Chip daddy Mead: 'A bunch of big egos' are strangling science
The scientific revolution has stalled, here's how to kickstart it
ISSCC Microelectronics pioneer, Caltech professor emeritus, and all-around smart guy Carver Mead believes that the scientific revolution that began with the discovery of special relativity and quantum mechanics has stalled, and that it's up to us to kickstart it.
"A bunch of big egos got in the way," he told his audience of 3,000-plus chipheads at the International Soild-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco on Monday.
Much more work needs to be done to restart that revolution, Mead said, with the goal of explaining in an intuitive way how all matter in the universe relates to and affects all other matter, and how to explore those interrelationships in a way that isn't "buried in enormous piles of obscure mathematics."
If you're not familiar with Mead, you should be. Now 78, he received the National Medal of Technology in 2003, cited for his "pioneering contributions to the microelectronics field, that include spearheading the development of tools and techniques for modern integrated-circuit design, laying the foundation for fabless semiconductor companies, catalyzing the electronic-design automation field, training generations of engineers that have made the United States the world leader in microelectronics technology, and founding more than 20 companies including Actel Corporation, Silicon Compilers, Synaptics, and Sonic Innovations."
Those credentials have earned Mead the right to be listened to — although he'd be the first to argue that mere credentials and achievements don't guarantee intelligent thought. In fact, they can cause intellectual ossification.
To illistrate that point, Mead told the story of how Charles Townes, the inventor of the laser and maser, took his ideas to the leading quantum-mechanics nabobs at the time, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.
"They both laughed at him, and basically said, 'Sonny, you just don't seem to understand how quantum mechanics works'," Mead told his ISSCC audience. "Well, history has shown that it wasn't Charlie who didn't know how quantum mechanics works, it was the pontifical experts in the field who didn't know how it worked."
Mead said that we're all taught that there was a revolution in scientific thought that started with relativity and quantum mechanics. "Actually, that's not the case," he said. "A revolution is when something goes clear around. And what happened starting in the first 25 years of the 20th century was that there was the beginning of a revolution, and it got stuck about a quarter of the way around."
A younger Carver Mead
And it remain stuck, he believes. "What we're living with today is a bunch of mysteries and misconceptions that came about partly because people couldn't imagine nature being as interesting as it really is, and partly because a bunch of big egos got in the way and wouldn't let the revolution proceed."
From Mead's point of view, the key to a more intuitive explanation of the universe lies in not only the interrelationships of matter and forces, but also a better understanding of the electron. "We need to treat the wave functions of our electrons as real wave functions," he said. "I have found personally that I had to go all the way back and reformulate the laws of electromagnetism, starting with the quantum nature of the electron as the foundation."
But it's those interrelationships that most fascinate Mead – that, and how the origins of science focussed not on a wide-ranging study of interrelationships, but rather on experimental isolation.
"Modern science started with an idea that was really given to us by Galileo," he said. "The idea was the isolated experiment. You took something and you very carefully sheltered from all the influences around, and then you were seeing the fundamental physics of that object."
That methodology, he said, served science well and led to tremendous advances. "But now it's holding us back from a deeper understanding of how the universe works."
A more holistic approach – if you'll forgive your humble Reg reporter from using that truly Californian term – was suggested by none other than the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. As Mead tells it, Mach "took Newton to task. He said, 'Look, your idea of absolute motion is a stupid idea. Motion can only have meaning when what it is that's moving is moving relative to other matter in the universe'."
Einstein, of course, was mightily influenced by what the ex–patent clerk called Mach's Principle, which Mead explained as the proposition that "the inertia of every element of matter is due to its interaction with all the other elements of matter in the universe."
We haven't fully followed that investigative road, Mead said. "Instead what we've done is we've treated isolated objects as if all their attributes were just given us, and [we] haven't asked where they came from," he said. "Things like the inertia of an object, the rest energy of an object, the velocity of light — all those things. We have a list of fundamental constants that we're not allowed to ask where they come from."
If we want to get that stalled 100-year-old revolution unstuck, Mead said, we've got to ask – and discover – where those constants come from, and not just believe in them as handed down by academics and buried in mountains of math. We need to discover their basis in the interactions and interrelationships of all matter in the universe.
"It's a mind-opening experience to think about physical law this way," Mead said. "I personally am spending the entire rest of my life doing that. When we're done with this revolution, we will have a way of thinking about the universe that's vastly more intuitive and vastly more inspiring."
In a conference stuffed with sessions bearing titles such as "A 2.5GHz 2.2mW/25μW On/Off-State Power 2psrms-Long-Term-Jitter Digital Clock Multiplier with 3-Reference-Cycles Power-On Time", Mead's musing were a welcome big-picture refresher. ®
Re: I am not happy
In fairness, there's nothing wrong with being a crank, as long as you appreciate that you are almost certainly *not* an undiscovered genius. (Equally, if you aren't a crank, you still almost certainly aren't an undiscovered genius. In fact, it's probably even less likely.)
If it isn't "obscure", it isn't on the leading edge. As you say, the "obscure mathematics" of the 1920s is now (after substantial cleaning up and selective editing) entirely mainstream and dished out to several million students per year. (Meanwhile, a lot of analytical mechanics that was totally mainstream in the early part of the century is now only taught in specialist courses. I doubt very many physics graduates have actually used the Hamilton-Jacobi equation in anger. I certainly haven't.) Most of today's obscure mathematics will remain obscure, but eventually some crank will churn out the right runes and six months later it will appear on a T-shirt.
In short, you get a Nobel prize for being a crank and then everyone else copies you.
Re: Mach's principle
Hmmmmm, so what about your own comment?
Reference for the "Brahmins put laser down" story, whereby experiments beat principles
Shortly after we built a second maser and showed that the frequency was indeed remarkably pure, I visited Denmark and saw Niels Bohr, the great physicist and pioneer in the development of quantum mechanics. As we were walking along the street together, he quite naturally asked what I was doing. I described the maser and its performance. “But that is not possible,” he exclaimed. I assured him it was. Similarly, at a cocktail party in Princeton, New Jersey, the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann asked what I was working on. After I told him about the maser and the purity of its frequency, he declared, “That can’t be right!” But it was, I replied, and told him it was already demonstrated.
Such protests were not offhand opinions concerning obscure aspects of physics; they came from the marrow of these men’s bones. These were objections founded on principle—the uncertainty principle. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a central tenet of quantum mechanics, among the core achievements during the phenomenal burst of creativity in physics during the first half of the twentieth century. It is as vital a pillar in quantum theory as are Newton’s laws in classical physics. (...)
To many physicists steeped in the uncertainty principle, the maser’s performance, at first blush, made no sense at all. Molecules spend so little time in the cavity of a maser, about one ten-thousandth of a second, that it seemed to those physicists impossible for the frequency of the radiation to also be narrowly confined. Yet that is exactly what we told them happened in the maser.
There is good reason, of course, that the uncertainty principle does not apply so simply here. The maser does not inform one about the energy or frequency of any specific, clearly identified molecule. When a molecule is stimulated to radiate (in contrast with being left to radiate spontaneously) it must produce exactly the same frequency as the stimulating radiation. In addition, the radiation in a maser oscillator represents the average of a large number of molecules working together. Each individual molecule remains anonymous, not accurately measured or tracked. The maser’s precision arises from principles that mollify the apparent demands of the uncertainty principle.
Engineers, whose practical tasks up to that time almost never brought them face to face with such esoterica as the uncertainty principle, never had a hard time with the precise frequency the maser produced. They dealt all the time with oscillators and cavities, based on a wide variety of physical phenomena, which produced rather precise frequencies. They accepted as a matter of course that a maser oscillator might do what it did. What they were not so familiar with was the idea of stimulated emission, which gave the maser its amplifying power. Birth of the maser required a combination of instincts and knowledge from both engineering and physics. Physicists working in microwave and radio spectroscopy, which demanded engineering as well as physics skills, seem to have had the necessary knowledge and experience to both appreciate and understand the maser immediately. Rabi and Kusch, themselves in a similar field, for this reason accepted the basic physics readily. But for some others, it was startling.