[Humanist] 27.845 mining for diamonds vs mining for coal

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Mar 5 09:15:32 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 845.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 04 Mar 2014 14:25:30 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: mining for diamonds vs mining for coal

For quite a while I have wondered about a source for the comparison of 
two very different sorts of research to mining for diamonds vs mining 
for coal. Success at last. The source I've found is Jacob T. Schwartz 
(1930-2009), mathematician and computer scientist at NYU.

The following is attributed to him by Leon Kowarski, "The Impact of 
Computers on Nuclear Science" [itself a very interesting article from 
the early days], in Computing as a Language of Physics. Lectures 
presented at an International Seminar Course, 2-20 August 1971, Trieste, 
Italy. IAEA-STI-PUB-306. Eds. International Atomic Energy Agency, 27–37. 
Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency:

> Mathematics has always sought to reduce the unlimited natural
> complexity of facts and ideas to a humanly manageable size; it is
> like mining of diamonds from the surrounding rocks. But the
> increasingly cheap power of machines enables us to manage far greater
> masses of irreducible complexity; it is still an extraction process,
> but it is more comparable to the other useful form of carbon - the
> mining of coal.  (p. 29)

But Schwartz's metaphor can also be found, I just discovered, in "Computer 
Science", Chapter 7 of Discrete Thoughts: Essays on Mathematics, Science 
and Philosophy, by Mark Kac, Gian-Carlo Rota and Jacob T. Schwartz, 2nd 
edn (Boston: Birkhäuser, 2008)

> In this quest for simplification, mathematics stands to computer
> science as diamond mining to coal mining. The former is a search for
> gems. Although it may involve the preliminary handling of masses of
> raw material, it culminates in an exquisite item free of dross. The
> latter is permanently involved with bulldozing large masses of
> ore--extremely useful bulk material. It is necessarily a social
> rather than an individual effort. (pp. 64-5)

Let this be remembered by being repeatedly used! Perhaps also 
supplemented by other versions of other people?

I'm a diamond-miner myself :-).


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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