Olaf Stapledon & Lewis Fry Richardson – A Serendipitous Meeting

Illustrations of a Cellular-Numerical Model of Weather imagined by Lewis Fry Richardson (Source unknown)
Illustrations of a Cellular-Numerical Model of Weather imagined by Lewis Fry Richardson – Philip Emeagwali

George Dyson’s ‘Darwin Among The Machines’ published in 1997, is an excellent account of the history of computers and global intelligence through the evolution of machines. As so often with book reading a chain reaction takes place, references in one book lead you to reading other books and so on. And so this was the case with Chapter 11 of Dyson’s book titled ‘Last and First Men’.

Much of the chapter is given up to Olaf Stapledon, who’s novel ‘Last and First Men’ chronicles the future history of the human race for the next thousand million years. In the story humans evolve through 18 different species (as well many more subspecies). Thriving in Utopias and then decimating each other in wars, nearly wiping themselves out and then re-adapting. Eventually they explore and colonise the Solar System – mutating along the way. Being well versed in the science of the time Stapledon outlines different evolutionary necessities that each species develops in order to circumnavigate impending catastrophes.

The novel anticipates genetic engineering and proposes a prototype of group-mind – a consciousness composed of many telepathically linked individuals. Eventually humans are able to genetically engineer each subsequent species in order to survive and proliferate in inhospitable environments.

Dyson’s chapter on Stapleton details an encounter with a young professor, Lewis Fry Richardson. Both worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit in France acting as conscientious objectors during the First World War. Richardson, a Meteorologist, was interested, at that time, in mathematical models of weather prediction. Using his own ‘intentionally guided dreaming’ strategy he drafted a cellular-numerical model of weather – ideas of which were published in ‘Weather Prediction by Numerical Process’ after the war. His theory proposed a congregation of 64,000 human computers collectively processing numerical data, each human computing a weather cell of discrete location and calculating interactions with its nearest cellular neighbour. Local interactions would generate large dynamical systems of global weather patterns. It appears as if Richardson was laying the path to what was later to become Cellular Automata, although little credit has been given by later proponents of Cellular Automata systems.

Langton's Ant - Chris Langton
Langton’s Ant – Chris Langton

In ‘Darwin Among The Machines’ Dyson ponders as to how much of Richardson’s cellular weather system theory was imparted to Stapledon during the quieter moments of ambulance duty. The answer to this question might lay in the Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’. For from an immense distance of time and space, Stapledon’s story of our species appears as an massive organic tessellation automata. An endless ebb and flow of cells, that interact in complex birth-death oscillations reforming and reconfiguring breeder seed patterns. Dense layers of complex ant-like interactions -human space-filler patterns folding and unfolding.

After the war Richardson dedicated his time to the statistical analysis of conflict. While studying the causes of war between two countries relating to border length part of his research was in the measurement of borders and coastlines. At the time this research was ignored by the scientific community. Today, it is seen as one element in the birth of the science of fractals and was cited by Benoît Mandelbrot in his famous paper ‘How Long Is the Coast of Britain’. It seems as if Richardson’s ‘intentionally guided dreaming’ gave birth to a great many prescient ideas of which have now become some of the most interesting and far reaching areas of modern mathematics. Many of these ideas, embryonic in form, found their way into Stapledon’s books, at times encoded, but never the less highly suffused.

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