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🦍 Never Mind, Hamming

Richard Hamming is best known as a researcher from Bell Labs. His talk You and Your Research definitely ranks among the best pieces of life advice humanity has produced and is well worth anyone's time.

Less known, however, is Hamming's involvement in the Manhattan Project. Here's an anecdote he recounts from that time:


Shortly before the first field test (you realize that no small scale experiment can be done—either you have a critical mass or you do not), a man asked me to check some arithmetic he had done, and I agreed, thinking to fob it off on some subordinate. When I asked what it was, he said, “It is the probability that the test bomb will ignite the whole atmosphere.” I decided I would check it myself! The next day when he came for the answers I remarked to him, “The arithmetic was apparently correct but I do not know about the formulas for the capture cross sections for oxygen and nitrogen—after all, there could be no experiments at the needed energy levels.” He replied, like a physicist talking to a mathematician, that he wanted me to check the arithmetic not the physics, and left. I said to myself, “What have you done, Hamming, you are involved in risking all of life that is known in the Universe, and you do not know much of an essential part?” I was pacing up and down the corridor when a friend asked me what was bothering me. I told him. His reply was, “Never mind, Hamming, no one will ever blame you.”[5]

Such is the nature of our moral intuitions. Hamming could weigh two considerations:

  1. What are the apes up in the tribal hierarchy going to think?

  2. Am I going to destroy all life on Earth?

Hamming was one of the best people you would hope to put in that position: clearly a deeply moral being who did do the arithmetic. But you can see which of the two considerations was stronger.

In Moral Tribes, Josh Greene argues that making moral progress requires (a) the structure of the moral problems that our brains evolved to solve, and (b) how modern moral problems differ from them. Well, for one thing, unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we have nuclear bombs. And worse things may come.

The Tree Kangaroo

If I could cast the expecto patronum charm, the tree kangaroo would definitely be my patron.

Why? Well, just take a look.

Kangaroos evolved to jump in the flatland of Australia. These poor creatures had to adapt to tree climbing niche in the rainforests of New Guinea.

As a member of the species homo sapiens in the 21st century, I find myself in a similar situation, well summarized by Nick Bostrom:

Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization—a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it. — Nick Bostrom