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Just finished the thoroughly enjoyable A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann. It is over 40 years old but has aged well. It’s more than just a math book:

Then there is Roman engineering: the Roman roads, aqueducts, the Colosseum. Warfare, alas, has always been beneficial to engineering. Yet there are unmistakable trends in the engineering of the gangster states. In a healthy society, engineering design gets smarter and smarter; in gangster states it gets bigger and bigger. In World War II, the democracies produced radar and split the atom; German basic research was far behind in these fields and devoted its efforts to projects like lenses so big they could burn Britain, and bells so big that their sound could be lethal. (The lenses never got off the drawing board, and the bells, by the end of the war, would kill mice in a bath tub.)

The architectural style of the thugs also differs from that of normal societies,. It can often be recognized by the megalomaniac style of their public buildings and facilities. The Moscow subway is a faithful copy of the London Underground, except that its stations and corridors are filled with statues of homo sovieticus, a fictitious species that stands (or sits on a tractor), chin up, chest out, belly in, heroically gazing into the distance with a look of grim determination.

Or try this:

But let us return to the checkers program that can beat its own programmer. A long time ago, even when he constructed the first bow and arrow, man used his intelligence to design machines that surpassed him in speed, force, and many other qualities. Arthur Samuel’s program might be taken as an historic landmark: Somewhere near that point, man first used his intelligence to design a machine that surpassed him in intelligence. We are now only at the birth of such a machine, but eventually the intelligent computer might be to the moronic computer as the spacecraft is to the bow and arrow. There are already programs to write programs, and programs to balance assembly lines. It is therefore entirely within the realm of possibility that such a machine will eventually have the ability to reproduce itself.

“Destroy it!” is what the pious, respectable and community-minded ladies will scream when word gets out about the new computer.

Their screams have been heard before.

“Destroy it!” is what Julius Caesar screamed as his hordes put the torch to the Library of Alexandria.

“Destroy it!” is what the Grand Inquisitor screamed when he read Galileo’s Dialogues. 

“Destroy it!” is what the the Luddites screamed in 18th century England when they smashed the machinery that was supposedly responsible for their misery in the Industrial Revolution.

“Destroy it!” is what the Soviet censor screams when he sees a copy of Orwell’s 1984.

“Destroy it!” is what the Fascists of the Left screamed when they bombed or smashed computing centers in Minnesota and Montreal.

It has again become fashionable to blame science and technology for the ills of society. I have some sympathies for the Luddites who were uneducated, miserable, and desperate. I have none for the college-educated illiterates who drivel about “too much science and technology” because they want to conserve their life style by denying it to everybody else.

3 Responses to “Pi and the Roman Pest”

  1. Harry says:

    Back in the U.S., home of the free, Mike. Being a cheapskate, I will see if my local library has History of Pi, but if not, I will break down and pay for the download. Maybe now that you have mentioned it, there may be a delay in the download, or Xfinity may have it blocked.

    I thought there was no such thing as a left-wing fascist.

  2. Trey says:

    Yes, very good book. Read it about 20 years ago. For a book on chemistry in the same vein, see “the 13th element”.

    It’s funny that this post is about the number pi and Luddites. Stephen Wolfram is in town (Austin) for SXSW. He gave a keynote speech. He also mentioned super pi day (last Saturday night at 9:26).


    In another SXSW article, it was noted that protesters were protesting artificial intelligence. Stephen Wolfram was quoted as saying that he disagrees with the protesters (modern-day Luddites). If you have not been to WolframAlpha.com, check it out. Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem so scary to me, and that’s what the website essentially does.

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