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Fathers Day. Stan Ulam.

First a word about Father’s Day. I’m lucky enough to have children and to have known my father. It’s wonderful to think about the generations rolling on.

I hope all fathers and sons get some nice hammock time today or a reasonable equivalent thereof. Slack.

When my father died, he had very few possessions. I “inherited” four or five things of his, including a worn cardigan sweater, a Swiss knife, and an egg-cup that my daughter Georgia had made for him.

Thinking about the “rolling onward” and “eternal recurrence” aspects of being a son or a father, I took a picture of Pop’s eggcup with a little can of Royal Baking Powder that happens to be in the Spanish language. The cool thing about the Royal label, well known to mathematicians and cartoonists, is that it incorporates an endless regress.

I think I got hold of this can about 25 years ago, soon after moving to CA, when I was still surprised to see Spanish, and I (with deliberate incongruity) used the name “Polvo Para Hornear” for the name of a landmark in my novel The Hacker And The Ants.

Switching topics now, I’ve been doing research on Stanislaw Ulam this week. He’s going to appear as a character in my novel Turing & Burroughs. I like this photo of Ulam happy with some device he’s cobbled together perhaps to model some arcane physical concept like the notion of a nonlinear springs he discussed in his classic “Fermi-Pasta-Ulam” paper, FPU for short.

For more on this topic, see the software and papers on my Capow page, where I used continuous-valued cellular automata software to run the FPU simulation, reproducing some of Ulam’s results, such as the ergodic long-term reoccurrence of states for the cubic nonlinear CA.

Wikipedia has a good entry on Ulam, but I also found a very interesting essay (although somewhat eccentric and perhaps overly critical) by his mathematician friend (?) Gian-Carlo Rota: The Lost Cafe.

Summary: Rota says Ulam was lazy, didn’t like to work out the details, preferred the flash of insight. He was as sort of alienated and sarcastic, didn’t like authority, felt that ultimately everything was meaningless. Undisciplined. Generous and kind. Liked getting into new fields and picking off the interesting big results. Often didn’t get around to publishing his results, just shared them informally. He had green eyes.

Classic photo of Ulam and the MANIAC computer with his daughter Claire. I first saw this photo in Ulam’s autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician. I wrote LANL and got permission to use it as an illo in my Lifebox tome.

Ulam is known for his work on the H-bomb, indeed he’s sometimes called the father of the H-bomb. Ulam and Edward Teller made a joint application for a patent on the H-bomb!

In wondering if Ulam was “evil” for helping to invent the H-bomb, keep in mind that he was from a Jewish family in Lwow, Poland, and that he and his brother happened to escape to the US in 1938. The rest of his family died in the holocaust. Perhaps this motivated him to help the military of his new home country.

Another factor in Ulam’s work here was that of scientific obsession. Ulam didn’t get along with Edward Teller, and he developed his design for the H-bomb partly in a desire to demonstrate the Teller’s original design for such a weapon was wrong. Teller then jumped on Ulam’s design and worked on it some more.

Photo of an A-bomb fireball, from a photo-rich Russian site. Note the Joshua trees about to be consumed. I’m intrigued by the irregular spots on the fireball. No natural phenomenon is ever completely uniform.

4 Responses to “Fathers Day. Stan Ulam.”

  1. kek Says:

    Wow 🙂 Both touching and fascinating, Rudy. There’s an endless regress on the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” LP, but not sure if that counts because it’s not central / all-encompassing, but veers upwards into top-left, more like a 70’s TV-camera visual-feedback loop or endless “hall-of-mirrors” effect…

  2. emilio Says:

    Happy Father’s Day Rudy! And thank you for the link about Ulam. It was a love letter if ever there was one between one mathematician and another.

    We should call the H-bomb the Ulam!

  3. failrate Says:

    Darnit, Rudy! Ever since your post, this has been going through my brain:

  4. Rudy Says:

    Nice Royal Baking Powder zoom, failrate. Thx.

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