Postcards from:

Every year in early May, Edge quiets down. Everything is on pause as emails from this group of public communicators are few and far between. The Edge community has hit the road.

Once June rolls around, things start cooking again and we begin to hear from various thinkers on their travels and adventures. This year, we asked a number of people to send picture postcards. We're happy to share these summer postcards with Edge readers. To view one postcard at a time click here.


[Excerpts published simultaneously in Seed Magazine, September-October edition.]


Palo Alto, California

Here I sit in the main quad of Stanford University with my blowgun. I normally would be in Kenya right now, doing my summer fieldwork with baboons (and, given that my site is at least fifty miles south of the equator, I guess that would technically count as my winter fieldwork). However, things are a bit dicey politically in Kenya right now and the family consensus was that I'm not setting foot on a plane to there.

Thus, the Stanford Quad instead, looking for some primate here to anesthetize, as I would normally bedoing now to the baboons. However, the university has emptied out for summer break, making this task non-trivial—barely a student around, not even the ones whizzing around on bikes or in-line skates, always a particular darting challenge. Hardly even an emeritus professor tortoising across. So for lack of alternatives, I may have to return soon to my lab and catch up on what everyone is doing there.



The Bay of Cassis

Dear John,

Here we are in a little village on the Mediterranean, where I am working for a few weeks with my friend Carlo Rovelli, who is a Professor nearby in Marseille. Carlo and I discovered the main ideas that went into loop quantum gravity working together in a setting like this, in Verona, getting together each day to talk, and then going home to calculate and check on our own, and it is wonderful to be back working with him. We understand each other easily, and from long experience know how to compensate for each other's strengths and weaknesses and so we work quickly. We are making fast progress on understanding the implications of the existence of a cosmological constant for quantum gravity. I had taken a detour of a few years to apply what we had learned about quantum spacetimes to string theory, but there is so much about nature, not the least the apparent fact that there is a cosmological constant, that string theory seems not to incorporate. Now it is wonderful to be back in reality, four dimensional and non-supersymmetric as it seems to be after all.

From the patio where I work I have a view of the bay of Cassis and the beautiful cliffs that rise to the east of it. Today there is little wind on the bay and the sailboats hardly move. Yesterday was windy and we took Carlo's boat out. He has bought an old wooden boat, built a century ago in this harbour, five meters, open, symmetric front to back, with gentle curves such as one sees in old paintings. Working from drawings in 19th century books Carlo has restored it to what might have been its original design, adding a mast, sail and rigging of the style used in the Mediterranean from the middle ages to the advent of modern, triangular sails. The sail hangs from a pole, which in turn is hung by a complicated organization of ropes from the top of the mast. Carlo has a lot of fun watching me try to sail his boat. Downwind we do get some speed, but the boat will hardly go upwind, and coming about takes practice. In such a boat one understands why it took Ulysses so long to get home and one wonders, watching the modern fiberglass sloops speeding by, whether it was a matter of materials or imagination that it took more than 20 centuries for people to realize it's much better to attach the sails directly to the mast.

Afterwards we have a meal which, with the exception of the tomatoes and a bit of chocolate, has been enjoyed in the Mediterranean since the advent of agriculture: olives, cheese, bread, fish, a good local wine. One cannot but think of Jared Diamond and wonder if it was really the case that the small scale organization required to reach a high standard of living on such food made possible small independent city states and hence the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the notion of mathematical proof, the monotheistic religions, the idea of democracy and hence so much of modern civilization.

Before this I was in London for a few days, catching up with old friends, and working with Joao Maguiejo on our version of an idea that has sprung up from a number of friends and colleagues in the last two years: that perhaps special relativity is modified at very short distances. The idea is that not only can the speed of light be a constant, but one can have also an invariant length, that all observers agree on, in spite of the fact that usually lengths contract in relativity. The invariant length can be the Planck length, below which loop quantum gravity predicts the geometry of space and time is atomic and discrete. But what is really wonderful is that some people, particularly Giovanni Amelino-Camelia, have realized that such a theory has consequences that are experimentally testable not in 500 years, but now. By observing light or cosmic rays which have traveled for most of the history of the universe, one can detect such modifications of relativity. The result is that it appears possible to test experimentally which if any of the quantum theories of gravity are correct. So physical theory will not be a matter of sociology, as it has sometimes seemed over the last twenty-five years when experiment played little role. Instead nature will let us know if string theory, loop quantum gravity or something else, is the right description of space and time at the shortest distances.

For me the Mediterranean has always been a good place to reflect on where science is going, both the community as a whole and my own work. Science, at least theoretical physics, is very social, and it is good to get away from universities, conferences and research groups, and remember that it is all about nature.



Grand Canyon

In her postcard, my friend Judy Harris asks why there isn't a Grand Canyon in Middletown, New Jersey, or any other place that a river runs through.

One reason is that the Rocky Mountains create a catchment area for a lot of water that eventually has to find its way to the Pacific Ocean. The other is that much of Arizona consists of an enormous intact plateau—a huge slab of land that had been uplifted gradually for millions of years, and then miraculously was not broken up by earthquakes or other tectonic activity. When the predecessor to the Colorado River materialized, it had a vast blank slate to pass over, rather than a landscape already made craggy by earlier geological processes. Grand canyons, by the way, are not formed by water gouging a deep furrow as it passes over a flat surface (that image never made sense to me). They work their way backwards from where a plateau ends in a huge cliff. Imagine the Colorado river reaching the end of its plateau and forming a Niagara Falls. Just as Niagara Falls could eat away its bed and migrate backwards, leaving behind a canyon, the Colorado River ate its way through the plateau backwards in a mouth-to-source direction.

I learned all this from Canyon Dave, a geologist at a small state college in Arizona. Canyon Dave served as our guide to the Grand Canyon one afternoon last month during an old-fashioned family driving vacation out west with my wife Ilavenil and her mother and stepfather. (Having in-laws from New Zealand means that you get to see a lot of spectacular scenery—not just because New Zealand has a lot of it, but because they force you to see the spectacular parts of your own country when they visit.) We began at Stanford, where Ilavenil gave a presentation on her art to the Art, Brain, and Cognition study group at the Center for Advanced Study. Then we drove to the Mojave National Reserve, London Bridge (in Lake Havasu City, Arizona), the remains of Route 66, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Glen Canyon Dam, Zion Canyon, Mono Lake, and Yosemite, all in 8 days and 2200 miles. As the old ad slogan said, See America First.

In his novel Small World, David Lodge wrote that academic life had been transformed by the jet airplane and the photocopy machine. That was before email, the laptop computer, conference calls, cell phones, Federal Express, and now, wireless handheld personal digital assistants, like my Handspring Treo. The curse of technology—during this "vacation," I reviewed a grant proposal on the outbound plane, took part in an NSF panel via a motel room phone, answered email by thumb-tapping the Treo as we drove through the vast open spaces (Bruce Springsteen never sang about that), received a package of page proofs on the last night of the trip, and edited the proofs on the homebound plane. Still, I spent five of the eight days completely unplugged, and had none of the old end-of-vacation dread in which you fear the worst about the accumulated crises that await you on your return.

The proofs had the last few proofreader's queries about my forthcoming book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. "Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 12:12.) I finished it in January, returned the copy-edited manuscript in April, and the page proofs in June. Still, it won't go away. There are flap descriptions, blurbs, jacket designs, magazine adaptations, and press releases to scrutinize (both for the US and UK publishers). I've learned that the details at this stage need one's full attention, or else everything that can go wrong will go wrong. (For the Language Instinct, a publicist who had not read the book drew up a list of questions for radio interviewers, most of whom don't read the book either. The first question was "How does the language of whales work?"—a topic about which I knew nothing. I was asked the question on live radio three times before I realized what was going on and gave myself a crash course on the songs of the humpback whale. Since then I have insisted on seeing the press kits for my books before they go out.)

The rest of the summer, I hope, will provide some calm before the storm—beginning in mid-September, six weeks of touring to talk about the book, and, given its subject matter, probably some controversy. In July and August I'll be alternating time at MIT with time in Cape Cod, where I'll distract myself with photography, kayaking, and tandem bicycling. Ilavenil and I are planning to repeat our feat of last summer, when we rode a century (a hundred miles in a day, a test of endurance much like writing a book, but with a much sorer butt. And no, I won't take the wireless email gadget.



I got back from an an international meeting about neutrinos: solar neutrinos—supernova neutrinos—accelerator neutrinos—reactor neutrinos—black body neutrinos. I know this sounds a bit like one of those restaurants where all the courses are made out of garlic, but that's the way frontier science often is these days. Specialize or perish. By the way I don't recommend this approach for restaurants.

Anyway these little particles are fascinating, so numerous that they may represent the dominant mass in the universe and so weakly interacting that they easily go through miles of rock without being slowed down, hardly ever leaving an observable trace. No pictures of them in this card, but let me assure you they are everywhere.

Attended by over 400 people, the meeting was interesting sociologically as well as scientifically because of the presence of groups building or planning to build new neutrino detectors. Not all of them are going to make it so there's a lot of jockeying for position. In presenting plans, the experimentalists seem to have introduced a new unit, the MegaEuro per Kiloton, ME/KT, designed to let others know how big their detector is going to be and how cost efficient it really is. Every detector is also labeled by its own acronym, designed hopefully to stick in the mind. SNO, AMANDA, BOONE, UNO, MINOS, LUNA, MOON, MIND and so on were all discussed- note the letter "n" for neutrino tucked away somewhere in all of them. Only the two veterans, Homestake and Kamioka, were named for the mine and the mountain they were located in. Those were the old pre cute days. Ultimately of course, it's the results, not the acronyms that matter.

The meeting was held in Munich, a city I hadn't been to in almost 15 years. While there I started feeling that I was living in one of those Sebald books where truth and fiction, past and present begin to merge in eerie ways. My thoughts centered on November 1918, the month 18-year old Wolfgang Pauli arrived in Munich from his native Vienna. He intended to study at the university. Study may be the wrong word because Pauli was generally considered to be the smartest of all the wunderkinder that created quantum mechanics. At 20 he wrote the review article about general relativity-it amazed Einstein. At 24 he did the work on the Exclusion Principle that won him the Nobel Prize. Heisenberg, Pauli's slightly younger Munich buddy tends to get more credit these days, but it's not clear to me how much of Heisenberg's work is due to Pauli's prodding. Together and separately, they were a formidable duo. However the idea of the neutrino was Pauli's and Pauli's alone.

November 1918 also had a dark side in Munich because that's when a disgruntled war veteran named Adolf Hitler moved there, with consequences that are all too familiar. On a personal side, both my mother and my mother-in-law came to Munich that same month from other towns in Germany- once World War I was over there seemed to be a general migration of young and aspiring Germans to either Munich or Berlin. For a while, things looked good, but within a few years the tide began to turn. My mother moved to Italy, explaining how her son came to be named Gino. My mother-in-law stayed in Munich, fleeing only after the Nazis murdered her first husband. My Munich roots, both good and bad, run deep.

Then of course there is the city's English Gardens, the vast park designed by Count Rumford, a Massachusetts native who fled to Britain after picking the wrong side to back in the Revolutionary War. He founded the Royal Institution, the famous London research institute and then left for Bavaria to re-organize their army. While in Munich he managed to deal the caloric theory a near-fatal blow by finding the mechanical equivalent of heat. After a while he came back to London and soon thereafter, in a huff, headed off to France, then at war with Britain. In Paris he married the widow of the great chemist Lavoisier, who had been executed in the French Revolution. The marriage didn't work out, but fortunately the science did.

Clearly I needed a bit of time to digest all this and what better place than Martha's Vineyard in June. Am now back in Philadelphia.
July 1 is the publication date of my A Matter of Degrees, a book that incidentally features solar neutrinos, Count Rumford and global warming. Appropriately enough, we're in the middle of a heat wave.




Frankenjura, Bavaria

I'm just returning home from the annual Supersymmetry Conference in Hamburg, home of the DESY accelerator in addition to international terrorism. The unstated conference theme was the relative likelihood of supersymmetry vs. something even more exotic like extra dimensions as a way of understanding the electroweak symmetry breaking energy, the energy where the mass of the quarks, leptons, and electroweak gauge bosons is generated.

The informal discussions were easily as valuable as the talks themselves. A boat ride on the harbor was an excellent setting for discussing with Ed Witten the relative merits of string-derived models compared to more conventional field theoretical models in which unification of forces occurs at high energy (especially since one can easily tire of big boats when jet-lagged).

A coffee break following Ed's talk offered an opportunity to discuss with an Irishman, an Israeli, and some fellow Americans how one might simply formulate a Grand Unified Theory that naturally breaks supersymmetry in an experimentally acceptable way. Other topics were better left unspoken—a Spaniard explaining to an Israeli the Middle East situation was uncomfortably tense. Supersymmetry breaking definitely appears a far safer and more tractable problem. My talk was a challenge to the conventional SUSY expectation that the Higgs boson will be light and that unification of couplings is excluded in all but supersymmetric theories; unification of couplings can happen in our extra dimensional theories as well.

I ended the trip by visiting a friend in Bavaria and briefly checking out the rock-climbing in the Frankenjura. Spent one day at Truenitz and one day at Burglesau and Katzenbuckel, all of which were excellent. Enjoyed the region itself as well.




Middletown, New Jersey

No, I haven't traveled to Sofia, Dublin, or the Galapagos Islands. I'm spending the summer in the same place I spent fall, winter, and spring—in exciting Middletown, New Jersey. But things are looking up: yesterday I was able to take a walk. I walked about the distance of a city block, to the place where a stream travels under the road. There I rested for a while, leaning on the brick wall that forms the sides of the little bridge, looking down at the moving water and the lush vegetation that competes for space on the banks. The trees growing there are precariously balanced; occasionally one loses its hold and topples over, because the soil has been washed away from around its roots. Why, I wondered, don't all rivers carve out Grand Canyons?

I owe my improved mobility to a new drug called Bosentan. According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a randomized control trial showed Bosentan to be significantly more effective than the placebo in improving cardiopulmonary hemodynamics, exercise capacity, and time to clinical worsening. But the physician who informed me that I had been approved to get this drug also warned me not to get my hopes up: because it's so new, Bosentan has not yet been shown to extend the lifespan of patients who are sick enough to need it.

No one knows, when they begin writing a book, whether they will live long enough to complete it. But when the odds don't look good, one hesitates to commit oneself. In the past couple of years I have concentrated my energies (such as they are) on smaller things that I could be pretty sure of seeing through to completion. Though I've written a few journal articles and chapters for edited books, even that has come to seem too slow, and lately I've turned to the instant gratification of online publishing. At the end of May the last of my four essays on birth order was posted on The Nurture Assumption website (the link is on my Edge Bio page).

So now I'm between things. Deciding what to do next will be my job for the summer. The published studies of Bosentan show that people who take it can walk a bit farther and faster than those who are unlucky enough to get the placebo, but remain mute on the question of whether they can write a book.

My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to reveal what I have learned since the publication of The Nurture Assumption. That book was a challenge to academic psychology: prove to me that I'm wrong. Convince me that there is enough evidence for parental influence on child outcomes to make it scientifically justifiable to reject the null hypothesis of zero parental influence. Show me the data.

To tell the truth, I was expecting that the members of the academic establishment would be able to do it. I knew that the position I was taking—saying, in effect, that the null hypothesis is true—was an extreme one and that the advantage was on their side. So it came as a surprise when their efforts failed. I've looked carefully at the research findings that have been cited as evidence against my theory. Most are irrelevant or ambiguous. Of the three that appear to make the best case, two turned out not to exist, or at least have never been published in peer-reviewed journals (though the studies were supposedly done years ago). The third showed something quite different from what its proponents claimed; in fact, the results matched the predictions generated by my theory, not theirs.

Will I have time to tell my story of deception and illusion in academia? There are some tall trees, with roots still firmly in the bank, who are hoping I won't.



Hanover, New Hampshire

Tribeca is in a state of physical recovery tempered by emotional exhaustion. I'm spending more and more time away because I find it hard to lift myself out of the neighborhood's heightened sense of fate. Whenever I leave it takes a day or so for the concerns of ordinary life to seem real, but it's vital that they do.

This Summer I'm teaching and doing research part time up at Dartmouth with my long time friend and colleague Joe Rosen. Joe is best known as both as one of the world's most ambitious reconstructive plastic surgeons and as one of the most extravagant thinkers about how the human body might be modified in the future. There was a silly cover story about him on Harper's magazine a while back that dubbed him "Dr. Daedalus" because of his project to give people the option of having wings. We've worked together for almost two decades on surgical simulation, prosthetics, surgical instrumentation, and ways to use information systems to improve the health care system in the real world, right now, which turns out to be a harder problem than all of the above, because it involves lots of stubborn humans.

Joe and I work well together, but also clash over the same set of ideas that often put me at odds with other respondents. We're co-teaching a class on the future of information systems in medicine, and I think we might have actually succeeded in startling some of the almost perfectly serene students who have populated universities in the last few years with our argument.

Joe believes that Lamarckian evolution is coming back (it probably played a role in the earliest origin of life). He's a plastic surgeon and as far as he's concerned the genotype only serves to give him building blocks to remake the phenotype. People will invent themselves in the future and the phenotype will be unlatched from the genotype.

I wasn't about to let him get away with that! A funny response would be to claim that current fashion would have us believe that ideas are Darwinian (Memes!), so Darwin would still be guiding his hand in the operating room as future generations of kids pay to be turned into mythical beasts. But the more important response is based on the scale of computation. Joe's been working on wings for people for years and can't say how long it will take him to have a viable design. That's because it's actually a hard problem. The reason it took evolution a long time to make something like a hand is that it's hard and evolution was doing significant work that took significant time.

Mathematical equations are eternal and platonic, but computation always takes time, makes heat, is messy, and screws up repeatedly. And then there are the legacy, lock-in, and brittleness problems of software, which are even worse. It's tempting to imagine you can have the payoff of computation without having to pay the price. I'm always amazed that people are ready to imagine that we're about to be able to compute and simulate, and therefore design, anything we want just because computers will keep on getting bigger and faster. No! We have hard slogging to do! The point isn't whether the phenotype remains stuck to the genotype, but how much work it is to change a phenotype. If we think genes are inefficient at the job, we might just be fooling ourselves.

What we need now is to develop our intuitions about how hard biological-scale problems really are. The computers of thirty years from now will undoubtedly make human wing design easier, but not easy.

Of course, by the time we've argued this far, the notion that people will want wings has been sneakily and smoothly slipped into the set of assumptions held by the students. But will people in the future really want wings?

The polite and well spoken students of 2002 are often enhanced by tongue piercings and other ornamentations that represented rebellion fifteen years ago. At that time I had assigned a class of pierced students the problem of inventing what their children would have to do to shock them. That was a hated assignment! What is most surprising today is the lack of rebelliousness in the new crop. They would probably choose wings, but not in any provocative way.

Another little adventure in the last week was the premiere of a new movie by Steven Speilberg called Minority Report. Spielberg convened a collection of experts early in the movie's development to conceive of a world fifty years from now, in which the action would take place. We met in secret, and it was all very glamorous. I provided ideas for the computers, advertising, and communications technologies. Sending ideas through the Hollywood process and seeing the end result makes me sympathize with genes, which I can imagine being shocked or bemused from time to time as the creature they define from a great computational distance is revealed.

Some comments on gizmos in the movie: There's a grainy, wobbly tele immersive recording of the Tom Cruise character's ex-wife. The defects look a lot like tele-immersion demos from two years ago, because, I was told, a cleaner signal wouldn't tell the story. There's one technical mistake: The camera pans around to the side of the "autostereoscopic" display and the image still sticks out into space. An autostereo display lets you see 3D things as if they were floating in front of you, BUT no one can make a photon make a right angle turn in midair, and that's how they ended up designing the shot. I have to say the result works well cinematically.

The advertisements that sense Cruise's face as he walks by and place him into their designs are based on a real demo of machine vision techniques for finding and interpreting the faces of people in a room and incorporating them into virtual worlds. My initial thought was that Cruise would be trying to run away, but billboards would add him to their imagery as he passed, making it impossible to hide. The demo the scene is based on is from a little company called Eyematic (a spin-off from USC), based on research by Christoph von der Marsburg, Hartmut Neven, and others including me (I'm the Chief Scientist of the joint).

When I demoed Eyematic's face-grabbing software, I mentioned in a macabre aside that face matching to determine a person's identity might sometimes be a better idea than, say, iris matching, because criminals might be tempted to gouge out someone's eyes to fake out an iris-based system. (Not that it would actually work; living and severed eyes can be distinguished by machines. ) Well, you can see the result in the movie. Everything's based on iris-based IDs, and criminals merrily go about gouging out their own eyes, and those of anyone else who will pay for the resulting privacy. I had to close my own eyes during the eye-gouging episode. The severed eyes turned into fabulous props that convey comedy, suspense, and horror at the same time.

And then, most surprisingly to me, the iconic VR input device of the 1980s, the instrumented glove for handling virtual objects, makes a comeback.

The pattern that emerged was that devices that were already antiquated in 2002 proved to be more photogenic than the perfected devices I suggested for 2050.

Let's see, what else? There's music! It looks like I'll be working on two opera projects simultaneously this Summer. One is "Bastard the First", a collaboration with Terry Riley, and the other is "Mount Analog", based on the novel by Rene Daumal, working with a French artist named Philippe Parreno. I did some instrumental work for "Logic of Birds", a performance that Sussan Deyhim will give at Lincoln Center this Summer. The most fun was getting a contrabassoon to play in a Persian style.

And yes, I am working on my very overdue book, and someday soon I will shock everybody with a manuscript.



Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland

We're sitting around a peat fire, while rain batters the windows of the cottage and a howling gale blows in from the Atlantic. Five of us are here for a workshop on the placebo effect, Anne Harrington (historian of science), Howard Fields (neurobiologist), Dan Moerman (anthropologist), Fabrizio Benedetti (neurphysiologist), myself (psychologist). It's the latest in as series of interdisciplinary workshops under the auspices of the Harvard Mind Brain Behaviour Initiative. We've set ourselves the goal of writing a joint paper by the end of the summer "How to think well about the placebo effect". We've decided to organise it around Niko Tinbergen's four "Whys?": proximate causation, developmental history, biological function, evolutionary history.

My own interest is especially in the question of evolutionary design. When a person recovers from illness as a result of placebo treatment, it must of course be his own healing system that is doing the job. Placebo cure is self-cure. But if the capacity for self-cure is latent, then why is it not used immediately? If a person can get better by his own efforts, why doesn't he just get on with it as soon as he gets sick—without having to wait, as it were, for outside permission? Why should the mind be allowed to influence the body in this way—when the net result is, if anything, to put a brake on healing?

The paradox can, I think, be resolved by considering the placebo effect in a broader biological context.

Long before medicines or doctors came on the scene, we should assume the ancestors of human beings had already developed a fine capacity for looking after their own health: by mounting defences such as pain and fever, by actively attacking infections, by repairing bone and tissue damage, by indulging in sickness behaviours, and so on. However none of these measures would ever have been free of cost (immune resources are expensive, pain is debilitating, acting-sick is time-wasting, etc.). So it must always have been essential to have some kind of internal "health management system" in place, to ensure that the way the body responded to any particular threat was nearly optimal.

Sometimes, for example, it would have been best for a sick person to get well as rapidly as possible, throwing off defences such as pain and mounting a full-scale immune response; but at other times it might have been more prudent to remain unwell and out of action and to conserve resources for later use. As a general rule (and of crucial importance for the story of placebos): the brighter the prospects for a rapid recovery, the less to be gained from playing safe and remaining sick.

But this must have meant that the health management system would have needed to take account, so far as possible, of any intelligence available to the sick person about what the future held. Relevant information would have included the nature of the threat, the costs of the defensive measure, the prospects for spontaneous remission, evidence of how other people were faring, the presence of social support, and so on. The mind therefore must have had to become an adjunct to the healing system—precisely so as to gather this intelligence.

In the past all kinds of environmental information would have been be brought to bear. And no doubt they still are. But today, the medicalisation of sickness has changed the picture. For it means nowadays that there will often be a novel and even overriding piece of information to take into account. People have learned—their culture has taught them—that nothing is a better predictor of how things will turn out when they are sick (whether the pain will ease, whether the infection will abate, whether they will be nursed back to health . . ) than the presence of doctors, medicines, and so on.

Yet human beings remain tied to their evolutionary heritage. And so, today, the very prospect of medical attention—the patient's belief in it—works its magic for the simple reason, stemming from the general rule above, that for most of human history, once a sick person has had cause to think that he will soon be safe and well, he has had just the excuse he needs to bring on his own recovery as fast as possible.

(Fabrizio Benedetti, Nicholas Humphrey, Anne Harrington, Howard Fields, Dan Moerman)

At least this is the story I've been pushing! Are my colleagues convinced? It's such a different way of thinking for them—especially the two neuroscientists—that I'm afraid they haven't yet taken it on board.

Max Planck said "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." I like my friends in this group much too much to hope that this is true.





I was on a panel at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London on the topic of "Can Science Books be Literature" when the name Brockman rose up from row three with suggestions of the Third Culture. The audience wanted to know if the novel really was dead. (Did you really say that?) The novelist on the panel, Ian Mc Ewan, was gracious as always but then he has reason to be confident about the life of the novel. Mostly he held up his sympathies for science while in a little role reversal I defended the novel. Also had a great trip to the Hay-on-Wye festival. Drank way too much champagne and saw Bob Geldof play in a neighboring tent to an all too conscientious audience.

Other big news, for me at least, I eloped with the English old-timey country singer. About half way through my first book tour, we stopped in Chicago and between a colloquium in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago and a somewhat odd lecture in the Adler Planetarium we ran down to city hall, got a licence—the clerk in the wedding office shaking our hands with great enthusiasm (is he always that happy about nuptials we wondered)—and got hitched in a kind of surprise wedding party thrown by my mom and her twin sister. On the morning of the wedding I was still trying to choose something to wear. Typical. It was great fun. Here's my favorite wedding picture from my six year old nephew Ari. There's Warren and I in the middle with my uncles holding the hoopa. We've had no honeymoon yet as the book tour marched on to DC, New York, then back to London.

As for summer in London, the other day someone remarked to me that the weather really wasn't too bad for winter.




I just sent off the copy-edited and corrected manuscript of Freedom Evolves. All my part is done except the index. It's a great feeling, of course. We've lived in (grocery shopped in, learned the tramlines in, . . ) and thus "collected" quite a few cities over the years—Oxford, Bristol, London, Rome, Athens, Paris, Canberra, for instance—and now Budapest, which feels all the more like home now that we've gone away to even more foreign places on the weekends: Belgrade two weeks ago and last week Sofia. In Belgrade we were the guests of Nikola Grahek, an alumnus of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, and professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade. In Sofia, I gave two lectures at the New Bulgarian University, to their Cognitive Sciences Institute, of which I've been a member of the Advisory Board since its inception a decade ago. In both Belgrade and in Sofia we found excellent researchers doing wonderful work under incredibly straitened circumstances.

When all the communist governments in Europe collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, for instance, had a gentle, bloodless transition, but that didn't mean that people didn't die. They did, by starving. A few people have become rich capitalists (mainly by bribing the police and the other officials) and most people are as poor as ever—or even poorer. Most people live in huge apartment blocks—ten or fifteen stories high, all the balconies with laundry hanging—the sort of housing project apartments that have mainly been torn down in America because they are so depressing to live in. Everybody but the 3% who are wealthy live in such apartments in the city (and people are leaving the beautiful countryside and coming to the city, looking for work). A university professor makes now about the same salary as a bus driver. When the communist regime collapsed, real prices replaced the artificial prices the communists had maintained, and people found that their salaries were almost worthless. As one of them said, a professor who made $600 a month, now found his salary was worth about $60 a month. And we were told about the brilliant young computer scientist who has just left for the USA—lured by an offer of $60,000 a year salary (can you imagine such wealth!) In Sofia, he was already very highly paid: $6000 a year. They couldn't raise his salary any higher than that, so no wonder he left. So even though the prices of most things (not gasoline) are amazingly low to us, they are still high for Bulgarians.

In this setting, the amazing activities of George Soros, of whom one hears almost daily, are a beacon of hope. Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who made many billions of dollars in financial wheeling and dealing (mostly in currency speculation, I gather) is now single-handedly doing hundreds of things to put Eastern Europe back on its feet. First, and best known in the USA, was his decision, when the Soviet Union collapsed, to provide decent salaries for the hundreds and hundreds of Soviet nuclear engineers were suddenly found themselves unemployed. Soros saw that these folks would be easily tempted to work on nuclear bomb projects in many countries so he simply guaranteed their financial well-being first, then began looking around for constructive work for them to do. Then he built a new university, the Central European University in Budapest, and another smaller one in Sofia (which was our host). He has started a major initiative to provide free access to scientific and academic journals to all the people of the world, provided airlifts of medical supplies to Sarajevo when the US and WesternEurope turned its back, and build 300,000 houses for blacks in South Africa. Meanwhile, his new book on globalization has had excellent reviews—high on my reading list, now. If there is a serious downside to George Soros, it is not easy to find. The world could do with a few more like him.

Belgrade, June8-9: On Sunday we went across the Danube to Zemun, for a leisurely lunch in a riverside fish restaurant run by three jolly sisters. I had "sterlets"—half a dozen young sturgeons, fried with their heads on and served on Bibb lettuce. Pretty good fish. Walked around in the very interesting old town after lunch, seeing the bombed-out Air Force headquarters (hit by NATO bombs in 1999-2000, as Milosevic was being driven out) and the fresh plaque to those who died there—more enlisted men than officers, of course. On our cab ride later in the day, we passed the bombed out police headquarters and the perhaps thirty-story office building that had been Milosevic's headquarters, which was seriously damaged by NATO bombs and is being repaired by a Japanese consortium for use as an office building. The other bombed-out military and police buildings, hit with pinpoint accuracy right in the middle of city blocks, have been left unrepaired, untouched, while the life of the city goes on. No sense of reproach from our hosts; they were thrilled to get rid of Milosevic.


The most fascinating part of our stay were the last few hours before our evening departure on the overnight train back to Budapest. We strolled through the neighborhood where Milosevic, and before him Tito and Tito's chief of secret police, and all the dictators' cronies have built their ultra secure mansions. The Residence of the American ambassador is there as well, and the Canadian Embassy and the (new) Chinese Embassy. The Iranian ambassador's ultra-modern residence is there too, but all of these are now put in the shade by the brand new mansions built by a "businessman" named Karic, who is buying out all the real estate in the neighborhood. One of these looks—and is meant to look—like the White House, and is being built by Karic because he believes his son will someday be President of the United States! When I tried to take a photo of the front, a young man who had been quietly following us down the sidewalk quickly intervened to prevent me. The back of the "White House" can be seen, however, behind Karic's sister's house, the one with the copy of Michalengelo's David among the statuary gracing the frieze over the front door! (see photo attached) I did manage to take a few discrete dusk photographs of some of the other houses in the neighborhood. These mansions all have high walls and guardhouses at the gates, with closed circuit tv cameras staring down from the trees and walls, and mirrored armored glass in the guardhouse windows. Presumably machine guns are trained on you as you stroll by, but these Milosevic cronies are now maintaining much lower profiles, not quite as flamboyantly disregarding the law as they recently did.

Bulgaria, June 15-16: In Sofia and in the countryside there are horse drawn carts (with car wheels, rubber tires) among the cars and trucks, and out in the fields you can see teams of people with hoes weeding huge fields of corn, tobacco, and vegetables, and men and women with scythes cutting hay, and then gathering it up using three-pronged wooden pitchforks—made from natural forks in tree branches. Up ahead of us on the highway, we saw a huge hay wagon moving along on rubber tired wheels; we thought it was a truck till we passed it and saw that there was no cab, but also no horse, just two old folks, a man and a woman, pulling it along the highway, heading home with their load of loose hay.

The menus in the restaurants were huge, with dozens of entrees, salads and appetizers, some of them not terribly appetizing sounding: stewed duck's tongues, tripe in copper bowl, lamb's balls in sauce. On the other hand, Snezhanka, or "snowflake" salad, is a delicious Bulgarian version of the Greek tsaziki or the Indian raita: yoghurt and cucumbers and garlic and dill, with the yoghurt made thick by hanging in cheesecloth to drain off the water. I tried some "boza" (Susan made a face after taking a sip and declined the rest). Boicho Kokinov, our host, describes it: "It is made of rye or other grain culture. It is a very thick drink. It is sweet, but when it stays for a couple of days (or even for one day in the hot summer) it becomes tart since it becomes alcoholic (low alcohol - 3 - 5%)." Definitely an acquired taste.

During the communist era, Sofia's public buildings were laid out on a grand scale, with huge wide squares and boulevards (for staging parades and popular demonstrations of love for the government); they now look a little barren and lonely. The huge red star that used to grace the tower of the main government building was spirited off by a giant helicopter after the transition, but a few monuments to the Red Army martyrs, etc., still survive—unlike in Budapest, where all these have been destroyed or carted off to a tacky park, a weedy warehouse crowded with Stalin statues and the like, kept as an ironic reminder. We haven't been there, but have read and heard about it.

Back in Budapest, life seems almost indistinguishable from life in Vienna or Rome or Munich—except for the baffling and unpronounceable signs. Hungarian apparently has no cognates with any of the other European languages. They have a wonderful new exhibit in the Ethnographic Museum (housed in the opulent former High Court), and we Maine farmers, missing our fields and flowers, also took in the Agricultural Museum in Varosliget Park, where I spotted a magnificent poster. I wish they had had repros on sale in the museum shop.

Yesterday I gave my Inaugural Lecture as an Honorary Fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and received a handsome scrolled diploma, in Hungarian and Latin with a seal attached. Our friend Stevan Harnad was inaugurated last month, one of four members elected this year, and it was particularly pleasing to me to be honored by the Academy in the land of von Neuman, Erdos, Czontvary, Judit Polgar, . . . . .Lots of brilliant Hungarians. This evening we're off to Miskolc, in eastern Hungary, for a philosophy conference on intentionality and a Puccini opera at the festival.

Dan & Susan



Galapolos Islands


I did indeed get married. honeymooned in the Galapagos. ("Why?" my fellow passengers on the boat wanted to know, "What a strange place for a honeymoon"—they wanted me to be on a beach somewhere which would certainly be an odd choice for someone who lives on a beach.

Darwin was right. (I had little doubt of this, although I have never been one who thinks evolution explains enough—what would an almost wing on a bird look like?). Of course he thought this stuff up on the galapagos—although why the finches fascinated him I don't know.

Here is picture of a marine iguana. These evolved from their land cousins and learned how to eat stuff in the sea. They are black because its cold in those waters so they spend a great deal of time warming up in the sun. The sea lions were great too. Graceful in the water; clutzes on land. Yet, clearly land animals. Got to swim with a few of them (they are better at it than I).

I write from Singapore where I am about to keynote an e-learning meeting. They want to know why e-learning hasn't taken off in Asia. (Because e learning sucks would be my answer, but it's not the one they want to hear). In any case, I continue to try to get Singapore to change its school system. CMU west (my new gig) will have no lectures, no classes, no courses actually—just sequences of projects that all fit together in what I call the story centered curriculum. Singapore has shown some interest in this so we shall see.

Then on to Tokyo to do the same. a brief stop in New York and back to Florida where there is actually a K-12 school that is going to give this a try. Am asking many others in the academic community to help out in that school and they have been happy to add their stuff into the new curriculum we are building.



Thomas J. Watson Research Center, IBM
Yorktown Heights, New York

I'm not going anywhere exotic this summer, but I'll be creating new artwork and publishing some science-fiction novels.

People sometimes wonder why I often focus on the fringes of science and care about mathematically-inspired art and science fiction. I believe these topics can be very important—not just for their educational value but because significant discoveries can come from such play. At first glance, some topics in recreational math may appear to be curiosities, with little practical application or purpose. However, I have found these experiments to be useful and educational—as have the many students, educators, and scientists who have written to me.

Throughout history, experiments, ideas and conclusions originating in the play of the mind have found striking and unexpected practical applications. In fact, many amazing mathematical findings have been made by amateurs, from homemakers to lawyers. These amateurs developed new ways to look at problems! that stumped the experts.

Science is filled with hundreds of examples of great discoveries and inventions that have come about through chance happenings and serendipity: Velcro, teflon, X-rays, penicillin, nylon.... Why not math too?




Freeman and I are just finishing up (thanks to Penguin) 8 days in England and Wales... including our first visit to Winchester together since 1955. Highlight was the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales, with science well represented. Some 800 people packed the tent for Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones' Diary) and the tent was even more packed for Oliver Sacks. Dinner for four in a small Welsh hotel (followed by dessert outside under a threatening sky) included Oliver Sacks, Carl Djerassi, and Freeman Dyson. A memorable night...

[ps we also met up with Kevin Kelly, his family, and Brian Eno at the Science Museum in Kensington to see Danny Hillis' clock...]


Friday Harbor Labs
San Juan Island, Washington USA

Dear John,

Hello from Paradise.  I've been working in my study in the Whiteley Center here at the UW's Friday Harbor Labs.  It's a get-away-to-finish-the-book sort of place.  Unlike the Rockefeller Foundation's similar place in Bellagio, Italy, this retreat is attached to a working marine lab that lives to the rhythms of the tides.  Katherine has been teaching a research course for undergraduates up here.  It gives them ten intensive weeks of a research project on small neural circuits.  When I want a break, I spend a day out on the lab's trawler, as the students collect crabs.

The Whiteley Center is also unlike Bellagio in that it is on a large nature preserve, not a manicured Alpine hillside.  Upon hearing of Steve Gould's demise, Katherine and I were reminiscing about the dinner we had with Steve a few years ago at Bellagio, balancing plates on our laps at the lake shore as the sun set, talking about our mutual interests in evolution and our writerly habits.  Oddly enough, Katherine and I had had lunch earlier that day with Susan Sontag.  We'd talked about her surviving the constant shelling in Sarajevo, not about the years of chemotherapy she wrote about in Illness as Metaphor.

And so after dinner, on the long hike back up the hill to the Villa Serbelloni, Katherine and I marveled that here we had not one but two long-term cancer survivors, each of whom had already gotten 15-20 years of extra life after a grim prognosis.  Not only survival, but just look at all the extra books that each had been able to write, thanks to catching cancer in time and having an effective treatment.  

Reading Steve's early essays and his first big research book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, was what got me to reading more broadly about evolution.  One of his important contributions as a paleontologist was to convince us that there are long periods in evolution where a species really doesn't change very much. Darwinian gradualism doesn't necessarily guarantee a steady course of improvements. Then there are periods when, no longer stuck in a rut, things progress considerably faster.

Both of my main interests in evolution—the evolution of the big brain in only several million years, and the use of the Darwinian process in the brain to improve the quality of the next sentence you spea—involve the search for speedy ways of evolving things. I tuned right into what Steve was saying.

I tried to distill a set of essential ingredients for a universal Darwinian process, one that could operate in brain circuitry in mere seconds, as you figured out what to say next. I got Steve to take a look at my five essentials: a pattern that is copied with variations, where populations of the variants compete for a workspace, much like crabgrass and bluegrass compete for our backyard in Seattle. Then (and this is what Darwin called "natural selection") there was a multifaceted environment that allowed one variant to do better than the other. (How often you cut the grass, water it, fertilize it, freeze it, and walk on it. In our environmental mixture, crabgrass is winning.)

Steve put on his glasses and looked at my list. "You probably need an inheritance principle," he said shortly. "It's something Darwin missed at first and added later." Darwin's inheritance principle means that those juveniles who best survive childhood and find mates are the ones who generate the next round of little variations. Most will prove no better than their parents, but some will "fit" the challenges of the local environment even better than their parents.

If the random variations are big, their starting point isn't remembered. But they're usually small, and that's what makes for local "progress," what makes evolution's creativity so impressive to us. Subtract any one of the six essentials, and things just wander without any direction.

Steve's demise reminds me of that fourfold hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In science, getting raw data is hard enough. Then you have to refine it: information is "data that makes a difference." Some of it yields knowledge of how things really work. But turning knowledge into wisdom is the most difficult step, not often accomplished. You need a lot of knowledge stored in your head that can simmer for awhile. In some fields of intellectual endeavor, especially history and the historical sciences, creative people get better as they get older. The near-doubling of the average human lifespan in some countries has meant a lot in terms of being able to successfully turn knowledge into wisdom.

Steve was only 60, with lots of knowledge cooking. And here we all hoped that Steve would turn out to be like that grand old man of evolution, Ernst Mayr, who is still busy writing important books at age 97.  Sigh.

My Whiteley Center fireplace was handy for the cool mornings of April, when I was mostly preparing talks about A Brain for All Seasons—some about the human evolution bits, others about the implications of all those abrupt climate changes for evolution and ecology more generally.  Now with the summer breezes, I am settling into trying to reconstruct the stages in cognitive evolution for the next book, A Brief History of Mind.  Unlike the four previous summers, no one has organized a compelling meeting somewhere that I must attend during the really nice months in the Pacific Northwest.  So I'm sensibly sticking close to Seattle.

Hello to all,



New South Wales, Australia

It's actually winter here...


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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