Is Life Becoming Too Complex? The Devil Is in the Details….! Can We Keep Up?

Details matter in this life, and they demand our attention – increasingly so. It is becoming impossible to live under illusions such as, “Details are confined mainly to the realm of specialists, like the computer programmer and the watchmaker.” The need for “attention to detail” on the part of everyman has never been greater.

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I’ve been around for a while, now – over seventy-six years. Given all those years and, with the detached attitude of an impartial observer, I have reached some general conclusions regarding technology, time, and our quality of life, today.

Conclusion #1:
The opportunity for living a comfortable, meaningful, and rewarding life has never been greater – especially in this United States of America. We have so many choices today in this society, for better or for worse.

Conclusion #2:
The veracity of conclusion #1 is due to the positive influence of science and technology on our lives. Today’s information age has delivered the world, indeed, the universe (and Amazon, too) to our desktops and living rooms.

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It is true that computers and the internet are virtually indispensable, now.  However, the tools and the technology of the scientific/information age change continually, at an ever more rapid pace. Can we humans continue to keep pace with it all without making painful choices and sacrifices in our lives? Have computer problems ever driven you nuts? Do we have too many choices and opportunities now, thanks to the internet and stores like Walmart? How often have you shopped for something specific in the supermarket or on Amazon and been bewildered by the blizzard of choices which accost you thanks to high-tech marketing? Even choosing a hair shampoo poses a challenge for today’s shopper.

Conclusion #3:
Scientific knowledge and the rapid technological progress it spawns have become, universally, a 50/50 proposition for the human race. The reality suggests that for every positive gain in our lives brought about by our growing technology base, there is, unrelentingly, a negative factor to be overcome as well – a price to be paid. There is virtually a one-to-one correspondence at play – seemingly like an unspoken law of nature which always holds sway – much like the influence of gravitational attraction! In familiar parlance, “There is no free lunch in life: Rather, a price to paid for everything!”

The best example possible of this contention? Consider Einstein’s revelation in 1905 that mass and energy are interchangeable: e=mc2. This, the most famous equation in science, opened not only new frontiers in physics, but also the possibility of tremendous industrial power – at minimal cost. On the negative side, along with nuclear power plants, we now have nuclear weapons capable, in one day, of essentially ending life on this planet – thanks to that same simple equation. As for usable, nuclear-generated power, the potential price for such energy has been dramatically demonstrated in several notable cases around the globe over recent decades.

Need another example? How about the information technology which enables those handy credit cards which make purchasing “goodies” so quick and easy? On the negative side, how about the punishing cost of credit for account balances not promptly paid? More disturbing is the fact that such technology in the hands of internet criminals makes one’s private financial information so vulnerable, today. I found out the hard way, recently, that just changing your hacked credit card for a new one does not necessarily end your problems with unauthorized charges! The price in real money paid by society for foiling technology savvy ne-er do-wells is huge, in the billions of dollars every year.

Conclusion #4
Society, today, seems to discount the wisdom inherent in the old, familiar phrase, “The devil is in the details!” We are easily enticed by the lure of “user-friendly” computers and devices, and indeed, most are generally well-designed to be just that – considering what they can do for us. But today’s scientists and engineers fully understand the profundity of that “devil is in the details” contention as they burrow deeper and deeper into nature’s secrets. The lawyer and the business man fully understand the message conveyed given the importance of carefully reading “the fine print” embedded in today’s legal documents and agreements. How many of us take (or can even afford) the time to read all the paperwork/legalese which accompanies the purchase of a new automobile or a house! Increasingly, we seem unable/unwilling to keep up with the burgeoning demands imposed by the exponential growth of detail in our lives, and that is not a healthy trend.

I am convinced and concerned that many of us are in way over our heads when it comes to dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of today’s personal computers, and these systems are becoming increasingly necessary for families and seniors merely trying to getting by in today’s internet world. Even those of us with engineering/computer backgrounds have our hands full keeping up with the latest developments and devices: I can personally attest to that! The devil IS in the details, and the details involved in computer science are growing exponentially. Despite the frequently quoted phrase “user-friendly interface,” I can assure you that the complexity lurking just below that user-friendly, top onion-skin-layer of your computer or iPhone is very vast, indeed, and that is why life gets sticky and help-entities like the Geek Squad will never lack for stymied customers.

Make no mistake: It is not merely a question of “Can we handle the specific complexities of operating/maintaining our personal computers?” Rather, the real question is, “Can we handle all the complexities/choices which the vast capabilities of the computer/internet age have spawned?”  

Remember those “user manuals?” Given the rapid technological progress of recent decades, the degree of choice/complexity growth is easily reflected by the growing size of user manuals, those how-to instructions for operating our new autos, ovens, cooktops, washing machines, and, now, phones and computers. Note: The “manuals” for phones and computers are now so complex that printed versions cannot possibly come with these products. Ironically, there are virtually no instructions “in the box.” Rather, many hundreds of data megabytes now construct dozens of computer screens which demonstrate the devices’ intricacies on-line. These software “manuals” necessarily accommodate the bulk and the constantly changing nature of the product itself. Long gone are the old “plug it in and press this button to turn it on” product advisories. More “helpful” product options result in significantly more complexity! Also gone are the “take it in for repair” days. My grandfather ran a radio repair shop in Chicago seventy years ago. Today, it is much cheaper and infinitely more feasible to replace rather than repair anything electronic.

An appropriate phrase to describe today’s burgeoning technologies is “exponential complexity.” What does that really mean and what does it tell us about our future ability to deal with the coming “advantages” of technology which will rain down upon us? I can illustrate what I mean.

Let us suppose that over my seventy-six years, the complexity of living in our society has increased by 5% per year – a modest assumption given the rapid technological gains in recent decades. Using a very simple “exponential” math calculation, at that rate, life for me today is over 40 times more complex than it was for my parents the day I was born!

To summarize: Although many of the technological gains made over recent decades were intended to open new opportunities and to make life easier for us all, they have imposed upon us a very large burden in the form of the time, intelligence, and intellectual energy required to understand the technology and to use it both efficiently and wisely. Manual labor today is much minimized; the intellectual efforts required to cope with all the newest technology is, indeed, very significant and time-consuming. There is a price to be paid…for everything.

The major question: At what point does technology cease to help us as human beings and begin to subjugate us to the tyranny of its inherent, inevitable and necessary details? The realm in which the details live is also home to the devil.

The devil tempts. The burgeoning details and minutia in today’s society act to corrode our true happiness. We should be cautious lest we go too far up the technology curve and lose sight of life’s simpler pleasures… like reading a good book in a quiet place – cell phones off and out of reach. The noise and bustle of Manhattan can appear endlessly intoxicating to the visitor, but such an environment is no long-term substitute for the natural sounds and serenity of nature at her finest. The best approach to living is probably a disciplined and wisely proportioned concoction of both worlds.

The above recipe for true happiness involves judicious choices, especially when it comes to technology and all the wonderful opportunities it offers. Good choices can make a huge difference. That is the ultimate message of this post.

As I write this, I have recently made some personal choices: I am redoubling my efforts to gain a more solid grasp of Windows 10 and OS X on my Mac. Despite the cautionary message of this post regarding technology, I see this as an increasingly necessary (and interesting) challenge in today’s world. This is a choice I have made. I have, however, put activities like FaceBook aside and have become much more choosey about time spent on the internet.

My parting comment and a sentiment which I hope my Grandkids will continue to heed: “So many good books; so little quality time!”

Einstein’s Three Great Regrets

Because of the diverse following my blog posts enjoy, there are times when I wonder if the topic I choose for the next post will resonate with most of my audience. Will my readers in widely diverse cultures be familiar with or interested in the proposed post?

My Einstein

With Albert Einstein as the topic, those concerns are alleviated. Einstein is arguably the most recognizable personality (and face) in modern times. This, of course, the result of his unparalleled influence on science – an endeavor which inherently knows no cultural or linguistic boundaries thanks to the universal language in which it is expressed – mathematics. Einstein is also one of the most fascinating people, ever, from a personal standpoint – Time magazine’s “Person of the Century.”

After Energy Was Equated to Mass, the World Was Never the Same

Despite his universal acclaim, Einstein’s lifetime of work left him with some bitter tastes in his mouth, some severe indigestion, and three regrets! The first of these concerns the most famous equation in science: e=mc2. Einstein’s enunciation of that famous relationship – that energy and mass are equivalent and interchangeable – came in 1905 on the heels of his special theory of relativity. The world has never been the same since Einstein’s formulations of relativity – certainly not the scientific world, nor the everyday world of most of this planet’s inhabitants. That famous equation, at once so compact yet profound, is the theoretical basis for both the liberation of nuclear energy and the reality of weapons of mass destruction.

 A Pacifist Who Discovers Bigger Bombs?

Fact is ALWAYS stranger than fiction, is it not? Einstein was one of the world’s great pacifists, a spokesman for humanity and world peace. Pacifist attitudes were not viewpoints adopted by him as he grew older and wiser as with some; rather, they were an essential part of his personality and his belief system. Einstein’s role in the story of nuclear weapons is limited strictly to his scientific discovery regarding the equivalence of mass and energy – with one specific exception, a circumstance which he later regretted. In 1939, many colleagues in the international physics community became concerned about Germany’s interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo. At the time of Einstein’s famous revelation in 1905 that e=mc2, it was not at all clear that vast amounts of energy could be liberated from tiny amounts of mass as the equation declares – at least not on any practical scale. By 1939, the feasibility of powerful weapons based on Einstein’s equation was virtually assured.

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Einstein’s colleague, the Hungarian Leo Szilard, planned to present president Franklin Roosevelt with a letter warning him of potential German intentions re: uranium and the development of atomic weapons. Einstein agreed to affix his signature to the letter.

The rest is history, of course, and Einstein had no involvement whatsoever in the resulting crash program to develop the weapon. Einstein was living in the States having fled his native Germany in 1931 because of Hitler’s rise. After the war, when it was shown that Germany had made no real progress toward an atomic bomb, Einstein famously said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.” He further explained that, unfortunately in 1939, there was no way of knowing that.

I believe that Einstein was rightfully at peace with his scientific work, the work that foretold the theoretical possibility of nuclear energy and weapons of mass destruction. His ultimate regret in the whole matter was that mankind had converted the joy and beauty of pure scientific discovery into the sinister menace of nuclear weapons. Always mindful and distrusting of human nature and its frailties, he said, “The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Einstein’s 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for Discovery of
the Photoelectric Effect: Enter Quantum Mechanics

Einstein can properly be called the father of quantum mechanics, that modern branch of physics which nobody presumably, even to this day, “understands” at a sophisticated level, but which, nevertheless, “explains” many physical phenomena which classical mechanics, the physics of Isaac Newton, could not. Einstein’s famous 1905 scientific paper on the photoelectric effect which won him his Nobel Prize also earned for him the title of “father of quantum mechanics.” In fact, it was a title he actually shared with his German colleague, the physicist Max Planck who first opened the “quantum door” with his 1900 milestone analysis of radiation emitted from heated bodies of mass.

Einstein struggled throughout the better part of his life trying to come to terms with the “enfant terrible” that he co-fathered with Planck. Why was that? Much as Einstein’s relativity theories overturned many of our time-honored notions about space and time, quantum physics quickly shook our existing notions of light, radiation, and atomic structure. Most difficult for Einstein with his deterministic view of physics was a central tenant of quantum mechanics which declares a limit to what we can know and predict in the sub-microscopic regions where atoms reside. Einstein could not abide dictates of the new science which declared that certain things happen purely by statistical chance in that small world. Suddenly, events were governed by statistical probabilities and were not the result of predictable cause-and-effect as in the old deterministic physics of Newton.

Einstein’s frequent technical discussions with his good friend and chief architect of quantum physics, the great physicist Neils Bohr, often ended with Einstein reaffirming his claim that, “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Bohr would counter, “How do you know what God would do?” Second only to his passionate curiosity, thinking like God about science and how it should work was a key element of Einstein’s scientific success – a key component of his scientific “art,” if you will; Bohr knew how to hit Einstein’s soft spot in these contentious but always friendly and respectful discussions.

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Einstein and Bohr: Discussing quantum mechanics?

Einstein’s resistance to quantum mechanics lasted throughout his life; the success of the science was soon undeniable, however. Einstein accepted that fact, but claimed that the theoretical basis for quantum mechanics was incomplete – the reason why the nature of its assertions was so strange and puzzling.

By the end of his life, Einstein was forced to make peace with the fact that quantum mechanics would not be complete and decipherable (to his satisfaction) by the time he left this earth. Not seeing a resolution to the quantum dilemma in his lifetime was Einstein’s second great regret.

Einstein’s famous “Cosmological Constant;”
 Great Regret #3

In 1917, Einstein amended his 1915 general theory of relativity by adding no less than a “fudge factor” to his theory to account for the fact that the universe appeared to be relatively “static” in nature – neither contracting or expanding. Both Newton’s gravitational theory of 1687 and Einstein’s radical re-definition of its nature in 1915 predicted that the action of mutual gravitational attraction between ANY two bodies of mass should result in a universe which is contracting – drawing closer together. To account for our seemingly static universe, Einstein reluctantly amended his 1915 general theory of relativity by proposing what he called, a “cosmological constant” to account for the discrepancy.

Surprise! The Universe Is Redefined…and Rapidly Expanding!

In 1924, one of science’s greatest astronomers, Edwin Hubble, delivered a bombshell to science in general and astronomy in particular. Using the new 100 inch Hooker reflecting telescope on Mount Wilson, in California, Hubble announced that the universe is not defined by the galaxy in which we reside. The reality is that there are untold millions of sister galaxies distributed throughout a universe orders of magnitude larger than previously believed.

 Hubble Galaxies_1Hubble telescope: Deep-field view of countless galaxies

Many of those faint and fuzzy “stars and nubulae” man has observed over thousands of years are actually complete galaxies unto their own, each containing billions of stars…and likely, planets similar to our own. Furthermore, Hubble later determined that these myriad galaxies are rapidly receding from one another; in other words, the universe is rapidly expanding. The closest major galaxy to our own is the Andromeda galaxy, a mere 2.4 million light-years away. Since light travels at the constant speed of 186,000 miles per second, when we view the Andromeda galaxy today, we are actually seeing light that left it 2.4 million years ago!

Einstein was left holding the bag containing his cosmological constant which was a reticent, ad-hoc determination on his part in the first place and based on a totally different universe. He called the circumstances surrounding his constant, my “greatest blunder.” Today, the mystery of an expanding universe has prompted investigations into strange, not easily detectable entities in space like “dark matter” and “dark energy.” It is thought that these may provide at least part of the answer to the strange behavior of our expanding universe.

Science constantly changes, refining previously held “truths” with improved versions of same and sometimes inserting revolutionary new breakthroughs – like Hubble’s. I think Einstein was overly hard on himself with respect to the cosmological constant, given that reality. RIP Albert Einstein: You did good…real good!

Nuclear Weapons: Is Civilization Going “Critical?”

While traveling through New England just two months ago, Linda and I made it a point to drop into any bookshop that looked interesting – our usual mode of operation. In the back room of a rustic little shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, I found a small, unassuming little volume titled simply, “Hiroshima.” Because of my interest in the science and history of nuclear weapons, I recognized the title as a possibly important one. It was published by John Hersey in 1946, the year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a bookplate on the inside cover, and the book’s fine condition suggests it had been cared for over the years. Hersey’s piece, an expose of the horrors of nuclear weaponry, was first published in the “New Yorker” magazine. My little book is an obvious first book edition.

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Today’s “Wall Street Journal” Bookshelf (Aug. 6, 2014) under its byline, “A Decision and It’s Fallout,” reviews a new book by Paul Ham titled, “Hiroshima Nagasaki.” The book review mentions Hersey’s book as the best representative of the first wave of moral revulsion over the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Indeed, Hersey’s accounts of specific bombing victims and the general aftermath in Hiroshima paint a stark and gloomy picture.

With the specter of nuclear weapons ever-lurking in the shadows, the warfare currently raging on several world stages along with these specific recent reminders of Hiroshima prompted me to write this blog-post.

I cannot think of a more important question for us, the denizens of this planet, to ask ourselves than the one posed in the title of this post: “Is Civilization Going Critical?”

What does that mean? In nuclear weapons parlance, “going critical” refers to the condition whereby enough radioactive material is effectively combined to enable a nuclear “chain reaction.” A chain reaction occurs during the “fission” process whereby atoms are split apart releasing both energy and enough free neutrons which act as new “bullets” to split yet other neighboring atoms in a rapidly cascading scenario.

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When the state of criticality is met, runaway fission occurs, accompanied by a tremendous, almost instantaneous release of nuclear energy in accordance with Einstein’s most famous prediction that e = mc2. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled and sustained in a lab environment without catastrophic results as demonstrated by Enrico Fermi and his team of physicists. They were an advanced “arm” of the Manhattan Project, the government’s crash program in World War Two to build the first atomic bomb. Fermi and his team demonstrated the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction on Dec.2, 1942 while working under the old football bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. In contrast with Fermi’s ability to moderate his chain reaction, in a nuclear weapon once criticality is reached in the bomb’s radioactive core, the reaction is unstoppable and virtually instantaneous.

There is no going back. It is that statement which frightens me about the state of world affairs, today. Are we, the societies which comprise our earthly civilization, approaching a point of criticality in our global relationships, and, given our powers of mutual mass destruction, risking a point of no return? Is a flash-point possible which triggers a chain reaction of events from which there is no turning back? I fear that is so.

Here are several questions which deserve serious consideration:

-When any country announces that it will do whatever it needs to do to protect its people, that is precisely what its citizens expect. But how far does that policy extend, and at what point are a country’s citizens deemed to be in mortal danger to the point where all options should be on the table?

-What would happen to any state or region of the globe deemed “responsible” if even a crude nuclear device were detonated in or over the financial center of New York City? While at this time, only Russia and China have nuclear arsenals large enough to truly destroy the United States in a physical sense, the damage inflicted by a single, small nuclear strike on New York City to this country’s economy and our way of life, would constitute a “virtual destruction” of the country as we know it. The retaliatory price to be paid would, almost certainly, be massive for the actual or perhaps even for a “perceived” perpetrator. And then what follows?

-What about an unintentional or unwarranted nuclear first-strike? Never say “impossible” – extremely unlikely, yes, but once nuclear-tipped missiles are launched, they cannot be called back – a necessary “precaution,” if you will. One thing is certain: The brilliance of the scientific/engineering community in decoding the laws of physics and fabricating such powerful weapons will never be matched by a similar competence and capability of the bureaucrats who control them. Perhaps you have heard the news of our recent missile silo problems in that regard.

-And finally: At what point will the common framework of “humanity” supersede the more secondary distinctions which so prevail today – nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, tribal allegiances, etc.?

Are Humans Capable of Managing
the Technologies They Create?

Increasingly, the evidence says no. Look at the recent reports of massive cyber-theft. Do you recall the live smallpox virus recently found in a cardboard box at some abandoned health facility? By long-standing international agreement, there are only two designated sites on the planet which are authorized to possess live smallpox… under lock-and-key: Russia and here, in the United States. These two examples illustrate the overriding fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – a truism that will always haunt our efforts to manage technology. There will always be weak links and vulnerabilities! On a more benign level, many of today’s roads cannot handle the ridiculous commute traffic we have created, a legacy of that truly wonderful engineering triumph, the automobile. Say, wasn’t the automobile supposed to free us from our shackles?

Back to the Real Question

The real question is, of course: What policies will govern the possible use or non-use of acquired nuclear weapons? Implicit in any such discussion is the whole concept of “civilian casualties” in warfare, a topic so often pertinent to the conflicts we hear reported every day. There seem to be no satisfactory answers to that issue and to the even larger questions – and that is very troubling.  As the “Wall Street Journal” book review reported, “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member of the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which bombed Hiroshima, died last month. His view of modern warfare discounted any application of moral logic: “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” As General William T. Sherman so aptly stated and demonstrated in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, “War is hell,” and there is no other way around it. The world had better think long and hard about that reality, for the potential stakes today are immense, and there is no room or time for second-thoughts.

A Postscript:

Two years ago, Linda and I toured Hyde Park on the Hudson in upper New York. We found it fascinating, and the more we learn about Franklin Roosevelt, the man and the politician, the more we want to know. As our little tour group assembled in front of the venerable old mansion which was Roosevelt’s family home for generations, our middle-aged tour guide with a back-east accent said something unusual, something which certainly struck a chord with me.

NY 2012_150_AlanPS“See that door over there at the right-corner of the house?” he asked. He went on to explain that is where Franklin Roosevelt and long-time friend and White House advisor, Harry Hopkins, made the most important decision of Roosevelt’s long career. In that little corner office, they set in motion the Manhattan Project, the full-out, no-expense-spared effort to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do it. The nuclear race was on. “A most unusual opening remark for a tour guide,” was my first reaction. My long interest in the Manhattan Project and all that it signifies, however, made me nod in agreement. Our guide had obviously studied his history and had similar viewpoints on that particular matter – very interesting!

For readers who would like to know more about the Manhattan Project and the ramifications which stem from its success, I whole-heartedly recommend the documentary film by Jon Else, “The Day After Trinity.” It is the best of the many and varied fine documentaries I have in my video library. It is a film which everyone should watch, and one which no one who does watch will forget. It is not a film about bombs, or science, or merely history – it is first and foremost a human story, centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant principal architect of the bomb. The story, as related by many of the key players on the project, delivers a message for all humanity. Oppenheimer’s eyes on the DVD cover convey a message about the truth he had quickly recognized: The nuclear genie is loose, and it is already too late to control it.

IMG_1376PSDespite my enthusiastic testimonial for this film, I have no connection whatsoever with its sales or marketing. My mission here, as always, is to pass along something that I deem special to the readers of my blog.