Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mathematician Noson Yanofsky: The Outer Limits of Reason

Does science have all the answers? The answer is no, and the proof comes from science itself. Mathematician/computer scientist Noson Yanofsky and I talked about his latest book, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us. It’s a treasury of insoluble problems, undecidable propositions and practical or theoretical barriers to understanding. We discussed Alan Turing’s Halting Problem, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenbergian uncertainty, the mathematics of infinity and the simultaneously simple and ridiculously difficult traveling salesman problem. Also quantum computing, the trouble with self-referentiality and the wondrous correspondence between math and the physical world.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Show for Feb 3, 2013. George Dyson: Turing’s Cathedral and the Dawn of the Digital Universe 

Originally broadcast in Feb, 2012, historian George Dyson (and son of physicist Freeman Dyson) tells the story of the project that laid the groundwork for much of modern computing. More here.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Show for May 6, 2012. George Dyson: The Dawn of the Digital Universe

Historian George Dyson tells the story of the Electronic Computer Project. Led by the brilliant polymath John Von Neumann in the 1940’s and 50’s, the project laid the groundwork for much of modern computing. In doing so, Dyson says, it birthed a new, digital ecosystem, a world of self-reproducing, ever-evolving numbers that may be said to have a life of their own.

We talked about that and about Dyson’s own very personal connection to the story. He’s the son of famed physicist Freeman Dyson and grew up at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Von Neumann and crew did their pioneering work. He’s also an earth-loving outdoorsman, and has a foot in both the natural and technological worlds. 

John Von Neumann and the “MANIAC” computer at the Institute for Advanced Study. The cylinders at bottom house cathode ray tubes used as memory devices. Most present-day computers are descendants of this ancestral machine, as Dyson explains in his new book Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As”; If using a PC, right-click and choose “Save Target As”).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Show for March 4, 2012. Sebastian Seung—Mapping the Brain

And you thought sequencing the human genome was a big job. MIT neuroscientist Sebastian Seung is proposing something even more Herculean: tracing the trillions of neuronal connections in the human brain, collectively known as the  “connectome.” He believes the connectome may hold the key to understanding the brain and the self. That follows from connectionism—the notion that learning, memory and personality are  embedded in the brain’s wiring. Like so much else in neuroscience, that’s still hypothetical, and Sebastian is refreshingly candid about the limits of current understanding. We discussed what is and isn’t known about the workings of neurons, how the brain’s circuitry might encode information, the relevance of computer models, and artificial intelligence techniques that may help map the connectome. Also: the “Jennifer Aniston neuron,” whether or not to freeze your posthumous head, and the cautionary tale of the South Park underpants gnomes.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Show for Dec. 4, 2011. Hany Farid: Reality in the Age of Photoshop.

Inspired by my recent back-and-forth with Errol Morris on truth and deception in photography, I explored the subject further this week with digital forensics specialist Hany Farid. Hany is an expert on photo fakery and develops tools for detecting whether and how much pictures have been ginned up by, say, advertisers hawking beauty products. He’s testified about the veracity of photos in court cases, uncovered audacious forgeries, and helped authenticate some iconic images. We had a fascinating conversation about the ways digital retouching has altered our relation to photography, sowed confusion in the legal system, affected our body images, and sparked a race between the technologies of authentication (such as Hany develops) and tools for photo manipulation (such as Photoshop).

Which image is the fake? Honest Abe, Lee Harvey Oswald,
Buzz Aldrin and Hany Farid.

Find out the truth about some other famous photos at Hany Farid’s website.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Show for June 20, 2010. The Computer As Creator: David Cope’s Algorithmic Music

It’s been almost 30 years since composer David Cope began teaching computers to write music. His experiments remain some of most startling examples of machine intelligence treading on traditional human turf. Cope’s programs can analyze and replicate the styles of actual composers, from Bach to Rachmaninoff, and also create original modernist pieces. His experiments have delighted some listeners and enraged others, who say he is mechanizing music. In any case, his work raises serious questions about creativity, inspiration and human uniqueness. In this interview,  Dave Cope shares his music (including his latest CD), describes his methods and aims, and speculates on why some people find it all so very unsettling.  

Click the arrow above to listen. If you don’t have Flash player or have other playback problems, click this link for the MP3.