Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Stories about Heinz von Foerster

Heinz believed that he once averted a revolution in one of the South American countries—I’m afraid I don’t remember which. In the capital city there was a park with unusual statuary and Heinz went there to take photographs including some from odd angles that meant crouching or even lying in odd corners. He suddenly became aware that a lot of grim-looking characters had assembled and were viewing him with intense suspicion. He did not know much Spanish but thought it would help if he let them know he was a foreigner, and so pointed to himself and said: “gringo”. He knew that the connotations of the word went beyond mere nationality but had not expected that the idea that someone had applied the term to himself would be seen as quite the prime joke that it turned out to be. According to Heinz, the mood of the assembly promptly changed, and when further grim-faced characters arrived they were greeted by fellow-conspirators helpless with laughter and slapped on the back and brought to see the man who had called himself a gringo. What had seemed like a serious situation, possibly the start of a full-scale revolution, dissolved into a happy party with Heinz at its centre.

Another story that I particularly liked was told for my benefit when I arrived in Illinois with my wife Joyce for the academic year 1964-65. I had spent the previous two years with the consultancy firm SIGMA (Science in General Management) Ltd., managed by Stafford Beer. I realise now that I probably gave up too easily, but I had not enjoyed the consultancy situation, particularly the need to try to exude confidence in discussions with the top brass of client firms, irrespective of private feelings about the current state of progress in solving their problems. Heinz was sympathetic and illustrated the difference between the academic and commercial approaches by recounting an episode from his own early career.

Heinz had joined a company whose main product was vacuum pumps, and on a certain occasion found himself the only person available to respond to an urgent call for help from a customer firm. The customer firm manufactured large electrical transformers which operated immersed in oil, and it was the practice to reduce the moisture content of the oil in a completed transformer by maintaining it for a time at reduced pressure. The problem for which they needed help was that the vacuum pumps employed to maintain the low pressure had started to pour out water, though in previous use this had not happened. By chance Heinz touched the casing of one of the transformers and found it was hot, and was told that the customer’s engineers had decided to try passing current through the transformer windings so as to warm it up and help to drive off the moisture. As Heinz pointed out to them, the application of heat drove off the water faster than the vacuum pumps were designed to accept it, and a possible solution, which was tried and found to work, was to dispense with the pumps and to dry out the oil simply by heating it while open to the atmosphere.

Heinz was pleased with himself for having solved the customer’s problem, but when he reported back to the firm of his employment it was pointed out that the transformer manufacturer had been their best customer for vacuum pumps and had now been shown how to do without them. However, it all worked out well in the end because the transformer firm sent a letter expressing sincere appreciation for the disinterested technical advice they had received, and shortly afterwards placed a substantial order for something other than vacuum pumps.

Another interesting point mentioned by Heinz was that he believed he had known someone who had a short proof of the famous Fermat’s last theorem. The theorem is now considered proven, but by a complex argument involving, I think I am right in saying, computer programs. Fermat’s claim to have proved the theorem was written in the margin of a book, with the implication that the full proof could not be given in the limited space.

When Heinz was a youngster in Vienna his father arranged for him to have tuition from a somewhat eccentric mathematician. Heinz’s mathematical aptitude was such that there was certainly no need for special tuition to get him through his examinations, and the aim was to set the basic mathematics in a wider context. The tutor claimed to have a brief proof of the Last Theorem and Heinz was inclined to believe him although he was never shown the proof. The topic of number theory readily invokes mysticism, as shown by some of the terminology, with magic squares, perfect numbers, and so on. The tutor claimed that his proof was short enough to fit easily into the book margin, and that Fermat must have had other reasons for withholding it, and he, the tutor, felt he should respect this. So there is still mystery surrounding the Last Theorem.

These stories about Heinz are rather peripheral to his main work and contributions and indeed to my own great benefit from knowing him and working with him, but they may help to round out the picture.

Alex Andrew

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift