Carver Mead: Coherent Science

Coherent Science

Carver Mead is a very interesting engineer and scientist who has achieved a very impressive list of “firsts”.

In relation to his 2002 award with the National Medal of Technology, his biography at a webpage of the Technology Administration of the United States government says:

Carver Mead is a key pioneer of modern microelectronics.
His 40-year academic and industry career touches all aspects of microelectronics, from spearheading the development of tools and techniques for modern integrated circuit design, to laying the foundation for fabless semiconductor companies, to catalyzing the electronic design automation field, to training generations of engineers, to founding more than twenty companies, including Actel Corporation, Silicon Compilers, Synaptics, and Sonic Innovations.

Carver’s career is characterized by an endless string of “firsts.”

He built the first GaAs MESFET, a device that is today a mainstay of wireless electronics.
He was the first to use a physics-based analysis to predict a lower limit to transistor size.
His predictions, along with the notions of scalability that came with them, were instrumental in setting the industry on its path toward submicrometre technology.
He was the first to predict millions of transistors on a chip, and, on the basis of these predictions, he developed the first techniques for designing big, complex microchips. He taught the world’s first VLSI design course.
He created the first software compilation of a silicon chip.

Halfway through his career he switched direction, teaming with Professor John Hopfield and Nobelist Richard Feynman to study how animal brains compute.
The trio catalyzed three fields: Neural Networks, Neuromorphic Engineering, and Physics of Computation.
Carver created the first neurally inspired chips, including the silicon retina and chips that learn from experience, and founded the first companies to use these technologies: Synaptics, and Foveon, Inc., a Santa Clara, California company developing CMOS image sensor/processing chips (for use in e.g. digital photography).

Carver’s teaching legacy is every bit as significant as his research.
He taught the original founders of Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Silicon Design Labs, and countless others.
His work in electronic design automation (EDA) created companies such as Silicon Compilers, Silerity, and Cascade Semiconductor Design.
He and Ivan Sutherland created the computer science department at Caltech.
The 1980 textbook he coauthored with Lynn Conway, Introduction to VLSI Design, was standard training for a generation of engineers.
His 1989 textbook, Analog VLSI and Neural Systems, trained interdisciplinary researchers who are poised today to revolutionize the frontier of computing and neurobiology.
Although retired, Carver continues his teaching tradition today: His new passion is finding a better way to teach freshman physics, using the quantum nature of matter as a sole basis.

Carver also pioneered the use of floating-gate transistors as a means of non-volatile storage for neuromorphic and other analog circuits.

Carver Mead is unimpressed by “pontifical experts” because “mere credentials and achievements don’t guarantee intelligent thought”.

Those credentials have earned Mead the right to be listened to- although he’d be the first to argue that mere credentials and achievements don’t guarantee intelligent thought.

In fact, they can cause intellectual ossification.

To illistrate that point, Mead told the story of how Charles Townes, the inventor of the laser and maser, took his ideas to the leading quantum-mechanics nabobs at the time, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

“They both laughed at him, and basically said, ‘Sonny, you just don’t seem to understand how quantum mechanics works’,” Mead told his ISSCC audience.

“Well, history has shown that it wasn’t Charlie who didn’t know how quantum mechanics works, it was the pontifical experts in the field who didn’t know how it worked.”

Mead said that we’re all taught that there was a revolution in scientific thought that started with relativity and quantum mechanics.

“Actually, that’s not the case,” he said.

“A revolution is when something goes clear around. And what happened starting in the first 25 years of the 20th century was that there was the beginning of a revolution, and it got stuck about a quarter of the way around.”

And it remains stuck, he believes.

“What we’re living with today is a bunch of mysteries and misconceptions that came about partly because people couldn’t imagine nature being as interesting as it really is, and partly because a bunch of big egos got in the way and wouldn’t let the revolution proceed.”

Chip daddy Mead: ‘A bunch of big egos’ are strangling science
The Register – Rik Myslewski – 20 Feb 2013

The rise of “pontifical experts” [aka Settled Scientists] during the 20th century caused Carver Mead to conclude [in 2000] that “the last seven decades of the twentieth century will be characterized in history as the dark ages of theoretical physics.”

Collective Electrodynamics

When Feynman said that a concept was “more mathematical” or “more abstract,” he was not paying it a compliment!

He had no use for theory devoid of physical content.

In the Lectures on Gravitation, he says:

If there is something very slightly wrong in our definition of the theories, then the full mathematical rigor may convert these errors into ridiculous conclusions.

We called that “carrying rigor to the point of rigor mortis.”

At another point, he is even more explicit:

it is the facts that matter, and not the proofs.
Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can’t go on without the facts . . .
if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly.

He opened a seminar one time with the statement, “Einstein was a giant.”

A hush fell over the audience.

We all sat, expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate.

Finally, he continued, “His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground.”

We all chuckled, and again we waited.

After another long silence, he concluded, “But those of us who are not that tall have to choose!”

Amid the laughter, you could see that not only a good joke, but also a deep point, had been made.

Collective Electrodynamics – Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism
Carver A. Mead – The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts – 2000

In an interview published by American Spectator in 2001 Carver Mead highlighted the very significant difference between incoherent matter [when waves are out of phase] and coherent matter where waves are in phase.

The quantum world is a world of waves, not particles.

So we have to think of electron waves and proton waves and so on.

Matter is ‘incoherent’ when all its waves have a different wavelength, implying a different momentum.

On the other hand, if you take a pure quantum system – the electrons in a superconducting magnet, or the atoms in a laser – they are all in phase with one another, and they demonstrate the wave nature of matter on a large scale.

Then you can see quite visibly what matter is down at its heart.

An Interview with Carver Mead – American Spectator – Sep/Oct2001 Vol 34 Issue 7 p68

Wave-only view
At least one scientist proposes that the duality can be replaced by a “wave-only” view.

In his book Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism (2000), Carver Mead purports to analyze the behavior of electrons and photons purely in terms of electron wave functions, and attributes the apparent particle-like behavior to quantization effects and eigenstates.

According to reviewer David Haddon:

Mead has cut the Gordian knot of quantum complementarity.

He claims that atoms, with their neutrons, protons, and electrons, are not particles at all but pure waves of matter.

Mead cites as the gross evidence of the exclusively wave nature of both light and matter the discovery between 1933 and 1996 of ten examples of pure wave phenomena, including the ubiquitous laser of CD players, the self-propagating electrical currents of superconductors, and the Bose–Einstein condensate of atoms.

Recovering Rational Science – David Haddon – Touchstone Magazine – Sept 2003


A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation.

The term “laser” originated as an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”.

A laser differs from other sources of light because it emits light coherently.

Spatial coherence allows a laser to be focused to a tight spot, enabling applications like laser cutting and lithography.

Spatial coherence also allows a laser beam to stay narrow over long distances (collimation), enabling applications such as laser pointers.

Lasers can also have high temporal coherence which allows them to have a very narrow spectrum, i.e., they only emit a single color of light.

Temporal coherence can be used to produce pulses of light—as short as a femtosecond.

The American Spectator web site appears to contain two articles that reference Carver Mead but [sadly] the text of this 2001 interview no longer appears on their web site.

At the same time, in 1965, Gordon Moore, then the young director of R&D for a subsidiary of Fairchild Camera and Instrument, made an explosive prediction in an article in an industry journal.

Using research from his young associate from Caltech, Carver Mead, Moore prophesied an annual doubling of the number of transistors that could be put on a Single silicon device.

Adapted because of a later slowdown to a doubling every 18 months, this projection came to be known far and wide as Moore’s Law, as Mead named it.

But it could just as well have been dubbed Henderson’s Law or Bain’s Bonanza.

Romney, Bain, and Me – George Gilder – September 2012

The emeritus Caltech professor Carver Mead writes in his book Collective Electrodynamics that new researchers (he mentions several unfamiliar names) “have put us in a position to finally settle the Einstein-Bohr debate — with a resounding victory for Einstein.”

Mead also said in an interview that Bohr & Co. “took the limitation of their cumbersome experiments as evidence for the nature of reality.”

Likewise, Einstein’s views about space and time were based on experiments using 19th-century equipment.

Einstein’s position on the quantum was so mild that it surely has to be vindicated.

The theory was “incomplete,” he said.

I believe also that in holding out, almost alone, against a powerful consensus Einstein was doing exactly what scientists are supposed to do but usually lack the courage to do.

Here’s something else.

Edwin T. Jaynes, one of the dissenters cited by Carver Mead, said that when he studied physics at Berkeley in 1947, his thesis director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, would never countenance any retreat from the Copenhagen position, and derived “some great emotional satisfaction from just those elements of mysticism that Schrodinger and Einstein had deplored.”

Enthusiasm for that blend of mysticism and science survives to this day.

Einstein’s Revolution, and Counterrevolution – Tom Bethell – June 2007

This might have something to do with Carver Mead’s statement than an electron “expands to fit the container it’s in” so that the electrons in his superconducting magnet are a mile long.

So early on you knew that electrons were real.

The electrons were real, the voltages were real, the phase of the sine-wave was real, the current was real.

These were real things.

They were just as real as the water going down through the pipes.

You listen to the technology, and you know that these things are totally real, and totally intuitive.

But they’re also waves, right? Then what are they waving in?

It’s interesting, isn’t it?

That has hung people up ever since the time of Clerk Maxwell, and it’s the missing piece of intuition that we need to develop in young people.

The electron isn’t the disturbance of something else.

It is its own thing.

The electron is the thing that’s wiggling, and the wave is the electron.

It is its own medium.

You don’t need something for it to be in, because if you did it would be buffeted about and all messed up.

So the only pure way to have a wave is for it to be its own medium.

The electron isn’t something that has a fixed physical shape.

Waves propagate outwards, and they can be large or small.

That’s what waves do.

So how big is an electron?

It expands to fit the container it’s in.

That may be a positive charge that’s attracting it – a hydrogen atom – or the walls of a conductor.

A piece of wire is a container for electrons.

They simply fill out the piece of wire.

That’s what all waves do.

If you try to gather them into a smaller space, the energy level goes up.

That’s what these Copenhagen guys call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

But there’s nothing uncertain about it.

It’s just a property of waves.

Confine them, and you have more wavelengths in a given space, and that means a higher frequency and higher energy.

But a quantum wave also tends to go to the state of lowest energy, so it will expand as long as you let it.

You can make an electron that’s ten feet across, there’s no problem with that.

It’s its own medium, right?

And it gets to be less and less dense as you let it expand.

People regularly do experiments with neutrons that are a foot across.

A ten-foot electron! Amazing!

It could be a mile.

The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.

An Interview with Carver Mead – American Spectator – Sep/Oct2001 Vol 34 Issue 7

Thankfully, the Laputan Logicis blog resurrected the interview in 2003 for others to enjoy.

Any way, this post has since generated quite a lot of interest and it is still a major source of Google referrals to this site.

But some time after blogging this, the American Spectator took the article offline and unforgivably broke my link so I tried to cobble together enough of the interview from the bits and pieces I could find on the net.

The result was less than perfect and had large chunks missing from it.

But you’ll be happy to know that I didn’t give up.

Using my finely honed googling skills and a strong commitment to web archaeology, I have finally been able to reconstruct the complete interview from the digital equivalent of a collection of smashed cuneiform tablets and some hurriedly copied manuscripts (some in Greek).

The result is undoubtedly the most authorative version of the interview extant anywhere on the web today!

So without further adieu, please allow me to present for your reading pleasure the complete and definitive “An Interview with Carver Mead”.


The Complete “An Interview with Carver Mead”

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2 Responses to Carver Mead: Coherent Science

  1. gymnosperm says:

    Still trying to figure out if I should choose the clouds or the ground…

  2. gymnosperm says:

    Ok, clouds. They’re just way more fun. Just in case you’re in the mood for something really out there.

    ” A piece of wire is a container for electrons. They simply fill out the piece of wire. That’s what all waves do. If you try to gather them into a smaller space, the energy level goes up”

    So we have these linear features, and also point features, of shallow molten rock all over the planet. The linear features we would call ocean spreading centers. The point features we would call hotspots. They are garnering mysterious energy from somewhere, and that somewhere seems not to be nuclear energy from the deep because the mantle seems stratified.

    So what if the waves were gathered into a smaller space and the energy level went up in these places? We all know what happens when you try to pull too many electrons through a wire. Or short circuit them.

    For example, here is what the Hawaiian hot spot looks like from seismic imagery:

    hawaii hot spot

    On second thought, maybe I’m really talking about the ground.

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