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longitude

So I’ve been reading Longitude, about the 17th century search for a reliable way to navigate the seas, and I’ve been having some thoughts.

Looking back on some of the things they did for recognition back then, it all seems so ... easy. Charting 300 stars of the southern hemisphere got Edmund Halley into the Royal Society. And I thought, “It hardly seems fair.”

Then I got to thinking... I bet there’s a lot of work being done right now that will seem that way someday, just the same. The key is figuring out what the next big thing is, basically.

And I decided that I’m going to start reading up on quantum computing, finding out as much as I can about what is going on there... Get into the algorithms, and all of the weird physics involved (maybe more the algorithms than the physics), and just play around with it in my free time. This, too, fits into my theory that the high standard of living in the US is here to serve a purpose, to make it possible for us to do things to make the rest of the world better. Almost all the academics back then were like Christiaan Huygens, “the landed son of a Dutch diplomat”. And the US is a country full of such privileged people, in the context of the rest of the world.

Time to pull my weight...

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
jadia
Mar. 3rd, 2003 07:29 am (UTC)
Mmm, quantum computing. I get the sense it's not going to happen anytime soon, as far as the physics is concerned, but it's certainly an interesting topic. Though, it's really impossible to really predict the time-scale of something as different as quantum computing.

I was thinking the same thing about how they ancients had it "easy", since I was thinking of what I needed to do for my thesis. But maybe back then, charting 300 stars was difficult. They didn't have the support infrastructure we have now for building instruments and tools. Schools were very different - they mostly taught classics instead of practical math/science. Plus, a lot of the mathematical tools we have now they didn't have - in the 17th century, calculus was just being invented.
fyfer
Mar. 3rd, 2003 10:34 am (UTC)
Also, to map the stars in the southern hemisphere, he may have needed to go on extensive, dangerous ocean voyages. A lot of science back then involved a pretty high risk of death. I don't know that his research required that, but I would be sort of surprised if he could just go to, say, northern Africa and map them all there. It may have taken years of voyages.

Some Americans may have the resources to sit around playing with academic questions, but not all do, and I wouldn't assume that other first (or second) world countries are less good at it... I know what you mean, but it sounds a little bit like you're saying we're superior to anywhere else in our ability to do science. (We may have more money available for big science than a lot of Western European countries, but they do a huge amount of really top work.)

I thought that book was great. :)
gorgo
Mar. 3rd, 2003 03:44 pm (UTC)
Hey there. Not to blow my own horn, but you might be interested in the web site for a course I taught last year on unconventional computing (www.crhc.uiuc.edu/ece497nc) or a workshop I co-organized on non-silicon computing (www.crhc.uiuc.edu/nsc). The course outline links to some good basic papers on quantum stuff, and I think we had a relevant paper or two at the workshop, but I'm not sure.
crs
Mar. 3rd, 2003 04:07 pm (UTC)
You are so my hero right now. Wow.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )