18 minutes with an agile mind: Clifford Stoll on

Clifford Stoll could talk about the atmosphere of Jupiter. Or hunting KGB hackers. Or Klein bottles, computers in classrooms, the future. But he’s not going to. Which is fine, because it would be criminal to confine a man with interests as multifarious as Stoll’s to give a talk on any one topic. Instead, he simply captivates his audience with a wildly energetic sprinkling of anecdotes, observations, asides — and even a science experiment. After all, by his own definition, he’s a scientist: “Once I do something, I want to do something else.” (Recorded February 2006 in Monterey, California. Duration: 17:50.)

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I’m delighted to be here. I’m honored by the invitation and thanks. I would love to talk about stuff that I’m interested in, but unfortunately I suspect that what I’m interested in won’t interest many other people.

First off my badge says that I’m an astronomer. I would love to talk about my astronomy, but I suspect that the number of people who are interested in radiative transfer in non-gray atmosphere and polarization in light in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, you know, the number of people who’d fit in a bio shelter. So I’m not going to talk about that.

It would be just as much fun to talk about some stuff that happened in 1986 and 1987, when computer hackers broke into our systems over at Lawrence-Berkley Labs. And I caught the guys who it turned out be working for what was then the Soviet KGB and stealing information and selling it. And I would love to talk about that, but twenty years later, I find computer security frankly to be kind of boring. It’s tedious.

The first time you do something it’s science. The second time it’s engineering. A third time it’s just being a technician. I’m a scientist. Once I do something, I do something else. So, I’m not going to talk about that. Nor am I going to talk about what I think are obvious statements from my first book, Silicon Snake Oil, or my second book, nor am I going to talk about why I believe computers don’t belong in schools.

I feel that there’s a massive and bazaar idea going around that we have to bring more computers into schools. My idea is: No! No! Get them out of schools and keep them out of schools. And I’d love to talk about this, but I think the argument is so obvious to anyone that has hung around a fourth grade classroom that it doesn’t need much talking about, but I guess I might be very wrong about that and everyone else I said, so don’t go back and read my dissertation. It probably has lies in it as well.

Having said that, I outlined my talk about five minutes ago, and if you look at it over here, I’m supposed to talk about the future yes? Oh right. And my feeling is asking me to talk about the future is bazaar, because I’ve got gray hair and so, it’s kind of silly for me to talk about the future. In fact, I think that if you really want to know about the future, don’t ask a technologist, a scientist, a physicist. No! Don’t ask somebody who’s writing code. No, if you want to know what society is going to be like in 20 years, ask a kindergarten teacher. They know.

In fact, don’t ask just any kindergarten teacher, ask an experienced on. They are the ones who know what society is going to be like in another generation. I don’t. Nor, I suspect, do many other people who are taking about what the future will bring. Certainly all of us can imagine these cool things that are going to be there. But to me things aren’t the future. What I ask myself is what society is going to be like, when the kids today are phenomenally good at text messaging and spend a huge amount of on-screen time, but have never gone bowling together.

And change is happening, and the change that is happening is not one that is happening in software. But that’s now what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what I’m dong now.

Oh, what am I doing now? Oh the other thing I’d like to talk about is right over here.

Is this visible? What I’d like to talk about is one-sided things. I would dearly love to talk about things that have one side. Because, I love Mobius loops. I not only love Mobius loops, but I’m one of the very few people, if not the only person in the world that makes Klein bottles. Ok right now I hope that all your eyes glaze over. This is a Klein bottle. For those who, those of you in the audience you know roll your eyes and say, “Yup. I know all about it. It’s one-sided. It’s a bottle whose insides is it’s outside. It has zero volume. And it’s non-orient bowl. It has wonderful properties. If you take two Mobius loops in solar commonage together, you get one of these and I make them out of glass. And I’d love to talk to you about this, but I don’t have much in the way of things to say because I got a cold. However, the ‘D’ in TED stands for design.

Just two weeks ago – you know, I’ve been making small, medium and big Klein bottles for the trade. But what I’ve just made and I’m delighted to show you first time in public here.

This is a Klein bottle-wine bottle, which although, it shouldn’t in four dimensions, it shouldn’t be able to hold any fluid at all. It’s perfectly capable of doing so because our universe has only three spatial dimensions and because our universe is only three spatial dimensions, it can hold floods. So it’s highly —

That one’s the cool one. That was a month of my life, but although I would love to talk about topology with you, I’m not going to. Instead – instead, I’m going to mention my mom who passed away last summer. Had collected photographs of me, as mothers will do. Could somebody put this guy up? And I looked over her album and she had collected a picture of me, standing – sitting in 1969 in front of a bunch of dials. And

I looked at it. Oh my god, that was me! When I was working at the electronic studio as a technician, repairing and maintaining the electronic music studio at SUNY Buffalo. And WOW! Way back machine. And I said to myself, “Oh yeah!” And it sent me back. Soon after that, soon after that, I found in another picture that she had, a picture of me. This guy over here of course is me. This man is Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer that passed away this past August.

Robert Moog was a generous, kind person, extraordinarily competent engineer. A musician who took time from his life to teach me, a sophomore, freshman at SUNY Buffalo. He’d come up from Trumansburg to teach me about, not just about, oh the Moog synthesize, but we’d be sitting there studying physics at the time. This is 1969, 70, 71. We’re studying physics, I’m studying physics and he says that’s a good thing to do. Don’t get caught up in electronic music if you’re doing physics. And he’s mentoring me. He’d come up and spend hours and hours with me. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me to get into graduate school.

In the background my bicycle. I realize that this picture is taken at a friend’s living room Bob Moog came by and brought a whole pile of equipment to show Greg Flint and I things about this. We sat around talking about Fourier transforms, Bessel functions, module transformations, stuff like this.

Bob’s passing this past summer has been a loss to all of us. Anyone who’s been a musician has been profoundly influenced by Robert Moog. I’ll just say what I’m about to do. What I’m about to do, I hope you can recognize that there’s a distorted sign wave, almost a triangular wave upon this Hewlett Packard oscilloscope.

Oh cool. I can get to, I can get to this place over here. Kids. Kids. Kids is what I’m going to talk about is that okay? It says kids over here, that’s what I’d like to talk about. I’ve decided, for me at least, I don’t have a big enough head. So I think locally and I act locally. I feel that the best way I can help out is to help out very, very locally.

So, PhD this, degree there, and yadda yadda. I was talking about some stuff to some school teachers about a year ago. And one of them, several of them said, “How come you ain’t teaching?”

And I said, “Well I’ve taught graduate. I’ve taught graduate students, I’ve taught undergraduate.”

And they said, “No, if you’re so into kids and all this stuff. How come you ain’t over here on the front lines. Put your money where you mouth is.”

It’s true. It’s true. I teach 8th grade science four days a week. Not showing up every now and then. I take attendance. I take lunch hour. And this is not, no, no, no, this is not claps. I strongly suggest that this is a good thing for each of you to do. Not just show up to class every now and then. Teach a solid week. Okay, I’m teaching 3/4 time, but good enough.

One of the things that I’ve done for my science students is to tell them that look, I’m going to teach you college level physics. No calculus, I’ll cut out that. You won’t need to know trig. But you will need to know 8th grade algebra and we’re going to do serious experiments. None of this open to chapter seven and do all the odd problem sets. We’re going to do genuine physics. And that’s one of the things I thought I’d do right now.

Oh, before I turn that on, one of the things that I, that we did about three weeks ago in my class. This is through a lens and one the things we used a lens for was to measure the speed of light. My students in El Sorido, and with my help of course and with the help of the very beat up oscilloscope measured the speed of light. We were off by 25%. How many 8th graders do you know of have measured the speed of light? In addition to that, we’ve measure the speed of sound.

I’d love to measure the speed of light here. I was all set to do it and I was thinking that ah man I was just going to impose upon the powers that be and measure the speed of light. I’m all set to do it. I’m all set up to do it, but then it turns out that to set up here, you have like 10 minutes to set up. And there’s no time to do it. So, next time, maybe, I’ll measure the speed of light! But meanwhile, let’s measure the speed of sound! Well the obvious way to measure the speed of sound is to bounce sound off something and look at the echo. But probably, one of my students, Ariel Kurat, said, “Could we measure the speed of light using the wave equation?” And all of you know that the wave equation is the frequency times the wavelength of any wave is a constant. When the frequency goes up, the wavelength comes down. Wavelength goes up, frequency comes down. SO if we have a wave here, over here that’s what’s interesting. As the pitch comes up, things get closer, pitch goes down, things stretch out.

Right? This is simple in physics. All of you know this from 8th grade, remember? What they didn’t tell you – What they didn’t tell you in physics – in 8th grade physics, but they should have, and I wish they had, was that if you multiply the frequency times the wave-length of sound or light, you get a constant speed of sound. So, in order to measure the speed of sound, all I’ve got to do is know It’s frequency. Well that’s easy. I got a frequency counter right here. Set it up to around A above A above A. There’s an A more or less.

Now, so I know the frequency. It’s 1.76 kilohertz. I measure it’s wavelength. All I need now is to flip on another beam, and the bottom beam is me talking right? So anytime I talk you can see it on the screen. Yeah.

I’ll put it over here, and as I move the sway, from the source, you’ll notice the spiral, the slinky moves. We’re seeing – we’re going through different modes of the wave coming out this way. Those of you who are physicists, I hear you roll your eyes, but bear with me.

To measure the wavelength — to measure the wavelength, all I need to do is to measure the distance from here, one full wave over to here. From here to here is the wavelength of sound. So, I’ll put a measuring tape here, measuring tape here, move it back over to here. I’ve moved the microphone 20 centimeters. 0.2 meters to here, back to here, 20 centimeters.

Ok, let’s go back to Mr. Elmo. And we’ll say the frequency is 1.76 kilohertz, or 1760. The wavelength was 0.2 meters. Let’s figure out what this is. 1.76 X 0.2 over here is 352 meters per second. If you look it up in the book, yeah, it’s really 343. But here with cloogie material and lousy drink, we’ve been able to measure the speed of light, or the speed of sound to not bad. Pretty good.

All of which comes to what I wanted to say. Go back to this picture of me a million years ago. It was 1971, the Vietnam War was going on, and the Vietnam War is going on and I’m like “Oh my God! I’m studying physics, land in low Lipschitz, going home for midterm. A riot is going on campus. A riot. “ (And Elmo is done.) There’s a riot going on, on campus, and the police are chasing me, right? I’m walking across campus. Cop comes and looks at me and says, “You! You’re a student.” Pulls out a can, and goes boomf! And a tear gas canister the size of a Pepsi canister goes “Whoosh.”

I get a breath of tear gas and I can’t breath. This cop comes after me with a rifle. He wants to clunk me over the head. I say I got to clear out of here.

I go running across campus, quick as I can. I duck into Hays Hall. It’s one of these bell-tower buildings. The cop’s chasing me. Chasing me up the first floor, second floor, third floor. Chases me into this room. It’s the entranceway to the bell tower. I slam the door behind me, climb up, go past this place where I see this pendulum swinging. And I think, oh yeah, the square to the length is proportional to its period.

I keep climbing up, go back. I go to a place where dowels split off. There’s a clock, clock, clock. The times going backwards because I’m inside of it. I’m thinking of Lorenz Contractions and Einsteinian Relativity. I climb up, and there’s this place, way in the back. That you climb up this wooden ladder. I pop up the top. And there’s this cupola. A dome, one of these 10 foot domes. I’m looking out and I’m seeing the cops bashing students’ heads, shooting tear gas. Watching students throwing bricks. And I’m asking, “What am I doing here? Why am I here?”

Then I remembered what my high school English teacher in high school said. When they cast bells they write inscriptions on them. So, I wipe pigeon manure off one of the bells, and I look at it. I’m asking myself, why am I here?

So, this time I’d like to tell you the words inscribed on Hays Tower’s bell: “All truth is one, in this light. May science and religion endeavor here for the steady evolution of mankind, from darkness to light, from narrowness to broad-mindedness, from prejudice to tolerance. It is the voice of life, which calls us to come and learn.”

Thank you very much.