JUNE 13, 1986

Now the Headmaster Berrisford has selected one of the oldest and longest-serving trustees to make a commencement speech, it behooves the speaker to address two questions in every mind:

1) Why was such a selection made? and,

2) How long is the speech going to last?

I will answer the first question from long experience alongside Berrisford. He is seeking enhanced reputation for our school in the manner of the man who proudly displays his horse which can count to seven. The man knows that counting to seven is not much of a mathematical feat but he expects approval because doing so is creditable, considering that the performer is a horse.

The second question, regarding length of speech, I am not going to answer in advance. It would deprive your upturned faces of lively curiosity and obvious keen anticipation, which I prefer to retain, regardless of source.

But I will tell you how my consideration of speech length created the subject matter of the speech itself. I was puffed up when invited to speak. While not having significant public-speaking experience, I do hold a black belt in chutzpah, and, I immediately considered Demosthenes and Cicero as role models and anticipated trying to earn a compliment like Cicero gave when asked which was his favourite among the orations of Demosthenes. Cicero replied: ‘The longest one.”

However, fortunately for this audience, I also thought of Samuel Johnson’s famous comment when he addressed Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost, and correctly said: “No one ever wished it longer.” And that made me consider which of all the twenty Harvard School graduation speeches I had heard that I wished longer. There was only one such speech, that given by Johnny Carson, specifying Carson’s prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life. I therefore decided to repeat Carson’s speech but in expanded form with some added prescriptions of my own.

After all, I am much older than Carson was when he spoke and have failed and been miserable more often and in more ways than was possible for a charming humorist speaking at younger age. I am plainly well-qualified to expand on Carson’s theme.

What Carson said was that he couldn’t tell the graduating class how to be happy, but he could tell them from personal experience how to guarantee misery. Carson’s prescriptions for sure misery included:

1) Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception;

2) Envy; and

3) Resentment.

I can still recall Carson’s absolute conviction as he told how he had tried these things on occasion after occasion and had become miserable every time. It is easy to understand Carson’s first prescription for misery -ingesting chemicals. I add my voice. The four closest friends of my youth were highly intelligent, ethical, humorous types, favoured in person and background. Two are long dead, with alcohol a contributing factor, and a third is a living alcoholic -if you call that living. While susceptibility varies, addiction can happen to any of us, through a subtle process where the bonds of degradation are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. And I have yet to meet anyone, in over six decades of life, whose life was worsened by overfear and overavoidance of such a deceptive pathway to destruction.

Envy, of course, joins chemicals in winning some sort of quantity price for causing misery. It was wreaking havoc long before it got a bad press in the laws of Moses. If you wish to retain the contribution of envy to misery, I recommend that you never read any of the biographies of that good Christian, Samuel Johnson, because his life demonstrates in an enticing way the possibility and advantage of transcending envy.

Resentment has always worked for me exactly as it worked for Carson. I cannot recommend it highly enough to you if you desire misery. Johnson spoke well when he said that life is hard enough to swallow without squeezing in the bitter rind of resentment.

For those of you who want misery, I also recommend refraining from practice of the Disraeli compromise, designed for people who find it impossible to quit resentment cold turkey. Disraeli, as he rose to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers, learned to give up vengeance as a motivation for action, but he did retain some outlet for resentment by putting the names of people who wronged him on pieces of paper in a drawer. Then, from time to time, he reviewed these names and took pleasure in noting the way the world had taken his enemies down without his assistance.

Well, so much for Carson’s three prescriptions. Here are four more prescriptions from Munger:

First, be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you. Master this one habit and you can always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle you will be outrun by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even by some mediocre turtles on crutches.

I must warn you that if you don’t follow my first prescription it may be hard to end up miserable, even if you start disadvantaged. I had a roommate in college who was and is severely dyslexic. But he is perhaps the most reliable man I have ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children, chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation.

If you want to avoid a conventional, main-culture, establishment result of this kind, you simply can t count on your other handicaps to hold you back if you persist in being reliable.

I cannot here pass by a reference to a life described as “wonderful so far,” without reinforcing the “so far” aspects of the human condition by repeating the remark of Croesus, once the richest king in the world. Later, in ignominious captivity, as he prepared to be burned alive, he said: “Well now do I remember the words of the historian Solon: “No man’s life should be accounted a happy one until it is over.”

My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement.

You can see the results of not learning from others’ mistakes by simply looking about you. How little originality there is in the common disasters of mankind -drunk driving deaths, reckless driving maimings, incurable venereal diseases, conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of destructive cults, business failures through repetition of obvious mistakes made by predecessors, various forms of crowd folly, and so on. I recommend as a memory clue to finding the way to real trouble from heedless, unoriginal error the modern saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”

The other aspect of avoiding vicarious wisdom is the rule for not learning from the best work done before yours. The prescription is to become as non-educated as you reasonable can.

Perhaps you will better see the type of non-miserable result you can thus avoid if I render a short historical account. There once was a man who assiduously mastered the work of his best predecessors, despite a poor start and very tough time in analytic geometry. Eventually his own original work attracted wide attention and he said of that work:

“If I have seen a little farther than other men it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

The bones of that man lie buried now, in Westminster Abbey, under an unusual inscription:

“Here lie the remains of all that was mortal in Sir Isaac Newton.”

My third prescription for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second, third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that, in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery. Ignore at all cost the lesson contained in the accurate epitaph written for himself by Epicetus: “Here lies Epicetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favoured by Gods.”

My final prescription to you for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to ignore a story they told me when I was very young about a rustic who said: “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.” Most people smile (as you did) at the rustic’s ignorance and ignore his basic wisdom. If my experience is any guide, the rustic’s approach is to be avoided at all cost by someone bent on misery. To help fail you should discount as mere quirk, with no useful message, the method of the rustic, which is the same one used in Carson’s speech.

What Carson did was to approach the study of how to create X by turning the question backward, that is, by studying how to create non-X. The great algebraist, Jacobi, had exactly the same approach as Carson and was known for his constant repetition of one phrase: “Invert, always invert.” It is in the nature of things, as Jacobi knew, that many hard problems are best solved only when they are addressed backward. For instance, when almost everyone else was trying to revise the electromagnetic laws of Maxwell to be consistent with the motion laws of Newton, Einstein discovered special relativity as he made a 180 degree turn and revised Newton’s laws to fit Maxwell’s. It is my opinion, as a certified biography nut, that Charles Robert Darwin would have ranked near the middle of the Harvard School graduating class of 1986. Yet he is now famous in the history of science. This is precisely the type of example you should learn nothing from if bent on minimizing your results from your own endowment. Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed: ” You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they already know and what they will never learn.”

The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun the hares, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without blindfold in a game of pin-the-donkey. If you minimize objectivity, you ignore not only a lesson from Darwin but also one from Einstein. Einstein said that his successful theories came from: “Curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism. And by self-criticism he meant the testing and destruction of his own well-loved ideas.

Finally, minimizing objectivity will help you lessen the compromises and burdens of owning worldly goods, because objectivity does not work only for great physicists and biologists. It also adds power to the work of a plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Therefore, if you interpret being true to yourself as requiring that you retain every notion of your youth you will be safely underway, not only toward maximizing ignorance, but also toward whatever misery can be obtained through unpleasant experiences in business.

It is fitting now that a backward sort of speech end with a backward sort of toast, inspired by Elihu Root’s repeated accounts of how the dog went to Dover, “leg over leg.” To the class of 1986:

Gentlemen, may each of you rise high by spending each day of a long life aiming low.


六月 9, 2008

二零零八年五月十一日,Nargis飓风袭卷缅甸后的第七天,曼联在JJB stadium捧下英超联赛杯。在这前一天是缅甸的宪法公投,那里的国营电视台播放丹瑞派发救济品给受难灾民,呼吁百姓支持新草拟的国家宪法;在那后两天,《纽约时报》刊载了名为“When Burmese offer a hand, rulers slap it”的报导,署名是The New York Times。

距离缅甸千多公里外的不丹,于今年三月二十四日进行他们有史以来的第一个民主投票,成立从未有过的国会。这个贫穷但却快乐的的国家(在世界Gross National Happiness的排行上他们名列前茅),意外地从君主专制的体制走向民主的社会:与诸多流血和纷争充满的进程不同,他们的转变由君主推动。The Economist为此所载的报导副标题上写着“Vote on King’s Order”。


不丹的King Wangchuk则是少有的明君。在过往的二十五年里,不丹经济平均每年取得7%成长,人均寿命从44增至66,截至90年小学的入学率已达72%。这次他是为着国家的未来而推动民主,亲自帮助建立两个相异的党派来角逐国会。当地人民对这君主的想法很不解:King Wangchuk已经干得很不错,要民主制度来干嘛?国王的回答:或许我干得很不错,但未来的国王就很难说。

缅甸和不丹两国的情形相较下所呈现的对比非常的鲜明,并且清晰地透出这么个道理:一个国家民主进程的命运和那国的国君或是领导人有着密切的关系。不可否认民主的到来和国民的素质及意愿有着不可分割的联系,但是有个像King Wangchuk的君主事情会简单得很多。

科威特今年也在五月十七日举行了他们的大选。但因近几年来科威特缓慢或半停滞的经济建设,与Dubai、Abu Dhabi和Qatar蓬勃的发展相较下,人们开始质疑民主这制度。尽管如此,他们还不至于要让他们的国王重掌大权。


nucifera: 什么是自然的定律?是先有自然定律的存在而后有当今的宇宙,还是相反的情况?这更多是先有鸡还是先有蛋的一个问题。自然定律的本质是什么?是纯粹的数学?还是对于宇宙现象的一种总结罢了?而它是否真的具有遍及性?



Published: December 18, 2007

“Gravity,” goes the slogan on posters and bumper stickers. “It isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.”

And what a law. Unlike, say, traffic or drug laws, you don’t have a choice about obeying gravity or any of the other laws of physics. Jump and you will come back down. Faith or good intentions have nothing to do with it.

Existence didn’t have to be that way, as Einstein reminded us when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Against all the odds, we can send e-mail to Sri Lanka, thread spacecraft through the rings of Saturn, take a pill to chase the inky tendrils of depression, bake a turkey or a soufflé and bury a jump shot from the corner.

Yes, it’s a lawful universe. But what kind of laws are these, anyway, that might be inscribed on a T-shirt but apparently not on any stone tablet that we have ever been able to find?

Are they merely fancy bookkeeping, a way of organizing facts about the world? Do they govern nature or just describe it? And does it matter that we don’t know and that most scientists don’t seem to know or care where they come from?

Apparently it does matter, judging from the reaction to a recent article by Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and author of popular science books, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

Dr. Davies asserted in the article that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function. His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on Edge.org and letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.

David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, told me in an e-mail message, “I have more confidence in the methods of science, based on the amazing record of science and its ability over the centuries to answer unanswerable questions, than I do in the methods of faith (what are they?).”

Reached by e-mail, Dr. Davies acknowledged that his mailbox was “overflowing with vitriol,” but said he had been misunderstood. What he had wanted to challenge, he said, was not the existence of laws, but the conventional thinking about their source.

There is in fact a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which “came” first — the laws or the universe?

If the laws of physics are to have any sticking power at all, to be real laws, one could argue, they have to be good anywhere and at any time, including the Big Bang, the putative Creation. Which gives them a kind of transcendent status outside of space and time.

On the other hand, many thinkers — all the way back to Augustine — suspect that space and time, being attributes of this existence, came into being along with the universe — in the Big Bang, in modern vernacular. So why not the laws themselves?

Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. “Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,” he said in his e-mail message.

But the idea of rationality in the cosmos has long existed without monotheism. As far back as the fifth century B.C. the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras and his followers proclaimed that nature was numbers. Plato, a few hundred years later, envisioned a higher realm of ideal forms, of perfect chairs, circles or galaxies, of which the phenomena of the sensible world were just flawed reflections. Plato set a transcendent tone that has been popular, especially with mathematicians and theoretical physicists, ever since.

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate from the University of Texas, Austin, described himself in an e-mail message as “pretty Platonist,” saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as “the rocks in the field.” The laws seem to persist, he wrote, “whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.”

The ultimate Platonist these days is Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In talks and papers recently he has speculated that mathematics does not describe the universe — it is the universe.

Dr. Tegmark maintains that we are part of a mathematical structure, albeit one gorgeously more complicated than a hexagon, a multiplication table or even the multidimensional symmetries that describe modern particle physics. Other mathematical structures, he predicts, exist as their own universes in a sort of cosmic Pythagorean democracy, although not all of them would necessarily prove to be as rich as our own.

“Everything in our world is purely mathematical — including you,” he wrote in New Scientist.

This would explain why math works so well in describing the cosmos. It also suggests an answer to the question that Stephen Hawking, the English cosmologist, asked in his book, “A Brief History of Time”: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Mathematics itself is on fire.

Not every physicist pledges allegiance to Plato. Pressed, these scientists will describe the laws more pragmatically as a kind of shorthand for nature’s regularity. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: “A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.”

Plato and the whole idea of an independent reality, moreover, took a shot to the mouth in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics. According to that weird theory, which, among other things, explains why our computers turn on every morning, there is an irreducible randomness at the microscopic heart of reality that leaves an elementary particle, an electron, say, in a sort of fog of being everywhere or anywhere, or being a wave or a particle, until some measurement fixes it in place.

In that case, according to the standard interpretation of the subject, physics is not about the world at all, but about only the outcomes of experiments, of our clumsy interactions with that world. But 75 years later, those are still fighting words. Einstein grumbled about God not playing dice.

Steven Weinstein, a philosopher of science at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, termed the phrase “law of nature” as “a kind of honorific” bestowed on principles that seem suitably general, useful and deep. How general and deep the laws really are, he said, is partly up to nature and partly up to us, since we are the ones who have to use them.

But perhaps, as Dr. Davies complains, Plato is really dead and there are no timeless laws or truths. A handful of poet-physicists harkening for more contingent nonabsolutist laws not engraved in stone have tried to come up with prescriptions for what John Wheeler, a physicist from Princeton and the University of Texas in Austin, called “law without law.”

As one example, Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has invented a theory in which the laws of nature change with time. It envisions universes nested like Russian dolls inside black holes, which are spawned with slightly different characteristics each time around. But his theory lacks a meta law that would prescribe how and why the laws change from generation to generation.

Holger Bech Nielsen, a Danish physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and one of the early pioneers of string theory, has for a long time pursued a project he calls Random Dynamics, which tries to show how the laws of physics could evolve naturally from a more general notion he calls “world machinery.”

On his Web site, Random Dynamics, he writes, “The ambition of Random Dynamics is to ‘derive’ all the known physical laws as an almost unavoidable consequence of a random fundamental ‘world machinery.’”

Dr. Wheeler has suggested that the laws of nature could emerge “higgledy-piggledy” from primordial chaos, perhaps as a result of quantum uncertainty. It’s a notion known as “it from bit.” Following that logic, some physicists have suggested we should be looking not so much for the ultimate law as for the ultimate program..

Anton Zeilinger, a physicist and quantum trickster at the University of Vienna, and a fan of Dr. Wheeler’s idea, has speculated that reality is ultimately composed of information. He said recently that he suspected the universe was fundamentally unpredictable.

I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored. It’s a prescription for novelty, and what more could you ask for if you want to hatch a fecund universe?

But too much fecundity can be a problem. Einstein hoped that the universe was unique: given a few deep principles, there would be only one consistent theory. So far Einstein’s dream has not been fulfilled.Cosmologists and physicists have recently found themselves confronted by the idea of the multiverse, with zillions of universes, each with different laws, occupying a vast realm known in the trade as the landscape.

In this case there is meta law — one law or equation, perhaps printable on a T-shirt — to rule them all. This prospective lord of the laws would be string theory, the alleged theory of everything, which apparently has 10500 solutions. Call it Einstein’s nightmare.

But it is soon for any Einsteinian to throw in his or her hand. Since cosmologists don’t know how the universe came into being, or even have a convincing theory, they have no way of addressing the conundrum of where the laws of nature come from or whether those laws are unique and inevitable or flaky as a leaf in the wind.

These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.

Maybe both alternatives — Plato’s eternal stone tablet and Dr. Wheeler’s higgledy-piggledy process — will somehow turn out to be true. The dichotomy between forever and emergent might turn out to be as false eventually as the dichotomy between waves and particles as a description of light. Who knows?

The law of no law, of course, is still a law.

When I was young and still had all my brain cells I was a bridge fan, and one hand I once read about in the newspaper bridge column has stuck with me as a good metaphor for the plight of the scientist, or of the citizen cosmologist. The winning bidder had overbid his hand. When the dummy cards were laid, he realized that his only chance of making his contract was if his opponents’ cards were distributed just so.

He could have played defensively, to minimize his losses. Instead he played as if the cards were where they had to be. And he won.

We don’t know, and might never know, if science has overbid its hand. When in doubt, confronted with the complexities of the world, scientists have no choice but to play their cards as if they can win, as if the universe is indeed comprehensible. That is what they have been doing for more than 2,000 years, and they are still winning.

New Scientist
05 September 2007

1. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

THINK of all the paraphernalia of the space age: rockets, space suits, space stations and so on. Someone had to think of them first. That person was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Born in the Russian town of Izhevskoye, Tsiolkovsky made a massive contribution to the space age. He recognised that rockets were a prerequisite of space travel, and wrote down the “rocket equation” that describes how a rocket’s change in velocity depends on the velocity of the rocket exhaust and the changing mass of the rocket itself.

Tsiolkovsky proposed that a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen would give a rocket the biggest chemical oomph. And he recognised that, even with such a powerful impulse, multiple rocket stages would be needed to reach Earth’s orbit, let alone escape the planet’s gravity.

The nuts and bolts of space travel were only a small part of Tsiolkovsky’s contribution, however. He dreamed of giant space elevators transporting people to space colonies, and of the human race spreading inexorably throughout the galaxy. “Earth is the cradle of humanity,” he wrote in 1911, “but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

Tsiolkovsky directly inspired Sergei Korolev, the driving force behind the Soviet space programme. In 1967, NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 3 imaged a spectacular crater on the far side of the moon. In honour of the Russian visionary, it was named Tsiolkovsky. –Marcus Chown’s latest book is The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead (Faber & Faber)

2. James Webb

IN FEBRUARY 1961, president John F. Kennedy was struggling to appoint a chief for NASA. Two dozen respected scientists and business leaders turned down the job because they didn’t believe that the space business had a serious future. Embarrassed by these refusals, Kennedy turned to an unlikely character: James Webb, a 54-year-old lawyer with an unrivalled knack for Washington politics but little knowledge of space.

Kennedy promised that Webb could run NASA his way if only he’d take the job. Webb signed on the dotted line. Two years later, however, when Kennedy angrily insisted that NASA should devote itself just to the Apollo lunar landing, Webb fought back, insisting that planetary and astronomy missions were just as important as reaching the moon. He also strengthened NASA’s network of allegiances, issuing major equipment contracts and building NASA’s network of “field centres” in such a way that it became almost impossible for politicians to undercut him for fear of endangering jobs in their districts. By 1966, Webb held sway over 5 per cent of the national budget.

Tragedy struck in January 1967 when the first Apollo capsule caught fire on the launch pad and killed its crew. Webb protected NASA from congressional criticism and kept Apollo on track, but the effort cost him his reputation. His enemies accused him of corruption in his handling of space contracts. Webb resigned a few months before the successful Apollo 11 mission, and his name was soon forgotten by the public. Yet it was his drive and determination that enabled NASA to reach the moon, and indeed to survive into modern times as the world’s largest and most accomplished space agency. –Piers Bizony is author of The Man Who Ran The Moon (Icon)

3. Sergei Korolev

RUSSIAN aircraft engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was developing simple rockets at an army laboratory in St Petersburg in 1938, when he fell victim to Stalin’s terror purge. He was beaten, then imprisoned in a freezing Siberian labour camp. Three years later, on the verge of death, he was ordered to Moscow. Hitler’s armies had invaded and Stalin needed engineers. In 1945, Korolev was sent into the German heartland, where he found to his dismay that the V2 rocket bomb had already outstripped his wildest ambitions.

By 1957 Korolev had created Raketa-7, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. It was designed to lob nuclear bombs onto the US, but Korolev knew it would also be able to reach into space. On 4 October that year he launched Sputnik into orbit. A month later Sputnik 2 went up, carrying the dog Laika.

Korolev then told the Red Army generals he could build a satellite to snoop on the west, but first he would have to enlist a pilot with excellent eyesight to look out of the satellite’s window and check on what the spy cameras might see. The generals believed him, and in October 1959 a squad of cosmonauts was formed.

Korolev’s strength of personality enabled him to bend the clumsy Soviet industrial system to his own ends. It was his dream of space flight, not the Kremlin’s, that sent Russia into orbit. He designed Soyuz, Russia’s workhorse launch vehicle, which is still in use today. He also began designing the giant N1 rocket, which was intended to send Russia to the moon before the US.

Korolev died aged 59 during a routine operation and his legacy was left in the hands of weaker administrators. Who knows what might have happened if he had lived a few more years? –Piers Bizony

4. Tsien Hsue-Shen

In October 2003, China became the third nation to send a human into orbit. Smiling somewhere at the achievement, no doubt, was Tsien Hsue-shen.

Born in China, Tsien emigrated to the US in the 1930s after winning a scholarship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later moved to the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, where he was considered unusually gifted even among Caltech’s stellar student body.

Tsien’s star rose quickly: his knowledge of rocketry prompted the US army to make him a colonel and send him to occupied Germany to interview Nazi rocket scientists. Despite this, Tsien became ensnared in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts and was eventually deported to China, along with his wife and their two American-born children.

Once there, he almost single-handedly created the Chinese space programme: his work led to China’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, and eventually to the rocket that sent the first Chinese astronaut into orbit.

Angry and disillusioned by his deportation, Tsien vowed never to set foot in the US again: now in his 90s, he has kept his word. Even so, Tsien has reportedly remained friendly with several of his old Caltech colleagues, who can only wonder what might have been had anti-Communist paranoia not alienated one of America’s finest scientific minds. –Greg Klerkx is author of Lost in Space (Secker & Warburg)

5. Lyman Spitzer

THESE days, we take beautiful astronomical images from space observatories for granted. But when Lyman Spitzer proposed launching a giant telescope into Earth orbit, he must have sounded like a mad fantasist. The year was 1946. NASA didn’t exist. And it was more than a decade before the launch of Sputnik.

A renowned astrophysicist, Spitzer spent most of his career at Princeton University. In 1946, he wrote a report that argued the case for developing a huge space observatory that could capture far sharper images than any telescope on the ground. Unimpeded by Earth’s turbulent, blurring atmosphere, it would also see the infrared and ultraviolet light that the atmosphere blocks out.

From the 1960s, Spitzer tirelessly led design studies for the Large Space Telescope, and lobbied scientists and the US Congress to make it happen. Funding was finally granted in 1977. The project was grindingly slow and, as costs skyrocketed, it had several near-death experiences. Eventually, the observatory was launched in 1990, by this time with a new name – the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble has turned out to be everything astronomers had hoped for, and more. Its sharp eyes have snapped around 500,000 amazing images of more than 25,000 celestial objects, and it has enlightened astronomers about a vast range of hot topics, from the age of the universe to the intimate workings of black holes and alien planets orbiting distant stars. Spitzer died in 1997. NASA named its latest infrared space observatory the Spitzer Space Telescope in his honour. –Hazel Muir

6. Arthur C. Clarke

IT TAKES 90 minutes for a satellite orbiting close to Earth to complete one revolution. Farther away, where the planet’s gravity is weaker, the orbital period is longer. At an altitude of 35,784 kilometres, a satellite takes precisely one day to go around the Earth and so appears to anyone on the ground to hang motionless in the sky.

Today, it is obvious that a satellite in such a “geosynchronous” orbit is ideal for relaying TV and phone signals between far-flung places on the globe. But someone had to be the one to propose the idea. That person was a young Royal Air Force officer called Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke published his idea in the journal Wireless World in 1945. There he spelled out how three manned “rocket stations” spaced at 120-degree intervals around the geosynchronous orbit could provide global communications coverage.

At the time, talk of space travel was little more than science fiction. However, Clarke had seen the future as the German V2 rockets rained down on wartime London. It was only a matter of time, he believed, before souped-up versions carried payloads into space. His big idea became a commercial reality in April 1965 when the international telecommunications satellite consortium Intelsat launched its Early Bird satellites.

Clarke never patented his idea, yet those in the industry cite his 1945 paper as their inspiration, and refer to Clarke as the father of the communication satellite. For that article, which spawned a trillion-dollar industry, he was paid just £10. –Marcus Chown

7. Ed Belbruno

DELIVERING payloads to the moon and planets is a high-precision business. The last thing anyone would want to do, you might think, would be to introduce chaos into the mix. Yet American mathematician Ed Belbruno advocated just that at the beginning of the 1990s.

At the time, NASA was propelling spacecraft to the planets along fuel-hungry orbits. Belbruno realised that if a spacecraft took certain routes, known as chaotic orbits, just a small nudge in any direction could send it off on widely different trajectories. Such orbits are so sensitive that spacecraft can be moved pretty much anywhere using hardly any fuel.

No one listened when Belbruno suggested his idea for spacecraft going to the moon. Then, in 1991, the transmitter on the Japanese Hagoromo spacecraft failed at the moon. Desperate to recover something from the mission, ground controllers turned their attention to Hagoromo’s relay station, Hiten, which was in orbit around Earth. Could it be boosted to the moon? Trouble was, it only had 10 per cent of the fuel needed. Belbruno’s day had come. Hiten’s mission scientists contacted NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where Belbruno worked. He found a chaotic orbit that got Hiten to the moon, albeit in several months rather than several days.

Since then, Belbruno’s low-energy orbits have been used by NASA’s Genesis mission to study the solar wind, and by the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 probe to the moon. –Marcus Chown

8. Walt Anderson

WELL before Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and other rich entrepreneurs joined the private space game, there was Walt Anderson. A multimillionaire telecommunications mogul and space enthusiast, Anderson bankrolled many early private space ventures and paved the way for the “astropreneurs” who followed.

Anderson’s most high-profile space investment was MirCorp, the 1990s start-up that briefly privatised Russia’s ageing Mir space station. He reportedly pumped as much as $30 million into the venture. Yet his deep pockets were no match for Mir’s decrepitude or the Byzantine politics of the Russian space programme: the station was abandoned and sent plummeting into the Pacific Ocean in 2001.

However, MirCorp’s first client, entrepreneur and former space scientist Dennis Tito, would go on to become the world’s first self-financed space tourist, flying to the International Space Station only a few months after Mir’s demise. That event is credited with beginning the private space age in earnest. MirCorp would turn out to be Anderson’s space-investment zenith. In September 2006 he was convicted of hiding up to $365 million in income between 1995 and 1999, one of the largest personal tax-evasion indictments in US history. Now serving a prison sentence, Anderson still supports entrepreneurial space activities: in May, he appeared on the US radio/web programme The Space Show, pre-recording his contribution from a public telephone in jail. –Greg Klerkx

9. Lyndon B. Johnson

WHILE John F. Kennedy is the one ususally credited as the great political champion of the US space programme, it was Johnson who carried most of the weight and fought most of the battles.

As a senator, Johnson advocated an aggressive US space programme when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sceptical of the need for a large American push into space, despite Russia’s stunning flight of Sputnik in 1957. After the next Soviet space shocker – Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight of April 1961 – Johnson convinced Kennedy that America could regain the space lead by sending humans to the moon and back.

The following month, Kennedy made his great speech that committed the US to “achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Arguably, though, Johnson’s greatest influence on the US space programme was felt after Kennedy’s death. As NASA raced the Soviets, the lunar effort suffered technological setbacks as its budget ballooned. It was at this point that the American public and politicians began doubting the space race was worth running. Add to this growing civil unrest and the escalating war in Vietnam, and Johnson’s steadfast support of the moon programme seems even more remarkable.

It is little wonder that NASA’s largest centre, the Johnson Space Center in Johnson’s home state of Texas, should be named after the man who used all his considerable political skill to keep America’s space programme flying high, even in its darkest days. –Greg Klerkx

10. Maxime Faget

Maxime Faget left a giant impact on human space flight. He designed the Mercury capsule for the first manned US space missions in the early 1960s and the space shuttle, and contributed to the design of every manned US space vehicle in between.

Faget’s involvement in the US space programme dates from its earliest days: he was one of 35 engineers selected in 1958 to spearhead the Mercury programme. After he retired in the 1980s, Faget attempted to launch a private space station called the Industrial Space Facility for corporate research. Although the ISF never flew, Faget’s project gathered significant financing and political clout before collapsing, forcing the military and industrial space giants to take entrepreneurs seriously.

Perhaps because of his status as a pioneer of two space ages – one nationalist, the other capitalist – Faget was among the few VIPs to attend a private test flight of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne in 2003. Rutan’s vehicle scooped the $10 million Ansari X prize the following year. The winning flight was two weeks before Faget’s death. –Greg Klerkx

From issue 2620 of New Scientist magazine, 05 September 2007, page 48-51