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I first met him in Chicago, at Whitman House, one of the earliest coops. Unusual for its time, Whitman house had both men and women as members. Opposite in character to many fraternities which included only the narrowest of backgrounds among its members, Whitman house had all sorts of people: every variety of socialist, anarchist, and democrat. Black people and white people, Jews, a few practicing Christians, southerners and northerners. We even had one republican member.
Ray and his close friend, Glen Sandberg, came to Chicago from Cleveland as graduate students in physics. Both joined Whitman House. Ray had been in the service; Navy, I think. Though he came to study physics, his real interest was always artificial intelligence --- in the very new field of computing.
Glen also deviated from his original studies to a more practical job as a health physicist working in one of the big Chicago hospitals in the radiology department.
Ray’s always imaginative ideas simplified a major problem for Glen. One of the tasks for a health physicist was (and probably still is) is to calculate the dosage at different depths of the body. The goal is to aim several beams at the patients, with them converging on the tumor. Ray suggested that instead of elaborate calculations, Glen might make a light based simulator in which the direction of several beams could be varied, and the intensity measured. The coordinates could then be transferred to the radiation.
Ray never changed in the sixty years I knew him. At Whitman House, he introduced himself as Harvey, and it was as Harvey he was known there. It was a self adopted name, which he said was due to his close identification with the character of Harvey, a six foot rabbit currently appearing in a Broadway play. One of Harvey’s missions, he said, was to stop the terrible carnage of the rabbits in Australia.
Around our joint time at Whitman house he came to give a paper, which he wrote with Reshevsky on the structure of random nets. In fact in his later work ray thought deeply and well about the nature of randomness.
The eternal safaris to New York in one or another of the ancient cars: One particularly memorable trip was in the 1937 Packard in which I had a half share. Sumner Kirshner had christened the car; “Magnifique”. We calculated the cost before setting out (If it cost $50 for gas and five us went it would be $10 each; If four people went it would be $12.50 etc.) whereupon Ray Solomonoff pointed out that if an infinite number of people went it would cost nothing.
On that particular trip I had roasted two ducks for food on the way. We set out in a blinding blizzard. Road signs obscured. In the morning we found that we had been heading west, not east, and were near the Iowa border. After twenty four hours we were as far as Gary Indiana. The car broke down in Pennsylvania, and we camped waiting for it to be fixed (and eating the duck). The Packard had twelve cylinders, of which a majority usually worked. Later, on the Penn Turnpike it gave a magnificent fart and all twelve cylinders began to work.
Harvey was celebrated in a piano plus voice piece by George Tolley; “Harvey Solomonoff, your name is Ray….”
Few people could have looked less the part of a modern engineer/business man than Ray/Harvey Solomonoff. His beard, always long was turning from black to grey. He resembled an orthodox rabbi more than a scientist. Despite his appearance, he was a skilled electronic designer.
His jobs were always unconventional. In New York he had a job for an engineering firm that contracted to design equipment for the military. Harvey designed a Doppler radar for the Navy and was given the use of a plane to test it. “Four hours!” he said, “Wow, let's go to Barbados. (or Bahamas) Just before they were due to land, he noted that, typically, he had not turned on the tape recorder, so they had to re-fly and circle for several hours.
We both were friends with a deeply serious mathematician, who became psychiatrically ill, suffering from severe delusions. One was that he was being operated on every night. Harvey had told me how to turn the conversation with him if you found it hard to deal with; “talk to him about mathematics.” It worked. I was, at the time, auditing a course in algebra. I was managing to understand it, but with some confusions. I told him about the course and some of my difficulties. His whole demeanor changed from a harassed and tortured person to an indulgent teacher. I remember him explaining that I must realize that there is a subtle difference between a ring and a field.
When Harvey moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) he became friends with many of the brightest people studying computers and biology. Through Harvey I met Marvin Minsky, who went on to be one of the central figures in computer science, Jerry Lettvin, who had just published a new and brilliant analysis of the visual system of frogs. One weekend I joined Ray to visit Rollo Silver, who with a colleague had bought an old house in a village in New Hampshire, and were planning to make a magnificent computer that would be about the size of a cigar box, and have the computing power of the largest computers than available.
Ray’s mathematics has become known to those who are in his area of study, and he has held various positions as visiting Professor at a few universities. Although offered several permanent positions, he routinely turned them down.
Sometimes he supported himself by short term jobs or grants. For a time, in Cambridge he worked for a small firm (Ray and one other, Calvin Mooers) called the Zator corporation. (Zator; Greek; “I discover”) The Zator corporation supported itself, hence Ray, by grants. While there Ray wrote a paper on the mathematical nature of randomness. Some years later when I was teaching Summers at Dartmouth there was a faculty club which held simple lectures on their field of study. A mathematician cited Ray’s paper as the fundamental contribution to our understanding of randomness. He was a bit uncertain about how Solomonoff was spelled. When I spelled it for him, he said “You know Ray Solomonoff?” with a respect tinged with awe.
Ray was one of the most unusual people I know. He was largely unaffected by convention. He once decided that twenty four hour days are entirely arbitrary. He lived a twenty five hour day, putting a wooden stick in his telephone to turn it off while he slept. He had no conventions about food, and often ate spagheti for breakfast. He knew the Cambridge Tim Leary lot, and had smoked every spice on the shelf. The most irritating, he said, was tobacco
He had to discover everything for himself. When he bought some land in New Hampshire he built a house on it. Ray had to invent houses by himself; although the final product looked like a conventional New England House, it differed in several respects. One was Ray’s imaginative method for heating the place. He calculated that light bulbs were an efficient source of heat, so he strung dozens of them along the ceiling in a continuous parallel circuit. They would in fact keep the house warm, but the light intensity of the place was like a Greek beach at midday..
|The House||The Greek Beach|
He was moderately successful in buying and selling stocks. At one point he advised me to buy Intel, which I did. A few months later he advised me to sell it, which I did. I earned two or thee thousand dollars thanks to Ray’s advice.
Never satisfied with conventional methods Ray was always trying new ways to predict the market. Perhaps the ear can detect patterns that are not obvious to the analytical eye. He coded the price of shares in music, and played the music on his recorder, listening for a pattern.
Ray was together with Grace for many years, and I saw them both from time to time, one of the last times in an all-you-can-eat sushi bar in London.