Software Musings

Kuhn Returns Home

Posted on: 13/09/2006

I have just returned from a holiday, primarily to Bloomington, Indiana, USA, to talk to an expert on analogue computers, but my wife and I also had two nights in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

Cincinnati turned out to be a much nicer city than we had anticipated (even though our room in the Hilton sounded as though it had a steam train running through it) and the walk along the waterfront was delightful: there are various works of art, including an abstract representation of the paddle-wheel steamers called Whistle Grove. This consists of some 24 vertical tubes, each 3 to 4 metres high, which from time-to-time emit musical sounds and blasts of steam (probably actually atomised water but very realistic). Note my use of the term “time-to-time” rather than “periodically” in that last sentence—that’s the point of this little essay.

Inscribed on the floor in the grove is a piece of dogerel indicating to participants how to cause the grove to sing and emit steam:

To make this stack sing
You’ll walk an X within the ring

Start here and move toward the tide
Circle round the last stack, turn back in stride

Now walk towards the city, then return as before
To the centre, turn left and repeat it all once more

Stand still, watch the rhythmatic [sic] steam
The hidden music is in between

On our second evening in Cincinnati, my wife and I sat on a bench close to the device watching people analyse this rhyme and walk around in various ways to try to get the grove to perform. I will give the game away up front. As far as I could tell the grove performed every 128 seconds (or thereabouts) whether anyone was there or not and whether they walked an X or a Y.

128 seconds is, however, quite a long time if you’re just standing there waiting for something to happen and participants would start walking this way and that. The grove would then perform and there would ensue a discussion between the several people present as to which one of them had “caused” the reaction. One person would be confident that he had caused it by rotating around the northern-most tube, another person would claim that it was his walking in a figure X. A test would be devised whereby one person would stand still while the other repeated his circling. Quite often this discussion would take about 128 seconds and the belief in circumnavigation of the northern-most tube would be re-inforced.

It is co-incidental that Thomas Kuhn was born in Cincinnati although his shadow still appears to hang over the Whistle Grove. From time to time as we sat there watching, there would be a paradigm shift in the General Theory of Getting the Grove to Perform—it wasn’t walking at all that was causing it, it was standing still at the southern end or rotation was required around the penultimate rather than ultimate pipe, etc.

I understand little of what scientists do, but, from my general reading, I see them spending a lot of time walking around the tubes.


3 Responses to "Kuhn Returns Home"

This is the observer seeing most of the game. But if no one plays the game, the observer has nothing to observe. Perhaps every scientist needs a magician to observe them so that they can tell them when they’re being tricked and when they might be doing science. Pair science.

And how animate would the observer need to be? Could a robot do it? Or God?

Peter said to me: “Read your Dad’s blog, it’s really interesting – but the last sentence will get you breathing fire”.

Actually I think the first half sums it up: “I understand little of what scientists do…”

Hmmm 😉

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September 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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