Information Theory: How the Genius of Claude Shannon Changed Our Lives By Thinking “Outside the Box”

Claude_Elwood_Shannon_(1916-2001)[1]Claude Shannon: have you ever heard the name? How about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin? Those three names are universally familiar to the general public even though all but a small segment of the population would find it difficult to elaborate significant details of the work that made them immortal in scientific history. In Shannon’s case, his name, his face, his genius, and his immense impact on our world are all virtually unknown, thus unappreciated, outside the realms of mathematics and electrical engineering. Claude Shannon is the “father of information/communication theory” and primarily responsible for the vast networks of computers, data processing, and mass communication that power modern society. It is my intention, here, to at least do minimal justice to his rightful legacy among the great minds of mathematics, science, and engineering.

Shannon’s contributions are numerous and varied, but a closer look reveals that the central theme of most of them are well characterized by his most famous of many publications over the years, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, which appeared in 1948. Most of Shannon’s published papers were issued under the imprimatur of the Bell (Telephone) Labs Technical Journal. Bell Labs had a long and illustrious run as an incredible incubator for many of the most important math, science, and engineering advancements in America during the twentieth century. Accordingly, many of the country’s top minds were associated with the Lab and its activities. Claude Shannon was one of them.

All Information Can Be Represented By Data 1’s and 0’s!

3653[1]Have you ever marveled at the fact that modern computers can store and reproduce any-and-all information – text, audio, color pictures, and movies – using only organized collections of data 1’s and 0’s? Think of it! A modern computer is little more than a collection of millions of microscopic electronic switches (think light switches) which reside either in an “on” state (a data 1) or an “off” state (a data 0). If that reality has never occurred to you, pause for a few moments and reflect on the enormity of the fact that anything and everything called “media” can be displayed on-command by calling-up organized collections of data 1’s and 0’s which reside in the bowels of your personal computer! In addition, the computer’s “logical intelligence” – its ability to respond to your commands – also resides in the machine’s memory bank in the form of data 1’s and 0’s. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Claude Shannon was among other computing pioneers who understood the possibilities emerging from the burgeoning progress of electronics. The notion of a binary (or two-state) number system in a computing device was evident as far back as the eighteen-thirties when Charles Babbage designed and built his first bulky, mechanical computing machines.

Today, in our everyday lives, we use the decimal number system which is inherently unsuited to computers because that number system requires each digit in a number representation to assume one of ten states, 0 thru 9. Modern computers are designed around the binary (or two-state) system in which each digit in a binary number assumes a value, or weight, of either one or zero. A simple light switch or an electronic relay (open or closed) are examples of simple, two-state devices which can be used to represent any single digit in a binary number. In actuality, the two-state devices in modern computers are implemented utilizing millions of microscopic, individual solid-state transistors which can be switched either “on” or “off.” The binary number system, requiring only simple two-state devices (or switches), is the optimal choice.

Shannon would be the first to admit that he was never motivated to change the world by the work he pursued. Nor was he motivated by any prospects of fame and fortune for his efforts. Rather, he was endlessly fascinated by the challenges inherent in pursuing theoretical possibilities, regardless of any possible practicality or profit stemming from his efforts. Claude Shannon’s persona had multiple facets: a genius, out-of-the-box thinker, an inveterate tinkerer and inventor of gadgets, a juggler (circus-type), and a devotee of the unicycle – a conveyance he both rode, designed, and built himself! This most unusual personality forged much of the “quiet legend” which surrounded the reclusive, mysterious Mr. Shannon. Even though he was a tinkerer and builder of “toys and gadgets,” he lived for and thrived on elevated ideas – creations of the mind. In many respects, he was much like Albert Einstein in his outlooks, his rampant curiosity, and his dogged persistence, all of which were on full display as Einstein tackled the mysteries of both special and general relativity.

The Most Important Master’s Degree Thesis Ever Submitted!

In 1937, Claude Shannon submitted a thesis for his master’s degree in electrical engineering at MIT. Normally, a master’s thesis proves to be significantly less impressive in terms of originality and impact than that required for a Phd. Shannon’s master’s thesis proved to be a startling exception to the rule – the first of many unorthodoxies that characterized his unusual career. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he had earned dual degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering. It was at Michigan that he learned the “new math” developed by the English mathematician George Boole and introduced to the scholarly community in 1854 under the title, An Investigation into the Laws of Thought, on Which Are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. This work was the most important contribution to emerge from the genius of Boole who died much too young from pneumonia at the age of forty-nine years.

Shannon's ThesisShannon was prescient enough to recognize that Boole’s algebraic treatment of the binary number system uncannily lent itself to the development of real-life logical systems (computers) which could be simply implemented using electrical relays – binary (two-state), on/off devices which had cost, space, power, and reliability issues, but which could nevertheless demonstrate computing principles in the nineteen-thirties and forties. In simplest terms, Shannon demonstrated in his master’s thesis that, using Boolean algebra and simple two-state electrical devices, a computer could be designed to “think logically” while processing and displaying stored information.

Shannon’s prescient recognition led to the characterization of his thesis as “The most important Master’s thesis ever written.” Indeed, Shannon opened the doors to a new and exciting vista, one that he vigorously explored while working at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, and later, at MIT.

Shannon Sets These Major Goals for Himself – No Small Tasks!

How do we define “information,” how do we quantify information, and how can we transmit information most efficiently and reliably through communication channels?

I suggest that the reader pause a moment and ponder the thin air in which Claude Shannon pursued his goals. How in the world does one define and quantify such an “airy” concept as “information?” 

Here are some examples, the easiest entry-point into Shannon’s methodology regarding the definition and quantification of information:

When we flip a coin, we receive one data-bit of information from the outcome, according to Shannon’s math! In this case, there are only two outcome possibilities, heads or tails – two “message” possibilities, if you will. Were we to represent “heads” as a binary data “1” and tails as a binary data “0”, we can visualize and quantify the outcome of the coin flip as the resulting state (“1” or “0”) of a single “binary digit” (or “bit”) of information gained in the process of flipping the coin. In Shannon’s world, the amount of information received would equal precisely one-bit of information in either case – heads or tails – because each case is equally probable, statistically. The final comment concerning probabilities is important.

Here is how probability/statistics enters into Shannon’s treatment of information: What would be the case if I had a bona-fide, accurate/true crystal ball at my disposal and I queried it, “Will I still be alive on my upcoming eighty-second birthday – yes or no?” There are only two possible predictions (or messages), but, in this case, the information content of the message conveyed is dependent on which outcome is provided. If the answer is yes, I will make it to my 82nd birthday, I receive (happily) lessthan one bit of information content because actuarial tables of longevity indicate that, statistically speaking, the odds are in my favor. If the answer is no, I (unhappily) receive more than one bit of information due to the probability that not reaching my next birthday is statistically less than 50/50. A message whose content reveals less likely outcomes conveys more information than a message affirming the more likely, predictable outcomes in Shannon’s mathematical model of information.

Here is a third example of Shannon’s system: Consider the case of rolling a single die with six different faces identified as “1” through “6.” There are six possible outcomes, each one having the equal probability of 1/6. According to Shannon’s mathematical model, the amount of information gained from a single roll of the die is 2.59 binary bits. The outcome of a single roll of a die carries 2.59 bits of information vs. only one bit of information from the single flip of a coin. Why is that? It is because any one of six equally likely possible outcomes is less likely to occur than either outcome of a coin flip which presents only two equally likely outcomes!

Lest you think that quantifying the information content of messages strictly on a statistical basis with no regard for the content of the message itself seems a silly bit of elite hair-splitting on the part of math/engineering crackpots, I can assure you that you are dreadfully mistaken for these and numerous other derivations and conclusions that sprang from the curious mind of Claude Shannon form the backbone of today’s trillion dollar computer and communication industries! Shannon and his information/communication theories, like Einstein and his relativity theories, has been proven correct by both time and actual practice. Because of both men, our world has been immensely altered.

A Good Stopping Point for This Journey into                                  Information/Communication Theory

At this point in the story of Claude Shannon and his information /communication theories, we approach the edge of a technical jungle, replete with a formidable underbrush of advanced mathematics, and this is as far as we should go, here. For those well-versed in mathematics and engineering, that jungle path is clearly marked with signposts signifying that “Shannon has passed this way and cleared the pathway of formidable obstacles: proceed…and marvel.” The pathway that Shannon forged guides fortunate, well-equipped adventurers through some deep and beautiful enclaves of human thought and accomplishment.

Claude Shannon was a remarkable original, an imaginative thinker and doer. Inevitably, great milestones in math, engineering, and science are not without some degree of precedence. In Shannon’s case, there was not much to build from, but there was some. Certainly, the Boolean algebra of George Boole was a gift. As mentioned earlier, Shannon’s first publication of his own findings, titled The Mathematical Theory of Communication, appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal of !948.

IMG_2500Hartley BSTJ 1928 Enhanced 21928 Nyquist Sampling_1

His paper was quickly published in book form in 1949 by the University of Illinois Press. In his paper, Shannon mentioned the earlier work of Ralph V. L. Hartley and Harry Nyquist, both earlier Bell Laboratory employees, like Shannon. Hartley published his prescient views on the nature of information in the Bell System Technical Journal, dated July 1928. His paper was titled, The Transmission of Information. Although rudimentary, the paper was original and set in motion ideas that led Shannon to his triumphant 1948 publication in the Bell Journal. In Nyquist’s case, in addition to discussions re: the importance of optimal coding for the efficient transmission of information in an earlier, 1924 issue, Nyquist published, in the August 1928 Bell Journal, his ground-breaking analysis of the minimum waveform sampling rate of an analog (continuous) signal necessary to accurately reconstruct the original waveform from stored digital data samples – as is routinely done, today. Nyquist’s famous sampling theorem provided the necessary “bridge” between the world of analog information and digital representations of analog data that was so necessary to make Shannon’s theories applicable to all formats containing information.

Two Crucially Important, Parallel Technology Upheavals Which Enabled Shannon’sTheories in the Real World

The first of these upheavals began with the announcement from Bell Labs of the solid-state transistor in 1948, ironically the same year that Bell Labs published Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Three Bell Labs researchers led by William Shockley won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for their work. The transistor was a remarkable achievement which signaled the end of the cumbersome, power-hungry vacuum tubes which powered electrical engineering since their introduction in 1904 by Lee de Forest. By1955, the ultimate promise of the tiny and energy-efficient transistor came into full view.

The second major technology upheaval began in 1958/59 when the integrated circuit was introduced by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and, independently, by a team under Robert Noyce at newly founded Fairchild Semiconductor, right here in adjacent Mountain View – part of today’s Silicon Valley. The Fairchild planar process of semiconductor fabrication signaled the unprecedented progress which quickly powered the computer revolution. Today, we have millions of microscopic transistors fabricated on one small silicon “chip” less than one inch square. The versatile transistor can act as an amplifier of analog signals and/or a very effective high-speed and reliable binary switch.

These two parallel revolutions complete the trilogy of events begun by Shannon which determined our path to this present age of mass computation and communication.

A Final Summation

My goal was to make you, the reader, cognizant of Claude Shannon and his impact on our world, a world often taken for granted by many who daily benefit immensely from his legacy. We have come a very long way from the worlds of the telegraph – Morse and Vail, and the telephone – Alexander Graham Bell, and radio – Marconi, and Armstrong. The mathematical theories and characterizations proposed by Claude Shannon have essentially all been proven sound; his conclusions regarding the mathematical theory of communication are amazingly applicable to all modes of communication – from the simple telegraph, to radio, to our vast cellular networks, and to deep-space satellite communication.

I respectfully suggest you keep a few things in mind, going forward:

-Your computer is what it is and does what is does in no small part thanks to Claude Shannon’s insightful genius.

-Your cell phone can connect you anywhere in the world thanks largely to Claude Shannon.

-The abiliity to store a two-hour movie in high-definition and full, living color on a digital compact disc called a DVD is directly due to Claude Shannon.

-The error-correction capability digitally encoded on CD’s and DVD’s which insure playback with no detectable effects even from a badly scratched disc is absolutely the result of Claude Shannon’s ground-breaking work on error-correcting digital codes.

-Your ability to encrypt the data on your computer hard drive so that it is impenetrable to anyone (even experts) who do not possess the decoding key is, yet again, a direct result of Claude Shannon’s cryptography efforts.

And, finally, we arrive at the most surprising fact of them all: how is it that virtually 90 per-cent of the world’s population has benefitted so immensely from the legacy of Claude Shannon, yet so few have even heard of him? Perhaps there are some lessons, here?

Kudos to Claude Shannon and all the other visionaries who made it happen.

The Laws of Nature: Indelible Fingerprints of the Creator/ Van Gogh and Albert Einstein

Preface to this post: The other day, I attended the traveling Van Gogh event, The Immersive Experience: Beyond Van Gogh, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Even more than his art, per-se, I was fascinated by his deep regard for nature and the natural landscapes which play such a large role in his paintings. Vincent’s humanity is well represented through the earlier, myriad portraits he painted of ordinary people in his life, yet his feelings and his art ultimately seem firmly rooted in the realm of nature. Letters to his brother Theo, which were part of the exhibit, portrayed a decidedly lost soul, searching. I could not help drawing a connection with one of science’s greatest masters – Albert Einstein. I know far more about Einstein and his science than I do about Van Gogh and his art, yet the vision of them both as vagabond masters of their trade searching for true meaning in this life and turning to nature and its infinite variety of wonders, looms large within my mind. Einstein was a world-class scientist and philosopher who saw a clear line of demarcation between human nature with all its foibles and the certainty of nature and natural law. What is it about nature that is so comforting emotionally to most of humanity, certainly to these two iconic figures?

Starry Night_2

Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most famous works. I look at this picture and I see, in blazing color, a peaceful village scene with its inhabitants readying themselves for another cold, dark night. But turbulent nature envelops all with a power and certainty that transcends all earthly comfort and uncertainty. For all his humanity, the artist is clearly in awe of the dominating force of nature and natural law, especially when contrasted with his awareness of human fragility.

 We Hunger for Truth and Certainty

Following that preface, I continue this post, this mini-essay, with a question that is especially pertinent to the discussion, especially in these present times of elusive truth and rampant dis-information: What can human beings know to be TRUE – absolutely and unassailably true?

-Some might answer that the “truth” we seek concerning our human existence and our destiny is contained in the Holy Bible and the scriptures.

-Others might maintain that the Creator has imbued mankind with a kind of moral compass which unfailingly denotes true-north – a hard-wired set of ethical and moral inclinations that distinguishes right from wrong complete with imbued conscience-prompts designed to keep us on true-course. The “golden rule” exhorting us to “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” would appear to be a prime example of advice based on moral “truth.”

-Still others may nominate Fox News, CNN, or social media as ultimate purveyors of the truth – LOUD, NEGATING BUZZER SOUND accompanied by announcer’s voice: “Thank you for playing, anyway!”

After thinking long and hard for many years about the question posed, above, I have formulated a singular answer which, in my mind, stands up to all scrutiny. Working backwards through the above-mentioned responses to that question:

-Fox News, CNN, social media and all other info-channels generated by the human mind and opinion has already been summarily dismissed by the buzzer as reliable purveyors of fact and truth. As with all such human endeavors, subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices and agendas inevitably skew the truth.

-As for an ingrained moral compass as an example of “truth” coming to us directly from a Creator, reasoning using extreme logical extensions proves the fallacy of this “truth” contention. Consider the ethical dilemma of the virtuous, but destitute, unemployed laborer who is reduced to stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving wife and child? When, if ever, does the end justify the means? Sometimes, moral reasoning cannot settle on either black or white. There is, often, a grey region at play. Insofar as the “golden rule” is concerned, we need look no further than mother nature, herself, who operates on the food-chain principle wherein many species devour each other (alive) in order to survive! Natural life is rough for all but those non-veggie species near the top of the food chain. I do believe in the positive influence of human conscience which seems somewhat hard-wired into our brains, however.

-How about the Good Book? Despite the predominantly solid advice that is found in the Bible and scripture for living a commendable and charitable life, faith will always be a necessary but insufficient requirement for accepting its teachings as absolute truth. Faith will be required given that the scriptures, as recorded, emanate from the minds and hands of human beings. Anyone can relate from their own life experiences: the telling and the re-telling of any initial truth soon becomes colored with individual prejudices, embellishments, and interpretations. Even if one considers the Bible as “divinely inspired,” human fingerprints are, nonetheless, all over it!

Is There any Absolute Truth on Which We Can Rely?

Two famous lives, Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Einstein provide clues to the answer. As already mentioned, my wife and I took our oldest daughter, Amy, and our granddaughter, Amanda, to see The Immersive Experience: Beyond Van Gogh which is playing in nearby San Jose. Despite a few initial reservations, we found it to be a thoroughly rewarding experience. While the multi-media projections of Van Gogh’s art were awesome, I exited the show feeling more affected by the various passages Van Gogh penned in letters to his brother, Theo, as Vincent struggled through bouts of insanity while trying to make even a meagre living selling his paintings. He, sadly, never realized his goal of public recognition for his bold and creative artistic expressions on canvas. For Vincent, life was a sad affair, by most accounts, but his innermost feelings and convictions about himself, about life, and about the world around him were, nevertheless, boldly and colorfully expressed in his letters and on canvas with an ebullient verve that belied his emotional turmoil.

Despite his inability to sell his artwork, Van Gogh prophesied, “I cannot help that my pictures do not sell. Nevertheless, the time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of the paint …”

Is it not incredible that his word should prove so prophetic? Any of his paintings sell for astronomical prices in today’s fine art auction houses – he is top-dog in today’s art collections. How can that be? I pondered that question in years past, all the while of the opinion that his art was quite rudimentary insofar as technique and execution in oils is concerned. I almost felt that I could have dashed out something similar – me, with no artistic talent, whatsoever. How to reconcile Van Gogh’s fame, today?

After sampling his letters to Theo at the exhibition, I came to better understand today’s interest in his art and the prices it commands. At the end of his short life of merely thirty-seven years, he had little left to live for save his emotional bond with nature and his desire to express that relationship. Having forsaken much along the way, even to the point of saying he “could even do without the dear lord,” he seemed to take his meagre solace in the natural world – its beauties and its mysteries. I learned he had been a religious minister earlier in life, quite dedicated to his church and its teachings. At the end, before he took his life, the only truth left for him seemed manifest in his surroundings, the things he loved to paint. His attitude toward constant nature, its beauties and the mysteries of its order, sustained Vincent Van Gogh.

Albert Einstein was a similar, yet far more successful “lone vagabond,” searching for meaning and truth most of his life. Like Van Gogh, he ultimately realized that the Creator is manifest in our surroundings – if only we would open our eyes to the reality. I found this common belief between the two men quite fascinating and revealing. Einstein, too, was a religious man, but one who, with considerable distrust, remained distant from organized religion because of its taint of human involvement. Despite his serious humanitarian instincts, Einstein exhibited the same genius in highlighting the follies of human nature as he displayed unraveling the mysteries of science. His legendary and dogged pursuit of scientific truth stemmed from a rampant curiosity coupled with a driven desire to reveal, through the workings of nature, the mind of the Creator. In summary, both he and Van Gogh felt their closest affinity to the almighty through their relationship with the natural world and the laws of nature.

Indeed, the laws of nature are immutable, constant always and everywhere. Natural law is the one source of truth that can be proven by mankind and depended upon. It is this characteristic of the natural world which so attracted both Van Gogh and Einstein.

Einstein at SB Edited

 Einstein contemplating the Pacific Ocean at Santa Barbara, Ca.

Van Gogh’s art reflects his humanity, yet nature and her beautiful consistency seemed to be his emotional crutch, his most reliable companion when the crush of human affairs became unbearable. Despite Einstein’s humanity, he fully understood the fallibility of human beings, to such a great extent that he was able to poke serious fun at their proclivities with impunity– even more so when he recognized them in his own life and behaviors. For Einstein, human beings were predictably unpredictable and capricious – driven by natural urges which were difficult to resist; this perception stood in stark contrast to his belief that nature is steadfastly governed by immutable behaviors – the celebrated laws of nature whose long-held secrets were revealed only after much thought and long study by the great figures of science: Galileo, Kepler, Newton (his laws of motion and universal gravitation), and Darwin in the natural sciences. Einstein, with his earth-shaking discoveries on light and space-time (relativity), contributed immeasurably to our understanding of nature and her workings. His scientific accomplishments took a back seat only to the great Isaac Newton. The acquisition of such scientific knowledge constituted humanity’s finest crown-jewels in the minds of both Newton and Einstein – hence, their extreme passion for the work.

Today, science continues to probe the Creator’s secrets. Our burgeoning knowledge of microbiology, genetics, and DNA have led to gene-splicing and preventive cures to human afflictions such as smallpox, polio, Huntington’s disease, and sickle-cell anemia. Using the recently decoded laws of nature, mankind has begun to “play God,” in a sense, within medicine. For better and/or for worse, is that not a scenario that moves us closer to the Creator and the accompanying essential question of who we are, why we are, and how we got here?

Albert Einstein: “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Here is a most fascinating wrinkle in this discussion: the advent of quantum physics in the early twentieth century was an earth-shaking event for Albert Einstein and his universe of physics governed by direct “cause and effect” principles. Here is an example of cause and effect: someone (a baseball pitcher) applies force (throws) a baseball (thereby creating a cause). The baseball takes flight in a trajectory precisely governed by the calculable force of gravity and Newton’s three laws of motion once the ball is released (the resulting effect). In this case, a quantifiable cause creates a completely predictable effect, thanks to Newton’s laws of motion. In the tiny universe of sub-atomic physics, however, quantum mechanics rules and states that certain causes create not entirely predictable effects. Quantum mechanics yields only statistical predictions of what might be the outcomes. This deviation from direct cause and effect rattled Einstein to the grave; he expressed his discomfort with his very famous statement that, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Although the still largely inexplicable behaviors of quantum mechanics continue to provoke scientific thought, modern physics has long been able to verify the validity of its strange “statistical rules and outcomes” to the point where the uncertainties of its behaviors are fully understood despite the angst caused by its deviation from a completely predictable (using Newtonian physics) cause and effect behavior. Einstein departed this life believing that this contradiction would someday be resolved once a clearer model for physics could include quantum effects. He believed that quantum physics only appeared to operate randomly because physics had not yet formed a complete picture of all the elements at play in the sub-atomic world where quantum mechanics rules. He knew from his own experience with his special and general theories of relativity that an incomplete picture can cause confusion. His discoveries that space and time are, contrary to Newton, not absolute entities resolved one of the great problems in the history of physics – hence their enduring fame.

In Summary: Einstein, Van Gogh and Natural Law

The central theme of this post suggests that the laws of nature are sacrosanct manifestations of our Creator and our creation. Their essence was literally pried from nature’s cloak of secrecy over many centuries by great scientific minds like Aristotle, Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Lavoisier, etc. The fact that we understand these laws, these uniquely absolute truths, and can use them for our betterment (or the contrary) relegates them to crown jewel status insofar as mankind’s accomplishments are concerned. We will continue to refine and embellish our knowledge as we go, but the fundamental and demonstrable truth of nature’s laws will never change. The honor of discovering these truths is what motivates the great scientists, past and present, even more than fame and fortune. Scientific immortality for opening new scientific vistas is the ultimate prize. Being one with nature and her laws is as close to a knowable God and absolute truth as we will ever come while on this earth.

A personal appreciation of nature’s absolute truths is what motivated both Einstein’s science and much of Van Gogh’s art; it is consistent with the fact that both men ultimately came to appreciate the temporal nature of human relationships while adopting a deeper love of nature and natural law. Creation, of both the material world and of natural law, carries God’s fingerprints, unsullied by the hand of human beings and all their shortcomings. In that sense, religion and science are, indeed, joined at the hip.

Hubble Galaxies_1

The “starry night” of astronomer Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein as recorded by the Hubble telescope is actually a vast collection of galaxies, each similar to our own Milky Way, residing in deep space; each of these galaxies contains countless millions of stars. Incredibly, science did not appreciate the reality of millions of galaxies masquerading each as single stars until Hubble made this momentous discovery in 1924 while working the one-hundred inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson, California. No longer was “the universe” confined to our own Milky Way galaxy.This is a truly amazing fact.

Despite the afore mentioned and well-documented foibles of human nature, mankind’s greatest moments over our long reign on this earth have been and will continue to be those occasions when man significantly peels-back the well-kept secrets of nature’s laws. Our growing scientific knowledge, today, is accelerating at a mind-bending rate. The beneficial use of this burgeoning knowledge base is limited only by our imagination and our human foibles (think nuclear energy/weapons and global warming). Lest anyone imagine that the Newtons and Einsteins of the scientific world were/are foible-free, think again. Nevertheless, they have earned a permanent vantage point on the highest summit of human endeavor for getting us ever closer to the absolute truth.

Flammarion_Scholar_2

This marvelous woodcut shows a young seeker of truth in scholar’s cap and garb penetrating the seemingly impassable barrier between the pastoral landscape he knows so well and the behind-the-scenes clockwork of the heavens which has long tantalized, but eluded him. This, for me, is the most beautiful of images, for it says so much that is important – all in one memorable frame.

In conclusion, I have learned much about Vincent Van Gogh since attending the presentation about his life and art. It is appropriate, here, to applaud the Van Goghs of the art world for the creative spark their work brings to our lives. In their world, and in contrast to the realm of science, “truth” is not on unrelenting trial, yet it plays an indirect role in their art. It is more the artist’s mission to deal in impression and emotion, whatever their artistic specialty or medium. And the same is so true of those who soothe humanity’s nerves with their music. Whether it be Mozart, Chopin or Benny Goodman, or Frank Sinatra, the world would be poorer without their influence. We need both art and science in our lives.

Silicon Valley Origins and Stanford University

I live in the Santa Clara Valley of California, the high-tech capital of the world – yes, the world! As recently as the nineteen-fifties, we locals were surrounded by acre after acre of apricot, cherry, and prune trees, and people called the region the Valley of Heart’s Delight. And a beautiful, bountiful landscape, it was. Today, after monumental change, the heart of the Santa Clara Valley has become known as Silicon Valley, and the cash crop of the region derives not from produce, but from silicon, that natural element crucial to the ubiquitous transistor and the integrated circuits which combine hundreds of thousands of transistors on a tiny silicon “chip” no larger than a fingernail. There are virtually no producing orchards left in the Santa Clara Valley. Today, the landscape is covered with pavement connecting hundreds of industrial parks and large corporate campuses. Electrical engineers are everywhere, and venture capitalists are here, too, ready to loan money to promising fledgling operations whose founders have “the next big idea.”

hp-garageThis is where it all began: a tiny garage on Addison Avenue, in an unassuming residential area near downtown Palo Alto and just down the road from Stanford University (more, to follow). Fortunes have been made (and lost) in Silicon Valley as fragile, seedling companies strived to take root and grow, over the years, into towering trees whose far-reaching branches continue to merge with those from neighboring seedlings. The result is an overarching canopy of scientific knowledge and technical know-how which has changed the way we live our lives.

           The Famous HP Garage

How and why did this remarkable transition occur in fewer than six decades, and why here? The local story of Apple Computer is familiar enough to present-day residents of this valley. As impressive and ubiquitous as the company and its products may be, Apple is but the result and not a primary cause of the tech culture we witness today in the region. Apple Computer was founded in 1976 in a nearby Cupertino residential garage by two youngsters, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who truly believed they could build a better computer than those produced by other “hobbyist afficionados” back in those early years. Wozniak had the technical knowledge necessary to create a viable Apple II computer for the market and Jobs was the corporate/marketing visionary with the stamina to make Apple Computer happen as it did.

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                     Stanford University: The Catalyst for Silicon Valley

Two young electrical engineering graduates from the Stanford University graduating class of 1935 came along much earlier than the two Steves of Apple, and it was their success that heralded the transformation of the Santa Clara Valley. William Hewlett and David Packard were the names, and their fledgling company became Hewlett Packard, also known as HP, one of the truly great icons in Valley history. Have you visited the famous “HP Garage” at 367 Addison Street in downtown Palo Alto? Although rarely open to the public, it is visible from the sidewalk. It was in this tiny, detached garage directly behind their rented quarters that Hewlett and Packard began HP by designing and building a simple piece of electronic test equipment called the 200A audio oscillator. From such a simple beginning, these young entrepreneurial engineers built corporate giant, Hewlett Packard, long the leading supplier of state-of-the-art electronic test/measurement equipment, computers, and printers. During my thirty-seven year career as an electrical engineer in this valley, many of my working hours were spent in a product development lab surrounded by stacks of HP test and measurement equipment. Any older electrical engineer, anywhere, can relate!

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                     Workbench in the HP Garage ( As It Looked Back Then )

The Hewlett Packard story showcases the two primary reasons that cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose find themselves at the focus of the world’s tech capital. The two prime movers underpinning today’s Silicon Valley were: Stanford University and its famed Professor of Electrical Engineering during the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, Frederick Emmons Terman. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were both electrical engineering graduates, class of 1935, who studied at Stanford under Fred Terman. It was Terman who recognized the talent of his two charges and suggested that they consider an alternative to the long practice of recent west-coast electrical engineering grads which was to pack their bags and head east to where the jobs were. Famous corporate names like General Electric, Westinghouse, IBM, Bell Labs, and countless others were well established on the east coast and always on the lookout for engineering talent. Looking southward from the Stanford campus in 1938, little, save acres of orchards, could be seen – certainly few established companies with good opportunities like those on the east coast.

Fred Terman was, himself, an accomplished electrical engineer who wrote the “industry standard textbook” titled Radio Engineering back in 1932. As a student at Stanford in the early nineteen-sixties, I myself used the 1955 fourth edition of his book. Terman was not only a nationally recognized engineer but an uncommon visionary, as well. At the center of his vision for the future, was Stanford University. Accordingly, he convinced his talented pair of students, Hewlett and Packard, to break tradition, remain in the region, and begin their very own company, right here! They did precisely that at 367 Addison Avenue, less than three miles from campus. HP grew rapidly to become an industry giant with an uncommonly fine corporate culture and identity. And the rest was history, as Terman, from his Stanford faculty position, took an ever more active role in promoting the local region and seeding it with other start-ups during the years that followed. Not only was the proximity of Stanford University an attraction to young entrepreneurs bent on acquiring state-of-the-art knowledge, the fresh, scenic beauty of the region and the fine weather were not to be discounted, either!

Terman was instrumental in Stanford’s important 1951 decision to incorporate some of the University’s prime, ninety-four hundred acres of extensive campus as the Stanford Industrial Park. HP, in its heyday, established its corporate headquarters on the edge of the new industrial park – a familiar sight on Page Mill Road, just west of the El Camino Real. Many tech and venture capital firms followed suit and settled nearby on Stanford land. The Stanford Shopping Center sits on Stanford property under a very long-term lease agreement with the University. The founding grant from Leland and Jane Stanford stipulates that the land they bequeathed as part of the university charter shall never be sold.

Stanford University is a fascinating study in itself. Founded in 1891, in memory of their only son, Leland Stanford Junior, who died at the young age of sixteen, Leland and Jane Stanford dedicated the school to “the children of California.” Stanford has made an incredible mark not only on this valley, but on the world at large, thanks in large part to the vision of Fred Terman.

Once his former electrical engineering students, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, were convinced by Terman in 1938 to plant the seeds of their start-up company near Stanford and downtown Palo Alto, things happened quickly. In 1953, the Varian brothers, Russell and Sigurd, were the first to occupy the university’s newly established Stanford Industrial Park which was ably promoted by Terman. The headquarters for Varian Associates was located at the juncture of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. It was there that the brothers manufactured their important klystron tubes, devices which operated in the microwave spectrum and proved so vital to the burgeoning communications industry. The author fondly recalls his summer job at Varian in 1961, testing large, water-cooled, high-power klystrons. My first full-time employment after college was with a small electronics company just up the road from Varian Associates, also within the Stanford Industrial Park.

                            Enter William Shockley and Transistor Technology

2N697In 1955, William Shockley left Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey, where, in 1947/48, he developed transistor technology working with two colleagues. For that momentous achievement, the trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. In that very same year, Shockley, with funding support from industrialist Arnold Beckman and Stanford, began operations at Shockley Semiconductor in a tiny converted storefront building on San Antonio Road in Mountain View. His plan? To make transistors a commercial success – and himself a lot of money! The transistor was, in most significant respects, a miniature replacement for the large, “clumsy,” and power-hungry vacuum tubes which had long served electrical engineers as signal amplifier/switching devices since first introduced by Lee De Forest in 1906.

        

        2N697 Transistor

Although germanium was the “solid-state” semiconductor material originally used by the Shockley team at Bell Labs, Shockley, a brilliant physicist with a Phd in physics from MIT, ultimately surmised that the future of commercial transistor technology would rely on another semiconductor known as silicon. Thus, we locals are residing not in Germanium Valley, but Silicon Valley. The development of the transistor proved such an important and pervasive a technology that its silicon ingredient symbolizes much of the other incredible and related technologies that were to emerge from this region – hence the name Silicon Valley.

Shockley on Electrons and Holes - 1950 1stIn 1950, Shockley published the first authoritative book (indeed, the bible) on semiconductor behavior, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors. The publication of Shockley’s famous volume heralded the coming age of computers.

Transistor technology was the “big new thing” (a vast understatement) in 1955, destined to replace the vacuum tube and change our world – which it did. Transistors, with their constantly advancing “solid-state,” semiconductor technology and incredible miniaturization continue, still, to change our world, and Shockley deserves much of the credit for that. But, after bringing silicon to this valley, Shockley’s start-up company, here, was destined to be only an indirect factor in all that was to quickly transpire.

William Shockley was a brilliant physicist, but a terrible manager of the men he hired into his new venture. He also knew virtually nothing about the business world, but he had personally recruited an extremely talented band of engineers, physicists, and chemists into Shockley Semiconductor. The best and brightest of the bunch were destined to leave Shockley’s employ after only one year and make real Valley history at another fledgling company – Fairchild Semiconductor, in Mountain View. That group of employees became known as “the traitorous eight” after handing Shockley a mass resignation and heading out the door for Fairchild and better prospects.

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were the spiritual and technical leaders of this band of eight. By 1961, they, and their team had catapulted Fairchild into fame and fortune by developing the “integrated circuit” manufacturing process which allows the economical mass-fabrication of thousands of interconnected transistors on a single tiny chip of silicon. That post-Shockley leap in semiconductor technology/fabrication was THE pivotal point for everything – literally the beginning of the digital computer age as we have come to know it. Coupled with Claude Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication and Norbert Weiner’s pioneering book, Cybernetics, Fairchild’s brilliant band of eight and their breakthroughs in semiconductor fabrication allowed digital technology to mushroom in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere to heights unimaginable even to the most optimistic of visionaries. Just contemplate your own iPhone!

Shugart Associates in Sunnyvale along with Quantum and Maxtor were other fast-growing companies in the Valley that developed and manufactured data-storage devices known as “disk drives.” These electromechanical devices used magnetic recording to store hundreds of millions of data bits (1’s and 0’s) on their whirling, plated aluminum platters. Fairchild’s integrated circuit technology gave us powerful small computers requiring immense data-storage capability, hence the burgeoning disk drive industry, which became a very big and important player in the growth of Silicon Valley. Today, most computing devices use – you guessed it – semiconductor data storage instead of magnetic recording.

In 1969, Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start yet a new venture which emerged as Intel whose fabulously successful and quickly ubiquitous microprocessors (computers on a small silicon chip) further enhanced Silicon Valley’s status. Almost on cue, garage start-up Apple Computer, under Steve Jobs’ visionary guidance, surfaced around 1977/78 right next-door in Cupertino and very successfully implemented the Apple II vision of semiconductor computing technology for the “masses.” This, while consistently attaching its renowned brand of imagination and excellence to the products Apple continues to produce. The iPhone concept/implementation has changed everything, has it not?

In closing, I should add that Stanford University was not an idle spectator to all of these world-changing developments after getting things started in the Valley. Rather, the University quite brilliantly adopted an active investment role and cultivated an on-going influence on many of these success stories, including even Shockley’s ill-fated effort. For starters, the school remains a long-time landlord, collecting rents on its numerous ninety-nine year property leases – prime Palo Alto property which was included in the original ninety-four hundred acre Stanford endowment. Stanford also rapidly expanded its engineering and computer science curriculum over the years, providing both personnel and expertise to the region.

When former Stanford engineering student Cyril Elwell (class of 1904) opened his Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company (a forerunner of radio) near the campus in 1908, he obtained a five-hundred dollar loan from Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan. Several of the faculty also invested. In that sense, Stanford can claim credit for the emergence of venture-capital financing which has long been so prominent in the Valley and so vital to start-up companies!

Poulsen Elwell Stock 1910_1001

This historic stock certificate from 1910 for over one million shares of Poulsen Wireless reflects Elwell’s founding interest in the newly organized company.

Many years later, in a newspaper article addressed “To the [SF?] Examiner,” Elwell wrote: “Your editorial …did not go far enough back in crediting Stanford University as the pioneer of the fast growing electronic and atomic eras.” Elwell proceeded to relate my account of the early history regarding Stanford’s influence on his fledgling company. Poulsen Wireless ultimately became Federal Telephone and Telegraph – a very long-standing company.

How often have you used the Google search-engine on your computer? Thank two former Stanford students who founded Google and provided the world a revolutionary way to search for (and locate) most any information one can imagine. The importance of Google search to enhancing the flow of vital information and collaboration for the worlds of tech and medicine can scarcely be overestimated. The list of similar examples involving Stanford’s influence is long and signficant.

Suffice to say, Stanford University has not built its huge endowment since opening its doors in 1891 by collecting tuition and room and board from its students. Look to Fred Terman and wise investing by the University to account for its continued funding – to the tremendous benefit of Stanford students in need of financial aid, to this Valley, to the state of California, and, without exaggeration, to all the world that depends on technology.

Such fame, fortune, and game-changing technology has happened within this regional neighborhood – in barely more than one human lifetime. There is a cost, of course, to all of this, and many choices will be required as we go forward. The region fairly hums today to the activity and progress within. Sadly, gone forever are tranquil afternoons amid the blossoms in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” The simple fact is this: this Valley is permanently changed, and so is the way we all live our lives because, in large part, of what took place, here.

DNA: The Blueprint of Life; Watson, Crick, the Double Helix and Other Genetic Observations

Welcome, readers of my blog. This post you are viewing is number two-hundred in a long line of mini-essays which have appeared in this space since my first, titled The Lure of Science, in February of 2013. Writing about little things such as my reflections on life has provided me much pleasure and a satisfying outlet. While relishing small pleasures along the way, I remain forever intrigued with the BIG thoughts, the truly great accomplishments, and the monster minds which formulated them. I devote this special post, number two-hundred, to one of the great chapters in scientific history – discovering the double-helix nature of DNA.

Watson’s The Double Helix

The subject at hand is DNA, an acronym for the scientific term deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is literally the blueprint of life – all life on this planet. What is more mysterious than life, itself? Think of DNA molecules quite literally as the repository of nature’s software program for all forms of life, the coding of which uniquely defines each and every one of us, not only as a species, but as distinct individuals. The biological hierarchy which defines us is complex; suffice it to say that DNA is the “instruction set” for our genes, those next-level entities which determine what and who we are.

I have begun reading Walter Isaacson’s newest book release titled, The Code Breaker. The story focuses on the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in biology, Jennifer Doudna, and the story of CRISPR which is an acronym for the gene editing technology which is now quite advanced – to a large extent, because of her work. To the best of my understanding (so far), the question has rapidly become not how to do this (gene editing), but should we do this. Author Isaacson does his subjects justice in his book. I say subjects, plural, because he deftly weaves Ms. Doudna’s story within a larger tapestry which includes the crucial efforts of scientific colleagues, particularly Nobel co-winner Emmanuele Charpentier. Isaacson couples all of this with a healthy dose of what Nobel-winning scientific endeavors are all about. 

Isaacson’s The Code Breaker

The scientific stakes are huge, here. So, too, is the competitive drive necessary to be first with the qualifying research and the scientific papers that justify Nobel-level consideration. This very theme, the competition for scientific immortality, has been repeated countless times throughout the history of science. Among the most reminiscent, for me, is the account by James Watson of his famous collaboration with Francis Crick to discover the structure of the DNA molecule itself. For their revelation in 1953 of the double-helix backbone structure supporting a four base-protein coding of cross-ties, these two researchers were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize along with a third researcher, Maurice Wilkins.

James Watson’s account of DNA’s discovery appeared in his famous book, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, first published in 1968. This book, with its revelation of the scientific discovery and the frank candor of its author, reads like a suspenseful, non-fiction detective story as opposed to what could have been a dry, scientific tome. In the book, Watson describes not only the science, but the competitive endeavor in which he and Crick found themselves immersed: the struggle to be first to finally decipher the biological holy grail – the structure of the DNA molecule. Linus Pauling, world-famous chemist, and Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant, pioneering female researcher are other significant players in the competitive drama and Watson devotes considerable ink to describing them and their roles in the unfolding event.

Crick and Watson at Cambridge

Once the double-helix nature of DNA was revealed by Watson and Crick, some important questions were resolved, specifically, how DNA can replicate itself and how male/female DNA are combined to produce those recognizable features of each that typically appear in offspring. Of course, the latest gene-editing findings by Jennifer Doudna and her fellow researchers all leverage-off the nature of the DNA molecule as first described by Watson and Crick. Enough said about the importance of Watson and Crick’s findings to the state of today’s biology!

Biological Inheritance … As We Came to Understand It

Double Helix

Prior to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution as revealed in his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, little was known about the “bloody obvious” fact that offspring, to one degree or another, tend to reflect identifiable characteristics of their parents. Darwin’s certainty about the validity of “natural selection” as the core principle of evolution still left much uncertainty in his mind as to the actual mechanism of heredity – the passing along of biological traits. Notably mysterious to Darwin was the biological “mechanism” responsible for the significant changes and diversity that randomly occur within a species, thus setting the stage for natural selection to pass long-term judgement on the alternatives presented. Put another way: over the long-haul, natural selection favors genetic adaptations most favorable to survival in a given environment. 

In 1866, merely seven years after Darwin’s milestone book, an obscure Austrian monk published a little-noted paper on experiments breeding pea plants he had been performing in his spare time within his abbey’s small garden. Using three well-known variations of these plants and inter-breeding them, he meticulously tracked his results. The three variations studied were color: green or yellow plants; flower: white or violet; and seed texture: smooth or wrinkled. In Mendel’s paper, he dealt not only with dominant and recessive characteristics of these variables, but, surprisingly, determined that they manifested themselves in numerical ratios that were most revealing as to the nature of biological mechanisms at work!

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetic Science

Gregor Mendel

Mendel’s little paper was supremely important as the first documented revelation of DNA/genetics at work. He had just a few “offprints” printed (scientific terminology for the personal printing of a paper intended for presentation by its author). His findings were sent to the local chapter of naturalist bee-keepers in Brno, Austria, where it received scant attention or interest. Mendel’s work with pea-plants disappeared quickly into the shadows of history until his paper was discovered and publicized for its great significance by the famous English biologist, William Bateson, in 1902. Despite its delayed recognition after thirty-six years, Mendel’s genius nevertheless still provided sufficient impetus for the resulting cascade of discovery and knowledge which ultimately led us to Watson and Crick’s ground-breaking revelation of the DNA double-helix in 1953. And now, for better and for worse, we are close to possessing the incredible capability to understand and to actually edit our own genetic code.

Did Darwin Miss Early Access to Mendel’s Discoveries?

Historical accounts tell us of an offprint copy of his pea-plant experiments that Gregor Mendel purportedly sent to the great man, himself, Charles Darwin, shortly after Darwin’s book on evolution was published in 1859. Darwin had no knowledge of this Austrian abbey monk, Gregor Mendel – or what he was attempting, but everyone, certainly Mendel, knew about Charles Darwin after 1859. Whether fact or fanciful lore, this milestone scientific paper of Mendel’s on genetics/inheritance was supposedly sent by Mendel and sat, in offprint form, unread amid the stacks of books and papers in Darwin’s study at Downe House. There, it was purportedly discovered after Darwin’s death. Walter Isaacson mentions the incident in The Code Breakers, but I have heard that the account as told may merely be fanciful.

Mendel’s Rare Offprint for Sale: on the Internet!

With my long interest in the history of science, I am familiar with many of the great milestones of scientific discovery and their publications – their formal introduction to the scientific world and the public at large.  One of the most memorable items I have ever seen appear for sale, either at auction or via those who deal in such things, came from a renowned bookseller in London some twenty-five years ago. He was offering one of the few of Mendel’s original offprint papers in existence for a then jaw-dropping sixty-four thousand dollars. The paper was said to be in very good condition. I recall how, even back then, I sensed the rarity and deep significance of that particular item. Being an amateur historian of little means, I could only imagine what it would be like to possess such a rare, important slice of scientific history. Who knows where that particular offprint resides today: possibly in some large university library collection. Is it possible that it might have been filed away, unread, by Charles Darwin, himself? One thing I do know about that particular item: the sixty-four thousand dollar price twenty-five years ago would barely be a down-payment in today’s collecting market. The nature of such ground-breaking scientific rarities will ultimately render them priceless – which is as it should be, it seems to me. 

Were Darwin aware of Mendel’s work with pea-plants through Mendel’s paper, he would have been fascinated with the revelations. Darwin wrote often about the nature of heredity in his many books before The Origin. The concept of DNA molecules which are integral to genes and chromosomes were well beyond even Darwin’s long reach. He was convinced, however, that there were biologic hereditary entities at work which shape and define all living things. Darwin referred to them as “gemmules,” while remaining necessarily vague about their attributes and ultimate reality. Although Mendel was able to shed first-light on the “how” of heredity’s behavior, the biological nature of its agents remained to him a mystery, as was the case with Darwin.

Scientific Knowledge IS Power; Have We the Wisdom to Handle It?

Many key discoveries have occurred in the rich history of biology and cell biology. The treasure-chest of acquired knowledge is full of just what the name implies: treasure. That accumulation of knowledge concerning ourselves and the world of living things is perhaps the most significant of all testimonials to what is good and noble about us humans. In these recent pandemic months, when Covid 19 was sweeping the country, instilling fear and taking well over a half-million lives in the process, vaccines quickly appeared which worked exceedingly well in diminishing the threat of this virus. Not many years ago, effective vaccines would have taken years to develop, if at all. It is said that much of the necessary research necessary to neutralize Covid 19 had recently been done and utilized on the earlier HIV and SARS viruses and that the vaccine methodologies were literally “on the shelf” – ready to use on this class of virus. This recent and undeniable affirmation of the power of scientific knowledge is all we need to know about why we should pay heed to pure scientific research which is foundational to all technologies that prove useful to mankind.

Gene editing holds the promise of correcting (curing) some of nature’s cruelest maladies: sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Tay Sachs, for example. Huntington’s is a spectacular example of how a simple DNA/gene coding mistake can condemn an individual’s adult future. Although direct human trials of gene editing medicine are necessarily very rare at this time, the process has already been proven successful on a patient with sickle-cell anemia. Along with the promise of positive advances in medicine comes the danger of mis-using genetic editing. Consider “designer-babies,” and let your imagination run wild.

I have heard the comment that there are two major scientific advances in recent history that point to the need for the strictest supervision of their applications in order to avoid horrific consequences. The first is Albert Einstein’s purely scientific discovery in 1905 that mass and energy are one and the same. That revelation, despite Einstein’s purely scientific motivations behind it, has resulted in global arsenals of nuclear weapons whose power to destroy everything and everyone on this planet requires the utmost vigilance. The second cautionary tale involves irresponsible gene editing which poses a different set of catastrophic scenarios, but, like nuclear energy, once “the genie is out of the bottle,” it would be virtually impossible to recapture and control it. It has long been my view that every advance in science and technology comes complete with a pairing of both advantages for humanity (if wisely utilized), as well as a price to pay if not. Today’s internet and social media are good examples of vast benefits being constantly offset by potential and actual problems. In the case of gene editing, the potential for good and for bad reach the highest levels. At risk, is the potential for joining nuclear energy as a technology for which the “genie let loose from the bottle” is an apt metaphor. 

Months after the lone atomic bomb test held in 1945 at Los Alamos, code-named Trinity, and the subsequent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb’s chief architect was asked by reporters about the prospects for the international control of atomic energy. A memorable film clip which clearly reflects his deep regret, even disgust, burns itself onto the mind’s eye. His answer: “It’s too late; it should have been done the day after Trinity.”

The question remains as man probes ever deeper into nature’s secrets: will we be wise enough to use science and technology to our advantage, or will we allow technology to de-rail and destroy us?

It seems obvious that we must continue to uncover the miracles of nature, those obvious and lasting truths underpinning our human existence, not only to use them to our advantage, but to glean the wisdom and perspective contained, therein. It appears clear from what I read that the scientific community is well aware of its obligations regarding gene editing.