The Algorithm That Transformed The World

The Fast Fourier Transform is used everywhere but it has a fascinating origin story that could have ended the nuclear arms race. This video is sponsored by 80,000 Hours. Head to to sign up for their newsletter and get sent a free copy of their in-depth career guide.

A huge thank you to Dr. Richard Garwin for taking the time to speak with us.
Thanks to Dr. Steve Brunton of the University of Washington for his help with understanding the Fast Fourier Transform.

Thanks to Dr. Cliff Thurber of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Paul Richards of Columbia University, and Dr. Steven Gibbons of the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for their expertise.

Thanks to Grant Sanderson of 3Blue1Brown for his helpful feedback on the script. His great video on the Fourier Transform is here –


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Schmalberger, T. (1991). In pursuit of a nuclear test ban treaty –

Bowers, D., & Selby, N. D. (2009). Forensic seismology and the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 37, 209-236 –

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS). (2022). How Often Do Earthquakes Occur?

Kimball, D. (2022). The Nuclear Testing Tally. Arms Control Association.

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Sykes, L. R., & Evernden, J. F. (1982). The verification of a comprehensive nuclear test ban. Scientific American, 247(4), 47-55 –

Peterson, J., & Hutt, C. R. (2014). World-wide standardized seismograph network: a data users guide (p. 82). US Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey. –

Richards, P. G., & Kim, W. Y. (2009). Monitoring for nuclear explosions. Scientific American, 300(3), 70-77 –

Jacobsen, L. L., Fedorova, I., & Lajus, J. (2021). The seismograph as a diplomatic object: The Soviet–American exchange of instruments, 1958–1964. Centaurus, 63(2), 277-295 –

Schwartz S. I. (1998). The Hidden Costs Of Our Nuclear Arsenal: Overview Of Project Findings. The Brookings Institution –

Ricón, J.L. (2016). The Soviet Union: Military Spending. Nintil –

Heideman, M. T., Johnson, D. H., & Burrus, C. S. (1985). Gauss and the history of the fast Fourier transform. Archive for history of exact sciences, 265-277 –

Ford, D. (2004). Richard Garwin – Session IV. American Institute of Physics (AIP). –

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Cooley, J., Garwin, R., Rader, C., Bogert, B., & Stockham, T. (1969). The 1968 Arden House workshop on fast Fourier transform processing. IEEE Transactions on Audio and Electroacoustics, 17(2), 66-76 –

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Written by Derek Muller & Felicity Nelson
Filmed by Derek Muller & Raquel Nuno
Animation by Ivy Tello, Jakub Misiek, Alex Drakoulis, and Fabio Albertelli
Edited by Albert Leung & Derek Muller
Research Assistant: Katie Barnshaw
Additional video/photos supplied by Pond5 and Getty Images
Music from Epidemic Sound
Produced by Derek Muller, Petr Lebedev, and Emily Zhang


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