Today, two determined brothers travel an alien
land. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Gregory and David Chudnovksy
are brothers. They're both married. Both got out of
Russia in 1977. Gregory lives in a crowded workshop
of a Manhattan apartment. David lives nearby.
Gregory suffers myasthenia gravis, an auto-immune
disorder that attacks the muscles. He walks and
moves with great difficulty.
The brothers are mathematicians with a genius for
computers. The KGB didn't want to let them out of
Russia. They subjected David and his father to
bone-breaking beatings. Now the brothers have
nominal research jobs at Columbia University.
Richard Preston of the New Yorker
magazine spends days interviewing them. He's
astonished at what he finds. Gregory and David have
built a super-computer in Gregory's apartment. It
competes with the Cray computer. And the Cray
retails for $30,000,000.
Preston sits in the junkyard of Gregory's living
room and asks, "Where's the computer?" "You're
sitting inside it," the brothers reply. Sure
enough, circuits sprawl all around him and spill
into adjoining rooms.
They've spent $75,000 on mail-order parts and
patiently assembled a machine that should've cost
400 times as much. Why have they done such a thing?
Do they plan to market it? No, nothing of the kind!
They're mathematicians, not hardware developers.
They're trying to understand the nature of Pi.
So far they've calculated Pi further than anyone
else -- 3.14159... and on and on to two billion
digits. They wrestle with a perfectly maddening
riddle. Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a
circle to its diameter. There's nothing random
about that. Yet, as digits flow forth, they seem to
be spit out by a random number generator.
Gregory and David have made 3-dimensional maps of
the digits in abstract space. They search the
topography of that crazy conceptual mountain range
trying to find some trace of order. Surely, David
grumbles, they would see the perfect order in all
this chaos -- if they could view it through the eye
The brothers' brains seem wed like Siamese twins in
a strange land where only the mind can go. They
scale their abstract mountains of Pi in an
all-consuming adventure. Their chronicler, Preston,
is drawn through their looking glass. His
thirty-page account is a valiant attempt to take us
along on the journey.
But the brothers are alone on this frontier. We
cannot go with them. What we can see is their great
computer. It's only an earthly shadow. Yet it is a
small hint of the magnitude of the mountains their
minds have chosen to scale.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds