The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The value of long-term research.

Long-term research changes the world; short-term research just produces pocket change.

Singapore is a country with a short-term research focus - that is, research projects are selected based on their likely imminence of producing a financial return. The goal is not discovery or revelation - but simply the pursuit of immediate money. I have always thought this a foolish emphasis and one that it is likely to lead nowhere significant, ever.

If a country's research focus is only the short-term, no big project will be undertaken; no open-ended research will be undertaken; no accidental discoveries will be made; no world views will be overturned. Short-term research is what I call "safe science" - it is science of predictable outcome and product; it is science that never really adds anything new to the world. It is no surprise, therefore, that, in most areas (as I have read in several places) Singaporean research is relatively little cited. In other words, it is not thought to be worthy of much notice. The reason for this is clear: the science, itself, has aims too superficial and short-term to add much to the world, except the pocket change that local scientists' political masters, so crave.

In contrast to this focus on the short-term, I recently read the admirable tale of David Packard of Hewlett Packard. About 12 years ago, he called together some of his scientists and told them that HP was now large enough to support free research, unbounded by the needs of the business suits. He told them that he would leave them free to research "whatever they wanted", but that "molecular electronics would be nice". He further asked them to see if they could have something to show him in ten years time. He then gave the lead scientist R. Stanley Williams project funding and four co-workers and left them to get on with it.

Before I tell you the outcome of this story, I would like to point out that such creative freedom in science is relatively rare nowadays. As in Singapore, there is too often a focus on immediate returns on investment - as a consequence, most science being done is rubbish science, shallow and unlikely to produce anything of real merit - except a superficial, incremental improvement on something that already exists. Singapore is very unlikely to give any team of scientists the kind of freedom that David Packard did. Sadly, Singapore is not alone in this trend to the short-term - to the detriment of world science.

Now, twelve years after giving R. Stanley Williams scientific freedom, something very strange has happened. Williams has made a fourth electronic circuit element, the memristor (in addition to the existing capacitor, resistor and inductor). That may not mean anything to you, but it soon will - for the memristor promises to utterly change the world of computing.

A memristor is a "memory resistor" - it is a device that remembers the history of current that has passed through it. Furthermore, it needs no power to retain this memory. It behaves in an analogue fashion, being able to record any value, not just 0 and 1 - but it can be used in a digital fashion too (by assigning a certain level of response to a value 1 or 0).

What is interesting about a memristor is how it will change computers. With memristors for a memory storage device, computers will be able to store their entire state before a power loss - and resume where you left off, on start up, again. This means that the computer will not lose data and that there will be no boot up time. Memristors are a fairly fast and very dense form of memory storage (HP reckons they could make them as small as 4 nm - compared to present day transistors of 45 nm). This means that they could replace both RAM and hard drives in modern computers. It will also lead to very high memory storage capacity, very cheaply (since apparently they are cheap and simple to make). Furthermore, memristors will lead to much more powerful computers, since one memristor can, in some functions, take the place of at least 15 (much larger) transistors.

There is one further thought regarding memristors. Their analogue style of function, with weighted values, rather than just on and off, resembles that of a synapse in a neuron. Memristors open the way for human brain-like thinking in computers.

Hewlett Packard expect to have a prototype memristor chip out in 2009.

Now, what is basically a revolution in computing, has come about precisely because David Packard gave his scientists a free hand to do whatever they wanted. He did not restrain them. He did not demand results in "three to five years" (as a Singaporean head of research said to me, once, that he is not interested in anything that doesn't produce a financial return on that timescale). He just let them be. As a result, HP now look to spearhead a revolution in computing - and to make an absolute fortune in the process.

Thus, while the short-term view can produce almost immediate returns, it is the long-term view that can deliver the more dramatic changes - and the bigger fortunes. Singapore would do well to learn from HP's example.

As for David Packard and Hewlett Packard - they are to be congratulated on the biggest step forward in computing since the transistor - and all because they took the long-term view.

By the way, the memristor was first proposed as a theoretical device by Dr. Leon Chua, of the University of Berkeley in 1971. He looks set to get a Nobel Prize for his prescience - and no doubt R. Stanley Williams, too. Well done.

If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:22 PM 


Blogger Colin said...

Mr. Cawley,

From what you see and understand of the state of Singaporean academia, do you really think we will ever be able of producing truly groundbreaking discoveries?

We are too cloistered and sheltered here in Singapore, not to mention to cynical about the world to actually dream big.

I suspect that those who are capable of such results (geniuses and the like) will not want anything to do with our system and would have fled to other countries, where there exists true academic ethics.

I regret the way we think about education and research here in Singapore. How much potential has been lost and how many dreams crushed?

I really wish now that I had filled in those UKAS forms 6 years ago...

10:08 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Singapore does seem to be uninterested in true scientific advancement (at least, its focus is on the superficial, quantifiable and immediate). That, of course, will prevent Singapore from ever building a truly deep science base. I find this strange, for it doesn't seem to realize that new science, leads, in the long-term, to new industries and new fortunes (as HP are soon to find out).

Perhaps you could write a little more of what you regret in the local system re. education and research and why you feel it would have been better for you to study overseas.

I hope you find your own personal way forward: don't give up just because it all looks difficult now.

Best of luck.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Well I'm not a genius, and my path doesn't lead to academia anyway. Soo I'll just play the cards I'm dealt.

I can't really comment intelligently about our education system, aside from what I've previously posted in the comments pages.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Good luck on wherever your path does lead.

Your comments can be of more value than you believe...

Kind regards

12:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape