Heinz R Pagels

Heinz Pagels
Heinz R Pagels

Heinz R. Pagels, died on July 23, 1988, in a mountain climbing accident on Pyramid Peak in Aspen, Colorado. His death had an enormous impact on a wide and disparate range of individuals who, each in their own way, were affected by his inquiring mind.

Heinz, a physicist, was Executive Director of The New York Academy of Sciences, adjunct professor of physics at Rockefeller University, and president of the International League for Human Rights. He was the author of three books: The Cosmic Code (1982) Perfect Symmetry (1985), and Dreams of Reason: The Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (1988). He was also a founding member, and, at the time of his death, president of "The Reality Club."

Heinz's death, for me, was the personal loss of an close friend and colleague, and the abrupt end of a twenty year dialogue on the nature of reality. Lest this sound too lofty, this "argument" was our ongoing discussion and banter, usually characterized by humor, good-natured repartee, and ad hominem epithets that we would throw back and forth and each other. "The Bagel," as I called him, dubbed me the "neonominalist" and "primitive solipsist." I referred to him, in turn, as the "naive realist," and "society physicist."

When I visited him in Aspen in the summer on 1988, just weeks before his fell to his death on Pyramid Peak, he seemed to be finally recovering from the tragic death of his son Mark, at age 6, little more than a year before, and was once again sparkling with humor and joie de vivre. His third book had just been published. His work with Seth Lloyd on the subject of complexity had been reviewed in Scientific American. In addition, he was laying the groundwork for a new book which he felt would be a major breakthrough in social theory for the technological age.

On February 1, 1989, through EDGE Foundation, Inc., I organized an evening to honor Heinz and his work. It was not a memorial, but rather an EDGE seminar to discuss Heinz's' last book Dreams of Reason: The Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (1988), which he considered to be a research agenda for science in the 1990's.

The evening at The French Institute in New York included presentations by world-class scientists, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Hugh Downs, the co-host of ABC News' 20/20 and a social commentator. The talks included "Simulations of Reality" by neuroscientist William Calvin; "The Autocerebrescope" by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett; "Complexity In Biology" by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson; "Chaos" by mathematical physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum; "The Method of Theoretical Physics" by (the late) particle physicist Gerald Feinberg; "Information-Based Complexity" by computer scientist Joseph Traub; "How Simple Laws Lead to a Complex World" by theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek.

That such a distinguished and varied group of thinkers would all have something relevant to say about the prescient research agenda set forth by Heinz was a sparkling tribute to the man and his work.

I often think about Heinz. And I always come back to the beautiful and eerie passage he wrote to conclude The Cosmic Code:

Science is not the enemy of humanity but one of the deepest expressions of the human desire to realize that vision of infinite knowledge. Science shows us that the visible world is neither matter nor spirit; the visible world is the invisible organization of energy. I do not know what the future sentences of the cosmic code will be. But it seems certain that the recent human contact with the invisible world of quanta and the vastness of the cosmos will shape the destiny of our species or whatever we may become. I used to climb mountains in snow and ice, hanging onto the sides of great rocks. I was describing one of my adventures to an older friend once, and when I had finished he asked me, "Why do you want to kill yourself?" I protested. I told him that the rewards I wanted were of sight, of pleasure, of the thrill of pitting my body and my skills against nature. My friend replied, "When you are as old as I am you will see that you are trying to kill yourself."

I often dream about falling. Such dreams are commonplace to the ambitious or those who climb mountains. I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it did not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss. Suddenly I realized that my fall was relative; there was no bottom and no end. A feeling of pleasure overcame me. I realized that what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed. It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.

Reason dreams of an empire of knowledge, a mansion of the mind. Yet sometimes we end up living in a hovel by its side. Reason has shown us our capacity for power, both to create and to destroy. Yet how we use that power rests on our deeper capacities which lie beyond the reach of reason, beyond our traditions and culture, stretching far back into the depths of the evolutionary process that created our species, a process that ultimately asserts the power of life over death. And, ironically, even death, as part of the process of life, asserts that power. That is how we have come into being and now find ourselves committed to the unrelenting struggle of ordinary human existence.

We surely stand at the threshold of a great adventure of the human spirit—a new synthesis of knowledge, a potential integration of art and science, a deeper grasp of human psychology, a deepening of the symbolic representations of our existence and feelings as given in religion and culture, the formation of an international order based on cooperation and nonviolent competition. It seems not too much to hope for these things.

The future, as always, belongs to the dreamers.