Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 681:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 681.

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 of God.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Preston, R., The Mountains of Pi. The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, pp. 36-67.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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