Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Doing Science

I met Heinz just weeks after my arrival on campus. My brother Jim and I came to UofI with great romantic dreams of "doing science" and we were overwhelmed and dismayed by the reality of 600 person chemistry classes taught out of text books by young graduate students. Then someone mentioned Heinz and his seminar, and my life changed. Suddenly, here was an enormously accomplished scientist who took us seriously and seemed even more excited by new ideas than we were. Suddenly, here also was a classroom full of artists, mathematicians, engineers, designers, composers and sociologists, each bringing a bit of themselves and their disciplines to the discussion.

It's not too grandiose to say that the seminar changed my life, but it did so in unexpected ways. The task of assembling the book foreshadowed much of my work as a manager of projects. Some of the class participants,the United Mime Workers, became my colleagues when later I managed their troupe. Herbert Brun helped shape my growing awareness of politics and language, as did Heinz's deep concern about Maturana's fate as the coup unfolded in Chile. Perhaps most importantly, the seminar changed how I think. Heinz combined a highly critical sensibility with an immense openess to new ideas. This style of thinking, with its emphasis on broad learning and creatively "borrowing"/"translating" ideas from other disciplines, remains my model for how my mind ought to work (on good days).

I remember many moments. I had a habit (which I still have) of asking probing questions one after another until I give up or the other guy does. Heinz noticed my habit and took me aside to give me some advice " Bobby" he said "you must learn to cherish what's implicit in things" Naturally, my response was "what do you mean by that?"

Another time, Heinz was demonstrating the concept of an "arbitrary point". In the midst of showing how an arbitrary point could not correspond to any particular point, he suddenly made his chalk vanish—to the delight of the entire class.

Another time, Heinz suggested that I read a particularly thick piece—perhaps something by Maturana—and someone objected that it might be too hard for me. Heinz replied that its good, from time to time, to read things that you don't understand.

Robert S. Rebitzer

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift