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Of Autodesk, John Walker and the Disappearing Physicist

A Brilliant Darkness by Joao Magueijo. Photo: barnesandnoble.comJohn Walker, on his Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason Blog (and more about Walker later), offers up a review/discussion of a book, A Brilliant Darkness about Ettore Majorana, who was part of Enrico Fermi’s lab, where they developed nuclear fission, among other things… and who disappeared mysteriously in 1938.

"…on March 26th, 1938, he boarded a ship in Palermo Sicily bound for Naples and was never seen again. Before his departure he had posted enigmatic letters to his employer and family, sent a telegram, and left a further letter in his hotel room which some interpreted as suicide notes, but which forensic scientists who have read thousands of suicide notes say resemble none they’ve ever seen (but then, would a note by a Galileo or Newton read like that of the run of the mill suicide?). This event set in motion investigation and speculation which continues to this very day. Majorana was said to have withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank a few days before: is this plausible for one bent on self-annihilation (we’ll get back to that infra)? Based on his recent interest in religion and reports of his having approached religious communities to join them, members of his family spent a year following up reports that he’d joined a monastery; despite “sightings”, none of these leads panned out. Years later, multiple credible sources with nothing apparently to gain reported that Majorana had been seen on numerous occasions in Argentina, and, abandoning physics (which he had said “was on the wrong path” before his disappearance), pursued a career as an engineer.

"This only scratches the surface of the legends which have grown up around Majorana. His disappearance, occurring after nuclear fission had already been produced in Fermi’s laboratory, but none of the “boys” had yet realised what they’d seen, spawns speculation that Majorana, as he often did, figured it out, worked out the implications, spoke of it to someone, and was kidnapped by the Germans (maybe he mentioned it to his friend Heisenberg), the Americans, or the Soviets. There is an Italian comic book in which Majorana is abducted by Americans, spirited off to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, only to be abducted again (to his great relief) by aliens in a flying saucer."

Now, about John Walker. He was co-founder of Autodesk, famously successful Sausalito, California-based producers of AutoCAD. And there’s an interesting story about Autodesk that — to the best of my knowledge — has never really been told.  My version will be sketchy, completely from memory as the result of hanging out there a few times and knowing many of the people involved.

At some point around 1988, Walker, as head of Autodesk decided to use the company’s wealth to experiment. He let the freaks in.

There was the Virtual Reality project, worked on by Eric Gullichsen among others.

Rudy Rucker. Photo: cs.sjsu.edu/faculty/rucker/"Cyberpunk" SF writer and math genius Rudy Rucker was hired to create a Cellular Automata program called CelLab, and James Gleik’s Chaos.

Perhaps most interestingly, Ted Nelson, the computer visionary who wrote Computer Lib/Dream Machines  in 1974 (the book’s look is very ’60s – ’70s… similar to Whole Earth Catalog) was hired to work on his "Project Xanadu" (R). What was/is Project Xanadu? Well… I always understood it as a hypertextual project linking everything to everything in an ever-evolving and highly intelligent way (and with much more intentionally than… say…  Google). But this is what they say about it now. As much as the idea — in the late 1980s, Xanadu brought together an intriguing cast of (frequently anarchistic) characters, many of whom were also getting involved in the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology and the Extropy Institute, which essentially launched transhumanism as a contemporary meme.

Owen Rowley was also there in some capacity, and those of you who know Owen Rowley (rhymes with Crowley) know just how cool that is.

A monthly speaker’s program featured Timothy Leary and Todd Rundgren, among others.

As you can guess, it was an interesting (and casual) place to spend an afternoon. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but at some point, fiscal responsibility (some might say sanity) returned, John Walker moved on, and Autodesk returned to its core task.

This wild period of experimentation seems to have disappeared into history. It would make a pretty cool movie! (but a Mondo movie would be cooler)…

(thanks to Sherry Miller for sending me the Walker post)

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