A modern pioneer

The life of Federico Faggin (born 1941 in Italy) is quite fascinating, as described in his book Silicon. He starts out in life as a red hot designer of newly emerging computer technologies, is one of the pioneers of the early years of the modern information revolution, lives his main career in Silicon Valley surfing the waves of new technologies, and yet ultimately comes to realise the limitations of these computer technologies, indeed of the modern materialistic world view. He forms a Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness, realising that it is consciousness that is fundamental, as opposed to the materialism of the prevailing paradigm.

Faggin splits his story into four parts, or lives.

The First Life covers his university education, technical career and marriage in Italy.

In the Second Life he moves to USA, Silicon Valley, and is a key player in SGS Fairchild’s development of silicon gate technology and the first integrated circuit Fairchild 3708. Then he works in the early days of Intel (1103 then 4004 in 1971), and the first single-chip microprocessor (8008 then 8080). After conflicts Federico leaves Intel in 1974.

In his Third Life Federico becomes an entrepreneur, founding Zilog with Ralph Ungermann, funded by Exxon Enterprises, in 1974. This led to the influential Z80 microcontroller. There followed periods with Cygnet Technologies and then Synaptics, where he becomes involved in neural networks and the development of touchpads (1994). Then there is a period with Foveon, developing image sensors – all this is leading edge technology at the time.

Towards the end of this period he has an ‘illumination experience’, which leads to his questioning the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. He comes to the realisation that the materialistic model is inadequate, and he outlines a perspective that is consistent with quantum physics, where consciousness is primary (panpsychism). This leads to the Fourth Life, where, with his wife, he forms the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness (2011).

This is a fascinating story. But a warning is in order at this point. I sort of glazed over much of the technical material in this book, despite understanding a fair bit about the information revolution of the past 50 years. Without such a background you might struggle to make sense of this book.

Yet this is an important story. Ultimately, Federico’s insight into consciousness is the realisation that has come to many of the leading scientific thinkers of the past 100 years, including many of the quantum physicists. A peril for our times is that we embed ourselves ever further into the materialistic paradigm and even give away our free will to those very computers that Federico helped to come to fruition, because we become lost in the glamour of artificial intelligence (which he himself decries). Our very moral purpose and creativity are at stake.

Featured image of Z80 by Chris Whytehead, Chris’s Acorns, via Wikimedia Commons

John Polkinghorne

I was sorry to learn of the death of John Polkinghorne in the recent college magazine Trinity Review. John was my director of studies in Applied Mathematics in the early 1960s, the only director of studies I can really remember from my time at university – which says something. He was very approachable and human, although I must record that he did not in the end succeed in inspiring me to a career involving Applied Mathematics.

I subsequently intemittently followed John’s career at a distance, with interest. Although a physicist specialising in quantum mechanics, John “baffled many of his fellow scientists by believing that advances in his field in the 20th century had made it easier to believe in God… he thought it was no less an article of faith to believe that atoms moved according to some hidden law of nature, as many other scientists did, than it was for him to believe they moved according to God’s will.”

In 1979 John left academia to take holy orders, eventually becoming the vicar of Blean, near Canterbury. He later became dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and a prolific writer about the intersection between science and religion. He was knighted in 1997, but as a clergyman was not called “sir”.

As well as being a fine human being, John was yet another example of the long parade of quantum physicists who have stressed the importance of reconciling science and religion/spirituality, in direct contradiction of the materialistic beliefs of many of today’s so-called scientific disciplines. See eg my post on Mystical Scientists.

It was a privilege to have known him.

Featured image of Trinity College, Cambridge by Mahyar-UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reality Is Not What It Seems

reality coverI recently discovered Carlo Rovelli’s book Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. This was among the big sellers at Waterstones, and I soon discovered why. Rovelli is very good at communicating ‘difficult’ scientific ideas. His subject matter is physics, that most basic of sciences, and this book gives a good overview of the implications of the current thinking of some physicists.

His story begins with the Ancient Greeks and particularly Democritus and his atomism, the essential granular quality of the universe. Although no work of Democritus survived, the essential ideas were rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance, ultimately inspiring Isaac Newton and his model of the existence of particles in space and time, and of forces between them, action at a distance, what became known as gravity.

The next great step was the ‘discovery’ of electric and magnetic fields between particles by Faraday and Maxwell.

With his special theory of relativity in 1905, Einstein brought together space and time, into space-time, and in 1915 his general relativity further integrated spacetime with fields, as covariant fields.

The amazing story of quantum mechanics, developed by many collaborators including Planck, Heisenberg and Dirac, then simplified the physicists’ model of the universe to two things: Spacetime and Quantum fields. And then the ultimate aim of Quantum gravity is to reduce this to just one building block of the whole universe – Covariant quantum fields.

Yes it’s a great story and well worth reading for insight into where the physicists are at, but without the incomprehensible (to most people) maths that lies behind it.

But always remember this. It’s only a model; it’s not reality. And the model doesn’t really understand the interiority of things, life, consciousness, the mystery of existence… i.e. most of what’s important.