Science: The Thinking Machine

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Bessie in Flight. During World War II, old Bessie (built by International Business Machines Corp. and presented by I.B.M. to Harvard) was given the job of evaluating mathematically an electrically powered cannon that the Nazis were known to be building. Bessie chewed into a snarl of equations and proved that the weapon was utterly impractical. The U.S. relaxed while the Germans, who had no Bessie, went on wasting enormous effort on an impossible task.

When not more urgently engaged, Bessie grinds out whole books of useful mathematical tables. One of them has 290 pages solidly packed with figures. A skilled operator, working with a desk calculator (an elaborate "adding machine"), might have completed the task in several years of steady, grueling labor. Bessie took twelve days to do the job.

One of Bessie's recent chores was finding out how to get the greatest range out of an Air Force bomber. She was given a complicated equation expressing the airplane's flying characteristics. By substituting different "variables," she figured how far it would fly with various loads, at various altitudes, various engine speeds, etc. When Bessie got through, she started over again, to figure how the plane would perform with one engine dead, two engines dead, etc.

During these theoretical "flights," the young mathematicians in charge of Bessie began to think of her as a real airplane being tested. They groaned when she was ."forced down" and praised her warmly for each extra-tough "flight."

Job of a Century. Such comparatively simple tasks are not impossible for human calculators, but they are impractical because of the time they would take.

But many complicated jobs that the machines can do are beyond human capabilities. The International Business Machines Corp.'s big calculator, for instance, has completed in 103 hours a job (see cut) relating to uranium fission for Princeton University. The same job would have taken a flesh & blood operator more than 100 years. The time could not have been shortened by putting 100 operators to work, because each part of the problem had to be done in sequence.

Feats like this, hitherto impossible for slow, short-lived man, are what make scientists wildly excited about the new computers. Virtually every branch of science is surrounded by beetling walls of unscalable figures. The hazy paths of electrons whirling around a nucleus, the speeding flow of air over an airplane's wing, the structure and reactions of complex chemical molecules—all these involve continents and oceans of figures, figures, figures. Sometimes a simple answer (a small number, or even a yes or a no) would cost a lifetime or 100 lifetimes of human calculation.

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