Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In praise of dilettantism, with a dash of madness

I recently finished reading the Steve Jobs biography as well as Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance (2005) by Perry Mehrling. Both men had cancer and died young—Jobs at 56, Black at 57. In their short lifetimes both transformed their fields.

Those who don’t know the basic outlines of Steve Jobs’s life and his embrace of aesthetic and technological principles in the creation of Apple products have been living under a rock. So I’m not going there. Rather, I want to use Fischer Black’s years at Harvard to illustrate some of the powers of intellectual cross-fertilization.

As an undergraduate Fischer was initially infatuated with studies in social relations (“a conglomeration of sociology, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, etc.”). On the side he took courses in mathematics and physics. “He seems to have had the idea that he could always return to physics for graduate school if nothing else worked out. In May 1957 he wrote to his parents that physics was not interesting to him but would lead to the kind of job he wanted, namely in research. ‘In social relations the subject matter would be more interesting and everything would be great if I could get the right kind of job, but I doubt if such jobs even exist. I’m now considering other fields, even economics.’ … Fischer spent the fall of 1957 trying out biology and chemistry as possible alternatives to physics [and, importantly, also took Van Quine’s course on deductive logic for his own interest] before he accepted the inevitable. … In May 1958 he switched his major to physics.” (p. 34)

He stayed on at Harvard for graduate school—the sole university to which he applied—but, once there, he took only one physics course and barely passed it. Instead, he became interested in computers, and eventually artificial intelligence, and petitioned “to switch officially from theoretical physics to applied mathematics.” He took a course on B.F. Skinner’s psychology of learning, but failed it. He was more comfortable with the cognitive approach to learning and took two graduate courses in this area.

Departmental authorities were concerned about Fischer—first because he failed the course in the psychology of learning and second because he was unwilling “to be tied down to a specific program of work. … [I]n his formal application for admission to the thesis-writing stage of the PhD, Fischer listed his proposed subject as ‘artificial intelligence or foundations of mathematics.’ Well, which was it to be? In February 1961, his adviser, Anthony Oettinger, wrote a note to the Committee on Higher Degrees: ‘I have reason to be concerned about his intellectual discipline so that, while recognizing his ability and his desire for independence, I am concerned lest he lapse into dilettantism.’” (p. 37)

“By spring 1962, his lack of progress toward a viable thesis was evident to everyone, and Oettinger graded his work unsatisfactory. In June he was officially informed that he would not be allowed to register in the fall.” (p. 39)

Undeterred, Fischer stayed on in Cambridge and described his life a month later: “I am studying modern art in summer school, taking guitar lessons, taking a speed reading course, working on my thesis, working at Bolt Beranek and Newman [a consulting firm], participating in psychological experiments on hypnotism.” (p. 40) In the spring of 1963, in an effort to learn “how natural language works in the hope that it might help him with the tricky problem of programming a computer to understand questions posed in natural language,” he sat in on courses at MIT in the grammar of English and in semantics. (p. 43)

Fischer’s work at BBN opened the possibility for a return to graduate school. “Over the next year, Fischer wrote a dissertation that was accepted for the PhD in applied mathematics in June 1964. The title of the dissertation was ‘A Deductive Question Answering System.’” Yet, “even as he was writing the thesis, he wrote to his parents: ‘I’m trying to decide what I want to do after I get my degree. The field is wide open. I don’t really like any of these labels: scientist, engineer, researcher. I’m not at all sure I want to stay in the computer field.’” (p. 44)

Mehrling concludes that Fischer Black’s work on artificial intelligence (the man-computer symbiosis) led to “an integration of the two sides of his character, the wildly creative and the ruthlessly logical. Thirty years later, a colleague would remember Fisher: ‘No one’s mind is, or will ever be, as fertile as Fischer’s was. No one is even close. He was crazy and logical at the same time. The force of his logic would push you into corners you didn’t like, or it could open vistas you had not imagined. The crazy streak freed him from conventional wisdom. He was intellectually fearless.’” (pp. 45-46)

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