Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Big Ten

Heinz von Foerster has had such an impact on what I think about and how I think about it that I can't conceive of what my interests and style of pursuing them would be like had I failed to meet him when I did. My gain has been so great I am simply unable to estimate it. I have been the beneficiary of a lucky string of accidents and other events that were all to my benefit. Here is a bit of how my good fortune came to pass. It's in autobiographical form, but it's really a story about Heinz and Mai von Foerster.

In Spring, on a Sunday in 1967, at 16, about to graduate Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois I noticed a feature article in the Chicago Tribune entitled "The Ten Best Teachers In The Big Ten". They had selected one professor from each of the 10 schools making up the Midwest family of universities, The Big Ten (better known through their affiliation in a intercollegiate sports league). Since I already knew I would attend University of Illinois, I read about the teacher the Trib chose to represent UI and that is how I first heard of Heinz von Foerster and Heuristics. The article said the course on learning about learning was innovative and attracted lots of bright students. But knowing I was to be a physics undergraduate, it seemed unlikely I'd ever participate in such a course or ever meet Professor von Foerster. The article about Professor von Foerster stuck in my mind nevertheless because it meant there were some lively things going on in at Illinois that his course and innovative style led to him being singled out as the best teacher at that university.

By the time I was finishing up my undergraduate studies in physics, I was also developing a genuine interest in neurobiology and spending a lot of time reading and studying about it. Near the end of my last Spring term, my analysis professor suggested I seek out Klaus Witz, a mathematics professor whom he knew was also interested in neurobiology, who might help orient me to good study materials. It was a fortunate referral. The military draft and war situation meant it would be best to slightly delay my undergraduate requirements just a little more slowly that had been my frenetic pace up to then. With all the formal requirements completed, I planned one final (autumn) semester of study that would be just a reading course in neurobiology of vision and Klaus agreed to direct it. Klaus quickly had me onto the classics in neurobiology. And before long he suggested I meet Heinz von Foerster who could help with my studies of vision.

Of course Heinz right away piled me up with plenty of BCL publications and before long we met at length about my interests and future direction and my existing plans for graduate studies in physics. Continuing in physics at UI was an odd thing to do and I knew it would probably be temporary but Heinz quickly agreed to be my graduate advisor. By the end of that term, though, my physics interests were turning rapidly in another direction. The Sprng term I found myself completely immersed in BCL with BCL research assistant funding and Heinz' intellectual support. I took the Heuristics seminar and found out why it had attracted so many others - lots of my other student friends were there, too. Led by Heinz, Herbert Brun, Jack Easeley, and Klaus Witz it was a intellectual party one night a week - and for course credit! And of course Heinz had all of us BCL students working on BCL projects related to theoretical biology of neural networks, syntheses of cognitive phenomenae, and reading Warren McCulloch, Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, John Lilly, Jean Piaget, Ross Ashby, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Laws of Form; stretching our intellects in the direction that a conceptual framework of biological computation leads. And before long, invitations to their home and the privelege to meet in the company of both Heinz and Mai. And discovering Heinz and Mai's much broader range of interests in human relationships and esthetics as well.

BCL and the Heuristics seminar was a mental storm. The meaning of computing and neural and other living substrates of computing; the relationships between logic, life, thermodynamics, arithmetic, computing, and their biological (neural), mechanical, and electronic manifestations. Thinking about biological analogues of electromechanical control systems - cybernetics. It was all new and just what was needed to expand my envelope. Sometimes I pictured myself as a real-life example of the caricature cartoon character Heinz used as a humorous prop in lectures on epistemology and heuristics - the empty-headed fellow with a funnel inserted in his head into which knowledge was being poured.

There really is an affinity that students of physics share and my preparations were just right to permit much of this deluge to fall right into place in a way that was different than for some of the other Heuristics and BCL students who came from backgrounds in art, language, education, and anthropology. Heinz is, after all, a physicist. But there was also plenty of new and very difficult material on computer languages, linguistics, and computation theory. In the meantime I also kept up with physics studies but knew that would end soon. Heinz' BCL encountered some departmental political and funding difficulties and it was best that, since my education was turning toward biology, that I seek out a long term doctoral plan. Another friend, Blaise Fleischman (himself a doctoral candidate in physiological psychology) found the perfect fit for me and I changed course for zoology where I would undertake the doctorate in evolution of animal behavior.

My penchant for mathematics and cybernetics was curbed by my new doctoral advisor, Jerry Hirsh, who wisely insisted that as a zoology student I should fill in the big holes in my preparation due to my complete lack of any formal study of biology. Happily he had support from the Public Health Service for an interdisciplinary group including doctoral candidate psychologists, zoologists, and anthropologists with a great crew of faculty advisors from all of those fields.

Direct participation in BCL was out of the question (Jerry Hirsch even forbade any math classes), the necessity was to get me up to speed in ecology, biochemistry, ethology, and the like. But Heinz continued to come through, putting me onto Carl Woese's molecular genetics that had an associated class of the most astute biology grad students and a intellectual orientation reminiscent of the Heuristics group.

Karl Pribram's theory of holographic memory got hot attention for a time in the mid 70s and Dr. Pribram visited UI to present a seminar on it and hold forth on it with the physiological psych seminar group. My friend Blaise invited me to attend and I phoned Heinz to let him know about it. Heinz and Mai immediately invited Karl Pribram, Blaise, and myself to breakfast at their home the following morning where a spirited private seminar took place over Mai's splendid quiche lorraine (which I was inspired to learn to prepare myself).

One day I got a call from Heinz who asked "Do you like a fight?" It was a short call and we met not long after for lunch to discuss a plan to help a couple of neuropsychology guys from UI Chicago get some of their papers published. Thaddeus Marczynski and his student, Cliff Sherry, had come up with a novel approach to analyzing some data from single cell recordings but needed some help to put it into a mathematical notation since it had been refused by a journal by editors who didn't understand these novel ideas and resisted publishing them. A little mathematical cleanup did the trick. A Kronecker's delta here, a matrix representation there, and Sherry and Marczynski's battle against intransigent editors was turning the tide with acceptances of their publications. I never had more fun in a fight.

Cliff Sherry's idea was to interpret inequalities between data measurements rather than exact quantitative differences. And with a stroke of insight from Heinz, a new adventure that generalized the mathematical predictions of this approach was under way. Heinz showed me the idea and I began to plod away at a mundane mathematical solution to some equations. I saw the outcome was very general and didn't depend on the exact structure of the data in any way, but it appeared that calculating the prediction was a matter of more and more complex operations. Heinz knew otherwise! He already had seen generality of the results and formulated some simple equations that would permit us to calculate larger and larger data probability tables with ease. Ha! I should have known. The pair of theorems and their proofs were published by BCL.

Heinz retired a few years later, BCL closed, and things moved along as I finished up my doctoral studies and moved to England for a time. Fortunately, one of the BCL students who came to BCL as I moved on to the zoology studies, Ken Wilson, was able to organize and maintain the BCL library and collection of hundreds of publications. And I learned that Heinz had moved to California. Upon my return, I moved to southern California in 1980 and discovered Godel, Escher, Bach. It had a deja vu effect of making me feel I was back at BCL. Within a short time I had a chance to look up Heinz and Mai in Pescadero and visit them there during a business trip to San Francisco. I got the tour of Rattlesnake Hill and saw the big job they'd all done to make it a pioneer home. I've continued to try and stay in touch, conveying their greetings to Carl Woese and Klaus Witz when I've seen them on my visits to Champaign Urbana. I happily learned Heinz was extremely active with teaching, lecturing, and a variety of substantial projects during what others might have made a relaxed retirement. I've continued to visit Pescadero from time to time, attend the occasional lecture by Heinz, participate in a 1987 Gordon Research Conference on cybernetics at his invitation (where I got to meet Paul Pangaro as well), and even brought a couple friends who share interests in cybernetics to make the pilgrimage to Pescadero and meet Heinz and Mai.

After the 1990 earthquake I was able to phone Heinz within a few hours to check on them since Heinz and Mai were OK so near the epicenter. I came by to see if I could help, but arriving two full days after the quake, Heinz and Mai had already done most of the backbreaking work of restoring huge wood piles and cleaning up the house - all I could do was help reposition a couple large bookshelves!

Heinz kept me posted from time to time when I phoned about his travels, projects, and even activities with Atari and the world of computing as it spread to become a household phenomenon. I kept Heinz updated on my work with cryptography, arithmetic, artificial intelligence, and fractal art projects, as well as writing and computer software development where I ventured after returning to the US.

After much too long an absence, I returned to Pescadero in 1998 to find my old mentor and friend more aged but no less energetic. Monika Broeker, the organizer and editor of this document, was there for a fine luncheon introduction at Duarte's in Pescadero and Paul Pangaro came to visit as well. An electrical power failure had us all around the dining table atop Rattlesnake Hill, lit by candlelight, making a light dinner and hearing Heinz's tales of adverture in cybernetics that preceded BCL.

With luck I will visit Rattlesnake Hill shortly after writing this and catch up once again with these old friends. Many of my adult life's interests in computing, art, philosophy, and systems both electronic and biological were shaped by the BCL experience. Now having lasted nearly 30 years, no one has been more enriched by a friendship.

I'm back on Rattlesnake Hill
Daniel Wolf, 9/2/00

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift