Happy 70th birthday Dad!

When, before covid, I used to travel the world giving quantum computing talks, every once in a while I’d meet an older person who asked whether I had any relation to a 1970s science writer by the name of Steve Aaronson. So, yeah, Steve Aaronson is my dad. He majored in English in Penn State, where he was lucky enough to study under the legendary Phil Klass, who wrote under the pen name William Tenn and who basically created the genre of science-fiction comedy, half a century before there were any such things as Futurama. After graduating, my dad became a popular physics and cosmology writer, who interviewed greats like Steven Weinberg and John Archibald Wheeler and Arno Penzias (discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation). He published not only in science magazines but in Playboy and Penthouse, which (as he explained to my mom) paid better than the science magazines. When I was growing up, my dad had a Playboy on his office shelf, which I might take down if for example I wanted to show a friend a 2-page article, with an Aaronson byline, about the latest thinking on the preponderance of matter over antimatter in the visible universe.

Eventually, partly motivated by the need to make money to support … well, me, and then my brother, my dad left freelancing to become a corporate science writer at AT&T Bell Labs. There, my dad wrote speeches, delivered on the floor of Congress, about how breaking up AT&T’s monopoly would devastate Bell Labs, a place that stood with ancient Alexandria and Cambridge University among the human species’ most irreplaceable engines of scientific creativity. (Being a good writer, my dad didn’t put it in quite those words.) Eventually, of course, AT&T was broken up, and my dad’s dire warning about Bell Labs turned out to be 100% vindicated … although on the positive side, Americans got much cheaper long distance.

After a decade at Bell Labs, my dad was promoted to be a public relations executive at AT&T itself, where when I was a teenager, he was centrally involved in the launch of the AT&T spinoff Lucent Technologies (motto: “Bell Labs Innovations”), and then later the Lucent spinoff Avaya—developments that AT&T’s original breakup had caused as downstream effects.

In the 1970s, somewhere between his magazine stage and his Bell Labs stage, my dad also worked for Eugene Garfield, the pioneer of bibliometrics for scientific papers and founder of the Institute for Scientific Information, or ISI. (Sergey Brin and Larry Page would later cite Garfield’s work, on the statistics of the scientific-citation graph, as one of the precedents for the PageRank algorithm at the core of Google.)

My dad’s job at ISI was to supply Eugene Garfield with “raw material” for essays, which the latter would then write and publish in ISI’s journal Current Contents under the byline Eugene Garfield. Once, though, my dad supplied some “raw material” for a planned essay about “Style in Scientific Writing”—and, well, I’ll let Garfield tell the rest:

This topic of style in scientific writing was first proposed as something I should undertake myself, with some research and drafting help from Steve. I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, have put my name to the “draft” he submitted. And, though I don’t disagree with much of it, I didn’t want to modify or edit it in order to justify claiming it as my own. So here is Aaronson’s “draft,” as it was submitted for “review.” You can say I got a week’s vacation. After reading what he wrote it required little work to write this introduction.

Interested yet? You can read “Style in Scientific Writing” here. You can, if we’re being honest, tell that this piece was originally intended as “raw material”—but only because of the way it calls forth such a fierce armada of all of history’s awesomest quotations about what makes scientific writing good or bad, like Ben Franklin and William James and the whole gang, which would make it worth the read regardless. I love eating raw dough, I confess, and I love my dad’s essay. (My dad, ironically enough, likes everything he eats to be thoroughly cooked.)

When I read that essay, I hear my dad’s voice from my childhood. “Omit needless words.” There were countless revisions and pieces of advice on every single thing I wrote, but usually, “omit needless words” was the core of it. And as terrible as you all know me to be on that count, imagine how much worse it would’ve been if not for my dad! And I know that as soon as he reads this post, he’ll find needless words to omit.

But hopefully he won’t omit these:

Happy 70th birthday Pops, congrats on beating the cancer, and here’s to many more!

37 Responses to “Happy 70th birthday Dad!”

  1. mls Says:

    @ Dr. Aaronson

    Happy birthday to your father. Nice career.

    I had a roommate whose first internship out of college had been with Jenner and Block tearing down Ma Bell. Should I ever see her again…

    Cheap long distance… undermining of the 4th amendment. Almost as good as convenient banking followed by a dot-com debacle and a real estate meltdown.

    And, thank you personally for your liberalism (in the traditional, non-partisan sense).

  2. Gerard Says:

    Scott

    Best wishes to your dad. You’re very lucky to still have him around after all these years. I can’t imagine how much better my life would have been if my dad hadn’t died when I was 18.

    Incidentally, when you mentioned Phil Klass I thought you were talking about the well known UFO skeptic, but I see it’s a case of two different people having the same name (a phenomenon that has caused me embarrassment at least twice in the past).

  3. Amir Says:

    It’s awesome to read about your dad and I’m glad you are able to celebrate his 70th with him. I’m not sure if you consider your blog writing similar to your lecture writing, but I can say that your lectures are concise. Finally having the chance to take one of your classes I find that you can cover quite a bit of material without needless words. Im surprised actually. Perhaps it’s because of how many times over I keep taking intro to QC courses. My previous favorite was Vazirani’s course.

  4. Irene Tatariw Trindle Says:

    Loved your article, Scott.
    🎈Happy Birthday, Steve!🎈

  5. HasH Says:

    I don’t know you Sir but, Thank you (and The Queen Mother) for brilliant scientist son. I learned a lot from your son’s writings (which I only understand 1%) even I’m not in their religion anymore, I love this quote from Ali; ” “One who taught me a single word, made me his slave”. If his son loves his father, I sincerely love him too (not because I’m from feudal mountain tradition).
    Happy Birthday,
    Long and full of laughter!
    Peace and Cheers from overseas!

  6. David Says:

    A lovely article, Scott. Thanks for sharing. It was a pleasure to read and not at all doughy. How unkind, and on your father’s birthday too!

    Best wishes, I hope you have a happy birthday.

  7. Baruch Garcia Says:

    Happy birthday Steve! 🎉🎊 To a healthy and long life!!

  8. Peter S. Shenkin Says:

    Very nice article from your father. It calls forth two personal observations.

    1. I cringe every time I see the word “novel” in a scientific paper. As in “we have derived a novel methodology” (for dealing with this or that problem).

    2. This is not exactly about writing, though it appears in scientific writing as well as speech. I did a post-doc with Cyrus Levinthal in the ’80s. I came to his office one day and proudly announced that I had come up with an “elegant” solution to some problem or other. He stared at me for a moment and pronounced, “Elegance is for tailors”. I was horrified at the moment, but I’ve come to agree, at least to the extent that I don’t think I’ve ever used the term since.

  9. James Gallagher Says:

    Happy Birthday to your Dad!

    I only have the memories of my Mum and Dad, but luckily there are many happy ones, I hope you will mange to have many more happy times together…

  10. drm Says:

    Peter Shenkin #8

    “An elegant result is a result I like obtained by methods I don’t understand.”

    A quote attributed to geneticist Alfred Sturtevant, but I have not been able to find the source.

  11. Ian Finn Says:

    Happy birthday, what a wonderful post!

  12. I Says:

    What’s your father’s opinion of Hanson’s style? Thanks for posting the article, it was quite transparent. And a happy birthday to you dad.

  13. DR Says:

    What a beautiful, wonderful tribute! A great man indeed. And the precision in your writing (and therefore thinking) is clearly his influence! What an extraordinary thing.

    Best wishes.

  14. Scott Says:

    I #12: Robin Hanson? I don’t think my dad has read him (although he’s met him in person).

  15. fred Says:

    Great post, thanks Scott!

  16. Boaz Barak Says:

    Happy birthday Steve!! And thanks for sharing the article Scott – loved the Orwell quote! (Though I do think he should have phrased rule 6 something like “These rules should be broken like a glass bottle before something barbarous would be said”

  17. Mike Bacon Says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful post. Tell your Dad happy birthday

  18. William Gasarch Says:

    Scott – can you tell your dad what you work on? I’m guessing yes on some level,
    in between

    My Dad who thought pi was 22/7

    and

    Avrim Blum talking to his parents.

  19. Scott Says:

    William Gasarch #17: Yes, I can tell him what I work on. I might get a response like, “so, quantum query complexity … that’s nice … still no chance you can start a company and make some money from this?” 😀

  20. alyosha Says:

    So sweet. A loving family is one of the best possible blessings… Best wishes to everyone!

  21. just a thought Says:

    Happy belated birthday!

    I see comments are closed on an item I want to comment on, so here it is.

    RE – “Q1: Why didn’t God just make the universe classical and be done with it? What would’ve been wrong with that choice?”

    I used to wonder about that until I realized that in a classical universe everything is totally determined. We’d have no free will, and if G-d were to interfere in anything it would alter everything thereafter, and in ways that would often be obvious. No free will = no reward for good choices and no just punishment for bad ones: no justice in the consequences of whatever situations we happen to end up in, with no ability to a to actively participate.

    And then there’s the small matter of the UV Catastrophe, where the entire enterprise would collapse no sooner than it was created.

    So, because of quantization we have free will, and a wondrous world in which to exercise it, and where “seeing” G-d requires a lifetime of effort.

  22. Scott Says:

    just a thought #21: Thanks for the comment, but alas, we already discussed that multiple times in the earlier thread, and while it’s conceivable some idea like that is on the right track, more clearly needs to be said, since QM as conventionally understood just gives you randomness in measurement outcomes, which doesn’t seem any more compatible with free will (at least, the libertarian, non-compatibilist kind) than determinism is.

  23. Gerard Says:

    Scott #22

    > QM as conventionally understood just gives you randomness in measurement outcomes, which doesn’t seem any more compatible with free will (at least, the libertarian, non-compatibilist kind) than determinism is.

    You never addressed my response to that objection that randomness and free-will are the same thing seen from two different points of view: the first person and the 2nd/3rd person.

    What would you expect free will to look like from the outside if not randomness ?

  24. Scott Says:

    Gerard #23: I don’t agree that randomness and free will (at least the kind people want to believe in) look the same from the outside. The decay of uranium nuclei is random, but no one claims that uranium nuclei have free will. Given a large sample of them, you can set your watch by the fraction that will have decayed after a given time. There are no real surprises, just precisely characterized noise. By contrast, if libertarian free will exists at all, then presumably it includes the capacity continually to surprise onlookers, by confounding whatever model (even a probabilistic model) the onlookers had of you. In other words, it presumably includes Knightian uncertainty. For more see GIQTM.

  25. fred Says:

    Scott #24

    Instead of randomness, what about “degrees of freedom”?

    A) we consider a ball rolling down an inclined smooth half-cylindrical pipe. It’s a pretty deterministic classical system, and the ball trajectory is a simple sinusoidal curve that is easily correlated to the initial conditions (where is the ball along the side of the pipe when it’s released).
    That system has very few degrees of freedom. It would be hard to characterize this system as having “free will” in the sense that for an outside out-looker would ever find the ball trajectory (in consecutive runs with different initial conditions) any surprising. E.g. a cat or a dog would have no problem modeling the trajectory of the ball inside its mind, and catch the ball consistently even if it moves fast.

    B) we can also consider the same ball being released on an inclined plane that’s covered in a random distribution of hundreds of small rocks or pins. A bit like pachinko. The system still is as deterministic as in A) because the same laws of motion apply, but it’s now highly unpredictable (it’s chaotic), in other words it has a ton of degrees of freedom (you could move each of the individual rocks independently and have very different behavior). For an outside out-looker, this system has the potential to be surprising in the same way that a human brain is surprising. A cat or a dog may even consider the ball to be somewhat “alive” (i.e. as interesting as a mouse).

  26. fred Says:

    It’s also worth noting that the “on-looker” is what attributes free will in things.
    And our brain is built to look for pattern that are both unpredictable but not totally random, i.e. we’re looking for things that mimics our brains in terms of complexity.
    We do sometimes enjoy very predictable patterns as well, like when throwing balls at each other for hours on end, but that’s because they exercise our brain at a sub-conscious level (e.g. doing speed integration or position derivation, which are great evolutionary skills for survival), i.e. we like to be “in the zone”.
    But otherwise we do seek patterns we feel we could almost predict, but not quite, i.e. there’s potential to learn and get satisfaction from it.
    And almost no-one enjoys looking for very long at a screen full of white noise static.

  27. just a thought Says:

    Scott #22

    “… while it’s conceivable some idea like that is on the right track, more clearly needs to be said…”

    Of course.

    As to randomness in measurement outcomes, it’s a constrained randomness. We may not know where an individual particle will be detected in a given environment, but the aggregate pattern is predictable, so it isn’t totally random.

    As to free will, this is a good summary of the most up to date knowledge that I’m aware of. (See 15:20 => 19:00)
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BqHrpBPdtSI&vl=en

    When you get the urge to do something you shouldn’t do, train yourself to suppress it. When you get an urge to do something good, assent to it. Very ancient Jewish concept, and, as I’ve learned, that is the Torah concept of free will in a nutshell.

    Thanks Fred and Gerard for your feedback, as well.

    Sorry to Scott for the distraction. I hope your dad, and you as well, have many more years to do and learn. And, after 120, when you are asked “Did you enjoy My world,” you can answer “You bet I did!”

    All Best!

  28. OhMyGoodness Says:

    just a thought #27

    I respect Dr Aaronson’s post as well as your’s.

    Dr Egnor’s presentation seems to include strange logic it seems to me. I agree there is a tendency in modern science to confuse representations of the thing for the thing itself particularly with respect to numerical simulations. I agree that mind is not brain but do not agree that conclusively mind cannot arise from brain. He argues, as an example, that fmri data of patients in a persistent vegetative state shows mind even with massive brain damage and so demonstrates that mind is independent of brain. He adds as an aside that this is the case of 50% of such studied cases. This seems very strange to me and my conclusion would be that in half the cases the structures of the brain crucial for mind were destroyed and in half the cases not.

    Also I believe it is entirely reasonable that mind can be eliminated by genetic manipulation pertaining to the development of the brain and so ultimately dependent on the genetic code (material) that I believe reasonably arose from evolution over deep time. The same argument can be made about the eye or other structures he notes as best considered as fundamentally teleological. I can’t of course say that all of this wasn’t the result of the mind of a creator but only that there is nothing in mind that at this time necessarily requires other than material structures. I think of his argument more in terms of the adage that sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic. I am not suggesting that his beliefs or your’s are equivalent to magic but only that the operation of the brain is beyond current understanding and so lends itself to, call it, extra natural speculation.

    Dr Aaronson was fortunate to have an accomplished father and his writing skills bear the clear mark of excellent parentage. 🙂

  29. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Viruses evolve in fast time so the mutation process is mostly observable. They are elegant things but I don’t think any reasonable person would consider them as having intentions or plans. However when I speak about viruses mutating it is a struggle to use language that doesn’t seem to imply some malevolent objective to the process. Statements like”able to mutate to bypass antibodies” seems to impart purpose that isn’t there. Somewhere along increasing complexity however it does seem that the capacity to exercise free will and form intentions arises. Chimpanzees are clearly able to harm and kill others of their species (and other species) in a purposeful malevolent manner not associated with primal drives such as hunger or fear or preservation of group or family. I conclude from this that complexity of mind does follow a path consistent with evolutionary development. Just as humans tend to see patterns in random visual fields it maybe they tend to see purpose where there is no purpose.

  30. Mordechai Rorvig Says:

    Jesus christ, thank god, finally, I hope, a Shtetl-Optimized blog post that will incur less than 700 comments, ultra fascinating though they may be. I have not been able to keep up with the recent ultra-tome discussions.

  31. OhMyGoodness Says:

    fMRI imagery of the brain washing out thought residues 🙂 from the cortex during sleep

    Waves of spinal fluid washing over the brain during sleep to remove waste:
    #neuroscience https://t.co/uzcFGBCl0Z

    #neuroscience has incredible state of the art imaging of the brain and latest studies and continuously updated. I saw a recent study that identified different neuronal circuitry specific to addition and subtraction. I know a smart intellectually talented computer science PHD that works for a prestigious organization that for some reason had a blind spot for symbolic Integration in Calculus. Very strange but his Integration circuit must have been damaged. 🙂

    Fascinating to watch the brain re wiring itself in realtime or the neuronal firing activity of the zebrafish brain in high resolution.

  32. OhMyGoodness Says:

    On a small scale you have widespread (but temporally overlapping) discrete events of neurons firing and that is somehow integrated into a temporally continuous analogue result in thought and experience. It is mysterious but somehow sounds familiar. 🙂

  33. Lorraine Ford Says:

    Best wishes to Steve!

    Surely, free will is (what we would represent in a computer program as) the assignment of some numbers to variables, as opposed to the laws of nature, or apparent “randomness”, determining every number for every variable? Free will/ responsibility is the aspect of the world where matter assigns some numbers to its own variables. E.g. the crashing of the planes into the twin towers is an example of free will/ responsibility, where the people involved assigned some numbers to their own variables.

    Free will cannot exist in a system where matter cannot assign some numbers to its own variables, i.e. a world where the laws of nature, or “randomness”, determine every number for every variable: the topology of the system does not allow free will/ responsibility; no verbal gymnastics can turn such a situation into a system where free will exists.

    Clearly, the system we live in is a system where matter (envisaged as a part of the whole system) can assign numbers to its own variables (more correctly, what we would symbolically represent as assigning numbers to its own variables).

  34. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Just a thought#27

    My honest answer to your hypothetical question from the Creator about the world would be-Would you be offended if I suggested improvements? My primary suggestion would be that interstellar travel be made easier. The max velocity and energy requirements vs distance seems unduly harsh as set now. The reply might be that set that way so evolutionary lines remain separate or maybe the Creator would agree. Mystery of the universe for the human mind would decline substantially but human knowledge would explode if the Creator agreed.

    I read your father’s excellent paper on technical writing style and will try to eliminate passive voice and unnecessary words from my posts. I have a weakness for Victorian novels and always a battle to keep tortuous Victorian style prose out of what I write.

  35. Sniffnoy Says:

    A late happy birthday to Steve Aaaronson!

  36. Nicholas Teague Says:

    That Benjamin Franklin quote is going to be my new twitter bio.

  37. just a thought Says:

    “Dr Aaronson was fortunate to have an accomplished father and his writing skills bear the clear mark of excellent parentage. 🙂 “ – OhMyGoodness #28

    And that in itself is also something to celebrate. 🙂

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