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A Minimally-biased Philosophy of Life: Site/Author/Education

I attended a very good public High School (Menlo-Atherton), graduating in 1980 with several boyhood friends who went on to famous universities. I received a B.S. in physics from Haverford College in 1984, followed by a stint in the Physics Division of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, in the very room where the transistor was invented. I received a Ph.D. from Caltech in 1993 (technically in Physics, but with a theoretical-neuroscience thesis under Christof Koch in the Computation and Neural Systems program). I spend my post-doc at the NIH "Math Research Branch," then headed by John Rinzel.

Scientific influences

I've often been in the presence of scientific greatness, starting with my parents. My father (a nuclear scientist from Berkeley) co-authored a paper in Physical Review Letters having only a single reference: Einstein's paper on Relativity. The paper suggested testing relativity's prediction of non-dispersion in deep space by detonating a hydrogen bomb near Jupiter's orbit. The paper received hate mail, and the famous Edward Teller tried to take credit.

My mother quit academic science after her Master's degree, but later, on a date, used force-vectors to teach the Nobelist Bill Schockley how to rock-climb. Her own influence came out in journalism, where she interviewed many famous scientists for our local paper. She helped found the environmental movement in the Bay Area.

In the Haverford College Physics department I took several classes from Jerry Gollub, who taught us about nonlinear dynamics and strange attractors before it was called "chaos theory." I was also inspired by Lyle Roelofs, who was my advisor and introduced me to the termodynamic properties of Ising "spin-glass" models, a sort of simplified crystal.

I was lucky enough to start a correspondence with Freeman Dyson while in West Africa, and ultimately spend a full day with him in Princeton wandering around and playing with ideas. He told me I would have liked Dick Feynman, who had died a couple years before.

While at Bell Labs in 1985 I attended a day-long symposium in honor of John Hopfield, whose seminal paper on attractor networks had just appeared. It was there I learned the simplification of a neuron as an analog device. Hopfield later became my first professor at Caltech, helping me enormously. He taught a very difficult class combining neuroscience, mathematical derivations, computer programming, and electronic tinkering; he sat on my thesis committee; and he insisted that all students whom he approved would have to submit a single-author paper, a move which finally allowed me to find my independent scientific voice.

I was able to take a class from Professor Murray Gell-Man, who sat on my candidacy committee (but was hospitalized during my thesis defense). He told clever illustrative jokes.

My advisor Christof Koch was amazing, providing the optimum mix of freedom and independence. He allowed me to stay in the Physics program, so that I wouldn't have to take extra classes, and supported me in my controversial thesis work. His laboratory ("klab") was diverse and vibrant, often taking hikes together in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Stearl Phinney and Peter Goldreich taught a world-expanding class in "Order of Magnitude Physics." They inspired clever but approximate thinking by the mock-threat of penalizing for too-precise answers. My favorite examples (besides a quite politically-incorrect question on the final exam) were 1) to use the mass and charge of a carbon atom, along with the force of gravity, to calculate how high a tree might grow on earth, and 2) to use the solar constant and the density of air to calculate how fast the wind can blow.

Kip Thorne taught a wonderful class in Gravitation, including how spacetime itself re-orients as one falls into a Black Hole, making space move forward and time move sideways (Black Holes then were quaintly called "active galactic nuclei," because their physical existence had not yet been confirmed). But Kip's greatest inspiration came on the first day of class: he encouraged everyone to not work too hard on tests and homework, in fact to aim for C-grades, because he asserted that class grades have little impact on scientific success. I'm still grateful for that advice, and hope to prove him right.

The first professor to understand the implications of my thesis as I did myself was Carver Mead, who after hearing it coined on the spot the moniker, "One man's noise is another man's information" (a truth based not in metaphor but in equations of entropy and information). I attended his group meetings (and his class in analog chip-design) for fun, while working on my thesis.

Terry Sejnowsky of the Salk Institute helped me enormously. He invited me to give a private talk to a few grad students and Francis Crick (!), and within a year Zach Mainen published with him an elegant test of my neural-noise proposal. The journal Terry founded, Neural Computation, published my first results, and I refereed for NC for years. Terry is my favorite neural polymath.

Much later, at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, I got to work up close with Jeff Hawkins, a truly brilliant thinker (at least I like to think so, because he and I had both, separately and years before, inferred the same brain architecture of modular prediction). Jeff and I could spend hours arguing at the whiteboard, and at lectures often asked questions the other one was thinking.

I've known Kwabena Boahen (now Professor at Stanford) since we overlapped in Carver's class (he was a TA, I think). He has given me invaluable suggestions on the limitations of simulatrix and the perils of certain forms of publication. My thought over the last few years has been heavily influenced by the extraordinarily diverse discussions in his "Brains in Silicon" group--especially the ever-present analog-vs-digital tradeoff that brains also face, in which analog computations are energy-efficient but necessarily localized, so that transmission to other locations requires the expenses and complexities of quantization.

At the moment the intellectual greats I know I'd like to meet are the Dalai Lama, Noam Chomsky, Jared Diamond, Randall Munroe, and Barack and Michelle Obama.