In a recent SFI seminar, renowned science historian George Dyson explored several ideas pursued by the late Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1984) that have become tents of modern mathematics and physics.

Watch the video of Dyson's presentation

Four of 20th century physics' most imaginative inventions — the Monte Carlo method, the hydrogen bomb, self-reproducing cellular automata, and nuclear pulse propulsion — originated with help from Stanislaw Ulam, according to Dyson. 

Monte Carlo was the realization of what Maxwell had only imagined in 1871: a way to follow the behavior of a physical system as “if our faculties and instruments were so sharpened that we could detect and lay hold of each molecule and trace it through all its course,” Dyson says.

The Teller-Ulam design succeeded in bringing a small compartment to a thermonuclear temperature by letting a burst of radiation in, and then, for an equilibrium-defying instant, not letting radiation out.

Cellular automata evolve by letting order in, and keeping disorder out.

Ulam’s 1958 Los Alamos report, “On the Possibility of Extracting Energy from Gravitational Systems by Navigating Space Vehicles,” described how “one can to some modest extent acquire the properties of a Maxwell demon . . . to shorten by many orders of magnitude the time necessary for acquisition of very high velocities.” 

Stan Ulam inserted the right ideas into the right orbits at the right time, where they gained momentum fast, says Dyson.

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