A Computing Pioneer Looks to the Next Frontier
Among the big guns of computer science, Ivan Sutherland is a bazooka. Fifty years ago, Sutherland’s Sketchpad program arguably launched the field of computer graphics. In the ’90s, the Nebraska native’s “logical effort” method optimized circuitry speed. Sutherland is currently focused on asynchronous computing, which he believes will revolutionize his field. Now at Portland State University, he spoke with DISCOVER Associate Editor Gemma Tarlach about his place in history and biggest source of pride.
Computing today runs, well, like clockwork: A circuit’s signal is forced onto a pathway made of regular intervals. But you’ve been developing asynchronous computing, which allows signals to progress at different speeds. Why is this method the next big thing?
All computing systems today march to the beat of a clock. It’s a very rigid design form we used. That’s why computer designers are struggling. If you cast aside the clock paradigm, you get a lot of advantages. When we learned to add in second grade, we learned there were easy additions and hard additions, and the hard additions required carries and took a little longer. Asynchronous computing allows hard cases to take a little longer. It allows you flexibility. Physics tells you asynchronous computing must happen. But it’s hard. There are legions of engineers who believe the clock paradigm is the only way to go.
What do you think of calls for digital literacy, teaching children how to create code as well as how to read and write?
Not necessary. Do kids need to learn to drive? Probably. But do they need to know how to repair an engine? No. Give people the opportunity to learn the skills they’ll find useful.
Then how will today’s students become tomorrow’s Sutherlands?
It's about investment. My parents made very substantial efforts and investments in the rearing of children. That’s the answer.
You feel education is up to parents?
I learned algebra from the “I’m thinking of a number game,” in the back of a car with my brother, both of us bored. Our mother or our father would say, “I’m thinking of a number, I’m the square root of 18 if you subtract 2.” We did endless games like that, and that’s how I knew algebra before I even went to school. I just didn’t know it was called algebra.
What’s your greatest achievement?
Four grandchildren. They all still talk to me. I like them, and they like me. I’d say that’s a big achievement.
by George D. Morgan
After Sputnik’s successful 1957 launch, the U.S. was desperate to get ahead of Russia in the space race. Subpar rocket fuels held the Americans back until the Army put Mary Sherman Morgan on the problem. Without a college degree, Morgan concocted the right ratio of propellants and then pressurized the mix. Not long after Morgan pioneered the top-secret fuel, she gave up research and became a recluse, isolated even from her children. While writing her 2004 obituary, her playwright son George stumbled upon his mother’s classified contributions as the first female rocket scientist and reveals them here, taking dramatic license with dialog and details. – Breanna Draxler
How To Make a Zombie
by Frank Swain
Science Punk blogger Swain connects the undead dots from Haitian folktales to CIA mind-control research as he hunts for definitive proof of zombiism. Swain’s search covers a lot of ground, from early historical accounts of whole armies defeated by mind-altering honey to modern experiments reanimating severed dog heads and chilling whole dogs to a “controlled death state.” (Man’s best friend seems to be man’s favorite zombification study subject.) But the most disturbing theme to emerge from this often darkly funny book is our species’ apparent eagerness to control each other:
alive, dead or otherwise. – Gemma Tarlach
The Human Spark
by Jerome Kagan
What governs whether an infant will grow up to cheat at poker, win a Nobel Prize or dominate at karaoke? In this revision of his classic 1984 volume The Nature of the Child, Kagan explores new evidence in the nature vs. nurture debate. He adds material on moral development, emotion and mental illness in children and adolescents. Jargon-heavy at times, Kagan makes a strong case that personality is more elastic, and resilient, than we may think: Even toddlers who experience extreme abuse or deprivation can become well-adjusted adults. – Siri Carpenter
The Universe in the Rearview Mirror
by Dave Goldberg
You shouldn’t exist. Don’t take it personally — nothing should exist. But at some point, around 10-35 of a second after the Big Bang, there was a slight shift in balance and, long story short, all of the “stuff” of the universe was born. Physicist Goldberg takes a road trip through time and space trying to answer the big questions about existence, including why any of us are here. Mathematical symmetries lie at the heart of many of the answers, but Goldberg offers math-free guideposts along the way in this witty and accessible read. Tip: Don’t skip the copious footnotes, packed with geek humor. – Alison Mackey