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03 August, 2014

OKAY YOU CYBORGS, JUST WHAT IS A "COMPUTER" ANYWAY?

Computer: n. an electronic machine for making calculations, storing and analysing information fed into it, or controlling machinery automatically." -- The Oxford Dictionary  
Well, what the heck is a computer, you ask?  The word "computer" is so common in our speech today, we hardly give it a thought, but where did it originate?  Where is it going?

The word has a Latin origin "computare" meaning to count, sum up or reckon.  The Brits used to say about a human calculator:  "He/She is good at their sums."  I'm not too sure how the word got so pervasive, but there was a Harvard Professor of Astronomy, Edward Charles Pickering, who needed calculations done.  He first tried men, but they appeared to not have the stomach (or something higher) for it and he fired all of them.  He then got women to do the calculations.  They became his "computers" and the name seemed to stick relative to the idea of rapid and accurate calculations.  Incidentally, some of Pickering's computers made original contributions to astronomy.

The word calculator as applied to early mechanical or electrical devices just did not have the support to become the dominant word.
(L) Hardy & Ramanujan
The famous Cambridge Don, G. H. Hardy and his protégé', the mathematical savant, Srinivasa Ramanujan needed a computer for some of their 'deep' speculations into number theory.
Percy Alexander MacMahen
They consulted, according to a recent Scientific American article, a man named Colonel Percy Alexander MacMahen. He was an expert on artillery and also a mathematician of some renown. He was known for his ability to do rapid, accurate and deep calculations.

MacMahen became Hardy and Ramanujan's human "computer", for a time working on their investigations in number theory, especially in the partition of numbers. He was an expert in this area too, but not in the class of Hardy or Ramanujan.

There is no evidence that MacMahen ever had a rap on the head turning him into a rapid calculator.  This does happen to some people.  Some become musical or mathematical after an accident. Some just get erratic with a similar blow to the head.  It must be very rare to have a blow produce a talent, but it does happen. Usually a good knock takes away rather than gives.  I have not noticed any great computational or musical talents in retired football or hockey players, but then again, they just fade away to celebrity golf tournaments where somebody else keeps score.

Coincidentally, there is another recent Scientific American article about stimulation of the brain and/or disabling part of it to produce surprising results that do not seem to be latent, but just burst out.

Disabling part of the brain is interesting.  This is an area of research that seems to make sense when one looks at  Rain Man-like savants.  Could it also be true that some great musicians, scientists, mathematicians and engineers have  portions of their brains that are inherently more powerful than the rest of us? Can they turn off circuits in their brains thereby increasing the power of parts they are using?

We see developmentally challenged people born with great gifts in certain areas.  It would be grand to be able to turn parts of the brain off and others on and concentrate on areas of special interest.  Focus is one of the key ingredients in creativity.

Most of us have our own computer and beloved programs we use all the time.  Mathematicia is a very interesting program to do extensive calculations in areas of interest.  The program allows you to concentrate on areas that normally would be beyond comprehension.  If Hardy and Ramanujan were living today, they would make extensive use of Mathematca.  This would be especially true of Ramanjuan, because he was an experimentalist.  This word almost never is attached to a mathematician, but is common in physics where people are classified as experimentalists and theoreticians. 

Hardy was a theorist, who demanded proof.  Remanjuan was able to eliminate dead ends and follow fertile paths by some strange intuition.  Hardy moved slower and his success was rooted in his deep knowledge of what had been built up over centuries.  Rananjuan leaped ahead fueled by some sort of strange imagination or possibly a mysterious ability  to focus.

The more general question remains.  What is a computer?  It was clear to Pickering the Harvard astronomer. It's been pretty clear to all of us in the time in which we live.  But looking deeper, it's not just an electronic entity.  It's a combination where the human brain is working with the untapped power of processors and programs like Mathematica.  We are already Cyborgs.  

The fusion of man and machines as a single entity moves onward.  We have magic programs and search engines.  We can concentrate them on problems and use our human side to fuel investigations.  We can enlist not just our brain but hundreds of processors to do our bidding.  We see that being done with online search engines.  The wonderful word processing advantages of the computer as a communications vehicle almost get lost in all of this as if it were an afterthought. The Mathematica search engine, and several others like it, seem to be creating a new definition of the word "computer".

The computer is truly a great, yet-to-be-fully-tapped, 21st century tool, like no other.  If only we could get rid of the scam artists and hackers that prey on social media enthusiasts and ruin a good thing for all of us.

With thanks to historian and Cyborg extraordinaire, Mike Sterling.

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