Monday, December 18, 2006

Stephen Jay Gould

Recently, I found out that some choice Stephen Jay Gould essays from The New York Review of Books are free online at the magazine's website (hat tip to 2xSlick on the agony booth forum). One is the first Gould essay I ever read, "Dinomania" (1993, also in the then-new collection Dinosaur in a Haystack), where he deals with the Jurassic Park phenomenon, and in particular takes the movie version to task dumbing down some of the themes of the book. Another is "The Streak of Streaks" (1988, also in the collection Bully for Brontosaurus) about Joe DiMaggio's hitting record, with Gould's memorable account of his personal encounter with his sports hero when his father caught a ball from DiMaggio.

So, to complement the many bloggers who are posting anecdotes and memories of Sagan for the Sagan blog-a-thon, I'll describe my own memories of meeting with Sagan's friend and fellow science writer Gould, who also died far too young (Sagan would be 72 today, Gould 65).

The time was fall 2000, when I was entering my first semester at NYU and Gould's essay column was still running every month in Natural History magazine. Like Gould's father catching DiMaggio's baseball, I had the unexpected luck of getting into Gould's class "Reading Darwin". During that semester, he had decided to try something different and teach a class for freshmen, with a small class size and a discussion-oriented format, about The Origin of Species which would deal with the literary and historical as well as the scientific aspect of Darwin's book. Even more unusual was that a few of the classes were held at his apartment in SoHo, which was also the studio of his wife, artist Rhonda Roland Shearer.

In addition to reading Origin chapter-by-chapter and discussing it, students had to write a term paper that dealt with some issue connected to the book. For my paper, I compared the theory of evolution as developed in Origin to the nascent field of artificial life, in which the evolutionary process is simulated on computers; I used Steven Levy's pre-iPod-era book about the field, Artificial Life: A Report from the Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology. I hoped to show that not only was the approach of computational simulation a valid way of learning about evolution, but that it could fill in some of the weaknesses of the theory of Darwin's book. Gould had some fun with his comments on the paper; for instance, when I inadvertently used the word "good" three times in a few sentences, he quipped "too much of a good thing".

I never saw Gould after the class; I thought I might, never suspecting he'd be with us for less than two more years.

1 comment:

Darryl Pearce said...

Well..., I'll be putting something up about Carl Sagan today.

...Darryl Pearce (from Ventura County, CA)