John Horgan

Garrison, New York

John,

Summer is the peak season for my wife Suzie's wild-bird rehabbing, so we've got birds galore here in our Hudson Highlands hideaway. There's a blue heron with a bum leg in the garage; a cat-mauled waxwing in our bedroom; mallard toddlers in the back yard; adolescent bluejays and robins in the 400-square-foot flight cage. My favorite is George, a crow foundling who stuck around after Suzie released him two months ago. When I stroll on the deck at dawn, George careens out of the trees and onto my shoulder, chuckling and wagging his tail. When Suzie and the kids and I go for a walk in the woods, George flaps from tree to tree before us like a scout.

We can't entirely forget the woes of the world. From a hill near our house we can see Indian Point, the nuclear plant that since 9/11 many of us have feared could be a terrorist target. Now and then we hear the thunder of artillery practice at West Point, just across the Hudson. And all summer I've been reading blood-soaked books such as Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males and Lawrence Kealey's War Before Civilization. I'm looking for evidence to counter the belief that war or the threat thereof are ineradicable aspects of our culture.

Over the past year I've concluded to my dismay that many people—and not only nasty right wing-style hawks but even nice liberal doves—share this belief. I don't, or won't. I'm like one of those beauty contestants who says her dream is "world peace." I've already turned up some factoids that, at the very least, subvert the linkage of war to gonads. As John Keegan points out in A History of Warfare, some legendary warriors, such as the Byzantine general Narses, were eunuchs. Conversely, in On Killing, the Army psychologist Dave Grossman notes that most normal men fight reluctantly. Only about one in five Americans in close combat in World War II fired their guns. Intensified training boosted soldiers' firing rates in the Vietnam War to over 90 percent, but psychiatric disorders among vets skyrocketed. I try to take solace from findings like these, and when that doesn't work, I take George for a walk. Anyway, thoughts on war and peace from you and other Edgies are of course welcome.

Best,

John


George Dyson

South Dakota - Interstate 90

Dear John,

Wish you were here (on Interstate 90 in South Dakota). It's your turn to drive...

Drove the 3,069 miles from Bellingham WA to Princeton NJ in 96 hours at the end of last summer, and, in early July, took a bit more time (with daughter Lauren) driving back. Stopped in Portland to speak at OSCON (O'Reilly's Open Source Convention) where Tim's gang of 1,800 independent-minded coders enjoyed receiving long-delayed words of encouragement from their predecessors on the Institute for Advanced Study's Electronic Computer Project, for instance this scrap of paper (ca. 1946) that turned up in Julian Bigelow's basement a week before I left:

The text reads:

"Orders: Let a word (40 binary digits) be 2 orders, each order = C(A) = Command {1-10 / 21-30} + Address {11-20 / 31-40}.

In the Gospel according to von Neumann, this is where God said "Let there be light."

Yours,

George


William Calvin

San Diego, California

Hi John,

I've been visiting the distant cousins this summer—the very distant ones, the apes with whom we shared a common ancestor between 18 and 7 million years ago. While I'd prefer to visit them in the wild, in southeast Asia and central Africa, I had to settle for an intense dose of them at the San Diego Zoo's excellent habitats. I arranged for a behind-the-scenes visit with their keepers for a dozen scientists interested in human evolution, who wanted to know more about what ape behaviors were like.

Apes evolved from the monkeys about 25 million years ago; they lost their tails in favor of doubling brain size. The gibbons and siamangs are on a branch that dates back about 18 million years, and the orangs on the branch at about 12 million years. They are the acrobats of the apes, with shoulders far more versatile than monkeys. The siamangs and the orangs are housed together at the San Diego Zoo and it makes for a fascinating display of virtuosity. I made good use of my new telephoto lens, as you'll see when the book comes out next spring; the postcard pictures are of the siamang, an orang, and various bonobos.

The gorillas split off about 8-10 million years ago. They sure lost the acrobatic skills of their presumed ancestor with the orangs, perhaps because they specialized in a vegetarian niche of low quality food that requires a very long gut and big belly.

About 7 million years ago, we last shared a common ancestor with the chimps and bonobos. The hominids differed, initially, in losing the big canine teeth and in standing upright enough to rearrange the hips. They had a pint-sized brain like the other great apes; the tripling of brain size didn't even begin until the ice ages kicked in about 2-3 million years ago. If only more of those intermediate species had survived—both Neanderthals and, in China, Homo erectus went extinct recently, after our own lineage achieved structured thought, our capacity for long sentences and contingent planning.

Watching any of the four great ape species will, to an extent unmatched by the lesser apes and the monkeys, remind you of people that you know. The chimps and bonobos are considerably more social than gorillas (what with their harem structure that excludes most males) and the orangs (who, as adults in the wild, seldom see one another except for "conjugal visits"). Watching bonobos (essentially the oldest of the chimp subspecies, from the left bank of the Congo), you will see reassuring touches, the arm around the shoulder, kissing, and the grinning "play face."

This overlap with what we had supposed were exclusively human behaviors was one of the surprises of the last few decades of research. Judging from the chimps and bonobos, a lot was in place before the hominid branch split off at 7 million years ago, perhaps even the capacity for simple language (with years of tutoring, they can do about as well as two-year-old kids at understanding a sentence). They may lack structured thought, but so might our big-brained ancestors—at least, until about 50,000 years ago when sustained creativity first appears in the archaeological record. Before then, Homo sapiens wasn't doing much that was any different from the Neanderthals. Conservatism was the rule, not innovation, and the life of the mind was probably rather minimal.

That's why the great apes are so precious to us. Along with the stones and bones of archaeology, these distant cousins are the other small window into our own past. Take your binoculars, to watch those fleeting facial expressions, and try to match them up with people you know.

Cheers,

Bill


Alison Gopnik

Perugia, Italy

My summer postcard comes from two weeks in a villa in the Umbrian hills, with a bare hint of Perugia in the background, obscured by the 26 immediate family members in front of it (2 grand-parents, 12 children and spouses, 11 grand-children plus 1 in utero, I'm in the hat).

Its an interesting mix of people, several journalists, writers, artists, professors, and scientists, a lawyer and a manager, plus a motocross racing champion and a jazz-hip-hop fusion rapper. Sort of our own private Gopnik Edge. No e-mail or work or writing for two weeks, just happy, swimming, cooking and eating, with all 26 of us sharing two houses.

But there was inevitably, some thinking, and a tremendous amount of talking, including inevitably a tremendous amount of talking about families.Everyone in this picture is either a child or parent (or both) of someone else in this picture.

And those relations are among the most intense, valuable, rich and complicated experiences they will ever have. What's more millions, billions, of families could provide similar pictures, with similarly rich and complicated stories behind them. Novelists, of course, have made those stories their province, and their was certainly material for a comic novella in the Gopniks in Perugia.

But there is remarkably little abstract thinking about the relations between parents and children. The biological facts of childhood and parenting, and the peculiar dilemmas and conflicts, attachments and responsibilities, they create, which loom so large in literature and experience, and even a two-week family reunion vacation, are practically invisible in philosophy. So this was a good chance for me to talk and think about that set of issues which I'm trying to write about too, even without actually writing.

Best,

Alison


Hans-Joachim Metzger

Munich, Germany

Dear John Brockman!

Art and science seem to be congruent in that they are endeavouring to create what, previously, has not been there, to make visible what has never been seen, has not yet been seen or, in a way, will always be invisible.

As an artist, I am looking for shapes, forms and objects that are not repeating, re-creating or rendering what is already there. My postcard is showing some of those recently created impossible objects that I call black light objects.

The titles of these pictures (from left to right) are: "Angel, Tectonic", "The Distant Sound", and "The Grand Vehicle".

Since this postcard is offering only limited writing space, forgive me for resorting to some kind of scientifictitious metaphor to explain briefly about the emergence of these pictures.

Usually, taking a picture means photographing through the lens of a camera to the outside. In this case, though, it is actually the other way round. The photograph, so to speak, is being taken through the lens not to the outside but to the inside. Obviously, in order to be able to do this you need a second camera.

Imagine leaving the shutter open for an infinite exposure time, and, joining the two lenses, photographing with one camera what is emerging inside the other. Clearly, what is emerging inside the second camera will become visible to the first camera only when the shutter of the second camera is open.

On the one hand, what we are dealing with here is the well known visual infinity effect that is arising if you place one mirror parallel in front of a second mirror. On the other hand, in the case of the two cameras that, in fact, may be regarded as one single apparatus, an interruption will occur when the exposure time has run out. Of course, one may also imagine both cameras taking pictures one after the other, alternately. It is quite obvious that, without this interruption of the infinite, these objects would never become visible.

The process going on inside this metaphorical device is something happening in complete obscurity because both cameras are, of course, nothing but darkrooms. Consequently, the light making visible these objects can only be black light.

In fact, the pictures of this series are owing their existence to no beam or ray of light whatsoever coming from some so-called reality. To take these pictures I have not been using a camera or some such apparatus consisting of two cameras. To find black light objects, I am working with a computer. The computer is a universal symbolic medium, enabling me to do everything I can do with other media such as, for example, photography. Using the computer, I can even do it twice—like I did with my imaginary two-camera-device.

All the best to Edge.

Hans Joachim Metzger

Irene Pepperberg

Swampscott, Massachusetts

I spent four months traveling nonstop this spring and early summer to a wonderful set of meetings, such as a TedMed conference (presenting incredible information about the interface of technology and medicine—here's a picture of myself, my lab manager and one of our volunteers, plus our youngest parrot who also got to attend!), conferences in Rennes (fascinating material on animal cognition, but during the outbreak of the Iraqi war), Scotland (animal welfare), and Wales (amazing talks on the interface of computers, robots, and animal models for learning), as well as many around the USA (including an symposium on avian behavior in honor of James Watson's 75th birthday that ended with birding with David Sibley). I thus decided to opt for what was to be a relaxing summer near the beach in Swampscott. I'm rethinking the meaning of the word "relaxing" ....and looking ahead to a month in Paris this fall, working at the Ecole Normale Superieure.

Irene

Margaret Wertheim

New Mexico

During a trip to New Mexico I visited an incredible chamber for studying plasmas constructed by a young physicist named Christopher Watts at New Mexico Tech. Basically this is an aurora in a bottle—Chris studies the process by which auroras and solar flare form. Its the most incredible device I've seen in a long time—Jules Verne meets the computer age.

My trip to New Mexico Tech was part of a longer sojourn to New Mexico (truly a land of scientific enchantments) which began with teaching at the annual summer science writing workshop with George Johnson and Sandy Blakeslee in Santa Fe. Then on to Socorro to visit Chris Watts plasma physics lab and also NMT's Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center—grand central for the scientific study of blowing things up.

Then it was on to the VLA (the huge array of telescopes where Contact was filmed) and finally ending with a magical visit to Walter de Maria's Lightning Field. We were there on the summer solstice and the whole work seem specifically engineered for that one endlessly lingering sunset. Just as the Mayan's built the great pyramid at Chitchen Itza to capture the one incandescent moment of the spring equinox, so de Maria's artwork may be seen as a fantastical kind of solar observatory. A truly amazing amalgamation of art, technology, and engineering.

Margaret Wertheim

Susan Blackmore

Bristol, England


This summer has been the hottest in England since records began 343 years ago (and that's a good thing when you live here). So I have spent a lot of time working in my garden.

It's nearly three years since I gave up my job (tenure, lecturing, students and everything) to write a textbook on consciousness. So now that it's finished, do I want to go back? Can I stop asking questions about "what it's like to be"?

Of course not.

When I ask "Am I conscious now?" the answer is always "yes". But why?

Surely this tells us something, but what? What is the difference, in brain terms, between those times when I am asking the question and those when I am not?

Is it possible to answer "No"? In other words, is it possible to look into the darkness? William James described this kind of introspection as like "trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." How he would have enjoyed electricity—and the modern equivalent of snatching open the fridge door to see whether the light is always on. And while I'm weeding, I wonder who, or what, is asking all these questions.

Sue Blackmore, August 2003


Marc D. Hauser

Cambridge, Massachusetts

John,

This summer combined work and play and has been highlighted by the arrival of a new daughter from Russia.

I spent time at my field site on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. This island has been home to some 1000 rhesus monkeys for close to 70 years. Everything is quite natural except for some provisioning and the absence of predators. We changed that. Working with a post-doc, we started a new and exciting project using trained eagles to simulate attacks on those poor innocent monkeys.

We used the largest african bird of prey called the crowned eagle (photo attached). The results are wonderful: we are witnessing the real time evolution of an alarm response as the monkeys are producing calls they have never produced, are responding with fear, and seem to innately recognize the call as labeling an avian predator. And what better way to end a day of field work than to come home to a pint-sized pina colada. From Cayo I returned home, spent a few weeks reading, writing, running experiments, and going to a local beach.

We—my wife Lilan, 15 year old daughter Alexandra, and new two year old daughter Sofia—then all travelled to my parent's house in Chamonix, France. The house sits at the base of Mont Blanc, the jewel of the Alps. We hiked , swam in alpine lakes, ate like royalty, and enjoyed the aesthetics that only the French know how to create, but everyone else can enjoy.

New work? Yes. Have begun to go back to classic work in moral philsophy and moral psychology and realize that the time is ripe for the sciences of the mind and brain to make their move. That said, a different approach is needed. It is a view that differs from the hyperational position of law, most of moral philosophy, and moral development, as well as the hyperemotional position of moral philsophers from the British Enlightenment (think Hume) to today's social psychologists. The view I favor has origins in the writings of Adam Smith, Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. It is a view that sees our moral faculty as a suite of intuitions based on principles of action that operate over judgments of permissible, obligatory, and forbidden behaviors. It has a rational flavor, but we are not conscious of its workings. It has an emotional flavor, but emotions
emerge secondarily, once we have computed whether the action is permissible. It thus sits in between the two most common positions, and offers a new way of bringing the mind sciences to bear on the problem, from questions concerning universality and development to how the brain computes such decisions.

Marc


Keith Devlin

Siena, Italy

Greetings from Siena, where I just watched one of the Palio races for the
first time in the flesh. A few days ago I was in Pisa, and took some time to
visit two landmarks dedicated to Leonardo Fibonacci, whose 1202 book "Liber abaci" was responsible for western Europe adopting the Hindu-Arabic number system, thereby preparing the way for the scientific revolution soon

 

afterwards and thence to the present day dominance of the West in science and technology. The statue dates back to 1863, and was carved by Giovanni Paganucci. There is no evidence that it is anything but a work of pure fiction; no contemporary likeness of Leonardo exists, nor any physical description of him. The street sign is for a stretch of road that runs along the River Arno. After less than a quarter of a mile it becomes the Lungarno Galileo Galilei.

Keith Devlin


Roger Schank

Palm Beach, Florida

For summer, I usually stay at home. I live steps from a beach that is completely empty. Here is a picture I took this morning at 11:30:

A friend visited from Paris the other day and when I took him to the beach he almost fell over, thinking of crowded French seaside resorts in the summer. Each summer I find myself thinking about belief systems and how difficult they are to change.

Why don't people come to Florida in the summer? Why do they go to the Hamptons or Cape Cod? I know the answers that were given when I was a kid. Florida is too hot. People go to the beach to cool off (remember when that was the reason?) So everyone rushed to Coney Island when I was little and packed the beaches there. Now they go to other fancier places but Florida is empty. I feel the need to point our that Air Conditioning is now common place. Nevertheless our streets our empty, our beaches are empty, our restaurants are empty. Seems like paradise to me. (And New York City is hotter today than where I am which is usually true in midsummer.)  

Why are belief systems so hard to change? Whatever most people used to believe, they still believe, and no evidence to the contrary seems to matter. Our Presidents are always wise and just, wars are always for defense, we must support our troops. No facts seem to matter to change a belief system.

Roger


Paul C. Davies

New South Wales, Australia

Here is a photo of my recent wedding day, with my new wife Pauline, a science journalist with ABC Radio National. It was taken in our back garden.


I'm shortly off to Seattle, to attend the Foundation for the Future
'Humanity 3000' meeting. I'll also be spending one day in New York! And it will be totally wiped out by filming with the BBC for a Horizon special on time travel. I fly to London that evening for one day, meeting family, then to Venice to lecture at a cultural festival. I'll be making a quick dash to fulfill my childhood dream of visiting the independent country of San Marino, one of only three in the world totally embedded in another nation (do you know the other two?). I have an obsession with geographical trivia.

Paul


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