A Conversation with

By John Brockman

You wouldn't expect that the personal computer would have been invented and commercialized in 1974 by a company of twenty employees called MITS in Albuquerque. You would expect that the personal computer would have come out of the labs at IBM or Xerox PARC. But that's not what happened, and David Bunnell was present at the creation, having left his job as a sixth-grade teacher in the Chicago public schools to find his place in what he perceived to be a new and important industry.

"One of the more interesting things that happened," he recalls, "was that two fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noticed the Altair on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics and got very excited about working at MITS to develop software for this first personal computer. Their names were Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They created a basic language program for the Altair and called us up and said, 'Gee, wouldn't you like to have Basic for the Altair?' The company president, Ed Roberts, who is regarded by many as the father of the personal computer, replied, 'Well, if you can show us that it works, we'd love to have it.'

"Paul Allen hopped on an airplane and flew to Albuquerque and demonstrated that Basic worked, even though Paul and Bill hadn't seen an Altair. They created the Basic language interpreter on a mainframe computer at Harvard University using an emulator for the 8080 Intel chip that was the brains of the Altair. The entire personal computer industry sprung out of MITS, and the Altair, and Paul Allen and Bill Gates."

"I worked with David in the very early days of this business when it wasn't really a business and nobody paid attention." recalls Bill Gates. "And he did the first computer convention, which was a MITS Altair-based thing. And he did the first interesting magazine, PC Magazine. Then PC World got involved with him on encouraging him to do MacWorld. You know, it's great to have somebody who's played the role he has. I think it's a real contribution."

That David happened to be at the right place at the right time and was able to take advantage of it was probably no accident. And that circumstance has been a hallmark of his career in the personal computer industry. He was not a technical person like everybody else; it was his job as a writer and an editor to interpret the personal computer for people who wanted to use it, to explain what you could do with it, and to help market it. That became his role not just at MITS but in the industry at large. At MITS, David and his colleagues created the first retail computer stores, the first computer conventions, the first publications. David, present at the creation, has been a player from the very beginning.

David is best known among his peers not for his stunning successes in promoting the personal-computer magazine industry but for his idealistic and deeply humanistic vision. (Perhaps this just means that he's not quite as greedy as his counterparts in the computer revolution.) He devotes his considerable energies and resources to this end. One of his favorite projects is Computers and You, a program he founded at San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church to give hundreds of underprivileged kids and homeless adults computer training every day.

After a detour into biotechnology, David came back just in time for the Internet. He is now publisher and editor of Upside Magazine.

— JB

DAVID BUNNELL is the founder of several major media properties including PC Magazine, PC World, Macworld, Macworld Expo, New Media and BioWorld.

David Bunnell's Edge Bio Page




Prospect Magazine has published its annual world thinkers poll. "World Thinkers 2013" is based on more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, "Online polls often throw up curious results," the editors write, "but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age."  In it's coverage of the event, the Guardian noted:

When Prospect magazine listed Britain's leading public intellectuals in 2004 and invited readers' votes, it was Richard Dawkins who emerged as No 1. Nine years on, the biologist, author and campaigner has bettered that by topping its "world thinkers" rankings, beating four Nobel prize winners (and another contender regarded as certain to receive one soon) in a poll based on 65 names chosen by a largely US- and UK-based expert panel.

Joining him in the top 10 are the psychologists Steven Pinker (3) and Daniel Kahneman (10), the economists Paul Krugman (5) and Amartya Sen (7) and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (6), who all, like him, figured in the magazine's first list of world-class thinkers in 2005.

A late run by the octogenarian British physicist Peter Higgs (8) secured him a place in an elite squad containing three other scientists, while the remaining slots are taken by academics turned politicians from the Middle East: Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani (2), an economist who served as finance minister after the US-led invasion; Iraq's Ali Allawi (4), another ex-minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq and The Crisis of Islamic Civilization; and Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei (9), prominent in the Arab Spring and now in opposition to Mohamed Morsi.

To qualify for this year's world thinkers rankings, it was not enough to have written a seminal book, inspired an intellectual movement or won a Nobel prize several years ago (hence the absence from the 65-strong long list of ageing titans such as Noam Chomsky or Edward O Wilson); the selectors' remit ruthlessly insisted on "influence over the past 12 months" and "significance to the year's biggest questions". ... ("Richard Dawkins named world's top thinker in poll",  by John Dugdale, April 25th)

Among the leading 65 public intellectuals on Prospect's long-list are a number of Edgies. Indeed, four out of the top twelve — Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel KahnemanJared Diamond — are among the long-time core contributors who have helped establish Edge, in the words of the Guardian, as "the world's smartest website".




Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Daniel C. Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, Tim D. White, Neil H. Shubin, Richard Dawkins, Frank Sulloway, Scott Atran, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Stuart A. Kauffman, Seth Lloyd, Lisa Randall, Marc D. Hauser, Scott Sampson


Just as I was about to send out this edition of Edge announcing the publication of Intelligent Thought: Science Versus The Intelligent Design Movement, I received the email below which it a stark reminder of why this book is necessary, why it belongs on your bookshelf, and why sixteen of the world's leading scientists (and Edge contributors) dropped everything to write essays on a crash schedule so the book would be published before the end of the school year.

Also, below, please find the (a) the chapter by Neil Shubin ("The 'Great' Transition"), evolutionary biologist at University of Chicago who was responsible for the discovery of "Tiktalik", the 3.5 million year-old fossil that gives evidence for the water-to-land transition, and (b) the letter signed by all the contributors sent with the book to every member of Congress.

Maulik Parikh is a post-doc in the Physics Department of Columbia University. He is leaving the U.S. to teach physics at a university in India.


Date: Mon, 8 May 2006
From: Maulik Parikh
To: John Brockman
Subject: Intelligent Design


I have been teaching a new course on the frontiers of science, required for all freshmen at Columbia. These students are mostly sharp, capable, and open-minded. Still, many of them think that intelligent design should be studied in the interest of being fair and balanced. What's troubling is that even those who accept evolution often treat it as a matter of belief, of political persuasion, as if it were akin to being for or against free trade. And if they reject intelligence design it's often not because they can see its vacuousness as a scientific theory, but merely because the religious and conservative stripes of ID can sometimes look a little uncool. As for science, reason, evidence -- what's that?





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We've shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you're at now. ..



President Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Science to psychologist Anne Treisman in a ceremony at the White House on February 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.  

COMMENTS: Steven Pinker, Michael Gazzaniga, Michael Goldberg & Eric Kandel

ANNE TREISMAN, the Eremitus James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, where she  taught beginning in 1993 is one of the most influential cognitive psychologists in the world today.  In recognition of her achievements, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in a white House ceremony in January, 2013.  

For over 40 years she has been defining fundamental issues of how information is selected and integrated to form meaningful objects and memories that guide human thought and action. Her creativity and insight have often challenged investigators to think outside the box, to reach beyond their own specialties and to address the hard questions of human cognition. Her current research interests include visual perception of objects and the role of attention, integration of information in perception of moving and changing objects, perceptual learning, visual memory for objects and events, and the coding of shape and motion.

Dr. Treisman is married to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics.




"Don't ask."

What question about your field do you dread being asked? Maybe it's a sore point: your field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer. Or it's a question that belies a deep misunderstanding: the best answer is to question the question.  


For me, it would be "Why are there recessions?" Don't ask.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN is Professor of Economics at Harvard. In 2011, he was appointed by the U.S. Treasury Department to serve as Assistant Director for Research at The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

[ED. NOTE: Word Length for comments: up to 500 words.]

CONTRIBUTORS: Raj Chetty, Lawrence Krauss *, Adam Alter *, George Dyson, Jens Ludwig, Emanuel Derman, Scott Atran, Jaron Lanier, Haim Harari, Richard Thaler, Paul Bloom, Michael Norton *, Samuel Arbesman *, Lillian Lee *, Jon Kleinberg *, Nicholas Epley *,  Susan Blackmore, NEW  Nicholas Epley

* Sendhil Mullainathan responds


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