Six degrees of separation
Monday, January 9, 2012 10:34:37 AM
A friend of mine (Teresa) from work (who was in the same class as me in school) was telling me that she was helping her daughter with some homework, one of the questions involved Fibonacci numbers. When she used that term and her daughter asked about it, she said to look it up online.
Well, that's where I came up. One of the links was to artist Roman Verostko's page on Turing machines, where I happen to have contributed a universal Turing machine using a numbering system based on Fibonacci numbers. I wrote this thing about 15 years ago, when I came across this artist sometime later with a page on universal Turing machines I thought it might be interesting to contribute my own machine to the artist.
Reading through the description, she made a comment to her daughter "Did you know you're less than 6 degrees of separation from Stephen Hawking?"
Some 20 years ago now, a friend of mine bought me a copy of Roger Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind. Very interesting reading of course, but Penrose had written his own universal Turing machine and published it, in an encoded form, in the book (and of course Verostko had used that machine in some of his works). I had actually taken the time to convert the machine back to a usable form (the encoding was also in the book) and actually emulate it on my PC. In the process I discovered a typo in the book (I presume it was a typo anyway), so I emailed Penrose to let him know. He was so impressed, he actually included me as a footnote in his second book, Shadows of the Mind. (No, I'm not recommending you go out and buy the book, it is not anywhere near as readable as the earlier one. But if you're in the library sometime you could look it up.)
Anyway, back to the story ... her daughter was skeptical, so she explained. "Stephen Hawking is 1. This professor (Penrose) is a friend of Hawking's, so that's 2. The guy who wrote this code there is 3, since he 'corrected' Penrose. That makes me 4, since I went to school with him and work with him, and you're 5." (If you're paying attention, that's not correct - Stephen Hawking would be 0, and all other numbers adjusted accordingly. But I didn't think of that until later.)
That got into a discussion of why a guy like me would be working at Wal-mart, but she said "Not everyone's cut out to be a teacher" which is exactly correct. The story as related ended with her telling her daughter that the world is a lot smaller than we think.
I notice (interesting coincidence?) an article on the Reuters news website that yesterday (Sunday) was apparently Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday, which of course included the fact that when he was diagnosed with ALS at age 21 they didn't expect him to survive more than about 2 years. I guess he just had too many ideas for a mere 23 years to contain.
It is a small world, or alternatively we are all much bigger than we give ourselves credit for. It is hard for me to look back and see everything I've done, everyone I've touched in my time; when I do get reminded of it you have to just sit and wonder. Okay, I'm no Hawking (or Penrose for that matter), though I get the feeling reading that article that he might feel much the same way about his own life.
Happy Birthday, Stephen, and thanks for your contributions not just to science but to our lives.