Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Jack Kirby Centennial Lecture

The kind of deep and heartfelt tribute only a lifetime fan (fanatic) can deliver. Very insightful history of the greatest American comic book artist.

See also I Love Jack Kirby.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Brainpower Matters: The French H-Bomb

Michel Carayol, father of the French H-Bomb.

The article below illuminates several mysteries concerning the French development of thermonuclear weapons. Why did it take so long? Did the French really need help from the British? Who had the crucial idea of radiation compression?

The original inventors were Ulam and Teller. In the USSR it was Sakharov. The PRC inventor was Yu Min (see Note Added at bottom).

Without men such as these, how long would it have taken to develop breakthrough technologies that defined the modern age?

See also Les Grandes Ecoles, One hundred thousand brains, and Quantum GDP.


Nonproliferation Review 15:2 353, DOI 10.1080/10736700802117361

Based on the first-person account of coauthor Pierre Billaud, a prominent French participant, this article describes for the first time in such detail the history of the development of the French hydrogen bomb in the 1960s and the organization of military nuclear research in France. ...
On November 1, 1952, the United States conducted its first thermonuclear test, ‘‘Ivy Mike,’’ seven years and three and a half months after its Trinity test. It took the Soviet Union four years (August 29, 1949 -- August 12, 1953) and the United Kingdom four years and seven months (October 3, 1952 -- May 15, 1957) to achieve thermonuclear capacity. And in the following decade, China did it, with its sixth test, in fewer than three years (October 16, 1964 -- June 17, 1967). Yet after Gerboise Bleue it took France eight and a half years to reach the same landmark, detonating its first thermonuclear device on August 24, 1968. Why such a long delay, especially since the French were pioneers in nuclear research?

1965: What We Knew About the Technical Aspects

From 1955 to 1960, as we prepared for the first French atomic test, we were also pondering thermonuclear weapons. But the prospect of hydrogen weapons seemed so far into the future that we did not work seriously on it. ... Li6D was commonly considered the best fuel for thermonuclear weapons, but we did not have any idea about how to burn it. All the problems with the thermonuclear bomb can be summarized by this question: how to discover the process that will allow the Li6D to undergo a fusion reaction?

... Compared to our American colleagues in 1948, French scientists had many advantages: we knew that hydrogen bombs existed and worked and that they used Li6D, and we understood the reactions at work. We also had powerful computers, of U.S. origin, which were not available in the late 1940s. And we knew, more or less, the dimensions and weights of the nuclear weapons deployed at NATO bases in Europe and their yields. ...

De Gaulle: It’s taking forever! ... I want the first experiment to take place before I leave! Do you hear me? It’s of capital importance. Of the five nuclear powers, are we going to be the only one which hasn’t made it to the thermonuclear level? Are we going to let the Chinese get ahead of us? If we do not succeed while I am still here, we shall never make it! My successors, from whatever side, will not dare to go against the protests of the Anglo-Saxons, the communists, the old spinsters and the Church. And we shall not open the gate. But if a first explosion happens, my successors will not dare to stop halfway into the development of these weapons.

... In January 1967, I published a voluminous report wherein I presented and developed my idea from late 1965, left idle since, explaining why the current studies were going in the wrong direction and producing a ridiculously low thermonuclear efficiency. I proposed a scheme with two consecutive steps: a cold Li6D compression increasing the density, from the normal value of 0.8 g/cm3, by a factor of at least 20, followed by a sufficient temperature increase (the ignition). In this report, I also gave orders of magnitude of the energies involved in each step... [[ One can make the (flawed) analogy of Billaud to Ulam (multi-stage insight, but no mechanism for compression), and Carayol to Teller (proposed the right mechanism for compression, although in Teller's case he may have learned of it from von Neumann and Fuchs!!!). ]] 
In early April 1967, Carayol had the idea that the x-rays emitted from the fission explosion could transport the fission energy to the thermonuclear fuel chamber to induce the necessary compression. He published a brief paper wherein he presented, and justified mathematically, his architectural idea. This was the key to the solution for an efficient thermonuclear explosive device, consistent with the current data about U.S. hydrogen weapons. Carayol had rediscovered the radiative coupling concept first introduced by Americans Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller in January 1951.

Michel Carayol, the Genuine Father of the French H-Bomb

Michel Carayol was born in 1934 and died in 2003. His father was an industrialist and his mother a teacher. He entered Ecole Polytechnique in 1954, graduated in 1956, and joined the Armament. In 1962, he was part of the DEFA assigned to CEA-DAM at Limeil. In 1967, Carayol was part of the advanced studies branch.

... Soon after, in April 1967, Carayol wrote a brief report describing his proposal for a cylindrico-spherical case in dense metal, containing a fission device on one side and a thermonuclear sphere on the other. The report showed that the photons radiated by the primary *still very hot* in the X-ray frequency range, swept into the chamber rapidly enough to surround completely the thermonuclear sphere before the metal case would be vaporized. Carayol had discovered independently a scheme equivalent to the concept developed by Ulam and Teller in the 50s.
But Carayol's insight was ignored! It was British assistance that alerted project leadership to the value of Carayol's ideas. It is not enough for some isolated genius to make a breakthrough -- the people in charge have to understand its value.
... During the first months of 1967, Viard had told me, ‘‘A British physicist is showing some interest in what we do.’’ At several embassy parties, a first-rate British atomic scientist, Sir William Cook, former director during the 1950s of thermonuclear research at Aldermaston, the British center for atomic military applications, had approached the military attache´ at the French Embassy in London, Andre´ Thoulouze, an Air Force colonel, and had hinted to our nuclear research program. Thoulouze had previously been in charge of an air force base and knew Rene´ David, who would later work at the DAM. For this reason, instead of contacting the French main intelligence services, Thoulouze directly contacted our information bureau at CEA, the BRIS, where David was working at the time. In analyzing the fallout from the French tests, the Americans, the British, and the Soviets knew that we had not made any real progress on the thermonuclear path. In 1966 and 1967 we had tested some combination of fission with light elements. Cook told Thoulouze that we had to look for something simpler.

Two weeks after the Valduc seminar, on September 19, and while the work resulting from the Valduc decisions had not yet concretely gotten under way, Thoulouze came from London bearing information from this qualified source. Jacques Robert immediately convened a meeting, in the DAM’s headquarters in Paris, to debrief this information. Only three other people attended the meeting: Viard, Bonnet (DAM’s deputy), and Henri Coleau (head of the BRIS). The information, very brief and of a purely technical nature, did not consist of outlines or precise calculations. Nevertheless, it allowed Bonnet to declare immediately that the Carayol design, proposed unsuccessfully as early as April 1967, could be labeled as correct.23 Had this outline not already been in existence, we would have had a difficult time understanding the information and might have suspected an attempt to mislead us. In fact, this was a reciprocal validation: Carayol’s sketch authenticated the seriousness of the source, while the latter confirmed the value of Carayol’s ideas. Without realizing it, as very few were aware of Carayol’s discovery (and surely not Cook), he had given us a big tip and unexpected assistance, as this information also freed us from the ministerial harassment to which we had been constantly subjected. From that moment, things moved briskly.
Encyclopedia Britannica:
Physicist Michel Carayol laid out what would be the fundamental idea of radiation implosion in an April 1967 paper, but neither he nor his colleagues were immediately convinced that it was the solution, and the search continued.

In late September 1967, Carayol’s ideas were validated by an unlikely source, William Cook, who had overseen the British thermonuclear program in the mid-1950s. Cook, no doubt at his government’s behest, verbally passed on the crucial information to the French embassy’s military attaché in London. Presumably, the British provided this information for political reasons. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was lobbying for the entry of the United Kingdom into the Common Market (European Economic Community), which was being blocked by de Gaulle.

Sakharov sketch:

Note Added: Perhaps someone can translate part of this paper, which gives some details about the Chinese thermonuclear step, credit to Yu Min. Did they invent a mechanism different from Ulam-Teller? I can't tell from this paper, but I suspect the initial Chinese design used U-T. There are claims that Yu Min later developed, in the pursuit of miniaturization and improved safety, a qualitatively different design.

Yu Min was a student of Peng Huanwu (also a key figure in the bomb effort), who was a student of Max Born. Yu Min only recently passed, in early 2019!

Friday, July 26, 2019

RadioLab on embryo selection in IVF

I'm in this RadioLab podcast covering genetic selection of embryos in IVF. Apologies to SSGAC, Robert Plomin, Ian Deary, James Lee, Tom Bouchard, and countless other dedicated scientists for the impression given that progress in genomics of cognitive ability is largely my work. See last paragraph below.

This is the email I sent to RadioLab this morning:
Hi Pat and Michelle,

Congratulations on a high quality podcast. I thought you were admirably fair and balanced. I also thought the production (esp. the music) was excellent.

My main comment is that the juxtaposition between my remarks and Benjamin's is misleading: when he says 60-40 or 55% chance of rank ordering properly, that is a very different question than identifying an outlier who is, say, among the 1% highest in risk. We are not trying to rank order embryos, but to warn against unusual risk of a medical condition.

To use the SAT analogy, given two kids with scores 1250 and 1200, only some of the time does the 1250 kid end up with a higher GPA. (You can't predict rank order very well.) But if the engineering dean admits an SAT 770 kid (i.e., a negative outlier compared to the average score of, say, 1300 among engineers) in his freshman class, he knows the likelihood is high that the kid will struggle. Benjamin is talking about the first scenario, and I am talking about the second.

Finally, I realize that to hook listeners you had to make me the focus of the episode. But I want to make clear that many scientists contribute to this work, which I feel will ultimately be beneficial to our species and civilization. I am just a small part of a worldwide research endeavor.

Best wishes,
For more on recent progress in genomic prediction, see The Diffusion of Knowledge.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Manifold #15: Daniel Max of The New Yorker on Prion diseases and literary non-fiction

Daniel Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Every Love Story is A Ghost Story, a biography of David Foster Wallace, speaks with Corey and Steve about his first book, The Family that Couldn’t Sleep. The discussion covers the emerging genre of literary non-fiction, Daniel’s process of writing The Family that Couldn’t Sleep, and how he approached and gained the trust of the family at the heart of the story. Corey probes Daniel about how he handled the complex scientific characters, Carl Gajdusek and Stanley Prusiner, who led research into prion disease for 40 years. Daniel recounts how Shirley Glasse (now Lindenbaum) discovered how prions were transmitted through ritual cannibalism in Papua New, a critical step in solving the mystery of what causes of the disease, but how credit was given to Gajdusek. The three discuss the painfully slow pace of research and the inspiring story of a young couple, Eric Minikel and Sonia Vallabh, who have changed careers to dedicate their lives to finding a cure.

Max’s New Yorker Page

Max’s initial 2001 article for the New York Times Magazine on the Italian Family with FFI

Max’s 2013 New Yorker story on Minikel and Vallabh


man·i·fold /ˈmanəˌfōld/ many and various.

In mathematics, a manifold is a topological space that locally resembles Euclidean space near each point.

Steve Hsu and Corey Washington have been friends for almost 30 years, and between them hold PhDs in Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theoretical Physics. Join them for wide ranging and unfiltered conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.

Steve Hsu is VP for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is also a researcher in computational genomics and founder of several Silicon Valley startups, ranging from information security to biotech. Educated at Caltech and Berkeley, he was a Harvard Junior Fellow and held faculty positions at Yale and the University of Oregon before joining MSU.

Corey Washington is Director of Analytics in the Office of Research and Innovation at Michigan State University. He was educated at Amherst College and MIT before receiving a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in a Neuroscience from Columbia. He held faculty positions at the University Washington and the University of Maryland. Prior to MSU, Corey worked as a biotech consultant and is founder of a medical diagnostics startup.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Dominic Cummings "de facto chief executive" for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Dominic Cummings sporting an OpenAI shirt. Great messaging! Go Dom :-)

Why Dominic Cummings is Johnson’s most important appointment (Spectator)

The closest analogy to the government Boris Johnson is forming is Blair’s and Brown’s New Labour government of 1997, when they appointed super powerful political advisers – Campbell, Powell, Balls, Whelan – to boss conservative Whitehall.

That is what Johnson is doing – in spades – by making former Vote Leave campaign chief Dominic Cummings his de facto chief executive as senior advisor, because Cummings is NEVER a passive adviser. Cummings has an extraordinary sense of purpose and objectives – and pity those who get in his path.

Cummings’s mandate is to deliver Brexit in 99 days, and in his spare time he’ll endeavour to reform Whitehall, since one of his obsessions is that the civil service is unfit for modern government. Sir Humphrey will be anxious, but so too will ministers and many Tory MPs, including Brexiters, who still nurse bruises from their encounters with him when he ran Vote Leave and earlier when he was an adviser to Michael Gove.

As proof that Johnson is placing serious trust in Cummings is that so many of Cummings’s Vote Leave team are moving in to Downing Street: Lee Cain as director of communications, Rob Oxley as press secretary and Oliver Lewis as a Brexit policy adviser.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The diffusion of knowledge

Szilard and Wigner told Einstein about their recent calculations... how the fission process might create chain reactions and nuclear bombs. "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht," said Einstein -- I did not think about that at all!
In the past two weeks I gave talks at ISIR2019 (Minneapolis), the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (Academia Sinica, Taipei -- home of the Taiwan biobank), Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI = CRISPR central, UC Berkeley and UCSF) and at OpenAI (AGI in San Francisco).
Title: Genomic Prediction of Complex Traits and Disease Risks via AI/ML and Large Genomic Datasets

Abstract: The talk is divided into two parts. The first gives an overview of the rapidly advancing area of genomic prediction of disease risks using polygenic scores. We can now identify risk outliers (e.g., with 5 or 10 times normal risk) for about 20 common disease conditions, ranging from diabetes to heart diseases to breast cancer, using inexpensive SNP genotypes (i.e., as offered by 23andMe). We can also predict some complex quantitative traits (e.g., adult height with accuracy of few cm, using ~20k SNPs). I discuss application of these results in precision medicine as well as embryo selection in IVF, and give some details about genetic architectures. The second part covers the AI/ML used to build these predictors, with an emphasis on "sparse learning" and phase transitions in high dimensional statistics.
Slides for the first part of the talk.

I also appeared on Dilbert creator Scott Adams' show.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Beijing 2019 Notes -- addendum

I just came across this beautiful video with 4k drone footage of Guangzhou, part of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area in the Pearl River delta region.

In my earlier post on Beijing I emphasized the issue of scale in China -- massive scale that is evident in the video above.

I traveled in SE Asia before the 1997 currency / economic crisis. At that time there was plenty of evidence of a bubble in those countries -- unused infrastructure and real estate built on spec, few signs of real technological or productive capability, etc. China had aspects of that 10 years ago, but now it's apparent that earlier infrastructure investment is being put to good use.

As I walked around Beijing I strained to find things around me -- buildings, solar panels, batteries, cars, high speed trains, electronics, software infrastructure, even airplanes -- that couldn't be sourced in China. Other than a few specific tech stacks that will get serious attention in coming years (e.g., CPUs) I was not able to think of many areas in which China has not caught up technologically. See Can the US derail China 2025?

PS I'm back in the US now. Will be giving a talk today at IGI in Berkeley and at OpenAI on Thursday.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Manifold Episode #14: Stuart Firestein on Why Ignorance and Failure Lead to Scientific Progress

Steve and Corey speak with Stuart Firestein (Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University, specializing in the olfactory system) about his two books Ignorance: How It Drives Science, and Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. Stuart explains why he thinks that it is a mistake to believe that scientists make discoveries by following the “scientific method” and what he sees as the real relationship between science and art. We discuss Stuart’s recent research showing that current models of olfactory processing are wrong, while Steve delves into the puzzling infinities in calculations that led to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Stuart also makes the case that the theory of intelligent design is more intelligent than most scientists give it credit for and that it would be wise to teach it in science classes.

Stuart Firestein

Failure: Why Science Is so Successful

Ignorance: How it drives science


man·i·fold /ˈmanəˌfōld/ many and various.

In mathematics, a manifold is a topological space that locally resembles Euclidean space near each point.

Steve Hsu and Corey Washington have been friends for almost 30 years, and between them hold PhDs in Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theoretical Physics. Join them for wide ranging and unfiltered conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.

Steve Hsu is VP for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is also a researcher in computational genomics and founder of several Silicon Valley startups, ranging from information security to biotech. Educated at Caltech and Berkeley, he was a Harvard Junior Fellow and held faculty positions at Yale and the University of Oregon before joining MSU.

Corey Washington is Director of Analytics in the Office of Research and Innovation at Michigan State University. He was educated at Amherst College and MIT before receiving a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in a Neuroscience from Columbia. He held faculty positions at the University Washington and the University of Maryland. Prior to MSU, Corey worked as a biotech consultant and is founder of a medical diagnostics startup.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Beijing 2019 Notes

I'm at Beijing University in Zhongguancun. Some brief notes and photos below.

I had meetings with Beida professors, prominent tech entrepreneurs and VCs, policy analysts, IVF doctors and genetic scientists. I also had conversations with ordinary people -- drivers, maids, hotel and service staff.

I've been traveling to Beijing for about 15 years now and have observed significant improvements in infrastructure, general economic level, civil society, general behavior. This would of course be obvious to people living in China, which presumably explains the confidence people here have in their government and in continued advances in development. The hypothesis that this society is "brittle" or vulnerable to shocks seems unsupported.

The main thing to comprehend about China is scale. There are easily ~350M (i.e., population of US) people here living roughly first world lives: with access to education, good jobs, climate controlled apartment in major city, good public transportation, fast internet access, etc. Probably the number is twice as large depending on how one defines the category. For one thing, this means that the supply of engineers, technologists, lab scientists, project managers, entrepreneurs, etc. is very large. There are certainly poor people who lack opportunity, but the size of the population for which the education and economic system are working reasonably well is very large. Possibly a billion people out of ~1.4B.

Beijing is a microcosm of this phenomenon of scale. It's a huge city (over 20M people) with the kind of modern metro system only to be found in places like Tokyo or perhaps Seoul or Paris or London. One can ride the longer lines for 90 minutes without exiting, covering the entire extent of the city from one side to the other. Despite the public transport system, the roads are clogged with recent model cars, producing traffic conditions reminiscent of Los Angeles. I don't find the city as a whole all that livable -- it's too enormous for me -- but locals know all the many charming locations (see photos below). Beijing is reaching a level of development that reminds me of Tokyo.

Trump, the trade war, and US-China relations came up frequently in discussion. Chinese opinion tends to focus on the long term. Our driver for a day trip to the Great Wall was an older man from the countryside, who has lived only 3 years in Beijing. I was surprised to hear him expressing a very balanced opinion about the situation. He understood Trump's position remarkably well -- China has done very well trading with the US, and owes much of its technological and scientific development to the West. A recalibration is in order, and it is natural for Trump to negotiate in the interest of US workers.

China's economy is less and less export-dependent, and domestic drivers of growth seem easy to identify. For example, there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit in the form of "catch up growth" -- but now this means not just catching up with the outside developed world, but Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities catching up with Tier 1 cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc.

China watchers have noted the rapidly increasing government and private sector debt necessary to drive growth here. Perhaps this portends a future crisis. However, I didn't get any sense of impending doom for the Chinese economy. To be fair there was very little inkling of what would happen to the US economy in 2007-8.  Some of the people I met with are highly placed with special knowledge -- they are among the most likely to be aware of problems. Overall I had the impression of normalcy and quiet confidence, but perhaps this would have been different in an export/manufacturing hub like Shenzhen. [ Update: Today after posting this I did hear something about economic concerns... So situation is unclear. ]

Innovation is everywhere here. Perhaps the most obvious is the high level of convenience from the use of e-payment and delivery services. You can pay for everything using your mobile (increasingly, using just your face!), and you can have food and other items (think Amazon on steroids) delivered quickly to your apartment. Even museum admissions can be handled via QR code.

A highly placed technologist told me that in fields like AI or computer science, Chinese researchers and engineers have access to in-depth local discussions of important arXiv papers -- think StackOverflow in Mandarin. Since most researchers here can read English, they have access both to Western advances, and a Chinese language reservoir of knowledge and analysis. He anticipates that eventually the pace and depth of engineering implementation here will be unequaled.

IVF and genetic testing are huge businesses in China. Perhaps I'll comment more on this in the future. New technologies, in genomics as in other areas, tend to be received more positively here than in the US and Europe.

National Museum

Bookstore and Cafe on the grounds of the National Art Museum.

Tiananmen Square (see below for historical note)

An email sent to Julian Assange's attorney, whom I met at CogX in London:
Hi Jen,

I really enjoyed your Q&A today. Keep fighting the good fight.

Wikileaks diplomatic cables reveal no mass shootings in Tiananmen Square:

Our media has been misrepresenting this historical event for 30 years
now. There was certainly violence, but not in the square itself.

Best wishes,
Columbia Journalism Review (1998): The Myth of Tiananmen. See comments for further discussion...

Note Added: In the comments AG points to a Quora post by a user called Janus Dongye Qimeng, an AI researcher in Cambridge UK, who seems to be a real China expert. I found these posts to be very interesting.

Infrastructure development in poor regions of China

Size of Chinese internet social network platforms

Can the US derail China 2025? (Core technology stacks in and outside China)

Huawei smartphone technology stack and impact of US entity list interdiction (software and hardware!)

Agriculture at Massive Scale

US-China AI competition

More recommenations: Bruno Maçães is one of my favorite modern geopolitical thinkers. A Straussian of sorts (PhD under Harvey Mansfield at Harvard), he was Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal, and has thought deeply about the future of Eurasia and of US-China relations. He spent the last year in Beijing and I was eager to meet with him while here. His recent essay Equilibrium Americanum appeared in the Berlin Policy Journal. Podcast interview -- we hope to have him on Manifold soon :-)

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