What Stephen Hawking missed about the nature of human intelligence in PBS’s “Genius”

Back in 2012, Stephen Hawking visited Seattle and I had the privilege of attending a lecture he gave titled “Brane New World.” Now, I know from a statistical standpoint that I’m above average in intelligence, and I’ve read widely and deeply in physics and cosmology — I read Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory when I was 15. And yet, I struggled to follow pretty much anything Hawking talked about. On my own in the darkened auditorium, being a statistical “genius”[1] did not alone enable me to understand the concepts of M-theory in his lecture.

This week, PBS launched a new, six-part series titled “Genius with Stephen Hawking.” Hawking narrates, and the show follows a trio it describes as “ordinary people”[2] through a sequence of exercises and experiments in which they uncover key concepts in physics and cosmology.

Stephen Hawking

At the beginning of the first show, Hawking addresses the team as “my budding geniuses.” Over the course of the show, they successfully conclude that backwards time travel is impossible due to the fundamental laws of physics, while the rather counterintuitive forwards “time travel” (beyond our prosaic movement through the fourth dimension as we live our lives) is a very real possibility thanks to the effects of gravity on space-time. Because time itself travels more slowly the closer one is to a major gravitational source, traveling relative to such a source — toward or away — causes a desynchronization of how the traveler experiences time from the “absolute” time at the traveler’s point of origin. For example, orbiting the supermassive black hole likely at the center of our galaxy for a while without falling into the event horizon and then somehow managing to escape back out would give us the experience of leaping “forward” in time when we return. Finally, having proven that even “ordinary people” can reach the conclusions of the great scientific minds of history, Hawking ends the show with the imperative “Think like a genius.”

But there is a fundamental flaw in Stephen Hawking’s logic (well, at least the logic of the show’s writers — Hawking himself is not actually credited as a writer). Unlike my poor solitary brain in that dark theater here in Seattle, each of the teams on the shows that aired this week benefited from two of the evolutionary advantages that have enabled our species to walk, row, sail, and ultimately fly out of the confines of our ancestral homelands.

What the show fails to highlight, focused as it is on physics and cosmology rather than paleoanthropology or evolutionary biology, is that the participants are benefiting from distributed cognition and altruism — attributes innate to how the human mind works. By operating as a cooperative team, with access to the information and technology humans have built up over the past 200,000 years, they are able to arrive at the same innovative breakthroughs that individual geniuses have over the last 400 years of unbounded scientific discovery. Each team of “ordinary people” is also a diverse group, and they complement each other as they explore concepts in relativity, cosmic scale, and the probability of the existence of intelligent life beyond our solar system.

But even those singular geniuses of the past have acknowledged their debt to the work of previous thinkers. Isaac Newton famously said in 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today, Hawking stands on Einstein’s shoulders, who stood on Newton’s shoulders, who stood on Copernicus’s shoulders. It’s geniuses all the way down!

Through education and technology, each of us benefits from the giants whose shoulders we stand on. This is no less true with my college degree and iPhone today than it was 43,000 years ago when our ancestors taught their children how to carve musical instruments from animal bones. Because we all benefit from the accumulated culture of our species, we are indeed able to be geniuses.

So Stephen Hawking tells us, “Think like a genius.”

Due to the ambiguity of plurality in the second person in English grammar, Hawking leaves it open to us to interpret whether he is speaking to each of us individually, or all of us collectively. I prefer to believe that he means the latter. We are all stronger, better, and ultimately smarter together. Human intelligence exists not merely at an individual level, but as a result of the tools, artifacts, information, and meaning that we carry with us from one generation to the next.

Yes, Professor Hawking, thanks to the brilliance of all those who’ve gone before, we will indeed think like one monumental, collective genius.

[1] What this means is that there are about 700 million people smarter than me in the world today. That’s a lot of people. I find the concept of individual genius essentially meaningless.

[2] C’mon, PBS, you just mean “non-scientists.”


Paleolithic archaeology, software design, and the social brain

Over the past 18 months, I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper in the Paleolithic, reading scores of books and journal articles. Why?

Backed knife on a Levallois blade - Right-handed (5)

Ever since my first visit at about age four to the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, with its mammoth skeletons and Paleolithic dioramas, I’ve been fascinating by the archaeology of deep human history (as Clive Gamble puts it in the subtitle of his exceptional book Settling the Earth). I wandered by chance onto the Tategahana Paleolithic Site at Lake Nojiri in Nagano during an excavation, walked carrot fields in Yokohama looking for Jomon potsherds, and when I traveled to Jordan during college for an Iron Age dig, I spent my evenings surface-collecting Middle Paleolithic tools from a nearby barley field. The vast, mostly unknown and seemingly unrelatable world of the Stone Age seems so much more interesting than the thoroughly modern world of Archimedes, Hadrian, and Augustine of Hippo.

The people driving their cars around the Coliseum in the photo below are separated from the Romans who built it by a mere 1% of the time our species has walked this earth. The archaeology of the complex, stratified societies that emerged during and after the Neolithic frankly bores me.

Photo by Kaosrimo on Wikimedia Commons

I’ve always been that strange arty type just as entranced by science and technology — there is no dichotomy or conflict for me. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life melding my background in language and communication with a passion for data-driven research and the creation of new technologies. Despite being an English major during college back in the mid 90’s, my first “real” technology job was running the websites for several university departments, using vi on Sun Solaris to hand code the sites’ HTML — a skill carried over from repeatedly hitting F11 to Reveal Codes in WordPerfect on DOS.

When I finally took calculus alongside aspiring engineers and physicists, I had an epiphany: Mathematics and programming languages follow the same rules as music and human languages — a vocabulary with syntax and return values. Poetry is code. Music is math. And they’re not mere logic — they’re beautiful, emotionally rich expressions of this amazing, symbolic, social brain we’ve inherited from our ancestors.

When friends and colleagues wonder at my diverse interests — writing poetry, playing with LEGO, reading as much as I can about the Paleolithic, and running the planning and design teams for software development companies — I explain that there is a common thread throughout. I observe patterns and I make connections. I imagine and I explore. In doing so I create. I make stuff. I build things.

But I’m not special — to do all that merely defines me as a member of the human species. Understanding how we became us — and what “us” even means — is precisely what we can learn by studying human origins and the vast reaches of the Paleolithic. That is why I read.

Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition reading list

The Human RevolutionThe period of the Paleolithic that fascinates me most, as I know it does many archaeologists, is the transition between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic. I’m particularly fascinated by archaeological work in parts of the world where anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals met, potentially interacted, and certainly interbred. The two most likely areas where this happened, based on archaeogenetic and archaeological evidence, are the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Europe.

While the genetics are at this point incontrovertible — all non-African modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and recent research has proved that gene flow also occurred in the other direction — what intrigues me most are the cultural markers of interaction between AMH and Neanderthals. Similarly, what constitutes behavioral rather than merely anatomical modernity? Thus, the Mode 3 technologies associated with AMH at several sites in the Levant and Mode 4 technologies (and potentially symbolic behavior such as personal adornment) associated with Neanderthals at Châtelperronian sites like Saint-Cesaire and Les Cottés in France represent amazing opportunities to answer these questions.

The Shape of Content to Come

Or, Information Architecture, Minimalist music, LEGO bricks, and a visit from the President of the People’s Republic of China

As I sat stuck on the bus yesterday for an hour and a half, crawling through traffic delayed and re-routed by an impending visit from President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, I listened for the first time to John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China.

I grew up listening both to the masters of “traditional” classical music and to revolutionary 20th-century composers like Copeland and Stravinsky — the first CD I ever bought for myself, back in 1983 (the year CDs were released in Japan), was the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later, I learned to love opera when I sang in the chorus for Carmen with the oldest active symphony west of the Mississippi (a fun fact about the Walla Walla Symphony). But despite passionate recommendations from Music Major friends in college, I’d never really dug particularly deeply into Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, or John Adams. Hearing The Chairman Dances on the radio over the weekend, I realized I’d been missing something.

Whether writing software documentation earlier in my career as a technical writer, specifications and user stories more recently as a product manager, or poetry and fiction whenever I can find the creative and emotional space to write it, music has always played a significant part in my writing process. From Bach and Beethoven to Johnny Cash and Sigur Rós, just about any music helps me focus and concentrate, while the right music can help me maintain the emotional state I want to explore when writing poetry in particular.

This is not to say that music is somehow subordinate or subservient to writing. Music is in all probability the first art form that we humans created. Paleoanthropologists have excavated Aurignacian flutes from numerous sites across Europe — swan and vulture rib bones, cave bear femurs, and mammoth ivory carefully drilled with finger holes.

Flauta paleolítica
Aurignacian flute, ca. 43,000 BP. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, via Wikimedia Commons

With such incontrovertible evidence from 43,000 years ago, there is no doubt that music extends far back into the Paleolithic and may even precede the emergence of our species in Africa 200,000 years ago (I think it’s only a matter of time before the historically understudied African Middle or Later Stone Age reveals no less incontrovertible evidence of our African ancestors making music). Music was likely already a major component of the ritual activities that took place surrounded by the cave art of Chauvet and Lasceaux.

But the written word did not emerge until tens of thousands of years later in the Fertile Crescent and China, and did not evolve to include what we would consider “art” until even later, with poetry such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from around 2,100 BCE.

British Museum Flood Tablet
The Epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2,100 BCE. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, music serves to aid my thought processes as it has for my ancestors for the past tens of thousands of years, and writing is just one potential outcome of the thinking process.

At the same time, what I write myself and work with every day (I’m the director of the planning and design team for a software company that builds tools for writers) has always had a definable shape. I’m not talking about the butterflies and triangles that writers of concrete poetry use or even the hierarchies and so-called structures that luminaries in the content business talk about at conventions and write about in thick books about content strategy. No, visual poetic devices on a page and cascading sequences of technical content are at best two-dimensional (and more often than not merely linear).

For me, content has the kind of shape you can hold in your hands. When I’m writing a poem, the experience is much like drawing a lump of clay up from the potter’s wheel into a plate, a pot, a vase. Carrying the simile perhaps one step too far, the carving, burnishing, and glazing that follows a pot’s drying process are much like the editing process with words — trim here, add there, change this and that.

From Point to TesseractThings get a bit … weirder in my head with complex business content — websites, software help systems, multilingual hardware manuals, drug labels and other pharmaceutical content. Beyond the tangible three-dimensional shapes I perceive when writing poetry, modules of content and their variations, the relationships between pieces of content, the content’s metadata, and the intended uses for the content all combine to begin taking a shape beyond the confines of three-dimensional space. If a poem is a beautifully crafted but rather straightforward cube, a drug label — with its relationships to regional and local prescribing information, varying approval statuses by regulatory authority, and forthcoming indications in Phase III clinical trials — is nothing short of a tesseract (the four-dimensional cube animated here).

Most people talk about content in terms of the end products (novels, poems, or documents) and their storage media (books and files). Even when we talk about the rich landscapes of great works of fiction like The Grapes of Wrath or The Lord of the Rings, we fall back to tired, linear mental models like the “inverted check mark” that every English Major has seen scratched on a chalkboard — tension building in a long line to a climax, with a short downward dip for the denouement after resolution of the story’s central conflict.

Inverted checkmark for The Lord of the Rings
A really boring story?

Despite fancy words we use in business content like “metadata,” “reuse,” and “modularity,” the way we actually describe and work with content is no less flat than the boring ways we analyze fiction. If language reflects the way we think, we’re thinking about content all wrong. Content is about complex relationships, tangible structures, and the interplay of ideas and their expression. Every piece of content has a shape.

One way I break out of linear and two-dimensional ways of thinking about content is by approaching it in a literally physical form. Thanks to my lifelong LEGO hobby, both my home and office are strewn with boxes of little plastic bricks from Denmark. When talking about content with colleagues, I often build what I’m describing, with specific colors representing certain content types and different bricks above, below, and behind to represent the relationships between the core content we’re discussing and other, related content. Not surprisingly, this mental model has worked much better with colleagues and customers than lengthy enumerations of content types and metadata in a spreadsheet or a linear hierarchy of elements and attributes.

LEGO Andrew plays with LEGO. Is the white tile the content and the red stud the metadata?

Interestingly, the language and processes of the Minimal music aesthetic also focuses on repetition, modularity, and complex structure. What I discovered this week is that the music itself creates a shape in my mind in the same way that both literature and complex business content do. For example, in Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” repeated phrases from the piccolos and a pulsing bass rhythm anchor the two ends of the score’s range and build on each other over the course of the piece, with transitions to variations on more traditional musical genres such as Big Band music from the 1930’s. The similarity to the Information Architecture concepts of modularity, reuse, and variation is even more evident in “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” with its persistent wood block percussion and varyingly repetitive trumpet notes. (I’m listening to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as I write this post, but my brain hurts a bit processing its shape.)

So, if music influences thinking, and thinking yields writing, perhaps we should be listening to more Philip Glass and John Adams while playing with LEGO bricks, and reading fewer big books about Information Architecture and Content Strategy…

Upper Paleolithic reading list

When most of us think about the Paleolithic, if we think about it at all, we think of our “Stone Age” ancestors clad in fur against the Ice Age cold, leaving their brightly painted caves to hunt mammoth. As a teenager in 1989, I visited the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian and bought one of my first books specifically about the Paleolithic in the gift shop, Paul Bahn and Jean Vertut’s gorgeous Images of the Ice Age. Through no fault of the authors, the book reinforced my childhood view of “deep” human history being a time populated by mammoths and men — humans like us.

As true as it may feel, the Upper Paleolithic is hardly ancient in the grand scheme of things, representing as little as one quarter of our species’ existence, and a minuscule fraction of the time our genus Homo has walked the earth. Nevertheless, the Upper Paleolithic, as remote as it may seem to all of us living in the post-Neolithic Holocene, still somehow feels like “our” Stone Age — a time we can relate to, with its art, complex technology, and nearly global scale.

Quibbles with perceptions of antiquity aside, it’s hard to argue that the Upper Paleolithic wasn’t beautiful. The books in my Upper Paleolithic reading list reflect the beauty and complexity of the time when we finally became us.

The official word-hoard of Andrew Becraft