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6th July 2016

Re-reading Carver Mead

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Xerox Alto 10 years before the Mac

Xerox Alto 10 years before the Mac

With some summer time on my hands, I am belatedly reading Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, the story of the computer technology developed at Xerox PARC — the personal computer, the mouse, the graphical user interface, the laser printer, Ethernet, computer graphics and video, etc. (Xerox could have owned the whole thing, but gave it away to Apple, and then brought in executives from Detroit to kill what they had.)

Carver Mead

Carver Mead

Carver Mead shows up in the story — recalling for me his role in the book Microcosm, which describes how, at various times when the computer industry was stuck, Mead would come down from the mountains, gather a group of grad students at Cal Tech, and produce the next needed revolution. He is responsible for:

– VLSI (the modern computer chip)
– Silicon compilers (tell the terminal what you want a chip to do and it designs the circutry)
– CMOS (the sensor in cameras)
– photo sensors that compute
– Neural Networks
– The computer touchpad (on all of today’s laptops)
– The computation for cochlea implants
– A form of flash memory (flash drives)

The fun part about all this for me is that I got to live through it — slides of lots of this stuff that I took from science magazine when they happened are, to this day, in my the lectures for my “Impact of Technology” course.

Mead founded the computer science department at Cal Tech in 1976. (Pratt Institute, where I teach, had a department of computer science in the 1960s, but got rid of it in 1993 when it was decided that computers were a passing fad.)

Mead founded the field of “The Physics of Computation.” That and information theory are summarized in “Quest for the Quantum Computer” by Julian Brown, forward by David Deutsch. I am still hoping to create a reading group to work through the book.

Collective ElectMy favorite Mead story involves him as a grad student approaching Feynman with the observation that Maxwell’s equations had not been integrated with quantum theory. Feynman replied, “Yea, I know, I gotta fix it,” but he never did.

Mead eventually took on the task himself in his 2002 Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism, in which he reconceptualizes physics. Electrons do not exist individually, but as relationships.

The body text of the book is beyond me, but the introduction is a joy. My next re-read.

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