“[John] von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!” — Richard Feynman

He expands on this in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius (1994):

“I got the idea of ‘active irresponsibility’ in Los Alamos. We often went on walks, and one day I was with the great mathematician von Neumann and a few other people. I think Bethe and von Neumann were discussing some social problem that Bethe was very worried about. Von Neumann said, ‘I don’t feel any responsibility for all these social problems. Why should I? I’m born into the world, I didn’t make it.’ Something like that. Well, I’ve read von Neumann’s autobiography and it seems to me that he felt perpetually responsible, but at that moment this was a new idea to me, and I caught onto it. Around you all the time there are people telling you what your responsibilities are, and I thought it was kind of brave to be actively irresponsible. ‘Active’ because, like democracy, it takes eternal vigilance to maintain it — in a university you have to perpetually watch out, and be careful that you don’t do anything to help anybody!”

Hans Bethe:

“Feynman somehow was proud of being irresponsible. He concentrated on his science, and on enjoying life. There are some of us — including myself — who felt after the end of the Second World War that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make the government do sensible things about atomic weapons. … Feynman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I think quite rightly. I think it would be quite wrong if all scientists worked on discharging their responsibility. You need some number of them, but it should only be a small fraction of the total number of scientists. Among the leading scientists, there should be some who do not feel responsible, and who only do what science is supposed to accomplish.”

Marvin Minsky:

“I must say I have a little of this sense of social irresponsibility, and Feynman was a great inspiration to me — I have done a good deal of it since. There are several reasons for a scientist to be irresponsible, and one of them I take very seriously: people say, ‘Are you sure you should be working on this? Can’t it be used for bad?’ Well, I have a strong feeling that good and bad are things to be thought about by people who understand better than I do the interactions among people, and the causes of suffering. The worst thing I can imagine is for somebody to ask me to decide whether a certain innovation is good or bad.”

Langton’s Ant


Set an ant down on a grid of squares and ask it to follow two rules:

  1. If you find yourself on a white square, turn 90° right, change the color of the square to black, and move forward one unit.
  2. If you find yourself on a black square, turn 90° left, change the color of the square to white, and move forward one unit.

That’s it. At first the ant will seem to mill around uncertainly, as above, producing an irregular jumble of black and white squares. But after about 10,000 steps it will start to build a “highway,” following a repeating loop of 104 steps that unfolds forever (below). Computer scientist Chris Langton discovered the phenomenon in 1986.

Will this happen even if some of the starting squares are black? So far the answer appears to be yes — in every initial configuration that’s been tested, the ant eventually produces a highway. If there’s an exception, no one has found it yet.

Rich Talk

Some favorite words of Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall, from his Limits of Language (2006):

  • klunen (Dutch): “to walk or run overland with skates on (usually from one body of frozen water to another)”
  • aɣone (Kuot): “to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle”
  • fringsen (German): “to steal coal from railway wagons or potatoes from fields in order to survive”
  • knedlikový (Czech): “rather partial to dumplings”
  • qamigartuk (Yup’ik): “he goes seal-hunting with a small sled and kayak in the spring”
  • baleŋga (Chavacano): “excessive swinging of arms while walking”
  • kallsup (Swedish): “a gulp of water that a bather accidentally inhales”
  • googly (English): “(of an off-breaking cricket ball) disguised by the bowler with an apparent leg-break action”

Gunwinggu, spoken in northwestern Australia, uses different verbs to describe the hopping of a black wallaroo (Macropus bernardus) (kamurlbardme), the hopping of an agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) (kalurlhlurme), the hopping of a male antilopine wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) (kamawudme), and the hopping of a female antilopine wallaroo (kadjalwahme).

Asked and Answered

A college professor once offered the following creative final exam: Write a suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. The first paper handed in read ‘Final Exam: Write suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. Key: Any reasonable variation of the previous sentence = 100%.’

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998


Have no parts or joints.
How then can they combine
To form a line?

— J.A. Lindon



If human behavior is essentially rational, what are we to make of procrastination? I have to write a paper; it’s a requirement of the course, and I know I’ll be better off for writing it, but instead I alphabetize my spice rack. “The procrastinator is someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, in some sense can do it, is trying to do it — yet doesn’t do it,” write psychologists Maury Silver and John Sabini. Bewildered by his own delay, Hamlet says

I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do;”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.

“Hamlet knew what he had to do, wanted to do it, had the means to do it, and was prepared to do it — constantly — but was ‘unable’,” they write. Procrastination is “a psychopathology of everyday life, as curious to those who suffer it as to those who would explain it.”

(Maury Silver and John Sabini, “Procrastinating,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 11:2, July 1981.)

Black and White

carpenter chess problem

By George Edward Carpenter. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

In a Word


n. breakfast


In 1960 Jane Goodall watched a chimpanzee repeatedly poking pieces of grass into a termite mound in order to “fish” for insects, the first observation of tool use among animals. When she notified anthropologist Louis Leakey of her discovery, he responded with a telegram:


Truth and Fiction


We know that Sherlock Holmes lived in London — we have this on the authority of Arthur Conan Doyle. But we would resist saying that the residents of London have included Sherlock Holmes. How can the one be true but not the other?

Suppose that Doyle had written a story in which Holmes had had tea with prime minister William Gladstone. Then it would seem correct to say that Holmes had had tea with Gladstone, but wrong to say that William Gladstone had once had tea with Sherlock Holmes. What can we make of this? Can Doyle be wrong about his own character’s actions? Is all fictional discourse false?

We don’t normally regard it so. “If you say that Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street I may wager that you are mistaken,” writes philosopher John Woods. “Then, as we all very well know, what you say wins the bet; what I say loses it. … It is an interesting and important curiosity of the affair that [the argument] that Holmes could not have lived in Baker Street because he could not have lived anywhere, he being but fictional, is not automatically, or always, if ever, deemed a satisfactory endorsement of my claim at the expense of yours. The bet is still yours.”

(From The Logic of Fiction, 1974.)

Page 40 of 827« First...102030...3839404142...50607080...Last »