A pile of Richard Feynman detritus sold recently at Sotheby’s.1 In total, the 44 lots of Feynman’s stuff fetched $3,796,625, most of it paid for Feynman’s Nobel Prize.2 While I remain puzzled by the desire to own souvenirs from some famous scientist, I am truly baffled by the fact that somebody paid $60,000 for Feynman’s damaged tambourine.
An 11 inch diameter Pandeiro, wood, metal, and goat skin. Skin torn from use. Signed by Richard Feynman: “R.P. FEYNMAN. HOTEL MIRAMAR / COPACABANA, RIO.”
This object can have only reverential use or be assumed to confer on the new owner some reflected authority, in the way a saint’s finger or skull or whatever conferred authority on the church or family that possessed it. I imagine Feynman’s tambourine will look lovely sitting on some altar in its own reliquary:
Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president. I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.
In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:
[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….
[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…
[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.
Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:
Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.
Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.
But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”
I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….
I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters. And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:
All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.
If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.
Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected. ↩
West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president. ↩
I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president. ↩
The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West. ↩
Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges). ↩
I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit. ↩
Wandering through Trader Joe’s this morning, I stumbled across an excellent and under explored career for historians of science: marketing and advertising.
Picking up some snacks, I noticed the Cheddar Rocket Crackers. In typical Trader Joe’s fashion, the package combined a bit of a goofy aesthetic with retro images.
Brilliant! Why, I thought, not use other history of science related themes to sell products. I glanced in my basket and noticed a perfect candidate for some history of science. Trader Joe’s, you’ve totally missed an opportunity with your Half Moon Cookies.
You should label them Galilean Moon Cookies. I’ve corrected your packaging to help you see what this should look like and so you understand that it is a better name for these cookies.
Feel free to contact me, Trader Joe’s, if you want me to explain how other products would benefit from a history of science makeover, e.g., your Electric Buzz Coffee Cups are crying out for some history of science attention.
I recently stumbled across this spec Doritos™ commercial David Ward made a six years ago. Really well done adaptations of the alchemist motif.
You gotta love the list of ingredients (also, not listed, Unicorn tears):
Staff of Anubis
Moon Rock Salt
Bag of Holding
Sense of Wonder
Rings of a Tree
Smell of Morning
In case you missed it, the world has a new largest prime number called M77232917:
46733318335923109998833558556111552125132110281771449579858233859356792348052117720748431109974020884962136809003804931724836 … and on and on and on for another 23,249,300 digits.
That number is unimaginably large. It is so large that even analogies meant to help us wrap our minds around it are nearly unimaginable. Who can imagine a number that takes up 9,000 pages? Or imagine a number that stretches 73 miles? Or imagine writing 5 digits per second for 54 days? Such are the ways mersenne.org tries to describe the number. (I might add, parenthetically, mersenne.org has the nicest website 1996 can buy).
The history of prime numbers in general is fascinating as is the history of Mersenne primes in particular. But I will save those for another post. Here I just want to draw attention to how the newly recognized prime status of this number has been noted in the press. In particular, I’m intrigued by how different reports apportion credit for the “discovery” and how they describe Jon Pace, whose computer first identified the number as prime.
The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) has discovered the largest known prime number, 277,232,917–1, having 23,249,425 digits. A computer volunteered by Jonathan Pace made the find on December 26, 2017. Jonathan is one of thousands of volunteers using free GIMPS software available at www.mersenne.org/download/ … GIMPS, founded in 1996, has discovered the last 16 Mersenne primes.
Make no mistake, GIMPS discovered this latest prime, along with the previous 16 Mersenne primes. And although Jon Pace installed and ran the software on his computer, the result had to be checked by four other people who also deserve credit. Oh, and credit goes to all the people who didn’t find a prime. Credit for the discovery, in this version, echoes the distributed nature of the labor but reserves pride of place for the GIMPS software and its developer:
GIMPS Prime95 client software was developed by founder George Woltman. Scott Kurowski wrote the PrimeNet system software that coordinates GIMPS’ computers. Aaron Blosser is now the system administrator, upgrading and maintaining PrimeNet as needed. …
Credit for this prime goes not only to Jonathan Pace for running the Prime95 software, Woltman for writing the software, Kurowski and Blosser for their work on the Primenet server, but also the thousands of GIMPS volunteers that sifted through millions of non-prime candidates. In recognition of all the above people, official credit for this discovery goes to “J. Pace, G. Woltman, S. Kurowski, A. Blosser, et al.”
Thanks for the CPU cycles and paying for the electricity to run your computer, Jon. But don’t feel slighted, GIMPS tends to celebrate its software over the people donating the computer time.
Who is this Jon Pace, well GIMPS say simply “Jonathan Pace is a 51-year old Electrical Engineer living in Germantown, Tennessee.” A nice, reasonable, scientific sounding person.
This past week, a FedEx employee from Germantown, Tenn., made a massive discovery — and it wasn’t in any packages. John Pace found the largest prime number known to humankind. …
Pace found his prime as part of an online collective called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS. Pace and thousands of volunteers ran software on their personal computers crunching numbers day-in and day-out.
In this version, Pace discovered the prime and, moreover, its “his prime” (later the article refers to it as “Pace’s prime”). Not only is Pace the only one to get credit for the discovery, he is no longer an electrical engineer. Instead, he’s a FedEx employee. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. I am not suggesting they are. I am, rather, drawing attention to the fact that in the NPR version Pace’s primary marker of identity is his status as a FedEx employee whereas in the GIMPS post his primary identity is as an electrical engineer.
What does change in this version is Pace’s identity. Now he’s not only a FedEx employee—“a flight operations finance manager with the Memphis-based delivery behemoth”— but also a deacon at his church, the Germantown Church of Christ where he does, among other things, IT support. He installed the GIMPS software on one of the computers at the church.
A prime number discovery in December was made in the unlikeliest of places: on a church computer in a Memphis suburb.…
But for this behemoth to come to light, someone had to have installed free software used to search for Mersenne prime numbers, and that someone is Jon Pace, a deacon, FedEx finance manager and math aficionado who had spent 14 years hunting for such a number.
According to the article, Pace is prouder of “the 20 years [he has] served as deacon at Germantown” than of discovering the new prime number.
Discovery appears to be a rather slippery concept. What does it mean to discover a prime number? In what sense do numbers exist or not exist before we write them down? Surely nobody is suggesting the number 277,232,917–1 was discovered. But its primeness was discovered, or perhaps realized. In this case, discovery seems to be rather traditional, like discovering gold or the New World. Something pre-existed in some way before a human stumbled into it, but the identity, characteristics, and value of that something had to be recognized before we could talk about it and apportion credit. Here we see GIMPS asserting credit for the “discovery” whereas NPR or the NY Times are perfectly happy to give Pace the credit. Credit for the discovery is ambiguously related to labor—GIMPS thinks the intellectual labor that created the software more important than the volunteer labor (and donated electricity and other operating expenses); the NY Times thinks the human who owns the donated computer and pays to operate it more important.
And what about that human, in this case Jon Pace? GIMPS emphasizes Pace’s identity as an electrical engineer, though electrical engineering is only one part of his identity—along with his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering he has an M.B.A., is a flight operations finance manager, and is a deacon at his church. And according to the NY Times, he is most proud of being a deacon. How is Pace’s reported identity related to the values different organizations hold? How does Pace’s identity as an electrical engineer reinforce the image that GIMPS wants to project? Why does Popular Science and the NY Times draw attention to Pace’s identity as a deacon in a church? I don’t believe that GIMPS didn’t know Pace was a deacon, though they chose not to acknowledge that aspect of his identity. The NY Times, by contrast and somewhat surprisingly to me, chose to draw attention to Pace’s work as a deacon at his church.
Discovery, it turns out, is pretty difficult to pin down.
I suspect most people can identify cities that are roughly 73 miles apart but have no concept of what that distance actually is (FYI, it’s about 73 miles from Haverford College to the New Jersey shore, e.g., Ocean City). Now remove the bookending cities and challenge people to think about 73 miles of highway stretching through undulating grasslands or through the desert—suddenly the distance becomes meaningless. And how are we supposed to relate to 73 miles? A person walking will have a very different relationship to that distance than a person who thinks of driving it. ↩
And yes, that tortured expression, “newly recognized prime status” was intentional, an effort to avoid words like “discovered” and “found,” and an effort to draw attention to what strikes me as interestingly new here, i.e., our recognition that this number has a set of features that we call prime. ↩
I confess, I have no idea what a flight operations finance manager is. Flight operations manager I can imagine. Finance manager again makes sense. The two together, however, confuse me. ↩