Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Heinz and the Force of Gravity

Sometimes, running down a hill, you suddenly get the feeling that you cannot stop. You move your legs as fast as you can, because if you didn't, you'd fall on your face. Somehow gravity has taken command and you are helpless and frightened. Heinz no doubt knows the differential equation that shows the point at which acceleration exceeds your braking power, but he nevertheless found himself beyond that point, at least twice.

The first time was in Toledo. This sun-baked little town is on a hill and some of its streets are quite steep. We were taken there from some learned meeting in Madrid to look at the famous Velasquez paintings. Having accomplished this, there was still some time before lunch and several groups of us went for a stroll through the old city, Heinz with one, Charlotte and I with another.

At a certain point, Charlotte stopped in her tracks and said: "Look, there is Heinz!" He was at the top of one of those steep, cobbled streets, waved to us, and shouted: "I've found it! I've found it!" He started to run down, going faster and faster, as though he were on skis. Had we not been able to catch him, who knows how far he might have been propelled.

"Found what?", I asked when he had caught his breath.

"The place for the Institute of Free Research we want to set up! Don't you remember? A place where intelligent people can come and think, without being bothered by administrations. One of the ramshackle houses up there is for sale. It has a beautiful portal and some of the ceilings are decorated—it would be perfect!"

We pursued the dream a little further during lunch, but soon the awful thought crept in that the National Science Foundation was unlikely to consider such a proposal. It was and remained a castle in Spain. We never mentioned Toledo again.

The second gravity run Heinz did by himself and I know about it only from his account. When he directed the first Gordon Conference on Cybernetics, he asked me whether I would act as vice-chairman and help with the organization. I was delighted. I had no idea that this meant that I would automatically be the chairman of the next conference, but that was the tradition of the Gordon Foundation.

Soon after Heinz' conference was over, I received a letter advising me to start raising money for the next conference that was scheduled to take place eighteen months later. I tried the addresses I knew, but didn't get very far. So I wrote to Heinz for help. No problem, he said, Naval Research will cough up something. He called them and they said they might, but he would have to present his case to them in person at their office in Los Angeles. So he made an appointment, booked the ticket and ordered the car to take him to the airport.

On the day he was to leave, he got up early because the evening before he had at last found the nest of the wasps that always bothered Mai and him when they had breakfast on their deck. On that side of the house, Rattlesnake Hill falls away steeply and the wasps had made their nest under the jutting-out deck. The moment he touched it with the long stick he had chosen as a weapon, the wasps swarmed out and went after him. He quickly turned—and found himself running down the hill. There was no way to stop and he crashed into a tree. When he picked himself up, he had a gash in his forehead and a sharp pain in his knee. There was just enough time for Mai to fix up the wound before the car arrived.

When he appeared at the Naval Research Office in Los Angeles with a crutch and a large band-aid on his forehead, they asked in what war he had been wounded. He told them, and apparently they were sufficiently moved to promise a sizable grant for the conference.

Unfortunately, as in the case of the Institute for Free Research, there was a snag. Two months before the conference, the Office of Naval Research informed me that they had budgeted the money for the following fiscal year and there would be no support in the present one.

Well, the conference took place just the same and was enjoyed by all who were able to come without a subsidy. But, because there were fewer attendants than expected, the Gordon Foundation lost heart in cybernetics and decided not to repeat these meetings. Since then, I believe, Heinz has been careful about running down hills.

Ernst von Glasersfeld
Amherst, April 2000

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift