Quantum Computers May Revolutionize Nanotechnology and Drug Design


“Scott Aaronson.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. D5) When people hear that I work on quantum computing — one of the most radical proposals for the future of computation — their first question is usually, “So when can I expect a working quantum computer on my desk?” Often they bring up breathless news reports about commercial quantum computers right around the corner. After I explain the strained relationship between those reports and reality, they ask: “Then when? In 10 years? Twenty?”

Unfortunately, this is sort of like asking Charles Babbage, who drew up the first blueprints for a general-purpose computer in the 1830s, whether his contraption would be hitting store shelves by the 1840s or the 1850s. Could Babbage have foreseen the specific technologies — the vacuum tube and transistor — that would make his vision a reality more than a century later? Today’s quantum computing researchers are in a similar bind. They have a compelling blueprint for a new type of computer, one that could, in seconds, solve certain problems that would probably take eons for today’s fastest supercomputers. But some of the required construction materials don’t yet exist.
. . .
While code-breaking understandably grabs the headlines, it’s the more humdrum application of quantum computers — simulating quantum physics and chemistry — that has the potential to revolutionize fields from nanotechnology to drug design.
. . .
Like fusion power, practical quantum computers are a tantalizing possibility that the 21st century may or may not bring — depending on the jagged course not only of science and technology, but of politics and economics.

For the full commentary, see:
SCOTT AARONSON. “ESSAY; Quantum Computing Promises New Insights, Not Just Supermachines.” The New York Times (Tues., December 6, 2011): D5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated December 5, 2011.)

Museum Visitors Vote With Feet for Reagan Over Lincoln

(p. 9A) For the first time since it opened, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Mu­seum in Springfield, Ill., is no longer the nation’s most visited presidential museum. It’s been overtaken by Ronald Reagan’s museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
Lincoln’s museum had been tops since it opened in 2005, rid­ing the appeal of its Disney-like re-creations of the president’s life. But last year it counted 293,135 visitors — short of Rea­gan’s 367,506.

For the full story, see:
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH. “Hail to the new chief.” Omaha World-Herald (Sun., March 18, 2012): 9A.

Small Is Beautiful as Life Adapts to Global Warming

SifrhippusFirstHorse2012-03-10.jpg “Artist’s reconstruction of Sifrhippus sandrae (right) touching noses with a modern Morgan horse (left) that stands about 5 feet high at the shoulders and weighs approximately 1000 lbs.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) The horse (siff-RIP-us, if you have to say the name out loud) lived in what is still horse country, in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, where wild mustangs roam.
. . .
Its preserved fossils, abundant in the Bighorn Basin, provide an excellent record of its size change over a 175,000-year warm period in the Earth’s history known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, when temperatures are estimated to have risen by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit at the start, and dropped again at the end.
Scientists have known that many mammals appear to have shrunk during the warming period, and the phenomenon fits well with what is known as Bergmann’s rule, which says, roughly, that mammals of a given genus or species are smaller in hotter climates.
Although the rule refers to differences in location, it seemed also to apply to changes over time. But fine enough detail was lacking until now.
In Science, Ross Secord, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Jonathan Bloch, of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville; and a team of other researchers report on the collection and analysis of Sifrhippus fossils from the Bighorn Basin.
They report that the little horse got 30 percent smaller over the first 130,000 years, and then — as always seems to happen with weight loss — shot back up and got 75 percent bigger over the next 45,000 years.
. . .
“It seems to be natural selection,” said Dr. Secord. He said animals evolved to be smaller during warming because smaller animals did better in that environment, perhaps because the smaller an animal is, the easier it is to shed excess heat.

For the full story, see:
JAMES GORMAN. “As the Planet Heated Up, First Horse Got Tinier .” The New York Times (Tues., February 28, 2012): D3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated February 23 [sic], 2012 and has the title “A Tiny Horse That Got Even Tinier as the Planet Heated Up.”)

Innovative Entrepreneurs Need to Be Able to Fire People

(p. 116) Jobs met with the remaining employees soon after the layoffs and brought his reality distortion field with him. “You’re seeing your friends packing their stuff up and pushing it out to their cars,” Phillips remembered, “and yet somehow he had convinced you that that was the greatest possible thing that could happen.”
Within the Silicon Valley community, the talk was not of the way Jobs had handled his former employees at Pixar, but of his having kept Pixar going at all. It seemed to make little sense from a business point of view. For all his bravado about RenderMan, his motivation was likely a matter of status as much as economics. After his rise and fall at Apple, the onus was on him either to create another success story or to leave his peers to conclude that the first one had been a quirk of fate.
“It wasn’t really working,” Smith said of Pixar’s early years. “In fact, that’s being kind of gentle. We should have failed. But it seemed to me that Steve just would not suffer a defeat. He couldn’t sustain it.”

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
(Note: italics in original.)
(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

Diamond to Teach Creative Destruction Colloquium in Fall 2012


Colloquium Rationale:
Creative destruction is the process through which innovative new products are created, and older obsolete products are destroyed. In transportation, for example, cars creatively destroyed the horse and buggy, trains creatively destroyed horse-drawn wagons. Such innovations contribute to longer and richer lives, but may come at the cost of greater uncertainty in the labor market. Schumpeter claimed that the process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. Although Nobel-prize-winner George Stigler has described creative destruction as “heresy,” a growing number of economists and non-economists have found the concept useful in understanding the world. While most of the emphasis will be on the implications of creative destruction for business and the economy, the discussion will sometimes involve issues related to information science, sociology, medicine, law, engineering, psychology, literature, political science, architecture, and history.

You can hear me talking about last year’s version of the Creative Destruction Colloquium (which was offered last year under a different course number and a slightly different title) in the following YouTube video:

During Dreams Brain Extracts Meaning from Fragile Memories

(p. C4) In the past, people often had one explanation for sleep and another for dreams. That now seems wrong. One of the chief functions of sleep seems to be achieved during dreaming: the consolidation of memory. Sleep certainly improves memory performance of several different kinds: emotional, spatial, procedural and verbal.

But the new thinking is that, during sleep, the brain reprocesses or transforms fragile new memories into more permanent forms, sets them in mental context and extracts their meaning. And dreaming is a symptom that this is going on.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; To Sleep, Perchance to Dream–But Why?” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 3, 2011): C4.

Purging Senescent Cells Makes Mice More Youthful and Vigorous


“CELL SUICIDE. A subdermal fat layer, middle, in a mouse purged of senescent cells. These mice can run much longer and have larger fat deposits.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) Until recently, few people gave much thought to senescent cells. They are cells that linger in the body even after they have lost the ability to divide.

But on Nov. 2, in what could be a landmark experiment in the study of aging, researchers at the Mayo Clinic reported that if you purge the body of its senescent cells, the tissues remain youthful and vigorous.
. . .
. . . the startling result is plausible because it ties together an emerging body of knowledge about senescent cells. And it raises the possibility that attacks on the cells might postpone the diseases of aging and let people live out more of their life span in good health.
. . .
The finding was made in a strain of mice that age fast and usually die of heart arrhythmia. So despite their healthier tissues, the mice purged of senescent cells died at the usual age of heart problems. Dr. van Deursen’s team is now testing to see whether normal mice will live longer when purged of senescent cells.
The treatment was started when the normal mice were a year old, and they have now been treated for five months. Next month they will run treadmill tests to see if they are in better shape than a comparison group of untreated mice, Dr. van Deursen said.
The genetic method used to purge mice of senescent cells cannot be used in people. Instead of trying to remove senescent cells from elderly people, Dr. Peeper believes, it may be more effective to identify which of the factors that the senescent cells secrete are the source of their ill effects and to develop drugs that block these factors.
But Dr. van Deursen thinks it would be better to go after the senescent cells themselves. In his view it should be easy enough by trial and error to find chemicals that selectively destroy senescent cells, just like the targeted chemicals now used to treat certain kinds of cancer. And unlike the cancer cells, which proliferate so fast that they soon develop resistance, the senescent cells cannot replicate, so they should be easy targets.
Several companies and individuals have already approached the Mayo Clinic to explore developing such drugs. “They think it’s possible, and they are very enthusiastic,” Dr. van Deursen said. “So I can guarantee that there will be initiatives to find drugs that kill senescent cells and mimic the system that we have developed in the mouse.”
. . .
“If you remove the senescent cells you improve things considerably, but you can’t reverse the process or completely stop the aging because it has other causes,” Dr. van Deursen said. “Personally I think we can slow aging down, and over time we will become more and more successful.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. “In Body’s Shield Against Cancer, a Culprit in Aging May Lurk.” The New York Times (Tues., November 22, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated November 21, 2011.)

The Intensity of Entrepreneur Jobs

(p. 114) As Jobs was criticizing the Pixar managers for failing to hit a delivery date on a project, Smith interrupted and said, “Steve, but you haven’t delivered your board on time”–meaning, a board for the NeXT computer.
It was the sort of remark Jobs normally might have put up with, but it seemed Smith had crossed a line by joking about Jobs’s [sic] computer. “He went completely nonlinear,” Smith recalled. “He went crazy on me and started insulting my accent.”
Jobs had homed in on a sensitive spot. Smith’s native southwestern accent, which he had mostly suppressed since his days as an academic in New York City, sometimes reemerged in moments of stress. Jobs mocked it.
“So I went nonlinear, too, which I had never done before or since,” Smith remembered. “We’re screaming at each other, and our faces are about three inches apart.”
There was an unspoken understanding around Jobs that the whiteboard in his office was part of his personal space–no one else was to write on it. As the confrontation went on, Smith defiantly marched past him and started writing on the whiteboard. “You can’t do that,” Jobs interjected. When Smith continued writing, Jobs stormed out of the room.
To outward appearances, the conflict blew over, but the men’s relationship would never be the same.

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
(Note: italics in original.)
(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

Faraday and Einstein Were Visual and Physical Thinkers, Not Mathematicians


Source of book image: http://www.rsc.org/images/Faraday_Chemical_History-of-a-Candle_180_tcm18-210390.jpg

(p. C6) Michael Faraday is one of the most beguiling and lovable figures in the history of science. Though he could not understand a single equation, he deduced the essential structure of the laws of electromagnetism through visualization and physical intuition. (James Clerk Maxwell would later give them mathematical form.) Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday over his desk, for Einstein also thought of himself primarily as a visual and physical thinker, not an abstract mathematician.
. . .
Faraday’s text is still charming and rich, a judgment that few popular works on science could sustain after so many years. Though he addresses himself to an “auditory of juveniles,” he calls for his audience to follow a close chain of reasoning presented through a series of experiments and deductions.
. . .
. . . : “In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle,” as Faraday illustrates in his experiments.
In his closing, he turns from our metabolic resemblance to a candle to his deeper wish that “you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you.”

For the full review, see:
PETER PESIC. “BOOKSHELF; Keeper of the Flame.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Book under review:
Faraday, Michael. The Chemical History of a Candle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2011.

Lower Grades for Male Spectators When Their Team Wins

(p. C4) Big-time college-football teams may build school spirit, but they also hurt the grades of male students in the bleachers–at least when the teams are winning, a study suggests.

Economists at the University of Oregon tracked the grades of students there (athletes on all teams excluded) from 1999 through 2007, mapping them against the record of the Ducks, whose fortunes varied from season to season.

For the full story, see:
Christopher Shea. “Week in Ideas: Education Dumbed Down by Football.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 24, 2011): C4.

Paper summarized:
Lindo, Jason M., Isaac D. Swensen, and Glen R. Waddell. “Are Big-Time Sports a Threat to Student Achievement?” NBER Working Paper # 17677, December 2011.