Friday, November 25, 2005

Early Boy of the Universal Mind

You come to a lot of things in very roundabout ways. You see the scientist-administrator in a Sunday serial. Then you sneak up on a real life person like Vannevar Bush.

A friend of mine used to deliver groceries to Bush [who lived in a Belmont, Mass. neighborhood; on the grocery route as well was Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society; there is another story there].

My friend told me that Dr. Bush had built the A-bomb, and I thought I knew enough about the A-bomb to know he was wrong. But still learning later, I discovered Bush’s very significant management role in the Manhattan project.

Gaunt cheeked. Pipe smoking. Greyng. Well suited. Like a New England minister. That was bush. In school I studied the roots of computing, and came across his Differential Analyzer. I great machined contrivance, it filled a basement room at M.I.T. and was something of the apex of mechanical analog calculators.

It held a fascination. And may have represented the end of the era where you could feel the comfort of hearing the machine think ca chunk just as you could here the hum of your steam or gasoline engine. Like you could hear the coins separating in the bus’s coin parser. Anyway, Bush like this feeling, and was slow to appreciate digital technology, because you couldn’t hear what was going on inside there.

The “Universal Mind” has crept up of late, in part because of Google’s appearance as a boding presence on the scene. I use the term, which has meaning in Buddhism. “World Brain,” an idea of circulated by H.G. Wells, is what Bush may have had on his mind in the late 30s. Then, he wrote about –theorized upon – an intelligence that was a combo of all mankindle. [Bush may have been raised a Universalist.] Aspects of it look disarmingly prescient. Hyper cards I believe was one of his notions. Bush did influence Douglas Englebart. This and more discovered in Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, by G. Pascal Zachary.

We will get to Bush and the Big Brain. But should first consider what he is more famous for: The A-bomb.

Vannevar Bush’s place in broader history would seem to come from his role in applying science in the cause of the political system. That would be the US system at its first heights. I work under the star that says technology is the application of science to solving problems. Which might be another way of describing his role. He was a helleva engineer. But not a rambling wreck.

His along association with MIT, as an administrator; later at the Carnegie Institute, again as administrator; set him up uniquely in his eventual role as head of the OSRD, in which Manhattan project was one of many. Project leadership came at the expense of engineering achievement. But he had a special approach to taming technologists and military figures both. The Karsh foto that covers the Endless Frontier shows an indvidual with eerie purpose, accomplishment, and knowledge. The power behind the atomic glory.

But he may someday remember for his link in the chain of thinking on universal mind.

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century -

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