Determinism

In the early years of the 19th century, science was on a roll. The dark days of alchemy were beginning to give way to the modern science of chemistry as we know it today, the world of physics and the study of electromagnetism were starting to get going, and the world was on the brink of an industrial revolution that would be powered by scientists and engineers. Slowly, we were beginning to piece together exactly how our world works, and some dared to dream of a day where we might understand all of it. Yes, it would be a long way off, yes there would be stumbling blocks, but maybe, just maybe, so long as we don’t discover anything inconvenient like advanced cosmology, we might one day begin to see the light at the end of the long tunnel of science.

Most of this stuff was the preserve of hopeless dreamers, but in the year 1814 a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, responsible for underpinning vast quantities of modern mathematics and cosmology, called Pierre-Simon Laplace published a bold new article that took this concept to extremes. Laplace lived in the age of ‘the clockwork universe’, a theory that held Newton’s laws of motion to be sacrosanct truths and claimed that these laws of physics caused the universe to just keep on ticking over, just like the mechanical innards of a clock- and just like a clock, the universe was predictable. Just as one hour after five o clock will always be six, presuming a perfect clock, so every result in the world can be predicted from the results. Laplace’s arguments took such theory to its logical conclusion; if some vast intellect were able to know the precise positions of every particle in the universe, and all the forces and motions of them, at a single point in time, then using the laws of physics such an intellect would be able to know everything, see into the past, and predict the future.

Those who believed in this theory were generally disapproved of by the Church for devaluing the role of God and the unaccountable divine, whilst others thought it implied a lack of free will (although these issues are still considered somewhat up for debate to this day). However, among the scientific community Laplace’s ideas conjured up a flurry of debate; some entirely believed in the concept of a predictable universe, in the theory of scientific determinism (as it became known), whilst others pointed out the sheer difficulty in getting any ‘vast intellect’ to fully comprehend so much as a heap of sand as making Laplace’s arguments completely pointless. Other, far later, observers, would call into question some of the axiom’s upon which the model of the clockwork universe was based, such as Newton’s laws of motion (which collapse when one does not take into account relativity at very high velocities); but the majority of the scientific community was rather taken with the idea that they could know everything about something should they choose to. Perhaps the universe was a bit much, but being able to predict everything, to an infinitely precise degree, about a few atoms perhaps, seemed like a very tempting idea, offering a delightful sense of certainty. More than anything, to these scientists there work now had one overarching goal; to complete the laws necessary to provide a deterministic picture of the universe.

However, by the late 19th century scientific determinism was beginning to stand on rather shaky ground; although  the attack against it came from the rather unexpected direction of science being used to support the religious viewpoint. By this time the laws of thermodynamics, detailing the behaviour of molecules in relation to the heat energy they have, had been formulated, and fundamental to the second law of thermodynamics (which is, to this day, one of the fundamental principles of physics) was the concept of entropy.  Entropy (denoted in physics by the symbol S, for no obvious reason) is a measure of the degree of uncertainty or ‘randomness’ inherent in the universe; or, for want of a clearer explanation, consider a sandy beach. All of the grains of sand in the beach can be arranged in a vast number of different ways to form the shape of a disorganised heap, but if we make a giant, detailed sandcastle instead there are far fewer arrangements of the molecules of sand that will result in the same structure. Therefore, if we just consider the two situations separately, it is far, far more likely that we will end up with a disorganised ‘beach’ structure rather than a castle forming of its own accord (which is why sandcastles don’t spring fully formed from the sea), and we say that the beach has a higher degree of entropy than the castle. This increased likelihood of higher entropy situations, on an atomic scale, means that the universe tends to increase the overall level of entropy in it; if we attempt to impose order upon it (by making a sandcastle, rather than waiting for one to be formed purely by chance), we must input energy, which increases the entropy of the surrounding air and thus resulting in a net entropy increase. This is the second law of thermodynamics; entropy always increases, and this principle underlies vast quantities of modern physics and chemistry.

If we extrapolate this situation backwards, we realise that the universe must have had a definite beginning at some point; a starting point of order from which things get steadily more chaotic, for order cannot increase infinitely as we look backwards in time. This suggests some point at which our current universe sprang into being, including all the laws of physics that make it up; but this cannot have occurred under ‘our’ laws of physics that we experience in the everyday universe, as they could not kickstart their own existence. There must, therefore, have been some other, higher power to get the clockwork universe in motion, destroying the image of it as some eternal, unquestionable predictive cycle. At the time, this was seen as vindicating the idea of the existence of God to start everything off; it would be some years before Edwin Hubble would venture the Big Bang Theory, but even now we understand next to nothing about the moment of our creation.

However, this argument wasn’t exactly a death knell for determinism; after all, the laws of physics could still describe our existing universe as a ticking clock, surely? True; the killer blow for that idea would come from Werner Heisenburg in 1927.

Heisenburg was a particle physicist, often described as the person who invented quantum mechanics (a paper which won him a Nobel prize). The key feature of his work here was the concept of uncertainty on a subatomic level; that certain properties, such as the position and momentum of a particle, are impossible to know exactly at any one time. There is an incredibly complicated explanation for this concerning wave functions and matrix algebra, but a simpler way to explain part of the concept concerns how we examine something’s position (apologies in advance to all physics students I end up annoying). If we want to know where something is, then the tried and tested method is to look at the thing; this requires photons of light to bounce off the object and enter our eyes, or hypersensitive measuring equipment if we want to get really advanced. However, at a subatomic level a photon of light represents a sizeable chunk of energy, so when it bounces off an atom or subatomic particle, allowing us to know where it is, it so messes around with the atom’s energy that it changes its velocity and momentum, although we cannot predict how. Thus, the more precisely we try to measure the position of something, the less accurately we are able to know its velocity (and vice versa; I recognise this explanation is incomplete, but can we just take it as red that finer minds than mine agree on this point). Therefore, we cannot ever measure every property of every particle in a given space, never mind the engineering challenge; it’s simply not possible.

This idea did not enter the scientific consciousness comfortably; many scientists were incensed by the idea that they couldn’t know everything, that their goal of an entirely predictable, deterministic universe would forever remain unfulfilled. Einstein was a particularly vocal critic, dedicating the rest of his life’s work to attempting to disprove quantum mechanics and back up his famous statement that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. But eventually the scientific world came to accept the truth; that determinism was dead. The universe would never seem so sure and predictable again.

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What we know and what we understand are two very different things…

If the whole Y2K debacle over a decade ago taught us anything, it was that the vast majority of the population did not understand the little plastic boxes known as computers that were rapidly filling up their homes. Nothing especially wrong or unusual about this- there’s a lot of things that only a few nerds understand properly, an awful lot of other stuff in our life to understand, and in any case the personal computer had only just started to become commonplace. However, over 12 and a half years later, the general understanding of a lot of us does not appear to have increased to any significant degree, and we still remain largely ignorant of these little feats of electronic witchcraft. Oh sure, we can work and operate them (most of us anyway), and we know roughly what they do, but as to exactly how they operate, precisely how they carry out their tasks? Sorry, not a clue.

This is largely understandable, particularly given the value of ‘understand’ that is applicable in computer-based situations. Computers are a rare example of a complex system that an expert is genuinely capable of understanding, in minute detail, every single aspect of the system’s working, both what it does, why it is there, and why it is (or, in some cases, shouldn’t be) constructed to that particular specification. To understand a computer in its entirety, therefore, is an equally complex job, and this is one very good reason why computer nerds tend to be a quite solitary bunch, with quite few links to the rest of us and, indeed, the outside world at large.

One person who does not understand computers very well is me, despite the fact that I have been using them, in one form or another, for as long as I can comfortably remember. Over this summer, however, I had quite a lot of free time on my hands, and part of that time was spent finally relenting to the badgering of a friend and having a go with Linux (Ubuntu if you really want to know) for the first time. Since I like to do my background research before getting stuck into any project, this necessitated quite some research into the hows and whys of its installation, along with which came quite a lot of info as to the hows and practicalities of my computer generally. I thought, then, that I might spend the next couple of posts or so detailing some of what I learned, building up a picture of a computer’s functioning from the ground up, and starting with a bit of a history lesson…

‘Computer’ was originally a job title, the job itself being akin to accountancy without the imagination. A computer was a number-cruncher, a supposedly infallible data processing machine employed to perform a range of jobs ranging from astronomical prediction to calculating interest. The job was a fairly good one, anyone clever enough to land it probably doing well by the standards of his age, but the output wasn’t. The human brain is not built for infallibility and, not infrequently, would make mistakes. Most of these undoubtedly went unnoticed or at least rarely caused significant harm, but the system was nonetheless inefficient. Abacuses, log tables and slide rules all aided arithmetic manipulation to a great degree in their respective fields, but true infallibility was unachievable whilst still reliant on the human mind.

Enter Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician and pioneer of probability theory (among other things), who invented the mechanical calculator aged just 19, in 1642. His original design wasn’t much more than a counting machine, a sequence of cogs and wheels so constructed as to able to count and convert between units, tens, hundreds and so on (ie a turn of 4 spaces on the ‘units’ cog whilst a seven was already counted would bring up eleven), as well as being able to work with currency denominations and distances as well. However, it could also subtract, multiply and divide (with some difficulty), and moreover proved an important point- that a mechanical machine could cut out the human error factor and reduce any inaccuracy to one of simply entering the wrong number.

Pascal’s machine was both expensive and complicated, meaning only twenty were ever made, but his was the only working mechanical calculator of the 17th century. Several, of a range of designs, were built during the 18th century as show pieces, but by the 19th the release of Thomas de Colmar’s Arithmometer, after 30 years of development, signified the birth of an industry. It wasn’t a large one, since the machines were still expensive and only of limited use, but de Colmar’s machine was the simplest and most reliable model yet. Around 3,000 mechanical calculators, of various designs and manufacturers, were sold by 1890, but by then the field had been given an unexpected shuffling.

Just two years after de Colmar had first patented his pre-development Arithmometer, an Englishmen by the name of Charles Babbage showed an interesting-looking pile of brass to a few friends and associates- a small assembly of cogs and wheels that he said was merely a precursor to the design of a far larger machine: his difference engine. The mathematical workings of his design were based on Newton polynomials, a fiddly bit of maths that I won’t even pretend to understand, but that could be used to closely approximate logarithmic and trigonometric functions. However, what made the difference engine special was that the original setup of the device, the positions of the various columns and so forth, determined what function the machine performed. This was more than just a simple device for adding up, this was beginning to look like a programmable computer.

Babbage’s machine was not the all-conquering revolutionary design the hype about it might have you believe. Babbage was commissioned to build one by the British government for military purposes, but since Babbage was often brash, once claiming that he could not fathom the idiocy of the mind that would think up a question an MP had just asked him, and prized academia above fiscal matters & practicality, the idea fell through. After investing £17,000 in his machine before realising that he had switched to working on a new and improved design known as the analytical engine, they pulled the plug and the machine never got made. Neither did the analytical engine, which is a crying shame; this was the first true computer design, with two separate inputs for both data and the required program, which could be a lot more complicated than just adding or subtracting, and an integrated memory system. It could even print results on one of three printers, in what could be considered the first human interfacing system (akin to a modern-day monitor), and had ‘control flow systems’ incorporated to ensure the performing of programs occurred in the correct order. We may never know, since it has never been built, whether Babbage’s analytical engine would have worked, but a later model of his difference engine was built for the London Science Museum in 1991, yielding accurate results to 31 decimal places.

…and I appear to have run on a bit further than intended. No matter- my next post will continue this journey down the history of the computer, and we’ll see if I can get onto any actual explanation of how the things work.