unsafe;…So I close the door and then I sit down and I read a magazine, or do something. I’d average 20 minutes of doing nothing, and then I’d open it…And then I’d come out, you know sweating a bit and say, “It’s open. There you are, and so forth..” (Feynman was also known for his sloppy composition.)

The day Feynman died, the students at Caltech (He retired from Caltech) hung a banner across the 11-storey building on the campus. The message on the banner read: “WE LOVE YOU DICK.”

Ernst Rutherford was the greatest experimental scientist after Faraday or probably even bigger than him. He was a vain man in a rather charming way. According to C.P. Snow, “He was a great man, a very great man, by any standards which we can apply. He was not subtle: but he was clever as well as creatively gifted, magnanimous (within the human limits) as well as hearty. He was also superbly and magnificently vain as well as wise….

It was also part of his nature that, quite without acting, he should behave constantly as though he were 10 percent larger than life.” He always brimmed with self-assuredness and self-importance. He once said in a speech, “As I was standing in the drawing room at Trinity, a clergyman came in. And I said to him: ‘I’m Lord Rutherford.’ And he said to me: ‘I’m the Archbishop of York.’ And I don’t suppose either of us believed the other.”

He disdained theory and held the theoretical physicists in low esteem. When Dirac’s prediction of the existence of positron (anti-electron) was experimentally verified, he remarked that he “would find it more to [his] liking if the theory had appeared after the experimental facts were established.” He was also mortified when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry and not in physics. He thought chemistry was not as elegant a science as physics is.

Kurt Godel, the great Austrian logician (of the fame of the problem of completeness and consistency of mathematics), starved himself to death. In his later life, he suffered bouts of mental illness and developed a paranoia of refrigerators and radiators He was convinced that “unnamed strangers were trying to poison him.” So, he refused to eat and died of starvation.

I started this article with Alan Turing; fittingly, I close it with him regarding his work and general relationship with Alonzo Church at Princeton.

Turing’s Computable Numbers outshone and eclipsed, in due time, Church’s Lambda Calculus. Even in 1930s, Godel preferred Computable Numbers to Lambda Calculus (Turing never met Godel even when they were contemporary at Princeton), which may have caused some bitterness in Church’s mind. In May 1984, William Aspray interviewed Church and during the course of interview, asked him about his graduate students. He mentioned all of them excepting Turing (How was it possible to forget Turing? He had attained a permanent position in the history of computer science by then.). Then Aspray asked him specifically: “Did you direct Alan Turing’s thesis?” Church replied, “Well, he was at Princeton, but not only under my supervision, because, of course, he had worked with M.H.A. Newman in England. It was while he was working with Newman that his truly original ideas came out.” Church further elaborated his omission of Turing’s name from his students. He said, “Yes, I forgot about him when I was speaking about my own graduate students. Truth is, he was not really mine. He came to Princeton as a graduate student and wrote his dissertation there. This was his paper about ordinal numbers.”

Any professor would have been proud to own Alan Turing as his student – but not Alonzo Church.



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