News Update on "Philip Pushes the Button"

NASA Langley's shy 'mad scientist' dies 
By Mike Holtzclaw [September 3, 2017]

Philip Brockman was shy by nature and rarely talked in specifics about the work that he did at NASA Langley Research Center during a career that spanned four decades.

Brockman, a research physicist, was involved with the early U.S. space program and later did work that led to tremendous advances in airline safety. But his own brother did not fully grasp the scope of that work until Brockman died on Tuesday at age 79 after a long illness.

This prompted John Brockman to talk with some of his brother’s old colleagues and to read some accounts that he had never seen before.

“He took a lot of pride in his work — he certainly did,” John Brockman said. “But I didn’t know what he was up to. He was reticent. He always wanted to stay behind the scenes. He would often contribute to papers and not want his name on them. That was just his way.”

Philip Brockman spent much of his early career in magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD), a form of propulsion. Macon “Mike” Ellis, head of the MDP branch, would refer to this group as the “mad scientists” of NASA Langley.

Their work was key to the Mercury Program that sent our nation’s first astronauts into space. Brockman also later devoted much of his work to improving safety standards for commercial flight.

“I remember him at JFK (airport in New York) spending 12 hours at the end of a runway in the cold winter wind, measuring things and looking for ducks and geese and air currents,” John Brockman said. “I didn’t realize what that was really about until I saw a graph on Tuesday night showing the sharp decline in deaths per million passengers since 1970. He was a technical lead in the FAA-NASA project to do that, and I didn’t even know it.”

Steven Harrah, who spent a decade as the NASA Windshear Radar Principle Investigator, said that Philip Brockman “helped establish the engineering fundamentals of airborne and space-based lidar that has led to numerous aviation safety enhancements and a greater understanding of our atmosphere and its complex processes.”

Brockman was a native of the Boston area and came to NASA Langley in the late 1950s after graduating from University of Massachusetts. He later would earn a master’s degree in physics from the College of William and Mary in 1963.

Dick Davis, a senior scientist who retired from NASA Langley in 2007, worked with Brockman in the area of remote sensing and the use of radar and other technology to detect turbulence, wind shears and other dangers.

“He was very much a cooperative guy, very easy to work with and good on teams,” Davis said. ”He seemed to think a lot about other people. He was very good about suggesting ways we could work together to do things.”

Engineer Grady Koch remembered Brockman as “a valued mentor” as he began his career at Langley building Doppler lidar for atmospheric studies.

“He was a wealth of knowledge and always happy to lend advice,” Koch said. “I’ll particularly miss Phil for his skill in reducing the esoteric nature of new technologies to practical implementation and for his entertaining wit while doing so.”

Brockman retired in 2003 and relocated to Raleigh, N.C., but he continued to contribute information via regular conference calls with his NASA colleagues. He is survived by his wife, Alexandra Campbell; his brother, John Brockman (wife Katinka); nephew Max Brockman (wife Jennie); and great-niece Juliet and great-nephew Miles.

Philip Pushes The Button

Rocket Scientist
1937 - 2017

Research physicist Philip Brockman pushes the button to start NASA's 
MPD-arc plasma accelerator in December 1964
 (NASA), Fred Jones

"While the Hydrodynamics Division sank at Langley, a few new research fields bobbed to the surface to become potent forces in the intellectual life of the laboratory. Most notable of these was magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD)-a genuine product of the space age and an esoteric field of scientific research for an engineering-and applications-oriented place like Langley. If any 'mad scientists' were working at Langley in the 1960s, they were the plasma physicists, nuclear fusion enthusiasts, and space-phenomena researchers found in the intense and, for a while, rather glamourous little group investigating MPD. No group of researchers in NASA moved farther away from classical aerodynamics or from the NACA's traditional focus on the problems of airplanes winging their way through the clouds than those involved with MPD." 

— James R. Hansen, from "The Mad Scientists of MPD" in Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center From Sputnik to Apollo 


In 1958, the Eisenhower administration, shocked by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, established NASA to be responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA absorbed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech.

Philip Brockman was fortunate to arrive at the renamed Langley Research Center in 1959 as part of the first group of newly recruited NASA employees hired to lead the effort to meet the challenge of the 1957 launch of Sputnik. His interest was in the magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD) thruster, considered up until that time to be in the realm of science fiction. The MPD played a major role in reshaping the focus of NASA’s space program, and it is currently the most powerful form of electromagnetic propulsion.

He was a member of the small team of scientists characterized as "The Mad Scientists of MPD" by James R. Hansen in Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center From Sputnik to Apollo. The efforts of these unsung science heroes were critical to the success of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States that put American astronauts in space, beginning with the first suborbital flight by Alan Shepard and the first orbital flight by John Glenn, and to all human space exploration thereafter.

Aerodynamics For Cognition

Tom Griffiths [8.21.17]

It's very clear that in order to make progress in understanding some of the most challenging and important things about intelligence, studying the best example we have of an intelligent system is a way to do that. Often, people who argue against that make the analogy that if we were trying to understand how to build jet airplanes, then starting with birds is not necessarily a good way to do that.                                 

That analogy is pretty telling. The thing that's critical to both making jet airplanes work and making birds fly is the structure of the underlying problem that they're solving. That problem is keeping an object airborne, and the structure of that problem is constrained by aerodynamics. By studying how birds fly and the structure of their wings, you can learn something important about aerodynamics. And what you learn about aerodynamics is equally relevant to then being able to make jet engines.                                 

The kind of work that I do is focused on trying to identify the equivalent of aerodynamics for cognition. What are the real abstract mathematical principles that constrain intelligence? What can we learn about those principles by studying human beings? 

TOM GRIFFITHS is a professor of psychology and cognitive science and director of the Computational Cognitive Science Lab and the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author (with Brian Christian) of Algorithms to Live By. Tom Griffiths's Edge Bio page

Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN)

Thomas Metzinger [8.7.17]

Obviously, it is an ethical superintelligence not only in terms of mere processing speed, but it begins to arrive at qualitatively new results of what altruism really means. This becomes possible because it operates on a much larger psychological data-base than any single human brain or any scientific community can. Through an analysis of our behaviour and its empirical boundary conditions, it reveals implicit hierarchical relations between our moral values of which we are subjectively unaware, because they are not explicitly represented in our phenomenal self-model. Being the best analytical philosopher that has ever existed, it concludes that, given its current environment, it ought not to act as a maximizer of positive states and happiness, but that it should instead become an efficient minimizer of consciously experienced preference frustration, of pain, unpleasant feelings and suffering. Conceptually, it knows that no entity can suffer from its own non-existence.

The superintelligence concludes that non-existence is in the own best interest of all future self-conscious beings on this planet. Empirically, it knows that naturally evolved biological creatures are unable to realize this fact because of their firmly anchored existence bias. The superintelligence decides to act benevolently.

THOMAS METZINGER is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of The Ego Tunnel and editor of and Thomas Metzinger's Edge Bio page

THE REALITY CLUB: Jennifer Jacquet, Nicholas Humphrey

Learning By Thinking

Tania Lombrozo [7.28.17]

Sometimes you think you understand something, and when you try to explain it to somebody else, you realize that maybe you gained some new insight that you didn't have before. Maybe you realize you didn't understand it as well as you thought you did. What I think is interesting about this process is that it’s a process of learning by thinking. When you're explaining to yourself or to somebody else without them providing feedback, insofar as you gain new insight or understanding, it isn't driven by that new information that they've provided. In some way, you've rearranged what was already in your head in order to get new insight.

The process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science. For the most part, the way that science progresses is by going out, conducting experiments, getting new empirical data, and so on. But occasionally in the history of science, there've been these important episodes—Galileo, Einstein, and so on—where somebody will get some genuinely new insight from engaging in a thought experiment. 

TANIA LOMBROZO is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and CultureTania Lombrozo's Edge Bio page

Things to Hang on Your Mental Mug Tree

Rory Sutherland [7.10.17]

I don't think there's any huge amount of intelligence required to look at the world through different lenses. The difficulty lies in that you have to abandon four or five assumptions about the world simultaneously. That's what probably makes it difficult.

RORY SUTHERLAND is Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy London; Columnist, The SpectatorRory Sutherland's Edge Bio page

Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present

Tobias Sedlmaier [6.30.17]

20 years: Online platform
Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present
By Tobias Sedlmaier 6.30.2017

The online platform Edge has been looking for the big questions for twenty years - and for the even bigger answers of life. A critical appraisal.

Internet Presence of Edge (photo: screenshot)

In the beginning is the question. Born out of restless nights and ingenious inspirations, it is examined in cold daylight, perhaps focused more precisely, and sent out by its ingenious creators into the ignorant world.

What sounds like a diffusely romantic myth of origin is in fact the recurrent practice of finding Edge’s Annual Question. On this online platform, major contemporary (mostly American) scientists and a selection of trendsetters have been formulating answers to more or less urgent questions of our time for twenty years.

How does the world work?

These can be very vague, for example: What Now? Or they can be leading questions: What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement? Almost always the notion of big ideas—either brilliant or dangerous ones—resonates here; and of course, life, the internet, and all the other themes come in.

The answers, which are first published on the website, later in book form, can be long essays with examples and formulas that run five print pages. Or they are as aphoristic as Brian Eno's response about the value of the Internet:  "The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.“

Master of Ceremonies of this sophisticated debate forum is John Brockman, author and literary agent, who is called a giant by some. The industrious intellectual impresario has himself written a handful of books, edited around fifty more and performed in an inter-disciplinary  program of avant-garde events with John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges in New York. He was also a Godfather for the think tanks "Reality Club" as well as Edge.

At a moment in history when borders are erected more quickly than torn down, you can imagine the larger than life Brockman with his characteristic wide-brimmed hat as an iconoclastic breaker of barriers. He is equally at home in the role of the business-minded entrepreneur as in the role of the theorist well aware of the sensitive changes in the Zeitgeist, oscillating between Andy Warhol and Norbert Wiener, at the intersection of art and cybernetics.

Compassionate Systems

Daniel Goleman [6.22.17]
One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. For example, I have this jacket, you have this table or the chair I’m sitting on, and they are manufactured with industrial platforms that have more or less been the same for a century. Yet in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the emergence of industrial ecology, a science that offers a metric for understanding the impacts of the life cycle of any of these objects from beginning to end in terms of how they impact the global systems that support life on our planet—the carbon cycle being the best-known. Now that we have that data and a metric for it, we can better manage the processes that are entailed in the use and manufacture of every object we own. We have a metric for reinventing everything in the material world to be supportive of those life-support systems.
DANIEL GOLEMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. A psychologist and science journalist, he reported on brain and behavioral research for The New York Times for many years. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including three accounts of meetings he has moderated between the Dalai Lama and scientists, psychotherapists, and social activists. Daniel Goleman's Edge Bio Page

Curtains For Us All?

Martin Rees [5.31.17]
Here on Earth, I suspect that we are going to want to regulate the application of genetic modification and cyborg techniques on grounds of ethics and prudence. This links with another topic I want to come to later about the risks of new technology. If we imagine these people living as pioneers on Mars, they are out of range of any terrestrial regulation. Moreover, they've got a far higher incentive to modify themselves or their descendants to adapt to this very alien and hostile environment.                                 
They will use all the techniques of genetic modification, cyborg techniques, maybe even linking or downloading themselves into machines, which, fifty years from now, will be far more powerful than they are today. The posthuman era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars. 
LORD MARTIN REES is a Fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is the UK's Astronomer Royal and a Past President of the Royal Society. Martin Rees's Edge Bio Page

The Threat

Ross Anderson [5.8.17]
People who are able to live digitally enhanced lives, in the sense that they can use all the available tools to the fullest extent, are very much more productive and capable and powerful than those who are still stuck in meatspace. It’s as if you had a forest where all the animals could see only in black and white and, suddenly, along comes a mutation in one of the predators allowing it to see in color. All of a sudden it gets to eat all the other animals, at least those who can’t see in color, and the other animals have no idea what’s going on. They have no idea why their camouflage doesn’t work anymore. They have no idea where the new threat is coming from. That’s the kind of change that happens once people get access to really powerful online services.
So long as it was the case that everybody who could be bothered to learn had access to AltaVista, or Google, or Facebook, or whatever, then that was okay. The problem we’re facing now is that more and more capable systems are no longer open to all. They’re open to the government, to big business, and to powerful advertising networks.
ROSS ANDERSON is professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, and one of the founders of the field of information security economics. He chairs the Foundation for Information Policy Research, is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is a winner of the Lovelace Medal, the UK’s top award in computing. Ross Anderson's Edge Bio Page


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