My Top Ten Scientists
Peter Watts

SF author and biologist Peter Watts cites
the scientists born in the 20th century who have inspired him.

 

 

It's taken me nigh on two years to compile this list. Perhaps half that time was spent fuming over the demand that it be ten scientists long— I mean, what if I don't find that many twentieth-century scientists inspirational? What if my pop-culture recognition of Fermi and Feynman doesn't really rise to the level of inspiration, what if the scientists who did inspire me did so on a purely personal level, without achieving rock-star status? What if the people who inspired me aren't even real scientists, huh? What you gonna do if I trot out Emmanual Velikovski or Erik von Daniken as role models? (You could actually make a case for Velikovsky; the man's cosmology was dead wrong but at least he took care to ensure that it was empirically testable, which is more than you can say for some of the more credible folks playing around with String Theory back at the turn of the century. And the fact that he was so mercilessly persecuted by establishment scientists who hadn't read his theories at least gives the man martyr points.)

(But I digress.)

Ultimately, though, I decided, fυck it: Science will always be a big part of this equation, because Science is what I ended up pursuing as a result of these influences. So credentials can take a back seat to Inspiration, should the two come into conflict. If I owe my very existence as a (former) scientist to the influence of someone who never even got a B.Sc., so be it.

This is not, strictly speaking, a list of Ten Inspirational Scientists. This is a list of Ten Scientific Inspirations. And if none of you have heard of half these names, well, blame the good folks at SF² Concatenation for their choice of criteria: they never said my inspirations had to be famous. They only said there had to be ten of them.

So, arranged alphabetically, let me introduce you to--

Mike Bigg: The guy who first figured out the social dynamics of killer whales off Canada's west coast (one of his acolytes, John Ford, nailed their vocal dialects). A government biologist who managed to shelter himself from the usual bureaucratic bullshit by simply hiding beneath all those layers of middle management and quietly carrying out his research under the radar. He was on my committee, and was a helluva nice guy, friendly, soft-spoken, insightful and endlessly approachable. Leukemia killed him in his forties, just before I graduated. There's a marine park bearing his name in the Strait of Georgia.

Dan Brooks: Parasitologist, evolutionary biologist, author, winner of numerous academic awards. Retired for a decade now, still raising the alarm about the (largely overlooked) epidemiological ramifications of climate change, even though I think he's lost whatever faith he once had that Humanity is smart enough to give a shit. Not always the easiest guy to get along with -- when writing Echopraxia, I had to make the character based on him more amiable than the dude can be in real life, and a lot of readers still found him unpleasant -- but his bitterness is not without cause. A couple of quotes frequently attributed to me ("Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best attempts to avoid it", "The neocortex lets us imagine our own mortality; the brain stem keeps us from believing it") were actually coined by Dan -- I just stuck them into my stories and ended up getting the credit. And, yes; I did (very loosely) base the protagonist of one of my novels of the man; so whatever our differences, nobody can argue that he wasn't 'inspirational'.

Jacques Cousteau: No, not even a scientist. An 'explorer', I suppose you could call him. Famous for the invention of SCUBA but even there he got a lot of help from Emile Gagnan, an engineer largely lost in Cousteau's shadow. But it was Cousteau's books I read as a kid. It was Cousteau's documentaries that held me entranced. It was Cousteau's habitats and underwater villages that inspired my own childhood's plans for building underwater bases out of inflatable garbage bags weighted with rocks, pedal-powered submarines, and -- decades later -- the aesthetic of Beebe Station, 3,000 meters down, in my first novel.

By some accounts the man was an asshοle. I can't say. All I know is, as both a biologist and an SF writer, the man shaped me.

Richard Dawkins: Yeah, I know. Almost too obvious. And yet, his definition of "Life" — "information, shaped by natural selection" — is so elegant, so concise, that it absolutely shreds all the usual bullet points people usually fall back on (Life metabolises, it reproduces, it squawks when you poke it with a stick -- that whole grab-bag of things that life does, rather than what it is). Dawkins' definition not only informed my understanding of life when I was a practicing biologist, it explicitly informs my science fiction novels as well. (The concept of the meme also found its way into a couple of my books, back during that brief period when it had some measure of functional utility, when it connoted something more substantive than cute pictures of real estate agents having aηal seχ with armadillos on the internet.)

I actually met Dawkins briefly, back in the late seventies before he ascended into Heaven with the angels. I was one of a small passel of grad students chosen to have dinner with the man when his book tour for The Extended Phenotype took him through Guelph. (The Extended Phenotype -- yet another useful biological concept. There's more to the man's oeuvre than selfish genes.) It was fun. He was shorter than I expected. We talked about Star Wars.

Peter Hochachka: a physiologist at the University of British Columbia, and another member of my committee. Had little respect or concern for the welfare of his experimental animals; he was kind of a Pol Pot of biology. He also didn't think much of me; told the other examiners at my Comps that if I weren't doing this degree, I'd be "throwing bombs for Greenpeace".

So I set out to prove the fυcker wrong. Discouraged by experiments gone wrong and a lack of institutional support, sometimes the only thing that kept me going was the determination that I would make Peter Hochachka eat his words.

And he did. To give him credit, he ate them whole-heartedly, to others and to me directly. His admission to his colleagues -- that I'd had absolutely no departmental support, but had got the job done anyway -- was one of the things that got me a post-doc and kept me off the streets for the next few years. So I have to give the man credit. In fact, in hindsight, I have to wonder if that wasn't his plan all along.

He's been dead for years, now. Cancer.

Lynn Margulis: Champion of the theory of endosymbiosis, a concept that went from heresy to canon in the space of about ten years. Margulis may not have been the first to notice that mitochondria and chloroplasts had a certain intriguing similarity to free-living prokaryotes (I believe that might have been a couple of Russians around the turn of the Twentieth), but she was the first to serve up coherent evidence that they actually had been, once upon a time. She was the first to suggest that the branches of the Tree of Life might sometimes fuse back together -- and to this very day we're still discovering how right she was. (Just last week, as I write this, a paper in the journal Cell revealed that a crucial part of cognition and memory-formation mammals owes its existence to left-over bits of a retrovirus that infected us a few hundred million years ago).

So what if she went a bit off the rails later in her career, when she bought into Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis; the woman was a giant.

Hans Moravec: I've always been sceptical of the whole upload-your-consciousness shtick both in science fiction and in transhumanist circles. People don't seem to have internalized that even if we do figure out the tech necessary to upload a personality, it won't be a transfer -- it'll be a copy/past with a delete-original tacked on at the end. People hoping for geeky immortality are gonna be sadly disappointed; they'll end up dead, while something else with their memories will keep chugging happily along in silico.

Hans Moravec, of Carnegie Mellon, is the first (and so far only) person to posit a upload scenario I could get behind. I'm talking about his famous "incremental replacement" thought experiment: basically a reboot of the 'Ship of Theseus' – where someone has their meat brain replaced by a mineral one one neuron at a time. At what point do you stop being Human, Moravec wondered: when the first neuron is silicised? (If so, say goodbye to everyone with a cochlear implant). When half the brain is gone? When the last organic neuron is swapped out? There's a continuity to this process that soothes my gut fears, that makes me realize that sure, if you change gradually – one neuron at a time – you'll never stop being human in any real sense. It can be done. (It also got me thinking about why, if continuity of awareness is so damn important, I don't fear for my life every time I fall asleep.)

Never met the man. Know of his work only through various works of popular-science (and SF – he figures in Warren Ellis's graphic novel Transmetropolitan). But the man changed the way I think about things. How much more do you need from your inspirations?

Thomas Metzinger: Again, not a scientist: a German philosopher (which, depending on your field, might actually amount to the same thing). Back around the turn of this century he wrote a weighty, formidable book called Being No One (which I still haven't got all the way through) and, a few years later, a much more accessible book called The Ego Tunnel (which I have). Both wrestle with the problem of phenomenal consciousness, and both introduced me to a mind-blowing array of arguments and case studies, which have informed pretty much everything I've ever written since. He is one of the three people I would most like to sit down and argue with over beers (the other two are Stephen Colbert, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull).

Ezequiel Morsella: another neurology-of-consciousness guy, and someone else you probably haven't heard of; he doesn't get nearly the press of someone like Giulio Tononi and his phi theory of consciousness (which, granted, is a pretty awesome theory). But while Tononi focuses on the nuts and bolts of information integration, Morsella looked into the evolutionary roots of consciousness: the reason we even have it in the first place. And his answer is delightfully mundane: Morsella's PRISM model argues that we don't have consciousness for Art or Science or Language or any of the usual suspects. Those came along later, after the wiring was already set up. According to PRISM, consciousness originally evolved to help reconcile conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles. It's such a delightfully down-to-earth, mundane, evolutionary-plausible role that even if it isn't true, it damn well should be.

Carl Walters: a theoretical biologist at UBC, and supervisor of my Ph.D. You'd barely see the man except at Friday beer sessions or in the mailroom, where he would invariably call you by the affectionate nickname 'asshοle'. His biggest contribution for the first few years of my research was to bequeath me the use of the decrepit '74 Chevy camper in which he'd seduced his second wife. Other than that he pretty much left me on my own. It was sink or swim with that guy.

Then you'd hand in a chapter of your thesis and he'd have it back to you the next day, festooned with so much insightful and on-point critique that you'd wonder if he'd been somehow sitting on your shoulder since the day you started and you just hadn't noticed.

I hung out with another one of his ex-grad students just the other day. Apparently Carl is still an ongoing presence at UBC. Honestly, I thought he'd be long dead by now.

Peter Watts

 

Peter Watts is a marine biologist by qualification and is based in Toronto, Canada.  His science fiction is mainly hard SF underpinned by his biological interests.  His work has won the: Hugo Award; Shirley Jackson Award; and Seiun Award.  And short-listed for the: BSFA Award; Campbell Award, Locus Award; Parsec Award; Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, among others.  His novels Blindsight and in Great Britain this, together with its sequel Echopraxia have been published as the duology Firefall by Head of Zeus. His website is www.rifters.com

 


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