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Cover image for But How Does It Really Work? :: Understanding the Physics Behind Concepts in Computing

But How Does It Really Work? :: Understanding the Physics Behind Concepts in Computing

awwsmm profile image Andrew (he/him) ・2 min read

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the Earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory."

-- "And what is that, madam?"

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

-- "If your theory is correct, madam, what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question, but I have an answer to it. And it's this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

-- "But what does this second turtle stand on?"

"It's no use, Mr. James -- it's turtles all the way down."

-- J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels


When I was young, like most children, I wanted to know how the world worked.

I was one of those kids who would ask "why?" to every answer my parents and teachers gave me, drilling down until nobody knew how to respond anymore (or got tired of answering). That's probably why I ended up getting my Ph.D. in physics. I'd rather learn about the building blocks of matter and the fundamental forces governing the universe than the concepts of more derivative sciences (no offense) like chemistry or biology. It's why I'm more interested in the design of programming languages than the design of user interfaces. I'm what you might call a bottom-up learner.

Even today, when I learn about a new piece of technology, a new concept or framework, or a new language, I like to understand the fundamentals before I move on to the shiny features. It's my belief that a strong grasp of the basics will help you more in the long run than learning the newest, coolest fads. Understanding is more important than knowledge.

If you follow the latest tech news, you may have heard that Moore's Law is slowing down, that quantum computing is the future, or that the space exploration industry may destroy GPS. To understand why some people believe these things, you have to grasp some fundamental physics. In this series of articles, I'll outline various computing concepts, limitations, or predictions and briefly explain the underlying physics that informs those concepts, pointing you toward more detailed resources if you're interested in learning more.

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