Saturday, March 03, 2012

"Only he was fully awake"

A great quote from this review of George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral. Despite the title, von Neumann is the central character.

... mathematician John von Neumann, ... was incomparably intelligent, so bright that, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, "only he was fully awake."

More Wigner quotes:

I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me.

... But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original.

Von Neumann in action.

I'm doing my best to increase the number of future humans who will be "fully awake" ;-) My current estimate is that one or two hundred common mutations (affecting only a small subset of the thousands of loci that influence intelligence) are what separate an ordinary person from a vN. There's plenty of additive variance to be exploited, and many desirable human phenotypes that have never been realized. (Also some dangerous ones.)

... The most extensive selection experiment, at least the one that has continued for the longest time, is the selection for oil and protein content in maize (Dudley 2007). These experiments began near the end of the nineteenth century and still continue; there are now more than 100 generations of selection. Remarkably, selection for high oil content and similarly, but less strikingly, selection for high protein, continue to make progress. There seems to be no diminishing of selectable variance in the population. The effect of selection is enormous: the difference in oil content between the high and low selected strains is some 32 times the original standard deviation.

35 comments:

botti said...

***I'm doing my best to increase the number of future humans who will be "fully awake" ;-) ***

In the meantime there is caffeine and transcranial direct current stimulation :)

 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=amping-up-brain-function

Jeffer J said...

Yeah. While you're looking for genes, Steve, what do you think of improving cognition right now?

Here are some other examples, botti. Probably not replicated by many studies, and the last one sounds fishy:
http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pellissier20120202

Emil 'Deleet' Kirkegaard said...

For a speculative approach. Shouldn't we start selecting for chimps based on intelligence? It won't take as long as with humans (faster reproductive pattern) but there is a high chance the genes associated with intelligence in chimps have analogous versions in humans. If we map the genes of every generation of chimps, we should be able to see which ones confer intelligence, no? For a faster approach, we can do it with rats and mice but those are father away from us evolutionary and so the chance that the genes work (more or less) the same is smaller. I know that different studies have already bred for smart rats (based on maze tests). It seems to me that we should continue. It is an interesting question: How smart can we breed rats to be?

botti said...

***last one sounds fishy:***

Yeah, literally :) I had read of Win Wenger previously. I remember another of his suggestions was "image streaming" http://www.winwenger.com/ebooks/guaran4.htm

Anonymous said...

Can anyone comment on their personal experience with piracetam or something similar (and legal) ? What dosage, how long did it take to kick in, what were the benefits?

Robert Sykes said...

In grad school back in the 60s, I had a teacher who was actually intimidating because of his intellect. He went to a Gordon conference once and was in a room with Wigner and other physicists who were discussing some abstract point in a quantum mechanics seminar. At one point Wigner proceeded to develop a long, complicated mathematical derivation in his head. My teacher was intimidated by Wigner. What must Einstein and von Neumann been like?

ytrewq123 said...

Can anyone comment on Piracetam or something similar (and *legal* in the US)? What were the benefits, side effects, and what was the dosage attempted? 

JustinLoe said...

I believe Richard Feynman stated something to the effect that he tried to derive Relativity himself and couldn't understand how Einstein did it. I don't know whether that's true, or Feynman was simply being modest (or perhaps he never said it).

JustinLoe said...

There isn't one drug available for improving higher-order cognition.

gwern0 said...

Piracetam is probably genuine, my impression is - but the effect size is pretty small. It may not be worth your time.

gwern0 said...

Chimps are expensive to raise and maintain (this is one reason why their use is diminishing). Going from a vague half-remembered article, I think they're something like half a million plus in lifetime expenses.

Given that whole genome sequencing is currently or in the next handful of years going to hit $1k a genome, what makes more sense - sequencing >500 high-IQ *humans* whose variations are directly applicable to other humans, or raising one single chimp who may get sick and die early on you (or basically anything) and whose single genome would be of little use to humans?

If it doesn't make sense now, will it make sense when sequencing has hit $500 a genome? Or $100 a genome?

gwern0 said...

Caffeine has side-effects and demerits, much like the amphetamine family - it's just weaker, so you don't notice them as much. Now, tDCS is currently looking awfully promising...

Abett Tabett said...

Any comments regarding dual-n-back influence on gf? I've read a paper that speculates about this and seems convincing. Is working memory really trainable?

Bobdisqus said...

This makes me feel sleepy and inadequate.  Is there any evidence for a Flynn Effect in the +3sigma community?

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

I wish there was a way to "dislike" posts being critical of caffeine.

ytrewq123 said...

Download a free/inexpensive android/iphone app and try it yourself. There's no real barrier here except inertia/laziness. I'm planning on doing both dual n-back and Piracetam over 2 months, one after another, and evaluating myself every week to see if/how it changes my GRE score (V - old pattern). Unfortunately Q has a low threshold even with the new pattern.    

gwern0 said...

Carp all you want - but caffeine will still have negatives to it (like only restoring baseline performance after addiction or inhibiting recall of low-activation memories or words). It's no modafinil, that's for sure!

ytrewq123 said...

Btw, interesting observations on nootropics on your site. 

Shan'do Stormrage said...

There are many doses and combinations discussed on the internet, here are some standard opinions: this guy ( http://tiny.cc/Ujdf2b ) claims to have experienced photographic memory from pramiracetam (I tend to believe him) and many people base their experiments on this: http://tiny.cc/vmdf2b .

(There are whole forums and even a Subreddit devoted to nootropics).

botti said...

I tried mybraintrainer a couple of years ago. I didn't do any tests, but at work felt slightly more alert. I also found my reactions while driving around town felt sharper.

 https://www.mybraintrainer.com/account/renew.asp?user_id=

jmct said...

Isn't the usual story told about von Neumann is the train problem at the cocktail party?

The thing about von Neumann is that he was all over the place, in that he did stuff for physics, computing... He's also the only early 20th century genius guy that one could imagine doing something like running a railroad competently. Could anyone imagine Kurt Godel succeeding in a real job in the real world like that?

ytrewq123 said...

Thanks!

ytrewq123 said...

The train problem is not hard to do mentally in under a couple of minutes even if you invoke an infinite series. I'd wager  all of the mathcounts finalists can do it in under 30 seconds. 

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

You have your flowery talk, and I have my NEED FOR MY CHEMICALS. 

Out of purely academic interest however, what nootropic joyrides do you hypothetically enjoy yourself? And what site does ytrewq123 refer to.

gwern0 said...

http://www.gwern.net/Nootropics I'm guessing.

jmct said...

 Yeah, it's easy to solve, in way less that a couple of minutes, after one knows the trick. The impressive part of the story is that he applied it and solved the problem instantly after being given the problem bolt from the blue, after a few martinis or whatever his poison was. I've also read accounts of the story that his wife was the one who did it.

Jorge Donatello said...

Here is Von Neumann in action -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLbllFHBQM4. His eyes are wide, a sign of alertness but, nothing too extraordinary (from this one video).

(What happened to this the first time I posted? Automatic blocking of urls? I think his being the only one awake, his face while talking would be relevant.)

Jorge Donatello said...

 http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/get-smart/ <- has much better ideas. Dig up and sequence the DNA of the smartest people, to learn good stabs at what 'safe' changes are to brain DNA.

HL14 said...

Here's the link to Aspray's review: 

http://www.siam.org/news/news.php?id=795

steve hsu said...

From the review:

"McCartney's particular slant may also have its origins in current attitudes. In the 1960s and 1970s, the mathematical aspects of computer science were ascendant; for example, there was a strong correlation between the rankings of computer science departments in the U.S. and the quality of their theory faculty. In the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a shift in academia toward the engineering aspects of computer science. Herman Goldstine's The Computer From Pascal to von Neumann---published in 1972, the heart of the mathematical era---argues for the prominence of von Neumann's contribution to the stored-program theory over the engineering contributions of Eckert and Mauchly. These early developments have been reinterpreted over the last fifteen years, giving more emphasis to the machine builders and less to the theorizers. McCartney is not a member of the computer community and does not seem aware of this historiographic shift, but as a journalist he has picked up on the prevailing attitude in the practitioner community."

I don't think McCartney's take on all this is very reliable. His views on Atanasoff were, IIRC, incorrect as well. (See my post on Atanasoff and some of the links there.)

It's also fair to say that although vN was the most brilliant, he clearly was not the most creative or original. He was surpassed by Einstein (as Wigner notes), but was also scooped by Godel and others. In some sense, Turing's contributions may also be seen as greater in the fullness of time.

HL14 said...

Do you dispute this account:

"By the time von Neumann joined the project, the ENIAC design was set and construction was well under way. Eckert, Mauchly, and others had already been meeting occasionally for more than half a year to discuss the design of the successor machine, the EDVAC. Von Neumann joined in on these discussions when he was available, every month or two. During an extended stay at Los Alamos, he wrote the Draft Report on EDVAC, which Goldstine distributed widely. Much to Eckert and Mauchly's annoyance, von Neumann's name was the only one to appear on the document."

Or do you believe Eckert, Mauchly, et al didn't really make any significant theoretical contributions? That's unlikely. They developed the stored-program concept central to the von Neumann architecture before von Neumann arrived on the scene.

steve hsu said...

I've never looked carefully into this question. However, creating the first engineering instantiation of an idea is not equivalent to having a deep theoretical understanding of the idea (there are many examples of this in history; the inventor of the steam engine did not have a deep grasp of thermodynamics, etc.). The reviewer you linked to suggests that computer scientists gave vN credit primarily for elucidating the theoretical aspects of what came to be known as vN architecture. Whether this was just or not I do not know.

It happens that I looked into some of McCartney's claims about Eckert and Mauchly vs Atanasoff (these arose in the court case that awarded Atanasoff the patent for the first digital computer), and it seemed clear to me that McCartney was incorrect. See the very detailed research by Alice and Arthur Burks. This alone is enough to make me doubt what McCartney has to say about vN.

HL14 said...

The reviewer suggests vN got credit because he was an already renowned figure whose name was the only one to appear in the draft that was disseminated by a friend who was well-connected to government and academic circles.

It's unlikely they had no theoretical understanding. They weren't just garage tinkerers. They pioneered fundamental computer concepts including the stored program, subroutines, programming languages. They developed the stored-program concept central to the von Neumann architecture before von Neumann got there. Von Neumann may have just translated the concepts developed and discussed by Eckert, Mauchly, et al into formal logic.

Also, McCartney isn't the only one claiming this.

Ken Javor said...

The problem is for every Von Neumann or Einstein in the last 100 years, we are getting billions of mindless, unproductive losers living off the Obama gravy train.,

Albert Heisenberg said...

I remember reading that somewhere too. Einstein was an underrated mathematician, he out-thought Hilbert for General Relativity. He also out-thought Poincare for Special Relativity (it's complicated but read Harvey Brown). Einstein was a phenomenal genius, a one every 300 years kind of mind. Neumann was a genius too, a different kind of mind though. Impressive nonetheless.

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