Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002)

Heinz von Foerster was a visionary scholar, academician, one of my mentors, and a dear friend.

I first met him while I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  At that time he was a Professor of Electrical Engineering, head of the Biological Computer Laboratory, and a member of the Coordinated Science Laboratory associated with research in the Artificial Intelligence where I had a research position. I published one paper with him.  When I met him my first impression was that he was the best incarnation I had ever seen of the proverbial “mad scientist” who was hell bent on creating something that would destroy the earth. His accent, complexion, facial expressions, and hairline (if that is what you want to call a bald head) seemed to look just like those images I associated with an old Frankenstein movie. The only thing he was missing was the white lab coat.  This first image of him could not have been further from reality.  In truth, yes, he was a scientist, and, yes, he did want to create ideas that would change humanity, and, yes, even a few people might say that he was so intense that you might be inclined to think that he was “mad”, but few would argue that he wanted to destroy anything, except, ignorance.

I eventually was his student in a graduate seminar course, I worked with him in the research lab.  I published one paper with him. And, most importantly, he honored me by agreeing to be on my dissertation committee.  As we got to know each other, we became friends and I was brought into the circle of intellectual thinking that surrounded him. I was introduced to his colleagues, including Humberto Maturana, and John Lilly, to mention a few. Heinz was very outgoing, was a showman with quite a flair for speaking and was a magnet for attracting controversy.

In 1960 he and two of his associates wrote an article (von Forester, Heinz, Patricia M. Mora, and Lawrence W. Amiot. "'Projections' versus 'Forecasts' in Human Population Studies." Science, Volume 136, Number 3511, April 13, 1962)  wherein they proposed a formula for a best fit to historical data on world human population which indicated that the human population of the Earth would become infinite on Friday, November 13, 2026. The so called “Doomsday Equation” was asymptotic to this date. Critics pointed out that the human population was finite and that, given the 9 month gestation period for humans, it was, therefore, impossible to become infinite by any date.

While the article was intended at one level to be tongue and cheek, having, for example, selected Heinz’s own birth date as the “Doomsday”, the paper generated a storm of protest both in the scientific and in the lay press. He received much notoriety for the article, including New York Times and Time magazine articles and three now famous Pogo comic strips.

I remember well, sitting in his office and looking at the original signed Pogo comic strip hanging on the wall behind his desk.  Those who knew von Foerster could see at his very core his unique and profound sense of humor.

Heinz, like my grandfather, was from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though Heinz was from Vienna.  He studied physics at the Technical University of Vienna.  Subsequently he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1944 at the University of Breslau.  After the War he took a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1949) in the department of Electrical Engineering.  In 1958 he affiliated himself with the department of Biophysics and founded the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1962.  In the latter ‘60s he affiliated himself with Robert Chien at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.   For a short account of his life see his New York Times Obituary.

He is best known as a fairly substantial Information Theorist, having participated in the Cybernetics phenomenon. This was actually no surprise, since he came from a very intellectually famous family.  The famous Mathematician/Logician Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of his relatives.  He was a Guggenheim Fellow twice and President of the the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research. He was the editor of the Macy Conference volumes entitled Cybernetics (1949-53).  He knew John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Margaret Mead, just to mention a few of the people he collaborated with.. He is well known for what is now referred to as the von Foerster Equation.

After retirement from the University of Illinois in 1976 he moved to California and i next met up with him when he was on the Board of Directors of Atari Corp. He had built a home for himself and his wife in Pescadero CA and had converted the basement into his office.

I am glad to see that he has been honored appropriately both during the latter part of his life and certainly after his long distinguished career.

No comments:

Post a Comment