Skip to main content

Chinese boffins should know better

Ceci n'est pas une superordinateur
I generally rather enjoy the slightly anarchic view of technology news provided by website The Register, but I have to confess that one of their recent articles got my dander up, though to be fair to El Reg, more because of what I presume was in a Chinese press release than because of the way it was reported.

'Chinese boffins predict iPad-sized supercomputers' screams the headline. Now, I ought to point out  for those not familiar with it that The Register has a house style of using ironic labels, so Apple lovers are usually 'fanbois', iPads are usually (though not here) 'fondle slabs' and scientists are always 'boffins'. But what I dislike here is the use of tenuous leap from an interesting bit of science to a vapourconcept (if I can generate my own Regism).

What the Chinese scientists have done is observe the quantum anomalous Hall effect (yes, as I pointed out recently, physicists aren't very good at catchy names) in the lab. This is one of those long-predicted but elusive quantum effects and has the potential, in principle, to enable electronics to be made more compact than they currently are (which is saying something) because it may be possible to overcome the tendency of electrons to generate unwanted heat from electrical resistance.

So basically what we have is a first demonstration of a hard to produce effect, in a lab, in conditions that couldn't possibly be duplicated in mass production without radical changes that may well stop the effect working. Yes it is just possible that it might result in faster computers... but it may well not. And the idea of an iPad-sized supercomputer being the outcome is a bit like saying 'We have now built Voyager 1, which due to special relativity has travelled 1.1 seconds in the future. This technology may mean we will be able to build Back to the Future style time machines.' Okay, it's possible, but it's a big leap.

According to the article, team leader Xue Qikun is quoted as saying 'The technology may even bring about a supercomputer in the shape of an iPad.' Mostly scientists are getting the idea that making predictions for the technology that could be produced from their science based on extreme extrapolation  is simply a mistake that results in reduced public trust in scientific pronouncements. But clearly some have still to learn.

You can read the Register article here and see the paper (if you subscribe to Science) here.


Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Mirror, mirror

A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London - arguably the greatest location for science communication in the UK. At one point in the talk, I put this photograph on the screen, which for some reason caused some amusement in the audience. But the photo was illustrating a serious point: the odd nature of mirror reflections. I remember back at school being puzzled by a challenge from one of our teachers - why does a mirror swap left and right, but not top and bottom? Clearly there's nothing special about the mirror itself in that direction - if there were, rotating the mirror would change the image. The most immediately obvious 'special' thing about the horizontal direction is that the observer has two eyes oriented in that direction - but it's not as if things change if you close one eye. In reality, the distinction is much more interesting - we fool ourselves into thinking that the image behind the mirror is what's on ou