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Supercomputers: A New Kind Of Straitjacket?

The advent of supercomputers "whizzing through" 41 trillion calculations a second should contribute exponentially to increase our knowledge in many fields ("Supercomputers," Special Report, June 7). But the power of these supercomputers raises two major concerns. The first is man's ability to verify the findings such machines will deliver. In the past, when errors led us astray, truth would finally win the day: in both cases, the result of direct human endeavor. This will no longer be the case as we become passive recipients of new insights, the fabric of which we would be unable to assess or understand through our sole brain power. The schisms of the future (in politics, in religion, in science) will result from acceptance of new gospel spewed out by supercomputers churning calculations at tera-peta-etc.-flops speed.

The second concern is intrinsic to the nature of our knowledge, compared in its progress to "peeling an onion." Each successive layer not only "poses harder questions," as you suggest, but often calls into question the very assumptions that held the previous layer in a coherent structure. The Big Bang theory is predicated upon a "singularity" at the instant of creation, which is outside the very laws or assumptions that lead to it as a necessary construct in the first place.

Progress in knowledge appears to be more frequently the result of intuition -- some may say guesswork -- than of necessary, but stolid, calculations. It is reasonable to wonder whether these machines, which we have devised, will expand our knowledge beyond the straitjacket of its form, and, if able to do so, whether that "new" knowledge will be compatible with our thought process.

Antonio Albert


"A dogged image maker" (The Great Innovators, June 7) omitted one important contributor to the success of Chester Carlson's invention: About 1944, Carlson was looking for some organization to take over his patent and carry it to a finished product. His search lead him to Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research laboratory in Columbus, Ohio. It performed research and development on the process for the next 12 to 15 years. As many as a dozen scientists worked under Homer Winkler on the project.

Battelle sold its patents and rights to Haloid Co. (later Xerox Corp. (XRX)), which carried the process to production. In the 1960s, Battelle sold the stock it had received from Xerox for a rumored $350 million, making it the richest nonprofit research organization in the world.

Although Xerox made major contributions in bringing Carlson's process to market, they were starting on the shoulders of researchers performing years of work at Battelle Memorial Institute.

Charles R. Simcoe

Albany, N.Y.

It is fitting that "Young athletes, Big-league pain" (Personal Business, June 7), about athletic injuries, is dated the same day that Major League Baseball holds its annual draft. I view this as a day of reckoning, when a great many parents have to deal with the realization that not only did their son not get a college scholarship but he also didn't get drafted by a major league team. It is only then that they notice that many of the experts who convinced them that their sons had major league potential are also men who make a living as personal coaches.

There is nothing wrong with parents wanting the best for their children, but it is misguided to invest thousands of dollars and inordinate amounts of time specializing in any sport before a child plays even one varsity high school game. It would be much wiser for parents to invest this money for the child's future tuition needs while their child grows up experiencing a wide range of sporting activities. If the child is truly major league material, his talent will surface in time.

Rey Hernandez

San Diego

As a Belgian, I can bear witness to the consequences of the "successful" introduction of diesel engines for passenger cars in Europe ("Diesel deserves a second chance," News: Analysis & Commentary, May 31). The primary reason for success is that, unlike in the U.S., the price at the pump does not reflect the production cost: Because of far lower taxation (to encourage and support road transportation), diesel is 25% to 30% less expensive than gasoline, even though production costs are typically 10% higher.

U.S. regulators can hardly be too cautious with the diesel problem. Keeping its use limited to professional applications (buses and trucks) will allow for an efficient cleanup action. In Europe, diesel use in passenger cars is so widespread that politicians are reluctant to go against the perceived interest of this ill (or un)-informed group. Do think long and hard before giving diesel a second chance. It really doesn't deserve it!

Marc Courteaux

Erembodegem, Belgium

"Steering away from guzzlers"(News: Analysis & Commentary, May 31) leads off with a person who traded in her 2000 Expedition because of the gas consumption and smog. First, the owner took somewhere around a $20,000 hit on the depreciation to save maybe $500 per year in gas costs. Second, the 2000 Expedition was rated as a low-emission vehicle (LEV), so smog generation wasn't an issue. The contrarian play would be to buy an SUV when the prices collapse. What you save on the purchase price would buy 10 years of gasoline.

Adam R. Fleder

Canfield, Ohio

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