That subject really fascinated me, and I never ceased being absorbed by the relationships among languages. I'm now involved, with a number of linguists, in a project I helped to organize to explore very distant relationships among human languages. Many of the established holders of chairs in historical linguistics don't believe in investigating these distant relationships, but I strongly disagree with them. They recognize families of languages that go back something like six thousand years, for example Indo-European, Uralic, and Austronesian, but in most cases they refuse to consider larger families (I call them "superfamilies") that go back much further in time. If they were right, then the evidence for the families they do acknowledge would be marginal, but in fact that evidence is overwhelming, and therefore it makes sense to go back further and explore superfamilies.

Since the evidence for those larger groupings is naturally scarcer than it is for closer relationships, we have to be as careful and as scientific as possible.My brother was almost nine years old when I was born and, like me, was three years ahead of most other students in his school. He graduated from high school at the age of 14 and went on to City College in New York, but didn't like it very much. He wanted to spend more of his time bird-watching, so he didn't attend classes regularly and at the age of 15 became what we now call a college drop-out. This was not very common in the 1930s, and certainly not at the age of 15. He became interested in photography, and curiously enough I played a role in that, although I've never had anything to do with photography since then.

I entered Columbia Grammar School when we moved back to Manhattan in 1937. We were living on West 93rd Street, almost across the street from the school. CGS had a long history, having been founded in 1764 as part of Kings College, which became Columbia University. I entered on a full scholarship, and at the age of 8 I was put into the sixth grade. The other kids were mostly about 11 — maybe a couple of them were 10. That was the last time that I skipped grades. There have been periods of time when schools didn't believe in skipping, but in the 1930's it was a common practice. I was a student at Columbia Grammar for seven years, from sixth through twelfth grade, and having attended a private school must have helped me later with admission to a good university.

When I entered CGS I learned that each student in grades 6-8 was supposed to join a hobby club and then, after six weeks, switch to another club, and so on over the course of the year. I had become very interested in coins — another interest, by the way, that has persisted throughout my life — and I wanted to join the coin club, but it was already filled up, as were some others that attracted me, and so I was forced to join the photography club. I seized on my parents' old Kodak and my brother and I started to use it. We went out into Central Park and learned to take outdoor pictures at an elementary level, developed them in the bathroom under a red light, and fixed prints with "hypo". After six weeks I shifted to the coin club, which had opened up, and never touched a camera again until the age of digital photography.

My brother, however, got really interested and became a photographer. He worked at some humble job at a photo studio and then started taking pictures at weddings. He was a photo-intelligence officer in Italy during the war and then returned to New York, where he continued to work as a photographer. Later he moved to Southern Illinois, where his wife was from, and got a job as a news photographer at the Carbondale Southern Illinoisan. He loved writing, though, and very soon he turned into a reporter. From reporter he became the Sunday editor and a columnist. In fact even in retirement he still writes his column.

I don't see Ben often enough these days, but when we do see each other we're very close. He lives in Makanda, Illinois, which is just south of Carbondale, where Southern Illinois University is located. (He was a good friends with Bucky Fuller at SIU.) After retirement he worked for the university for some years. As part of that job he wrote some capsule biographies of faculty members there, including my close friend the archaeologist George Gumerman, who is now a vice-president of the Santa Fe Institute.Ben reformed the spelling of our surname and made it just Gelman. He got tired of telling people about the double L, the double N, the hyphen, and the capital M.


At home the atmosphere was always friendly to science. My father was very devoted to mathematics, physics, and astronomy. He tried to learn advanced physics, particularly general relativity, and was a great admirer of Albert Einstein. He never succeeded in fully understanding general relativity, but he had books on the subject and worked very hard at reading them. I didn't have an inordinate amount of interest in physical science, although I did like astronomy. I was more interested in natural history — birds, butterflies, flowering plants, and trees — as well as in archaeology and linguistics. All these subjects involve complexity, diversity, and evolution, and they depend a good deal on historical accident as well as on fundamental principles.

When it came time to apply for admission to Yale University I had to fill out a form that asked, among other things, what my major subject would be if I were admitted. At the time I thought that it was very unlikely that I would end up there. First of all, I would have to get through Yale's very difficult admission process, and second, because my parents couldn't contribute anything at all I would have to receive the one scholarship available that would permit me to attend without supplying any funds whatsoever. Nevertheless I applied and found myself faced with this question.

Uncharacteristically I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, "What were you thinking of putting down?" I said, "Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I'm most enthusiastic about. I'm also interested in natural history and exploration." He said, "You'll starve!" because this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example— but he didn't want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn't have any spare money at all.

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