EDGE 22 — July 17, 1997


Charles Simonyi Responds to Daniel C. Dennett

Piet Hut Responds to Lee Smolin

Kevin Kelly, Clifford Pickover, Oliver Sacks, Hans-Joachim Metzger & Christopher G. Langton on George Dyson's "Darwin Among The Machines"; George Dyson Responds

Women and EDGE: Carl Djerassi & Natalie Angier

Marney Morris, Seth Lloyd, Christa Maar on "He Confuses 1 And 2 The 200 I.Q.", Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

(8,734 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


Charles Simonyi Responds to Daniel C. Dennett

From: Charles Simonyi
Submitted: 7.11.97

Response to Daniel Dennett's comment:

You are very perceptive in identifying the crux of the matter: "languages used to be the only carriers of abstractions", although I really meant only "computer languages" and "programming abstractions". Plato has already proposed that abstractions exist independently. As you say "computers keep you honest", so we are not constrained to just arguing the merits of Plato's philosophy, but we can simply simulate a world in which Plato is right. So an "Intention" is the actual data structure that simulates the platonic existence of an abstraction, without any concepts of "grammar", "symbols" or "vocabulary". Programs are built from instances of (that is references to) intentions. It is important to insist that this representation is not a "computer language" insofar as none of the usual questions could be answered just from the program: how does it look? what are the keywords (vocabulary)? what is the syntax (grammar)? what are the (proper) names? how is it implemented? The only freight the intentional program carries is its creator's computational intent. It is an artifact of "pure thought" as Spock of Star Trek would say.

It turns out that in order to look at an intentional program, to create it, to modify it, or to run it various "languages" become necessary and useful. They are created ephemerally by the intentions - not by the intention instances that form the program. So we can have today's viewing language - a mere foppish suit giving form to the Invisible Man that is the program. And we can have the input and editing commands du jour and the current best implementation.

My favorite example for the relationship between the ephemeral and the invariant is "grandpa's ax". When the handle broke, it was replaced. Later the blade rusted away so a new blade was fitted. Of course grandpa - long departed, bless his soul - was Hungarian, so we were really talking about "nagyapu fejszeje". So everything in this story - including the language used - is ephemeral, yet there is an invariant. Intentions let you represent that invariance.

I "intend" to make other postings to respond to the other fascinating comments and questions.

CHARLES SIMONYI, Chief Architect, Microsoft Corporation, joined Microsoft in 1981 to start the development of microcomputer application programs. He hired and managed teams who developed Microsoft Excel, Multiplan, Word, and other applications. In 1991, he moved on to Microsoft Research where he focused on Intentional Programming, an "ecology for abstractions" which strives for maximal reuse of components by separating high level intentions from implementation detail.

Piet Hut Responds to Lee Smolin

From: Piet Hut
Submitted: 7.15.97

Lee, thanks for your comments. This is a fun topic, which I talked a lot about with Stu Kauffman and Brian Goodwin, at the Santa Fe Institute last week. I hope they will join in here as well.

You wondered whether my biological analogy of path integrals extends to all three aspects of natural selection: reproduction, variation, selection. I think it does. In fact, it even maximizes both reproduction and variation (as you might expect from a fundamental theory; nothing half way here).

1) reproduction is taken care of by Huygens' principle: each point in a wave front reradiates the wave in all possible directions. At each next moment, all possible next steps are taken in any direction.

2) variation is taken care of by the `democracy of histories', as John Wheeler likes to call the fact that all paths are equally traversed; in this sense variation is the global counterpart of point 1).

3) selection is taken care of by the superposition principle, that weeds out the whole lot to arrive at the final probability for a path to be taken.

So in each moment everything possible is being reproduced; together all this provides maximal variation in the sense that all possible histories contribute; and superposition thus has the maximum possible play ground within which to select through interference.

There are interesting historical aspects to both sides of this physics/biology metaphor. Darwin provided a causal mechanism for seemingly teleological results. Similarly, quantum mechanics provides a causal mechanism for why the principle of least action works, a principle that smells teleological, the way it is formulated classically.-


PIET HUT is professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, since 1985. Not satisfied with the performance of existing computers, he joined a group of astronomers in Tokyo to develop a special-purpose computer for star cluster simulations, the GRAPE-4, at 1 Teraflops the world's fastest computer in 1995. He is now working with them to produce and use a Petaflops- class machine by the year 2000.

Kevin Kelly, Clifford Pickover, Oliver Sacks, Hans-Joachim Metzger & Christopher G. Langton on George Dyson's "Darwin Among The Machines"; George Dyson Responds

From: Kevin Kelly

I take two lessons from George Dyson's masterful history of the convergence of machine and life.

First is that we forget amazingly fast. It's interesting that neither Chris Langton, who is credited with founding the field of artificial life, nor Tom Ray, who has been one of it most cited practitioners, knew about Barricelli's work until very recently, long after their own work had begun. I know of only one citation of Barricelli in a-life and that is by Langton. Langton cites one of Barricelli's many papers in his bibliography, but I gather from Chris that this was an indirect cite; he has not really studied Barricelli's work, only vaguely knew it existed. Ray likewise is only recently familiar with Barricelli, but still hasn't delved into the corpus — which in many ways surprising given the immense parallels between their two paths. One great effect of Dyson's piece may be to drive a-life researches back into history, since in many ways Barracelli was ahead of us all even now.

The other lesson I took from Dyson's piece was the realization that biology was ported to computers *just as they were born.* Almost as soon as a computer was up and running, someone tried putting evolution into it. And it worked. I think this realization will become a key insight over the long haul of history; that computers unleashed Darwin into machines from the first moment.

And I think George himself — through Barricelli's work — has a grand idea expressed at the end of this excerpt of his book: that of viewing the world through software's eyes. There is a lot of mileage in this and I hope Dyson explores it fully.

A note to Brockman: you've finally got your Reality Club. Thanks.

KEVIN KELLY, executive editor of Wired magazine, is the author of Out of Control.

From: Clifford Pickover
Submitted: 7.11.97

Hi, I'd like to comment on George Dyson's presentation on the patterns of life...

Sometime around the end of World War II, astronomer Fred Hoyle began to wonder about the large diversity of organic molecules being identified in the dust clouds of the galaxy. Did they suggest life elsewhere in the galaxy? His speculations lead to his novel The Black Cloud, published in 1957, in which such molecules became organized into a living entity — a black cloud — that headed strait for the sun, seeking the sun's energy for nourishment. Unfortunately for Earthlings, the black cloud began to shield us from the sun's light, thereby freezing to death a quarter of the world's population. In the novel, astronomers were able to communicate with the cloud and warn it that certain aggressive governments have sent hydrogen bombs toward it. The cloud reverses the courses of the bomb-equipped missiles, causing further devastation on Earth. The cloud then departs without further retribution.

Could a lifeform like the black cloud really exist? Hoyle's black cloud was a vast, intelligent cloud containing a large amount of interstellar hydrogen. The cloud, 150 million kilometers in diameter, had a complex, central neurological system made up of massive molecular chains. When the cloud approached the vicinity of a sun, it assumed a disklike shape that enabled it to absorb energy more efficiently. By condensing hydrogen in a small area of the cloud, and producing a fusion reaction, the cloud created an explosive jet of gases that acted like a rocket, allowing the cloud to move through space.

I believe, as does physicist Freeman Dyson, that life will evolve into whatever material embodiment best suits its purposes. It is possible that life in the remote future is something like Hoyle's black cloud, a large assemblage of dust grains carrying positive and negative charges, organizing itself and communicating with itself by means of electromagnetic forces. While it's hard for modern-day scientists to imagine in detail how such a cloud could maintain the delicate, complex, and persistent balance of pattern-and-order we call life, we could not have imagined the structure and functioning of a living cell of protoplasm if we had never seen one.-

Clifford A. Pickover

CLIFFORD A. PICKOVER, research staff member at the IBM Watson Research Center, received his Ph.D. from Yale University and is the author of numerous highly-acclaimed books melding astronomy, mathematics, art, computers, creativity, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor. Pickover holds several patents, and is associate editor for various scientific journals. He is also the lead columnist for the brain-boggler column in Discover magazine.

From: Oliver Sacks
Submitted: 7.11.97

Comment on George Dyson's book Darwin Among the Machines:

To bring Hobbes and Samuel Butler and Olaf Stapleton together, and John Wilkins and von Neumann and Lewis Thomas and Erasmus Darwin, would seem almost beyond the bounds of possibility; but they all, and fifty others, come together with a sort of miraculous naturalness in this book, which is as remarkable an intellectual history as I have ever read.-

Oliver Sacks

OLIVER SACKS, a physician and a writer, is the author of Awakenings, Migraine, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars : Seven Paradoxical Tales.

From: Hans-Joachim Metzger
Submitted: 7.11.97

Science, usually, is not concerned about its own history. And, in a way, I think, rightly so. Science not only, as some sort of choice, may forget about its own past, it has to do so, necessarily, to make way for new paradigms (to adopt Kuhn's and Wittgenstein's terminology which I still find useful). In that sense a paradigm is a new way of doing science both in practice and in theory as well as a way of forgetting. To science in itself there's probably only one reason to turn to its own history: when the unearthing of earlier approaches offers fresh insight into what's being doing later, or when the reconsideration of earlier approaches leads to a reorientation in a field that has proved to be a dead end. I tend to think that this very rarely, if ever, happens. Much more frequently things are being re-discovered - but to call a discovery a re discovery means you're already talking from the point of view of an outsider, an observer, from the point of view of a historian of science rather than >from the point of view of the scientist himself.

To me Dyson's wonderful, well-written book is a book about the history of science and technology. That is, I don't think it will make any difference to the way science, especially ALife, is currently being done.

Nevertheless, I feel we have to be grateful that, inter alia, he has introduced us to the "largely forgotten contributions" of Barricelli. That man, obviously, deserved some kind of monument. Dyson has erected this monument.

Barricelli seems to have been what one might call a tragic figure. Imagine him witnessing the development of ALife (the first ALife conference was held in 1987, and he died in 1993). Imagine his feelings when he found that the new movement was dating back its own origins to von Neumann's work on the kinematic self-reproducing automaton without ever being aware of what he, Barricelli, had been doing.

I have looked up the indexes of the proceedings of the first four Artificial Life workshops. In fact, Barricelli is not mentioned once. Judging by the ECAL (European Conference on Artificial Life) proceedings, in Europe, too, nobody seems to have been aware of his research. Today, at least, you'll find references to his work on the homepage of the AVIDA project: http:/ /http:///www.hip.atr.co.jp/~ray/tierra/like.html. (BTW, by making use of a search engine you may find out that Barricelli seems to have been active in the field of SF too: He has contributed an essay called The Imbrium Impact to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, August 1971, Auth/Ed: John W. Campbell, Jr.)

On the other hand, closer consideration of Barricelli's work will have to decide whether or not it might contribute to avoiding dead ends in current research. This, inherently, poses the question of whether or not there are forerunners or precursors in the history of science and technology. Very often, in finding so called precursors, with the appropriate amount of surprise accompanying your discovery, what you are really dealing with is some kind of rearview mirror effect. Because only the research that has been done later permits to see what has been (or might have been) done earlier.

I fully agree with the doubts raised by Lee Smolin and Tim Race in relation to Dyson's central metaphor, the software/genetic code analogy. One of the main problems of systems like Tom Ray's Tierra is that those digital creatures do not have a body because they, as phenotypes, are (!) their genotypes, or vice versa. With the evolution of these creatures everything seems to be morphogenesis because they are nothing but form. As Winograd (cited by Tim Race) said, the genetic code of natural life is "extremely indirect". Indirect also, I might add, in the sense that, in natural life, there is a breach of symmetry between information and matter. I think that, in ALife, we have not yet reached that degree of indirectness that seems to be present in organisms, the complexity of which is based on this breach of symmetry or on the pertinence of the genotype/phenotype dichotomy.

But there is another, more methodological doubt I want to raise about Dyson's approach. What he is really getting at is expressed by the subtitle of his book: the evolution of global intelligence. Actually, what he is trying to tell us is not only a story and, ultimately, a history. He strives to render account of an evolutionary (!) process by which a software-based global intelligence is supposed to be coming into being.

Strange to see that, in endeavoring to do this, Dyson, as far as I can see, never even tries to show that there have been Darwinian processes at work in bringing about certain scientific approaches and technologies rather than others. His narrative, it seems, is based on "conventional" historical causality (whatever that might be). But if you're making use of the concept of evolution, I think you have to be able to demonstrate that not only did this event lead to that result, but that that result is due, for example, to a selection (in the Darwinian sense) between various specimens or species of scientific and/or technological approaches.

Thanks to Dawkins, there is a term for a demonstration like that in the realm of ideas: memetics. I must confess that, to date, I have never come across a compelling and convincing memetical account of an evolutionary process in the history of science or in the history of ideas. But memetics, without any doubt, would have been the way to do what Dyson has been trying to do, if we are to take seriously his use of the concept of evolution.

I'm not sure, but maybe this has to do with the fact that Dyson is finding evidence that the evolution of (global) intelligence is in itself, at least in part, an intelligent and not a purely random process. In his chapter on Symbiogenesis, for example, he says: "A certain collective intelligence adheres to the web of relationships among genetic regulators and operators, a vague and faintly distributed unconscious memory that raises Samuel Butler's ghost. What randomness does contribute to evolutionary processes is a small but measurable element of noise. By definition, a Darwinian process has an element of randomness - but it does not have to be a game of chance."

Still, if this is true, then a historical account of science and/or technology would have to point out both the "certain collective intelligence" and "the element of randomness" that have been generative in producing certain results rather than others.

This, obviously, is a dangerous terrain, a terrain of danger, the terrain of Darwin's dangerous idea.

Hans-Joachim Metzger

From: Hans-Joachim Metzger
Submitted: 7.13.97

Dear John Brockman,

In answering your request to forward a couple of biographical sentences about myself, let me take the liberty to tell you that I very much appreciate what you are doing with the EDGE and with The Reality Club.

Being interested not only in discourse proper but also in the genres of prefaces and acknowledgments, very early I could not but notice the traces of your activities as an editor and literary agent. Far as I remember the first book I came across edited by you was "About Bateson", and that must have been ages ago.

When you published "The Third Culture" in 1995, I fully agreed with your intentions and felt that, in using dialogue (rather than publishing different essays), you did select the appropriate form for your enterprise. Also, this book had catalytic effects for me. Though, more or less, I already was familiar, directly or indirectly, with the works of most of your interlocutors, there were others that, thanks to your efforts, I was being enabled to discover. But the most interesting thing about the dialogues in "The Third Culture" was, of course, to become aware of hidden interrelationships, even convergences and, obviously, also deep schisms between different scientific approaches. This is one of those books that I never grow tired of and that I can turn to again and again. As far as I'm concerned, the same applies to "Digerati".

No wonder, then, that I have been following closely what has been going on on the EDGE. What I like and value the most about being on the EDGE is the incredibly dense dialogical conjuncture of intense scientific, technological and cultural conjecture. It is that exchange of ideas that is required if you really want to be here, in real time, if you want to be (a) contemporary, that is.

I would have sent comments earlier, but this time, but with Dyson's presentation, let's say I was being favored by a coincidence: I had already gotten hold of the book, was enthusiastic about it and were planning to find out about Dyson's email address to sent him some remarks, when he published his presentation on the EDGE.

To come to the biographical sentences you asked for:

I was born and grew up in a small town near Bonn, the former West German capital, and, during the 70s, did my studies in philosophy, German literature, ethnology, linguistics and psychology at Cologne, Berlin and Paris. Starting, by the end of the 60s, with an interest in Marx, Hegel and Kant, as a student I was deeply influenced by contemporary French thinkers (Lévi Strauss, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan) and through them on the hand re-discovered Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud, and on the other hand became involved with psychoanalysis (understood as "talking cure"), linguistics, semiotics (de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Peirce), the philosophy of language, logic and math (Cantor, Russell, Wittgenstein). An obsession with language, signs and codes surely in my life is something of a leitmotif. The involvement with logic, particularly approaches to non Aristotelian or many-valued logics, did lead to an interest in cybernetics via the research done at BCL (Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois) which in turn had me study systems theory and autopoiesis (Maturana, Varela, Luhmann).

Triggered by my passion for language and based on theoretical questions concerning the relationships between literature, rhethorics and philosophy, I developed an interest in translation and, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, specialized in translating mostly untranslatable books and/or essays by, amongst others, Derrida, Foucault, Blanchot, Gödel, Feynman and Glenn Gould. Also, until very recently, I have been co-editor and translator of the German edition of the writings and lectures of Jacques Lacan.

In the 70s I have been a teacher in philosophy at Berlin Free University, simultaneously studying psychology. I trained as a psychoanalyst but, on realizing I would never be "holy" enough, never actually worked as a therapist.

Instead, by the beginning of the 80s, I left the University and started to work, first as science editor then as managing director of the German branch, for an Austrian-German publishing house based in Vienna and Berlin. In addition I worked as a journalist for the feature department of a public radio station in West Berlin.

When the PC revolution hit my desktop, the touch and feel of information technology was a revelation to me. Knowing from my forays into cybernetics and early computer science that the machine, of course, was much more than a simple word processor, as an autodidact I started to learn programming. One of the first programs I hacked, based on some code published by William Poundstone in his book "The Recursive Universe", has been a variation on Conway's "Game of Life".

For various reasons, among them the pathetic and missionary idea to help bringing this new technology into every home, in 1987 I decided to join the computer industry and started to work, as marketing communications director, for the Frankfurt-based German subsidiary of the Italian office equipment and PC manufacturer Olivetti. I stayed with Olivetti until 1992, then moved to Munich to work as marketing director for the German subsidiary of the US publisher of computer magazines, Ziff Davis.

From 1994 until 1996 I made a detour and worked as marketing director for an economic development agency and consultancy in one of the big industrial cities in East Germany, a very challenging job, because marketing a whole city is so much more complex than marketing just a product. I've learned an awful lot about politics, administration, small and big businesses, global and local economic dynamics and, of course, dealing with persisting cultural and social differences in a still deeply divided country.

Since last year I am self-employed, working as a marketing and IT business consultant. Currently I'm thinking about returning to the IT industry. I'm 48 now, I'm married to an Austrian writer, have two daughters and live in Munich again.

My publications (all in German, I'm afraid) are mirroring my theoretical restlessness and multiple interests and range from the philosophy of science to poetology, psychoanalysis, the theory of translation and computer science.

For some years now I have concentrated on artificial life. My last contribution (in print), called "Genesis in silico. On digital Biosynthesis", is a careful exploration of Ray's Tierra from the point of view of autopoiesis. Recently I'm becoming more and more involved with the lessons to be learned from systems thinking, the theory of complexity, chaos theory, biology and artificial life for the theory of management and marketing.-

Hans-Joachim Metzger

From: Chris Langton
Submitted: 7.13.97

I have to bite the bullet on this one - I had not read Barricelli's work in detail before - I've just gotten copies of some of his papers and am going to read them over the next few weeks.

I was aware of it - I listed his 1962 Acta Biotheoretica papers in the bibliography of the first Alife Proceedings. However there are over 600 works in that bibliography, some of which I pulled from other people's citation lists and/or had just read brief accounts or abstracts of. I knew that I was probably going to miss some pieces of work that should have been highlighted more, but this looks to be a real forehead slapper...

It is really too bad that I didn't catch on to his work earlier, we missed the opportunity to have him at the first Alife workshop in 1987. However, I had some good luck there also, Aristid Lindenmayer came to that first workshop, but had died of cancer before the second one.

We should be aware that the era from the late-40's to the early 70's produced a huge amount of work in the area of computational approaches to biology/intelligence. I'm sure that there are other great works that we're still not aware of or appreciating enough.

George Dyson has given us a good incentive to redouble our efforts in the archaeology of our fossil thoughts...I'm really looking forward to reading his book.

Chris Langton

CHRISTOPHER G. LANGTON is a computer scientist; visiting professor at the Santa Fe Institute; director of the institute's artificial-life program; editor of the journal Artificial Life.

From: George Dyson
Submitted: 7.15.97

Many thanks to those who contributed such a fascinating and informed response. I hope I am not evading too many questions with the general reply provided here. First of all, I must acknowledge how much I owe to Chris Langton, Thomas Ray, and many others who left Barricelli's publications untouched, so that, without doing a single experiment of my own, I stumbled upon the makings of a whole chapter in my book. Like a lucky amateur who discovers an unknown comet, I just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time. Now it is time for the professionals to take a closer look. A technical note: in the E-mail version of Edge 21, the references in the text are one step ahead of the bibliography; in the Web version they are one step behind. As a politician would say, on average they're right.

Many details of the IAS experiments can be gleaned from the published literature, but not enough to reproduce Barricelli's results. "The great majority of the phenomena and the various features recorded are not described in this paper," he reported in 1957 (p. 182). "A considerable material is recorded, and a few of the most important codes are stored in the Computer Project of the Institute for Advanced Study. Investigations for other purposes and with other criteria may find new objects in the material existing today or by new evolution experiments which can be done by the codes which are available." Unfortunately, the records of the IAS computer project seem to have been haphazardly preserved. I have NOT visited the IAS to look.

Barricelli's colleagues at the Department of Mathematics in Oslo might provide other leads. Barricelli trusted the durability of punched cards. "He insisted on using punch cards, even when everybody had computer screens," says his former student Simen Gaure. "He gave two reasons for this, when you sit in front of a screen your ability to think clearly declines because you're distracted by irrelevancies, and when you store your data on magnetic media you can't be sure they're there permanently, you actually don't know where they are at all." Perhaps Barricelli's universe can be resurrected on a simulation of the IAS machine. But I believe this would simply be a historical, commemorative exercise, adding little to the approach embodied in later systems such as Thomas Ray's. My own reference to punched cards as "lifeless imprints" referred not to executable coding but to the output of the IAS computer during the running of Barricelli's experiments--which, in the absence of a printer was simply sent to the card punch as a primitive form of graphic display.

I share the suspicion of "modeling" and would repeat, in Barricelli's words: "Are they only models? They are not models, not any more than living organisms are models. They are a particular class of self-reproducing structures already defined." Likewise metaphors. Analogies between digital computation and biology are indeed dangerous--this being one of the reasons, I suspect, that John von Neumann (and the Institute administration) did not draw attention to Barricelli's work. The metaphor--as far as there is one--runs both ways, and is more profitable when importing insights from the world of biology into the world of computers rather than the other way around. The value lies not in tenuous similarities between software and DNA, but in the more fundamental distinction that coding--digital or molecular--can be *replicated*, whereas the complexities of real-world machines or organisms have to be *reproduced*. Exactly how biology and technology navigate and take advantage of this distinction has much to do with the origins of life, real or artificial--the latter constituting an intentional contradiction, as John McCarthy said of artificial intelligence in 1956.

Barricelli, both in his numerical evolution experiments and his more reputable career as a viral geneticist, was primarily interested in the origins of the genetic code. He began his IAS experiments in 1953, the year that Watson and Crick elucidated the structure, but not the origin, of DNA. He was well aware of the importance of making a distinction between genotype and phenotype, acknowledging "the striking feature that the symbioorganisms we have obtained in our experiments are only sequences or patterns of selfreproducing elements to be compared with a sequence of genes. We may ask: 'What about the rest of the body? Does not the organisms consist of anything more than hereditary material?'. . . The nature of the symbioorganisms we have obtained . . . was dictated by the necessity of economizing with the space in the universe because of the limited capacity of the computing machines. . . . If we want to see anything like a body or any structure more suitable than genes . . . we must give the genes some toy bricks to play with, so to say, or in other words some material they may organize and may eventually use in the competition among different symbioorganisms. The material should preferably be of a kind which has importance for the existence of the symbioorganisms." (1957, p. 179-80)

This gets to the heart of why, and where, Barricelli figures in my discussion of the origins of freely-evolving--rather than laboratory-supported--artificial life. The origins of life, whether in biology or technology, depend less on the distinction between hardware and software and more on how life manages to bridge these distinctions by an effective process of translation between the two. Barricelli pointed out the analogy between subroutines (specified by strings of bits) and proteins (specified by strings of nucleotides). Even Alan Turing, at the very beginning (with I. J. Good) referred to the coding of subroutines as "machine building"--assembling structures that *do* something, on a level different from the underlying code. In our digital universe--which dawned, in part, at the IAS--there *is* a distinction between genotype and phenotype: for a word processor, a web browser, or anything else, there's a genotype--the code--and a phenotype--the "application"--which comes to life (excuse the metaphor) when the genotype is executed by its (real or virtual) host. And, as Charles Simonyi can attest, there's many, many, levels of translation and abstraction (constantly evolving) between the genotype and the phenotype, and between the digital universe and our own.

With regard to Darwin and "Darwinian" evolution, I had better leave this discussion to others, excusing myself from the debate by pointing out that Erasmus, not Charles, is the Darwin featured in "Darwin Among the Machines." The subtitle "evolution of global intelligence" is a publisher's catchphrase; the World Wide Web is mentioned three times in the book. What isn't history or fable is more science fiction than science. And yes, the electromagnetic, pulse-coded distributed intelligence of Fred Hoyle's "Black Cloud" (1957) left a tremendous impact on me as a child--but I kept wondering, why not here on Earth? Which brings me back to the question of models, and the epigraph I chose for the chapter on Nils Barricelli. It's a statement made by Marvin Minsky, at the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory in Yerevan, Armenia, at the 1971 conference on communication with extraterrestrial intelligence:

"Instead of sending a picture of a cat, there is one area in which we can send the cat itself."-

GEORGE DYSON as a young man lived in a tree house perched ninety-five feet off the ground in a Douglas fir in the British Columbia rain forest. He is the leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut kayaks and author of Baidarka. His work, and his relationship with his father, physicist Freeman Dyson, was portrayed in 1978 by Kenneth Brower in his classic book, The Starship and the Canoe. He has been a subject of the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers. Dyson is the author of the recently published Darwin Among the Machines: the Evolution of Global Intelligence (Helix Books). He now lives in Bellingham, Washington.

Women and EDGE: Carl Djerassi & Natalie Angier

From: Carl Djerassi
Submitted: 7.12.97 LONDON (where I am temporarily, finishing my first play)

John—an extremely simple question—totally unrelated to political correctness or affirmative action: why are so few women—at latest count around 5—involved in correspondence or responses? Are so few interested in the topics raised by the EDGE or.....?

Carl Djerassi

CARL DJERASSI (www.djerassi.com) of Stanford University — the scientist who brought you the Pill — is now bringing you "science-in-fiction." His books include Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit and the forthcoming Menachem's Seed.

From: John Brockman
Submitted: 7.13.97


Very important question which (Natalie Angier has also commented in this as well) would take all day to answer. Suffice to say there are dozens of women who receive EDGE, among them very distinguished thinkers. One of the keys is that although there are many women thinkers who are world-class, they are far outnumbered by men, and thus, they are very much in demand, very busy both professionally and in their private lives.

How about recommending more women for the site?


From: Carl Djerassi
Submitted: 7.13.97 (London, but will be back at Stanford at the end of August)

Dear John,

Since you seem to be working on Sundays, let me demonstrate that we budding playwrights are also, by responding to your last sentence.

I can't help you very effectively with adding to your mailing list, because my social and professional women friends and acquaintances are basically outside the central areas of the EDGE. (But I offer my wife, Diane Middlebrook, a highly sophisticated professor of literature at Stanford, as a pearl for your web mailing list: [email protected]). Even I—a chemistry professor turned novelist—am practically outside, or at best on the very periphery of the EDGE. But in addition to select contents, there are some sociological aspects of the EDGE that interest me in my current intellectual life:

First the idea of dialogue. That is precisely what has moved me rather late in life to a special form of fiction writing which I call "science-in-fiction." All of our written communication as scientists is monologuist. Furthermore, virtually none is conducted in the first person singular.I don't recall having used "I" even once in the over 1000 scientific articles bearing my name.No wonder that I wrote an entire novel (The Bourbaki Gambit) in the first person. Nor is it surprising that an unusually high proportion of my fiction now consists of dialogue—all of it my response to four decades of literary and linguistic repression. But a couple of years ago, when invited to give a plenary talk at a symposium on ethics in research based on my fiction (actually on Cantor's Dilemma, which to my initial surprise has by now become a text book in many American universities in courses dealing with ethics in research or sociology of science), I chose to convert sections of The Bourbaki Gambit (my second novel, now also in Penguin paperback)into a play format by asking four participants to join me in reading selected sections of the dialogue in that novel. In spite of the extraordinarily primitive thesbian level, the audience enjoyed it hugely. They, of course, were insiders, but that experience prompted me to consider theater—the ultimate literary form of dialogue—as a serious means of exposing a general non-scientific audience to cutting edge(pun partly intended) scientific research.

The play that I just finished is entitled "ICSI" and it would be interesting to determine how many of your EDGE participants are acquainted with that acronym. I suspect relatively few, which, if true, would again show how extraordinarily specialized we have become, even though ICSI has revolutionized human reproduction and presents ethical questions that can be as serious as those associated with human cloning. In my play, I have tried to use the inherently theatrical nature of the scientific lecture as a form of Greek chorus to explain scientific facts germane to the plot of the play. It remains to be seen whether the contemporary theater is ready for such an intellectual exercise, but in a way, I am trying on a very primitive level with a scientifically illiterate audience to accomplish something that you do at a very elevated one with highly educated people. It may turn out that radio and especially TV might be better venues for my "ICSI" but I am currently giving it a serious try.

But now to the question, why so few women? Again, I digress to my fiction, because the subject of contemporary women breaking into male-dominated disciplines is in a way the focus of all of my current writing and lecturing. Until recently, religion and science were the most phallocentric cultural enterprises where all of the rules had been established (endocrinologically speaking) by testosterone. What has intrigued me in my writing and also my current teaching at Stanford (I am one of the very few— perhaps the only—male scientist offering courses in our feminist studies program)is the question whether those women who are now starting to break successfully into the most male-dominated areas of science (mathematics, theoretical and experimental physics, even chemistry) are, in the process, becoming men. Or can a dose of estrogen be injected and change the culture, behavior, or perhaps even conduct of the discipline? My novel, Menachem's Seed, which is being released next month, and especially the final installment of my "science-in-fiction" tetralogy, entitled "NO" and coming out in 1998, very much focus on that question.

This brings us to my question and your partial answer why only 5 women seem so far to have participated in your worthy enterprise. I would hate to buy your oversimplified answer. If correct, then it implies that the men who participate are either not very busy or lead such trivial lives that they can afford the luxury of "conversing" on your internet channel. I think that it would be productive for you to do a bit of data collecting.

For instance, what are the demographics of your most active male participants? Some are young hotshots, but I have the impression that most are very well settled in their positions and well past the age of 50. How many of them are single (I mean operationally, rather than legally)?

I always read the brief biographical comments you make about your participants, but most of these tell me nothing about the persona of these men. That is why I was so intrigued to read Metzger's "autobiography" which was very much more informative. Until he reached the point where he mentioned his actual age (48), I guessed him to be in his 60s. He seemed to have led and is still leading an extraordinarily diverse life, yet he has time to communicate with you. Is it because he is married? Is it because his wife takes care of the 2 daughters and cooks the dinner? Or is Metzger the exceptional partner-husband who simply proves the rule that a married, 48-year old FEMALE Metzger could not have indulged in the same intellectual discourse?

I wonder how many of the 5 women in your EDGE stable are married; or are mothers; or.... (you can ask the rest of the questions yourselves). I happen to know Esther Dyson and admire her very greatly. But even if we ignore the great Dyson genes, isn't Esther behaviorally almost indistinguishable from her male professional colleagues in the computer field?

I could go on and on, but I won't. Perhaps Natalie Angier, whom I do not know but whose writings I have admired for quite a while (and who certainly falls into an age group which, I suspect, is considerably younger than that of most of your male correspondents), might wish to take up the ball and ask more questions. Or even more relevantly, provide some tentative answers.-

Carl Djerassi

From: Natalie Angier
Submitted: 7.16.96


I was delighted to see Carl Djerassi ask about the dearth of female voices on the edge. There are many great women in science who have appropriately grand, weird ideas to qualify as big thinkers or sages or post-Snow synthesizers or whatever, though they haven't necessarily written the semi-popular, semi-academic, peri-bestsellers books that some of your other participants can claim. Nevertheless, they deserve a hearing. I've mentioned Sarah Blaffer Hrdy to you before, and I urge you to contact her. She's working on a big book about the evolution of motherhood and parental behavior, but of course she's got a lot to say about evolutionary psychology in general and female sexuality in particular. When I spoke with her recently she said she was familiar with your salon, and would, I think, be happy to chat.

As I'm sure you know, Barbara Ehrenreich recently came out with a book called "Blood Rites," on the origins of war. She's a phd biochemist and a wonderfully original writer, so why not solicit her for a chat? Martha McClintock, a Macarthur "genius" at the University of Chicago, has some very original ideas about how environmental cues influence physiology, and she lately has presented the radical theory that puberty begins with the adrenal glands, not with the maturation of the gonads as everybody has thought. The adrenal glands normally are associated with stress, the body's fight or flight response, and so McClintock's work gives a fresh biological spin to the ancient link between sex and violence.

Kay Redfield Jamison has written extensively about madness and creativity, surely a subject of relevance to our endless haggling over the nature of consciousness. Or for that matter there's Dr. Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa, author of "The Broken Brain."

This is just a start.

Natalie Angier

NATALIE ANGIER, a science writer for The New York Times, has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Lewis Thomas Award, among others. She is the author of Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene and The Beauty of the Beastly : New Views on the Nature of Life. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Discover, Parade, and elsewhere.

Marney Morris, Seth Lloyd, Christa Maar on "He Confuses 1 And 2 The 200 I.Q.", Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

From: Marney Morris
Submitted: 6.3.97

hi john.

the more 'edges' i receive, the more i like getting to know you.

your friend's phrases beg to be interactive. --one a day. --
or randomly inserted into your document as you type. --or,as audio, when you do a certain action, or at a certain time. (etc)

i shut animatrix down friday (after 14 years). it feels GREAT. well, i have
one personal project in development, but that's it. NO MORE SERVICE work.

will be teaching at stanford in the fall. interactive design (in the engineering dept). i'm opening the class with the words on lefty o'doul's tombstone.

"he was here at a good time and he had a good time when he was here".

hope it applies to your thoughts of your friend.

thinking of you, marney

MARNEY MORRIS, founded Animatrix (http://www.animatrix.com) in 1984. A low profile but very successful interactive design company, Animatrix, based in Palo Alto, created the first guided tour for the Macintosh. Clients include AT&T, Kodak, Chase Manhattan Bank, The Limited, Clinique, Microsoft. Morris has a BS in Animal Physiology from University of California at Davis; a BFA in art From University of California at Santa Cruz. She designed the first t-shirt to ever sell 1 million units.

From: Seth Lloyd
Submitted: 6.6.97

Dear John,

I enjoyed your writing on Jamie Lee Byars. Heinz (Pagels) took me to one of his openings once, where he sat statue-like in silk suit and black blindfold. Heinz proceeded to heckle and insult him until he got some choice responses. I was entertained.



SETH LLOYD is assistant professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, and adjunct assistant professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He works on problems having to do with information and complex systems from the very small—how do atoms process information, how can you make them compute, to the very large—how does society process information? And how can we understand society in terms of its ability to process information?

From: Christa Maar
Submitted: 6.9.97

Dear John Brockman,

I liked your personal remarks on James Lee Byars a lot, I regret even more now that I did not happen to know him.

all the best

Christa Maar, Munich

CHRISTA MAAR, an art historian and journalist, is president of the Academy of the Third Millennium, a Munich-based interdisciplinary institute which was founded in Munich in 1994 by publisher Dr. Huburt Burda. The Academy deals with important future questions and bringing together for debate personalities from science, business, art, and the media.


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