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First visit to Westminster Abbey


(Translated from the Mandarin version with the help of GPT-4)

In early September, London experienced its last heatwave of the year (or so we hoped). After a hurried breakfast, with excitement akin to meeting an online friend I’ve chatted with for years, I braved the blazing sun to visit Westminster Abbey, a place I’ve passed by countless times. Though I couldn’t literally meet these great figures I’ve admired for years, just as in conversations where we often understand and interpret words through our own imagination, I was eagerly looking forward to having a heartfelt “chat” with a few esteemed scientists.

No sooner had I cooled down and wiped away my sweat than I saw Darwin, standing right at the entrance to the main hall, just around the corner. Watching the steady stream of visitors passing by, some pausing to exclaim, “Oh, that’s the man who came up with the theory of evolution!” he seemed somewhat out of place. I quickly found a quiet spot nearby and stood there, smiling softly and observing.

Our eyes met, and I gave a slight nod. Suddenly, the setting felt like an academic conference. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly introduced myself and expressed my admiration for Darwin. Although I wasn’t entirely sure if academics back then addressed each other by their first names, I decided to play it safe and referred to him as “Professor.” Noticing his slightly puzzled expression, I felt a twinge of anxiety, wondering if I had said something amiss.

The air grew still for a few seconds before Darwin replied with a thick British accent, “I must admit I’m unfamiliar with these terms ‘computer’ and ‘neuroscience’ that you mention. However, since you’ve expressed an admiration for my work, perhaps you could explain why you appreciate it and how it relates to your research?”

I mentally kicked myself, realizing that I had overlooked the fact that both computer science and neuroscience emerged and matured in the 20th century. I couldn’t simply assume he was familiar with these topics. “I apologize for the oversight,” I replied, “If you’re interested, I’d be happy to explain the concepts of computers and neuroscience to you in more detail later.”

I nervously swallowed, “Your theory of evolution is one of the few I’ve encountered that elegantly links top-down functional levels with bottom-up mechanical levels.” Oh no, I thought, realizing I’d forgotten that he might not be aware of molecular biology and the modern interpretation of the theory of evolution. But then again, who knows? Perhaps he had foreseen all of these developments. “I particularly admire the concept of natural selection. It doesn’t optimize certain equations like general physical principles do. This open-ended mathematical principle feels like the key to understanding life, intelligence, and consciousness. While I don’t have a concrete theoretical framework yet, I hope to find some embryonic forms in the next thirty years…”

“Mm, I didn’t grasp everything you mentioned,” Darwin said, adjusting his beard, “but remember that the theory of evolution wasn’t solely my work. Don’t forget Wallace; he independently came up with the same theory at the same time.”

“Absolutely, sir. I wanted to mention how much I admire the camaraderie between you and Wallace. I wish modern academia could learn from you two instead of being embroiled in endless power struggles and politics,” I lamented, feeling frustrated that my thoughts were so scattered during our conversation.

“Perhaps that too is a process of social evolution,” Darwin remarked, his eyes clear and devoid of judgment.

Gradually, the expressions on our faces shifted to polite smiles. Sometimes, in such crowded situations, it really is hard to engage in deep conversations. Glancing at the throng of people snapping photos, I realized I had inadvertently and excitedly positioned myself in the middle of the pathway. I quickly nodded my head in acknowledgement and slipped somewhat awkwardly out of the crowd.

Walking to the end of the corridor, I arrived at the expansive hall on the east side (CHECK). A magnificent monument stood opposite the famed Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. I watched as a young man, dressed in worn military attire, was surrounded by a group of royally dressed monarchs, politicians, scientists, and the like. Meanwhile, countless visitors eagerly took selfies and even livestreamed the scene. I was curious about how he might describe his life and even more interested in understanding who he originally was. However, the never-ending stream of visitors meant I had to content myself with peeking from a corner.

“These modern folks are truly ungrateful,” I overheard one elderly gentleman behind me grumble. “If not for the efforts and sacrifices of important people like us, there wouldn’t be the peace and prosperity we see today. They come here and don’t even bother speaking to us, choosing instead to crowd around that upstart. It’s utterly maddening.”

“Well, it’s not entirely like that,” another voice countered, sounding more measured. “Just as we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did without the thousands of nameless soldiers fighting for us, if not for this young man, who knows how many fewer people might visit Westminster Abbey each year!”

A vivid memory flashed through my mind: two elderly professors, discussing with similar tones about how to get the lab students to work diligently. The realization that history, across eras and fields, echoed similar sentiments and scenarios was almost chilling. Snapping back to reality, I blinked a few times. The two old gentlemen behind me must have noticed my eavesdropping, as an unexpected silence enveloped us, starkly contrasting with the surrounding commotion, rendering the moment almost surreal.

I nonchalantly continued walking, trying to merge with the flow of people. As I looked up, a sudden dizziness overtook me. The surrounding noise felt like it had been sucked into a vacuum, and the sight of so many eminent scientists standing in a row took my breath away. For a moment, I could empathize with fans who faint at the sight of their favorite celebrities.

But soon after, waves of guilt washed over me. Thinking of the many physics textbooks and papers I had intended to read but had left untouched, I was apprehensive about making eye contact with Professor Hawking or Dirac. I feared being exposed for my limited knowledge. Yet, pondering over Hawking radiation, the information paradox, the elegance of the Dirac equation, and the utility of Dirac notation and functions - all of which had influenced almost half of my doctoral studies - I silently expressed my admiration and gratitude to them, even as I remained wary of an inadvertent gaze meeting theirs.

Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the most significant figure in modern science, sat regally atop an ornate, large stone tomb. He seemed indifferent to the constant stream of visitors, having likely grown accustomed to the attention over centuries. For a few seconds, I grappled with my recognition – how could I not have known what Newton looked like? It might have been due to my lackluster attention to textbooks in high school. I found it hard to associate this handsome visage with the pioneering figure of modern science.

Over the years, as I delved deeper into the philosophy of science and engaged with various subfields of physics and more recent studies on complex systems, my appreciation and understanding of Newton’s groundbreaking contributions deepened. But at the same time, I grew increasingly curious about his views on the evolution of science. Would he approve of how far we’d come, building upon his foundational work? Or would he have critiques, given the visionary thinker he was? If only I could engage him in conversation and discover his insights.

I hesitated for a moment, reflecting on the depth of his words. “Sir Newton, you’ve laid the groundwork for how we’ve approached understanding the world for centuries. And while differential equations remain foundational, in the recent decades, we’ve started exploring alternative approaches to understanding complex systems. Computational models, simulations, and statistical methods are gaining prominence.”

I paused, trying to simplify the concept of computational complexity for this genius of the past. “Imagine a situation where the sheer number of variables and interactions are so high that solving differential equations becomes impractical. Instead, we use computers to simulate the system and try to draw insights from patterns and emergent behaviors. It’s a different way of ‘understanding’ the world, one that’s less about precise solutions and more about patterns and behaviors.”

Newton looked intrigued, his brow furrowed in thought. “Computers, you say? Machines that think? Intriguing! But it’s also a reminder that as the world evolves, so do our methods of understanding it.”

I nodded, deeply appreciative of his open-mindedness. “Indeed, Sir. It’s a testament to the ever-evolving nature of human inquiry.”

“Have you heard of ‘computer science’?” Seeing his puzzled expression, I quickly added, “You can think of a computer as a mechanized and discrete mathematical model, which can be used to attempt to describe the way humans think.”

“Moreover, nowadays, people can actually turn computers into real machines and perform complex calculations on them, such as solving differential equations!”

“Alright, I still don’t quite understand how this ‘computer’ relates to understanding the world.”

I didn’t expect Newton to give me another chance to explain. I quickly thought about how to convey it succinctly to him.

“Imagine if you had an infinite amount of time and plenty of paper and pen to do calculations.”

“I do have plenty of time now, but not enough paper and pens.” I wasn’t sure if Newton was making a joke or just murmuring to himself subconsciously.

“In that case, you can write down the system you’re interested in on paper in detail. Then, continuously use your favorite differential equations to calculate the next state of the system. In this way, even if you don’t solve a differential equation using a formula, you can still gradually compute the evolution of the system.”

“I tried doing that a few times in my days. But in the end, without a mathematical formula, how can one have a clear and beautiful understanding?” I felt he was quickly losing patience.

“Firstly, we now have machines that can compute these calculations very quickly, allowing you to see what the system will look like after a period of time. Secondly, it’s like doing an experiment, but this time we have access to every detail in the experiment. This allows us to potentially build abstract understandings on top of these intricate computational details.”

“That sounds somewhat interesting.” I sensed that Newton was probably just being polite. “However, it seems my fans are eager to take photos with me. Please excuse me for now.”

After years of training in hosting various academic conferences during my doctoral studies, I’ve become accustomed to the reactions of the experts. Until something concrete is produced, words are just words. This is also what attracts me to science. While good expression and presentation are certainly important, in the end, everyone looks at the real capability.

My lack of knowledge about British history meant that I spent most of my remaining time in Westminster Abbey superficially admiring the sculptures and architecture. When I came across great literary figures and musicians, I could only blend into the crowd, sneakily taking a few more photos, secretly envying Britain for having such a place to preserve and showcase its culture and history.

Stepping out of Westminster Abbey, the sun was still intense, and the crowd had grown. The nearby Big Ben was so dazzling that my steps were unconsciously drawn towards it. Watching tourists happily taking photos and a few children excitedly jumping around, I couldn’t help but feel elated. It’s great to visit London at this time. As I strolled along the River Thames, I silently thought to myself how fortunate it is to be an interdisciplinary computer scientist in this era.