SFI Colloquium: ‘Ulam’s Demons’ Set for Thursday

SFI Colloquium: “Ulam’s Demons” is set for 3:30 p.m. Thursday Aug. 30 in Noyce Conference Room.


George Dyson
Author and Historian of Technology

Abstract: Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1984), one of the inspirations for SFI, performed useful work, without the visible expenditure of energy, by letting good ideas in and keeping bad ideas out.

Four of the twentieth century’s most imaginative inventions — the Monte Carlo method, the hydrogen bomb, self-reproducing cellular automata, and nuclear pulse propulsion — originated with help from Stan.

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.”

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.

SFI Host: Simon DeDeo


The Santa Fe Institute‘s mission is to foster a transdisciplinary research community that endeavors to expand the boundaries of scientific understanding. Its aim is to discover and comprehend the common fundamental principles in physical, computational, biological, and social systems that underlie many of the most profound problems facing science and society today.


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