Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

28 MARCH, 2012

Philosopher Daniel Dennett on Memes, Luck, Consciousness, and the Meaning of Life

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“Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive.”

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett is one of our era’s most important and influential thinkers on philosophy of mind. His insights on purpose and consciousness get to the heart of what it means to be human. To celebrate, here a few quotes from his writings that have stayed with me over the years:

A reminder of how fortunate we are, you and I, from Freedom Evolves:

Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners going back millions of generations, and those winners were, in every generation, the luckiest of the lucky, one out of a thousand or even a million. So however unlucky you may be on some occasion today, your presence on the planet testifies to the role luck has played in your past.

A meditation on memes from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life:

[I]f it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great degree the creations of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of vision we considered earlier; it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth. There is a persisting tension between the biological imperative of our genes on the one hand and the cultural imperatives of our memes on the other, but we would be foolish to “side with” our genes; that would be to commit the most egregious error of pop sociobiology. Besides, as we have already noted, what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes— thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.

The ultimate testament to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, from Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness:

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

On the significance of chance, which we’ve just explored earlier today, also from Freedom Evolves:

Isn’t it true that whatever isn’t determined by our genes must be determined by our environment? What else is there? There’s Nature and there’s Nurture. Is there also some X, some further contributor to what we are? There’s Chance. Luck. This extra ingredient is important but doesn’t have to come from the quantum bowels of our atoms or from some distant star. It is all around us in the causeless coin-flipping of our noisy world, automatically filling in the gaps of specification left unfixed by our genes, and unfixed by salient causes in our environment.

Lastly, some proper philosopher’s self-deprecation from Consciousness Explained:

Philosophers’ Syndrome: mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity.

For more of Dennett’s singular brand of insight, be sure to watch his mind-bending TED talk on consciousness.

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28 MARCH, 2012

The Last Journey of a Genius: Richard Feynman’s Quest to Visit the Remote Lost Land of Tuva

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“I’m an explorer, okay? I get curious about everything, and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.”

Richard Feynman — Nobel-winning physics icon, curiosity champion, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. In the last years of his life, Feynman — an explorer above all else — set out visit the remote lost land of Tannu Tuva, a satellite state of the former USSR. But Cold War bureaucracy got in the way and fate played a cruel joke — the day after Feynman died, a letter finally arrived from the Soviet government, authorizing him to travel to Tuva. The Last Journey of a Genius, originally aired in 1988 mere months after Feynman’s death, captures his dedicated and, in the process, delves into various aspects of Feynman’s character and life, including his conflicted relationship with the Nobel Prize, his problem-solving patterns, his passion for stamps and bongo drums, his philosophy on the heart of science, and a wealth more.

I’m an explorer, okay? I get curious about everything, and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Feynman’s enthusiastic quest gave rise to the phrase “Tuva or Bust,” which later became the title of a book documenting his tireless efforts to reach Tuva.

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28 MARCH, 2012

The Idea Factory: Insights on Creativity from Bell Labs and the Golden Age of Innovation

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Successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Thomas Edison was the most famous inventor in the world. He hoarded useful materials, from rare metals to animal bones, and through careful, methodical testing, he made his new inventions work, and previous inventions work better. Churning out patent after patent, Edison’s particular form of innovation was about the what, and not about the how — the latter he could outsource and hire for.

“In 1910, few Americans knew the difference between a scientist, an engineer, and an inventor” explains Jon Gertner at the beginning of his lively book about a place that fostered a home for all three, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. The difference was clear to Edison, who was generally disinterested in the theory behind his inventions, filling his Menlo Park complex with specialists to do the work he’d rather not. “I can always hire mathematicians,” he said, “but they can’t hire me.”

At Menlo Park, Edison hired scientists to do the theoretical work so that he could concentrate on testing his inventions.

To be an inventor, Gertner insists, one needed “mainly mechanical skill and ingenuity, not scientific knowledge and training.” (Qualities that the ingenious Hedy Lamarr had alongside her mechanical partner George Antheil, an unlikely artistic pair who invented an essential frequency-hopping radio signal during World War II that later gave us technologies like Bluetooth and wifi.) For more than sixty years, from the 1920s to the 1980s, Bell Labs would bring together all of the above to create essential inventions of the twentieth century: the transistor, radar, the laser, communication satellites, UNIX, and the C++ programming language.

Adventure stories about 'wireless boys' and 'radio boys' were popular around the turn of the century.

It was the child-tinkerers during the first decades of the century who would populate Bell Labs during its explosive growth in the 30s and 40s. Adventure books recounted tales of “Wireless Boys” (or “Radio Boys”) who solved dastardly crimes and helped those in need, all by building their own wireless telegraphs at home. “Wireless is a thrilling pastime!,” exclaims the author of one of these books:

To be a wireless boy and make your own apparatus is to have the kind of stuff in you of which successful men are made — men who, if they were shipwrecked on a desert isle at daybreak, would have something to eat by noon, a spring bed to sleep on by night and a wireless station the next day sending out an SOS to ships below the horizon, for help.

Around this time, Alexander Graham Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) had a massive, government-sanctioned monopoly on all telephone subscriptions, buying regional phone companies, single-handedly manufacturing all of the parts for all of the cables, switches, repeaters, and vacuum-tubes. AT&T made the phones work, it made the parts that made the phones work, and it hired scientists and engineers to make the phones work better. During the 1920s, this third arm is what became Bell Labs.

Tesla I communications satellite for television signals and space data, 1962. (Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. and the AT&T Archives and History Center)

In the beginning, Bell Labs was populated with grown-up wireless boys — physics, engineering, and chemistry grad students and junior professors seduced away from colleges with astronomically better pay. The new recruits were required to climb telephone poles, operate a switchboard, and sign a paper that sold all rights to any future patents to AT&T for a dollar.

The Picturephone, from the 1964 New York World's Fair (AT&T Archives and History Center)

Bell Labs was a place for discovery, which wasn’t always profitable, and invention, which usually was. During World War II, the US government invested $2 billion into the development of the atomic bomb, but they invested around $3 billion in the development of radar, much of which took place at Bell Labs. (“Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war,” Gertner writes, ” whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it.”)

In 1961, Bell Labs moved to a campus designed by Eero Saarinen. It was sold by the company in 2006.

During the post-war reorganization of the Labs, older management was demoted, younger management given new titles, and, most importantly, every research group was interdisciplinary: chemists mingled with physicists who chatted with metallurgists who lunched with engineers. Every building in the New Jersey campus was interconnected and no one was allowed to shut their door. This was the beginning of a newly innovative time, but not the same “genius”-driven Eureka! moments that seemingly characterized the work of Edison. Gertner writes:

At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors. Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place — perhaps all three — require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem. And then — sometimes — a leap. Only in retrospect do leaps look obvious.

(“Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson famously observed in his own exploration of how innovation happens.)

The story of The Idea Factory is one of individuals, architecture, millions of tiny moving parts, deliberate work, and, of course, luck and timing. It was a culture of creativity that worked for its age, impossible to reproduce in quite the same way, nor would we want to. Today, we might subscribe to the philosophy that “creativity is just connecting things,” as Steve Jobs once said about his own idea factory, but first someone has to test, apply, develop, and manufacture all of those connectors.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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