What Do The Nine Billion Names of God and John von Neumann Have in Common?

Originally posted on Yahoo Group’s Hard SF by one of the author’s friends.

While this may bore the crap out of most, some may find some of the tangents of interest. I did it this way, only to spark some interest without discussing the story, “The N ine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke, which would instantaneously spoil it for those who haven’t read it, and every SF reader should read it at some point (it IS a “super” classic – reserved for only a select few that have stood the test of time, like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” and Clarke’s “The Star”), so why not make this little teensy gem your project for a few minutes? I need to know if anyone has read it yet, is planning to read it, or is not, so I know when I can start with more spoilers. In the meantime I will regal you with some factoids, “gossip” and tangential material. This story can be found on-line so no excuses. It’s a ten minute”throne” read: http://lucis.net/stuff/clarke/9billion_clarke.html.

Ursula K. LeGuin calls this story “one of the purest and neatest uses of the myth of science as omnipotent” (Norton 33). http://www.nvcc.edu/home/ataormina/scifi/works/stories/9billion.htm.

The site also has some basic reader guides, which are too basic and discrete for this story which to me is to be discussed in it’s entirety, both because of it’s short length, and because of it’s unique ending. It can’t really be split up without splitting hairs, IMHO. The story has been linked to numerous things, including even some brief references within the story itself to Shangri-La and to Sam Jaffe (who starred in the earlier version of the movie “Lost Horizon.” The parallel is striking. http://www.nvcc.edu/home/ataormina/scifi/works/stories/9billion.htm

It has also been considered by some as one of the best endings, and best short stories. http://math.cofc.edu/kasman/MATHFICT/mfview.php?callnumber=mf82

One of the tangential “links” is to John von Neumann, one of the early computing pioneers from Princeton, who completed his seminal computer, the “Johnniac” with RAND in 1952, a year before Clarke’s story came out. Nevertheless, the resemblance between his alleged quote (below) and the story are more than coincidental in many ways. “In chapter 12 of Adventures of a Mathematician, Stan Ulam’s autobiography, Ulam has a passage about the efforts of John von Neumann to build a general purpose computer at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. Ulam quotes von Neumann as telling him, “I don’t know how really useful this will be. But at any rate it will be possible to get a lot credit in Tibet by coding ‘Om Mane Padme Hum’ [Oh thou flower of lotus] a hundred million times in an hour. It will far exceed anything a prayer wheel can do.” (page 230).”” Clarke’s story appeared in 1953. Ulam’s book is vague as to when von Neumann made the statement. Von Neumann’s computer was completed in 1952. Ulam says that von Neumann made the comment “When the machine neared completion.” Despite this, I suspect von Neumann got the idea from Clarke’s story, rather than the other way ’round, and that Ulam was confused about when that particular conversation occurred.” http://math.cofc.edu/kasman/MATHFICT/mfview.php?callnumber=mf82

Ulam’s autobiography was written in 1983, almost 30 years after the events described, so memory could be a little shaky on dates. It is mentioned in another source, but this one states that the quote merely referred to the computer, and so could have been dated at anytime. In “Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes” By Walter Gratzer, it says that von Neumann made the “Johnniac,” the fastest computer of it’s time, and it was “of which” that he made the quip about the mantra. http://books.google.com/books?id=yDBep9y0SVsC&pg=PA159&lpg=PA159&dq=john\+von+neumann+tibet+coding+om+mane+padme+hum&source=web&ots=0s7HfnHiw_&si\g=Ptn0q11vpkvUulnKM8NQaeIMPlU

So which came first, the Chicken (Nine Billion) or the Egg (von Neumann’s quote on the mantra)? Now, in an interesting personal side note to me (I wrote a paper in law school called “The Benko Gambit” which was about Games Theory and the Law), von Neumann is credited as being one of the founders of Game Theory, along with Oskar Morgenstern. “His first significant contribution was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain zero sum games involving perfect information (in which players know a priori the strategies of their opponents as well as their consequences), there exists one strategy which allows both players to minimize their maximum losses (hence the name minimax). When examining every possible strategy, a player must consider all the possible responses of the player’s adversary and the maximum loss. The player then plays out the strategy which will result in the minimization of this maximum loss. Such a strategy, which minimizes the maximum loss, is called optimal for both players just in case their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). If the common value is zero,the game becomes pointless. Von Neumann eventually improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players. This work culminated in the 1944 classic “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” (written with Oskar Morgenstern). This resulted in such public attention that The New York Times did a front page story, the likes of which only Einstein had previously earned.”

While this has absolutely nothing to do with Nine Billion, it came as a tangent from the story on von Neumann, and is of immense fascination to me. How the wheel of life does turn…

Also, “as a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission,starting from 1953 up until his death in 1957, he was influential in setting U.S. scientific and military policy. Through his committee, he developed various scenarios of nuclear proliferation, the development of intercontinental and submarine missiles with atomic warheads, and the controversial strategic equilibrium called mutual assured destruction (aka the M.A.D. doctrine).” My, he got around in the ’50s. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann

The story has been mentioned by some as having a relationship to the mystical Jewish Kabbalah, although in actuality, while there are similarities, the reason behind the search is different. (I lost the references to this in one of my “crashes.”): The Kabbalah Center International states on the 72 names of God:

“Kabbalah teaches that every human being shares the same ultimate purpose in life, which is to receive the complete joy and fulfillment that God desires for us. But while this is easy to say, true spiritual work is needed to remove the negative tendencies that separate us from life’s gifts. And as we undertake this work, our souls need technical support, as would a computer or any other highly sensitive mechanism.One of Kabbalah’s most important teachings is that we are not alone in life’s tasks. There are powerful tools to help us, including the Bible itself. Kabbalah teaches that the Bible is neither a topic for academic study nor a book of commandments and prohibitions meant to be taken literally. Rather, the Bible is a coded document in which the true underpinnings of the universe lie hidden — including the amazing spiritual technology known as the 72 Names of God.

What exactly are the 72 Names? According to Kabbalistic teachings, 72 unique combinations of Hebrew letters from Chapter 14 of the book of Exodus create a spiritual vibration that is a powerful antidote to the negative energy of the human ego. This revelation is a crucial step forward in the work of Kabbalistic masters over thousands of years. Each succeeding generation of sages has advanced the task of decoding the Bible — each building on the work of those who came before, each making its own contribution to Kabbalistic wisdom. The purpose and commitment of the Kabbalah Centre is to continue this work. Kabbalistic scholar Yehuda Berg devoted five years to researching and discovering the concealed meanings of the combinations of letters that comprise the 72 Names. Their revelation has been a breakthrough in the centuries-long history of Kabbalah. The key to connecting with the power of the Names is found in the specific biblical passages from which they are derived. As the Bible describes, 600,000 Israelites stood on the banks of the Red Sea. Pharaoh and the Egyptian army were in pursuit. With the water in front of them and their enemies behind them, there seemed to be nowhere the Israelites could turn. They could only cry out to God for salvation. And what did the Creator say in response to their cries?

This is one of the most carefully studied and debated passages in all biblical scholarship. The reply was: “Why are you calling out to me?”But whom could the Israelites call upon if not God? The Kabbalists explain that the passage is an encrypted message explaining the secret of human nature and the way to overcome the challenges we face throughout our lives. In its commentary on this passage, the Zohar, the source of Kabbalistic wisdom, explains that there was no need for the Creator’s help —because at that moment Moses revealed the 72 Names, and the collective consciousness of the people was elevated. But not a single molecule of water moved until the people had physically moved forward into the sea with unwavering certainty. Only when they were neck-deep in the waves— and still maintained complete certainty that the water would part— did the sea part to give them a passage to freedom.

As the Zohar makes clear, the purpose of the 72 Names is hidden in the story in which they are found. The Names are a tool to help humanity gain control over chaos by controlling physical nature. By their use of the 72 Names, the Israelites overcame the ego-based negativity of doubt and thus changed the nature of water until it no longer flowed.

According to Kabbalah, humanity is destined to have control over physical nature; the only obstacle is our ego. Overcoming ego at its very foundation brings control of the physical world, and that is the purpose of the INSTRUMENT THAT IS THE 72 NAMES. The Zohar further explains that, despite what we might believe, our ego is not actually who we are. Rather, the Kabbalists describe the ego it as a garment, a curtain that hides the Light of our genuine selves. Our purpose in this world is to remove the garment that conceals our true essence and potential.” http://www.kabbalah.com/kabbalah/12.php

And according to one poster, who ties in the end of the story, Nine Billion has a similar “thought” to Andre Schwarz-Bart’s “The Last of the Just,” an epic story of the Jewish history and culminating with the holocaust. (cite lost again in a crash)

In Jewish terms, the title refers to “the tradition of the Just Men [as] an ancient one, dating from the time of the prophet Isiah. These thirty-six mortals “are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.” Without the Just Men to witness and accept the suffering of humanity, mankind could not survive. It would be overwhelmed by the knowledge of the cruelty men inflict on their fellow men. “The Last of the Just” is an account of how the descendants of Rabbi Yom Tov shouldered the burden of this knowledge.”

The book apparently details what happens when these men are gone. WARNING SPOILER!!:

“[W]hen the Shoah [Holocaust] is rather the end of “history” as the West has constructed it for the last three hundred years.”

It’s even becoming part of our lexicon (for want of a better word) as seen in the blog of a Jewish scholar:”Being an academic short-timer is an odd experience: the joy of not having to attend department meetings is balanced with the grief of having to come up with sensible answers to “what are you doing next year?” I have so far resisted the temptation to answer with either Wonderful Fabrications (“I’m heading up a secret government-funded lab to reverse the Nine Billion Names of God”)” http://www.baraita.net/blog/archives/2006_05.html<

Now it also appears that the concept (WARNING SPOILER!!)

has been co-opted in a movie: “In the movie Warlock (1989 film) , <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warlock_%281989_film%29>, the main character seeks out the pages of the Grand Grimoire which can be commanded to reveal the true lost name of God. If it can be spoken backwards, the universe will end. Viewers are shown the letters forming,but not the actual word, and the Warlock does not get beyond pronouncing the first (last) syllable before he is killed” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_God. Sort of Nine Billion without the hook.

The same link also talks about the Islam’s 99 names of God, which are His attributes, and how in Jewish tradition, once one has written the name of God, it cannot be destroyed, but must be eventually buried.

Okay, my research on Nine Billion Names led me to this von Neumann, who is at the heart of everything – Games Theory, MAD, and now, self-replicating probes, the basis of many SF novels, TV shows (the Replicators in Stargate), and movies (2001: A Space Odyssey), so there is even a cross reference to Clarke there. I recall reading one recently (and it’s not one of the ones listed. It was about generation ships, that self-replicated, and also Karl Schroeder’s “Ventus” was about SRPs). Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_spacecraft

Sweeeet Jesus! The things I find that blow my mind. Too much to learn – I don’t have the capacity. I’m 640K in a 1 Gig world. I’m going to self-destruct in 60 seconds….


2 responses to “What Do The Nine Billion Names of God and John von Neumann Have in Common?

  1. The Clarke 3 months is a bit off, my program converged in 3 weeks, but that’s only because I used human a-ware and a bit of speed(prescribed by Dr. Stranglelove). And really, there are only 136 names of God(up to radiative corrections). So I don’t understand what all this spin is about.
    What von Neumann lacked was cross-validation, and the Kalman filter was only invented in the 1960’s by … Oh well, another name just popped up. Is this the last?

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