Clifford Stoll: The call to learn


Clifford Stoll is an American astronomer and author. He is best known for his pursuit of hacker Markus Hess in 1986 and the subsequent 1989 book, The Cuckoo’s Egg, which details his investigation.


Clifford is a scientist – once a scientist does something once, it becomes engineering, and once that has been mastered it is operated by a technician. With that in mind, he can’t stay on the same project for too long (and throughout this talk, can’t stay on a single topic for long). His talk is written in a series of messy notes on his palm (written shortly before the talk). What he discusses is:

  • Tracing a hacking attempt on his network to the KGB.
  • To understand the future – don’t talk to a technologist or engineer or scientist – they can only tell you what things will exist. Instead talk to an experienced kindergarten teacher – they can tell you what society and the people will be like.
  • Klein bottles – he is fascinated with Moebius loops (one sided strips of paper – in the shape of a ring with a kink) and Klein bottles (one sided bottles, that exist inside themselves). He has made Klein bottles, and designed variations to drink wine from. In 4 dimensions, a Klein bottle should hold no fluids, but limited to 3 dimensions it can.
  • His mother’s passing and Robert Moog. Robert was a pioneer in electronic music, who invented the Moog synthesiser.
  • Children: Clifford teaches 8th grade science, but teaches it at a college level experimentation (skipping the high level calculus needed for college). They have measured the speed of light (within 25% – not bad for 8th graders). They also worked out how to measure the speed of sound – by using an oscilloscope, they found frequency and wavelength, then multiplied them. He showed how they did this on the studio, and were within 10m/s of the true number.
  • Running from police during the Vietnam War – he was chased around uni during riots by students, hit by teargas and started fleeing up a bell tower. He got to the top (distracted slightly by the pendulum) and looked below – seeing students with bricks and police fighting. To this background, he remembered bells are cast with inscriptions and read it

    “All truth is one in this light. May science and religion endeavour here for the steady evolution of mankind from darkness to light from narrowness to broadmindedness from prejudice to tolerance. It is the voice of life which calls us to come and learn”

My Thoughts

A very tough talk to summarise. I spent a while thinking “Lets see where he goes with this”, but not sure it was going anywhere. It is an insight into an eclectic and very entertaining man, flitting from topic to topic while deciding what he was going to talk about. Still, it was enjoyable – his excitable “mad scientist” persona was fascinating. He talks at high speed, which gets more amusing when you manipulate YouTube’s speed settings to make it even faster 🙂

For the curious, he gives you a lot to think about and research more.

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