Monday, January 23, 2017

Recalling wisdom from an earlier time

I consider myself fortunate to have had a very interesting math professor while working on my undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State University (Colleges back then) in the '70s. My wife, although not a math major, also had him for a math survey course.

Professor Preston C. Hammer, who pretty much ran the computer lab at Los Alamos after World War II during the development of the hydrogen bomb, published a number of books and papers on a variety of math and computer topics. He was very interested in a relatively new discipline called mathematical systems theory and in the introduction to his 1969 textbook on that topic, he wrote:
These times are among the most challenging and the most depressing in the history of man. On the one hand, we begin to glimpse the possibilities of really improving the human condition through strategic use of information being accumulated and through the ability to adapt materials and energy to a variety of needs. On the other hand, never before has there been available so much destructive power -- and the power to destroy has not been matched by an equally noticeable increase in wisdom.
Professor Hammer could see the future based on what he knew about man, and while he believed that the development of computers and atomic energy had great potential for good, man might likely subvert both for his own desires. He once told Penny's math survey class that (paraphrased) computers will likely create whole new ways to commit crime. Fortunately, atomic energy hasn't -- yet.