Bernstein, Jeremy. Science Observed: Essays Out of my Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

 

Bernstein, Jeremy. Science Observed: Essays Out of my Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

These are previously published essays from The American Scholar, where the author is a
contributor. I remember the author mainly as a contributor on things mathematical to the New
Yorker and, indeed, there is a piece from that source too. This Harvard trained mathematician,
with a knack for popularizing the esoteric fields of quantum physics and computer math, here
presents some thoughts concerning computers and artificial intelligence. In terms of people, the
major focus is on Marvin Minsky and his contributions to Artificial Intelligence.

Minsky was, for a time, a graduate student at Princeton. He describes his department in these
words: "The graduate department at Princeton was another perfect world. It was like a club. They
admitted only a handful of students each year, mostly by invitation. It was run by Solomon
Lefschetz. He was a man who didn't care about anything except quality. There were no exams.
Once I got to look at my transcript. Instead of the usual grades I was used to, there were fifteen or
twenty A's, many of them in courses I had never taken. Lefschetz felt that either one was a
mathematician or one wasn't and it didn't matter how much mathematics one actually knew. For
the next two years I hung around a kind of common room that Lefschetz had created for the
graduate students, where people came to play Go or chess. For a while I studied topology, but
then I ran into a young graduate student in physics named Dean Edwards who was a whiz at
electronics. We began to build vacuum tube circuits that did all sorts of things." (p. 35) Quite a
different program from the one we use in sociology.

An important paper on computers was written in 1943 by a pair named McCulloch-Pitts. Minsky,
then an undergraduate, couldn't understand the second part of the paper. McCulloch and Pitts are
described in this way: "I believe that MuCulloch was dazzled by Pitts, who was then about
sixteen and a mathematical prodigy. Later I attempted to have some conversations with Pitts
(who came to MIT with McCulloch) about [the paper] but he would never discuss it. I concluded
that Pitts (who died in 1960) was on the track of a theory which he never got. He was bluffing
and McCulloch had been somewhat taken in by it... It took a lot of courage for me to decide that
it wasn't all there." (p. 61)