Oxford days – 2010-2013
At a lecture Kasparov gave in 2013, I interviewed him the next day (i’m front row on the right side)
1st part of PhD years 2014-2017
Oxford days – 2010-2013
At a lecture Kasparov gave in 2013, I interviewed him the next day (i’m front row on the right side)
1st part of PhD years 2014-2017
In my twenties I became quite interested in the notebooks of Da Vinci and Newton, more interested than in their finished works, as a way to try and learn more about them and how they worked. I’ll blog a study of these later.
In 2016 I was allowed to see and handle the Fitzwilliam notebook for an hour, the first surviving mathematical notebook of Isaac Newton. it contains his early studies of Euclid, as well as a collection of his expenses and confessions of sins. Here are some photos I took. Newton was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge at the time.
Note 1: I was told not to wear gloves by the curator – the oil of the hands is good for the paper, and the gloves make you more clumsy.
Note 2: there is an excellent facsimile available of another notebook at kroneckerwallis
Some of my thesis work was the subject of a press release article. It is in part this work (a team effort) that won me the British Neuroscience Association Thesis of the year award in 2020.
Now We Know How the Thalamus is Organized: Janelia’s ThalamoSeq Project Team uncovers new details about the organization of the thalamus, a central control center in the brain.
Slowly, the thalamus is being uncloaked.
The brain structure sits just above the brain stem and acts as a central switchboard, directing sensory and motor signals to the cortex. Different regions of the thalamus direct traffic to different areas, like the visual cortex or the auditory cortex.
Now, a Project Team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus illuminates this crucial structure’s organization in new detail. An analysis of RNA from neurons in the thalamus suggests that those specialized regions of the thalamus are built in much the same way as one another, the team reports September 16, 2019, in the journal Nature Neuroscience. This hints at surprising parallels in how different types of information are transferred around the brain.
A cross section of the thalamus reveals three main types of cells, marked here in different colors. Credit: James Phillips
Based on measuring RNA, “there were three main types of thalamic pathways that repeated across essentially every system,” says study coauthor James Phillips, a graduate student at Janelia.
Many structures in the brain send signals through the thalamus. Scientists at Janelia and beyond were studying some of those parts individually, but how those areas communicated with each other via the thalamus was largely a mystery. There just weren’t good tools to study specific subsets of cells in the thalamus, says Adam Hantman, a Janelia group leader who helped direct the project. And without the ability to isolate cells receiving messages from certain brain areas, it was hard to know exactly how signals were being relayed.
This project, ThalamoSeq, aimed to make the thalamus easier to study and understand. It built on techniques honed during a previous Janelia team project, which categorized neurons in mouse and fly brains by analyzing RNA from individual cells. ThalamoSeq adapted those techniques to take a deeper dive into one key brain structure, generating an online resource far more complete than one lab could typically accomplish alone.
Now, “we’ve redefined the cell types of the thalamus based on the pattern of gene expression,” says study coauthor Anton Schulmann, also at Janelia. It’s a more holistic and detailed way of looking at brain cells than simply looking at where they go or what kind of signals they send, and one that opens doors for future research into how the brain is built and organized.
By analyzing the way RNA transcripts varied between cells in the thalamus, the researchers identified three primary profiles of cells. That spectrum of cell types repeated itself over many regions of the thalamus responsible for transmitting different signals – each area contained the same subsets of cell types. That is, the part of the thalamus that communicates with the visual cortex has the same types of cells as the part that communicates with the auditory cortex, the motor cortex, or other brain areas.
“I think the most attractive and intriguing part of this is that for a long time, there’s been a suggestion that the cortex, the seat of cognition, is organized in a similar way across its structure. But what this suggests is, this is actually true right at the core of the brain,” says Phillips. “By understanding the thalamus’s organization, we can get a great deal of information about how the rest of the brain is organized.”
But notably, the boundaries between those cell types were somewhat blurred – not everything fell into a clear category. “I think that’s an important lesson that might be true for other parts of the brain,” says Hantman. “We love to split things into types, but these intermediates are interesting.” And without looking at the thalamus in this much detail, he says, that nuance might have gone unnoticed.
James W. Phillips, Anton Schulmann, Erina Hara, Johan Winnubst, Chenghao Liu, Vera Valakh, Lihua Wang, Brenda C. Shields, Wyatt Korff, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Andrew L. Lemire, Brett Mensh, Joshua Dudman, Sacha B. Nelson, and Adam W. Hantman. “A repeated molecular architecture across thalamic pathways,” Nature Neuroscience. Published online September 16, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0483-3
I posted a couple of my own poems.
But here are some that are amongst my favourites by others. I used to have a strange hobby of memorising poetry, using the ancient technique of memory palaces – I set myself a challenge of memorising 100 poems. I’ll write about that later on, there is a chapter of my memoir on it. I built a memory palace when I was younger and use it in some unusual ways that might be of use to others to learn from.
Note these are mostly relatively old poems, as I couldn’t find the newer ones online.
My favourites of all are Sonnet 104, and those by Yeats, Brooke, Primo Levi, and Owen.
Updated 29th April to add ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘If this is a man’, ‘She walks in beauty’
Auden – August, 1968
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
(The poem is about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia)
Blake – The Fly
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
Rupert Brooke – The Soldier (WW1 poem)
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Ernest Dowson – The shortness of life forbids us long hopes
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
TS Eliot – The Hollow Men
Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Hakuin (A 17th Century Zen Monk)
The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
Housman – Into my heart on air that kills
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Kooser – Selecting a reader
First, I would have her be beautiful, and walking carefully up on my poetry at the loneliest moment of an afternoon, her hair still damp at the neck from washing it. She should be wearing a raincoat, an old one, dirty from not having money enough for the cleaners. She will take out her glasses, and there in the bookstore, she will thumb over my poems, then put the book back up on its shelf. She will say to herself, "For that kind of money, I can get my raincoat cleaned." And she will. Kate Knapp Johnson - The Meadow Half the day lost, staring at this window. I wanted to know just one true thing about the soul, but I left thinking for thought, and now— two inches of snow have fallen over the meadow. Where did I go, how long was I out looking for you?, who would never leave me, my withness, my here.
DH Lawrence – The Enkindled Spring
This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.
I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.
And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.
Primo Levi – If this is a man (Auschwitz)
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find on returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
CS Lewis – Oxford
It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work—to hunger and aspire:
Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast ‘gainst bestial solace set.
But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.
We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.
She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold—barred against despair.
Monty Python – The Philosopher’s Song
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel
There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
‘Bout the raising of the wrist
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed
John Stuart Mill, of his own free will
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill
Plato, they say, could stick it away
Half a crate of whiskey every dayAristotle,
Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle
And Hobbes was fond of his dram
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart
“I drink, therefore I am.
“Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed
A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he’s pissed
Pablo Neruda – If you forget me
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
Wilfred Owen – Anthem for Doomed Youth (WW1 poem)
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen – Dulce et Decorum Est (WW1 poem)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Marvell – To his coy mistress
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 104
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 130
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Robert Louis Stevenson – Requiem
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Wordsworth – I wandered lonely as a cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Yeats – When you are old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Yeats – Never give all the heart
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
Yeats – The Song of the Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Yeats – He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Yeats – The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats – He gives his beloved certain rhymes
FASTEN your hair with a golden pin,
And bind up every wandering tress;
I bade my heart build these poor rhymes:
It worked at them, day out, day in,
Building a sorrowful loveliness
Out of the battles of old times.
You need but lift a pearl-pale hand,
And bind up your long hair and sigh;
And all men’s hearts must burn and beat;
And candle-like foam on the dim sand,
And stars climbing the dew-dropping sky,
Live but to light your passing feet.
Yeats – Down by the Salley Gardens
Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.
In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.
Yeats – Adam’s Curse
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
In a previous post (‘Memoir: A Semi-Monocular I’) I posted a prologue to a book I was writing before I took up my current job. I wrote that prologue in 2018. Before then, in my early twenties, I’d been writing a quite different book, an overview of the science of neural circuits for a popular audience.
Writing the prologue, and some experiences I had in 2017/2018, made me completely change how the book was being written and largely changing the topic and style too, turning it into a memoir. But I was rereading some of the early chapters of the previous book and thought some of it might be useful to people interested in the historical origins of some key ideas in neuroscience. Chapters 2-4 especially.
So I’m posting those draft chapters from that now abandoned book here in case people find it interesting.
Note, this was some of my earliest writing attempts and I’d hopefully write much better now – my prologue, written later, is in quite a different style and more conversational. But I hope its a reasonable 1st attempt and I learnt much from it.
Both written about the same person hence the common themes, the first of which was published.
The eyes of children watch and weave,
Of dreams and dragons, awake eyes see,
Their heads on necks spin pirouettes,
Each glance births new creations.
As rhymes to lines, they are to time,
Ensparkling all their eyes can find,
And with this gaze, as ballet feet,
They dance with all they chance to meet.
Use bobbing steps and baffled eyes,
To love and charm and hypnotize,
As wand-like fingers conjure play,
Their sky-turned eyes spell dark away.
Then sleep on backs, breathing star’s light,
Minds weaving dreams from loom of night,
Whilst adults sleep through days unseen,
Too oft we lack a single dream.
Since time gives age, and age gives weight,
Thoughts drag toward our grounded fate,
We learn of world and lose our spires,
And live from life recoiled.
Where they see dreams we wish for drink,
For fear of risk we cease to think
And ask ourselves what spires time took,
What heights we’d find if we’d but look
As children do, with widened eyes,
Flight dreams from night well past sunrise.
Now I’ll tell of one I knew
Who cured me of all drinking wish,
How I loved one once with eyes like these,
With flighted glance she so set free
Our hearts from binds yet placed her own
That kept us wed to what she’d shown
Us of her quirks, her airborne ways,
Those ribbons weaved into our days
To give us wings and dance in flight,
Fly through her world, and so ignite,
A dream to see as she with sight,
That finds in all new played delight,
Now as she flies and dances free,
I’ve learnt from her, that way to be,
Enraptured by all that I see,
And so my sky’s still filled with she.
Why ever wish for wine in me?
She is as a dance in flight
She is as a dance in flight, this dancing girl of hearts
Whose air of spring fills other days, then stays once she departs,
As feet as wings, caress our skies, with arms in spiral flows,
Gold light that grows, from her each step, brings warmth to us below.
She flew to me as poetry, in Christmas crafted words,
For in her rhyme-filled flourishes, new lover’s songs I heard,
That lit in me, my dreamer’s mind, red jewel dreams of her,
Once silent thoughts, so long asleep, her pirouettes did stir.
What sleights of time, her steps could find, a year lived in each day,
Yet how could I amaze her eyes, how could one match those ways?
That art she breathes, each line she weaves, to this my freed heart flies,
I flighted rhymes, to fight these doubts, and dance with her in skies.
Inflight we danced, her life’s motifs, so deftly she did show,
Yet past heart’s clouds, in time obscured, the steps we should have flown.
Thus I misbeat my wings this time, I could not fly as she,
So she, who is as dance in flight, for now has flown afree.
One of the highlights of my time as a scientist was having a long dinner with the great molecular biologist Sydney Brenner, who was a pivotal figure in the history of biology and whom sadly passed away in 2019.
This, along with interviewing Garry Kasparov the same year, marked the start of my interest in how we might learn from prior scientific environments to create better ones today.
There is an excellent interview of him that is sadly no longer online, so I am reposting it here.
‘Nowadays, most people who say they are in science aren’t really in science. They’re in something else. They’re in the management of science…. And these people do believe that everything can be solved by the application of what the Americans call ‘process’…. Their only challenge is ‘will I be awarded good points?’, ‘will I be promoted?’, ‘will I be able to survive in the economy of science?’’’
An autobiographical piece about being born with a cataract, seeing double my whole life, and why I became a neuroscientist. Its the prologue to a book I am writing titled ‘An Emergent I’ (currently paused due to other projects).
‘Of the essentials of preserving life, nourishing the breath has no peer. When the breath is exhausted, the body dies, when the people are downtrodden, the nation collapses’
Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, Letter to a sick monk, 18th century Japan
‘…To explicate the uses of the Brain, seems as difficult a task as to paint the Soul, of which it is commonly said, That it understands all things but itself;’
Thomas Willis, Preface to Cerebri Anatome, 1664
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.’
Harper Lee, writing as Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird
A Forbidden Experience
This is a book about the self. And since eyes are said to be the window to the soul, they make a good place for us to start. Eyes have also been a topic close to me since my birth. To explain this, I want to begin by telling you something about myself, about how I see the world, and thus something about the brain that wrote this book.
I was born blind in one eye. Because of this, there is an experience that I have never had. Not only have I never perceived this experience, I cannot even imagine it. It is an experience that you, and almost everybody you have ever met, takes entirely for granted. Yet it is also profoundly beautiful, and this missing beauty in my own life captivates me. I know it is beautiful from the accounts of the few who lacked this experience, and then gained it later in life.
This experience is that of the ability to see depth. This depth perception occurs through binocular vision, called stereopsis, and it is a central part of how the normally sighted see and interact with the world. We commonly refer to it as three-dimensional vision.
Stereopsis comes from our forward-facing eyes, and therefore only some animals, usually predators, have it. It allows you to assess how far away an object is from you. It is what allows you to sense how far a balloon in the air is from you. When you intuit how far to reach for a glass, the sense of depth is at work.
How do we sense depth? There are multiple ways. Firstly, there are cues for depth that come from individual eyes: things that are closer to you move more when you move your head, and obviously they look larger than when they are far away. These are monocular cues. We can see this from the depth apparent in flat, two-dimensional works of art. Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks made a detailed study of how such monocular cues can be used to create depth in art. But despite their usefulness, these cues lack a great deal of information compared to normal binocular vision, which I lack. This other, binocular kind is the one that is so elusively, beautifully different.
Binocular vision cannot come from either eye alone. That is to say, it only comes from the combined use of two eyes as one. It is therefore in part a creation of the mind.
The additional information used to create a sense of depth is the slight difference in viewing position between the two eyes, which leads to different images being formed and sent to the brain. To see this, try holding an object close to you, then close either eye, and see how the image changes. How much it changes depends upon how far away it is, and this information is used by the brain to estimate distance. For example, an apple held close to you looks much more different eye to eye than an apple far away. The brain uses this information to create binocular depth.
Without this estimation of depth, the world has a flatness that is obviously hard for me to describe. My brain has only ever had relatively minimal depth cues as it uses only one eye, and so my worldview is correspondingly flat.
Interestingly, once stereopsis has been acquired, even closing one eye does not make it fully go away. Normal brains use their past binocular experience to ‘fill in’ and create an enriched sense of depth even when one eye is shut, a fact confirmed by studies showing that binocularists are better at judging depth with one eye than are monocularists. Even if you closed one eye, it would not give you this same flatness that I see. Susan Barry wrote a beautiful memoir of her own experience gaining normal stereopsis later in life, an experience so unusual she was profiled by Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker for it. She describes herself being ‘overwhelmed’, the experience being ‘remarkable’ and ‘dramatic’. It is a ‘distinct, subjective sensation’, quite unlike anything else. She writes of how even films on flat screens gained depth for her upon gaining stereopsis, and of how she felt beautifully immersed in a deep, enveloping sense of worldly depth that she had never experienced before. A particularly haunting part for me was reading of her joy at being surrounded by and immersed in a scene of falling snow in winter, being herself part of this deepened world for the first time. She had been freed from a life of living through a flat television screen as I must do.
In her book, Barry quotes Frederick Brock (1899-1972), a pioneer in visual therapy who wrote ‘….Before stereopsis is actually experienced by the patient, there is nothing one can do or say which will adequately explain to him the actual sensation experienced.’ Like a colour that has never been seen before, it is beyond the imagination of monocularists like myself to conjure these sensations. Despite having ‘normal’ brains, our imagination is sharply constrained by our lack of experience. As no explanation of sound could ever satisfy the deaf, no explanation of depth could satisfy me. It is the invisible thing lying forever in front of me.
Neither is this imperception merely a sensory deficiency. Rather, this lack of depth pervades action also. Living in this flat land leads to a certain clumsiness, and a lifetime of odd habits built up to compensate. At a dinner with a friend in 2018, I reached quickly for a wine glass, misjudging its distance badly. My hand crashed into the newly filled glass, splashing red wine all over his white shirt. My explanation involving monocularity, stereoblindness and resulting poor motor control did not resolve the subsequent awkwardness.
I was aware of this deficiency from a young age, and I channeled this curiosity into a tendency to think about thinking, in order to try to understand myself. This in turn led to questions about the brain.
The birth of an I, and a blooming, buzzing confusion
Let us start with a ‘simple’ question: how do we begin to see? When thought begins in life is perhaps not a meaningful question. Most likely to me at least, thought gradually appears in the womb: we are not desktop computers with simple ‘on’ switches. But what is clear is that the opening of the eyes for the first time marks a dramatic change. Babies do not hide this fact upon their emergence, which is rarely a quiet process. What is not so immediately clear from watching babies is the marked challenges that seeing and doing present to the newborn, though the flailing of newborn babies hints at this.
We imagine babies looking back at us clearly for the first time, but the reality is almost certainly quite different. Upon being born, we are met instead by what William James called ‘the blooming, buzzing confusion’. As we shall see, neuroscience has proven James correct. In the ‘great bath of birth’ a blaze of ever-changing lights storm into the fertile young mind. Everything is unexplained, the mind restlessly clutches for anything predictable, familiar. All sorts of regularities are identified and saved by the brain at this time, a process that we shall track later. Edges, shapes, textures, movements, all form a rising crescendo of complexity that is caught by the brain. From this apparent chaos we eventually learn to recognize faces, appreciate beauty and read poetry. Here the brain is forming the foundation upon which more detailed understanding will later be laid, a layer of perceptual lessons upon earlier perceptual lessons. In studying the brain, we are in large part studying the machinery for understanding this apparent chaos into which the newborn is so suddenly immersed. Brains thus exist to learn useful things about the world.
We will discuss at length the challenges of something so apparently effortless to us as seeing. For now, I want to elaborate on seeing with two eyes.
We do not come into the world able to take the two images from both of our two eyes and make one single, hopefully unified worldview. But, at least for you, it happened. There is one self. A single, internal model of the world built from two eyes, two ears, taste, smell, touch, and even sensors that tell you where your joints are. From the cacophony of newborn experience comes our mental universe. This is not a passive process either: every experience comes to hint at, suggest, or even force action, which in turn changes sensation, and so the cycle continues. From all of this comes a whole, single world.
Well, at least for you. For me, things are more complex. When I, my self, developed in the womb, a small layer of connective tissue remained in the right eye, blocking the light from entering and reaching the retina. I was thus half-blind.
Being half blind did come with an advantage: for the first five weeks of my life, my baby self had no binocular problem, no need to combine the two images: I looked out upon the world with a single eye. All of those worldly confusions of vision were dealt with by one eye’s input to the brain. Things were relatively simple, and I, whatever this I was at that early age, could focus on other priorities in setting up my inner world.
Then, however, everything visual in my life changed. This aberrant connective tissue was removed at a very young age – five weeks – for reasons that we shall see. The second eye, lacking a lens due to this surgery, suddenly came into play, and the confusion blossomed into what I imagine was mental anarchy. A second image began flooding my brain – much blurrier, weaker, unable to focus at all as it lacked a lens – and this image needed to be dealt with.
What happens next in babies such as I was? The ideal outcome, of course, is to have two eyes see as one, ie., to be normal. Here, though, there are problems. It is much easier for the brain to simply continue to use one eye, especially when that one eye has much clearer vision than the other. What happens then, if left untreated, is exactly this: the brain blocks the image from the second eye, and so people use one eye only. This is a common reason for having a squint. The brain never learns to use the weaker eye, and so that eye simply lives on as a kind of vestigial sensory artifact, an eye without a brain. The eye gets forgotten, if it was ever truly known.
To prevent this abandonment of the weaker eye, children like me go through a rather time-intensive and laborious process of ‘patching’ or, more technically, monocular occlusion therapy. In this process, a patch is placed over the ‘good eye’, as my mother used to call it, forcing the child to use the ‘bad eye’. This patch is often worn for the majority of each day, and I used to make frequent visits to Great Ormond street hospital in London, where they sought to track my progress. In childhood photographs, I can be seen wearing this patch, peering out at the world through the blurry, weaker eye. I wore it during almost all of my time at primary, or elementary, school. My mother went through parental hell trying to coax her child’s brain into seeing. I repeatedly tore off this cumbersome, sticky object, and had to be bribed with sweets to keep it on. It became a bargaining chip in many a negotiation. I yearned for the hour when I could rip the patch off and see a crystalline world again. Every day, for the first ten years of my life, I went through this. It did not endear me to the school bullies: pirate jokes abounded.
With my mother during monocular occlusion therapy. I am being forced to use my right eye to ‘teach’ my brain how to use it.
The purpose of this treatment is to make the brain learn to listen to the input from the ‘bad’ eye, and it can be effective. For many who go through this, the outcome is relatively normal binocular vision. Some people’s brains still reject the ‘bad’ eye, remaining monocular once the patch is off. They remain unable to use the bad eye at all. Regardless, the normal outcome is almost always one worldview, whether it be from just one eye, or from successfully using the two eyes together. A ‘single’, obvious I that sees and acts, a centre point of the self.
For me though, something rather different happened, a compromise between these two extremes. I ended up seeing everything twice.
A doubled life: ‘imperfect’ partners
The task of fusing two eyes’ images was never accomplished by me. Doubtless my baby brain tried to make sense of the images together, but gave up the struggle. Instead, I have suffered from double vision all of my life. As I write, I see two pages, two sets of words, blending into each other. When I look at the sky, I see two suns. I see two moons, two lover’s faces, two horizons, two of everything.
What is it then, to see twice? Which eye represents the experience of the self? Which image is reality? In truth, one image is more like a ghost, hovering over or under the reality. This ghost is almost always the bad eye: very blurred, legally blind, a little like looking through very frosted glass. I have been unable to wear contact lenses since an eye operation at age 25, but even when I could, I preferred not to. The blurriness helps me to keep those two images separate: one grounded, one floating. This is less confusing.
The relationship of the two images to one another is of particular interest. When I was a child, I almost always presented a ‘lazy eye’, my right eye would stubbornly not look straight, not look in alignment with the left eye. As I turned thirteen, this increasingly bothered me, because of how it looked to others.
I began to think long and hard about how to fix this problem of having an obviously lazy eye. I consulted doctors: there is a commonly used surgery that makes the eyes straight by subtly tightening or loosening muscles. However, this only works if the offset of the two eyes is constant. Mine was not. My right eye would drift in different directions, and so there was no fixed correction to make. Doctors said I was also too old to hope that my brain would learn to fuse these two dueling images from the two eyes(more on that duel later). The development of vision happens very young, they said, in a ‘critical period’ where the brain is especially malleable. Because of this, I would have to put up with being cross-eyed forever.
But I was stubborn. I persisted in trying to solve this problem without medical help. What was clear to me was that the fix, if it could be found, would not be found in my eyes, but in my brain. What I realized then was that the double vision was actually a secret blessing: it meant that if I concentrated I could tell when my eyes were looking at the same point or not. This is harder than it sounds, since I lacked the mental routines to do this check effortlessly, but over much time I learnt to do it through extensive trial and error, every time learning to make the relevant estimate of how far apart my eyes were. I learnt to tell whether the eyes were drifting or not, and thus whether I looked cross eyed.
I then had to learn to move each eye independently to bring them back into alignment. This does not come naturally to anyone, not even someone with a visual brain as strange as my own. I began searching for the right mental lever, the right thought, to allow me to control the eyes separately. Over time, I gradually found the way to do it. I explored all kinds of abstract mental places before I found the correct one, the one that attached to the ‘move right eye’ or the ‘move left eye’ commands. Over months, I gradually taught myself how to correct each of the relative displacements between the two eyes, including testing myself in front of mirrors. I used the errors, the difference between the expected and the actual outcomes, to slowly calibrate my brain’s ability to keep my eyes straight. As a teenager, I did consciously what you have done effortlessly since early childhood. The images never fused, but they were relatively aligned. Most of the time, unless I am tired or distracted, my eyes are aligned.
I had created in my mind a habit based upon the close coupling of action and sensation. Each little drift in the two images was met by the necessary corrective action. I had not learnt to use my eyes as one, but I had created an illusion of having done so. Even now, several times a minute I notice a drift of the images that is big enough to need a conscious correction, but it is doable.
Recompense for monocularity
I wrote earlier that I ‘suffer’ from double vision, but this is only partly true. It is true that it is most irritating trying to read with this constant, shifting sets of two images. It is also difficult to become immersed in something while maintaining the constant corrective habits of keeping the eyes aligned. Following slides in a lecture is particularly difficult. I find it very hard to look at objects in detail, to fix my gaze upon an object for any length of time. The constant habit of correcting the drift is immensely distracting, like trying to think whilst balancing on one leg.
In essence, I lack what the yoga masters called Drishti, an essential part of yoga involving steady, calm, yet concentrated gaze, that in turn settles the body and breath. I am in a constant juggling, shifting state of attention, unable to minutely examine precise detail. It makes eye contact especially odd, and I habitually avoid this discomfort.
But seeing the world differently in this way also has its advantages. I’ll begin with the beauty of the images I see. Because my ‘bad eye’ has no natural lens, the image it sees is heavily blurred. This means that points of light are seen as blazes of illumination, like car lights through a rainy window. That eye’s world resembles a living impressionist painting, with blurs of colours and poorly resolved shifts of shapes. I sometimes sit and simply look out of the right, weaker eye, seeing the world in this unfocussed way. It gives an odd reminder of how distorted normal perception is.
But the real beauty comes when using both eyes together, as best I can. Through this, viewing the world becomes a kind of internal poetry, an impressionist painting dancing above the crystal, lens-given ‘reality’ of the good eye. A dancer’s precise pirouettes are illuminated in a bright, motion-filled blur. Reflections of light each have their own shifting halo. Nights are especially beautiful: on top of the precise points of light, the sparkle of the weaker eye floats, broader and more diffuse, like a glow from within each object. Or perhaps this glow is underneath the clear image, not on top. It is hard, even impossible, to work out which is the foreground. This double vision is more irritating in day: the brightness of both images becomes more of a fight within my brain, whilst the calmer hues of night allow a complementary co-existence. The real world is bathed in the warm glow of the weaker eye.
But the benefits of seeing double extend beyond the aesthetic. How you see alters how you think. Studies have even shown that you can predict aspects of personality from the movement of the eyes. Changes in ways of seeing have been linked to great artistic ability: it has been speculated from self-portraits that Rembrandt, Picasso and even da Vinci had lazy eyes, and a corresponding flatness of worldview. This forced adaptation, compromise, a development of alternative ways of seeing and depicting the world.
But double vision did not help me become a brilliant painter. In fact, I’m terrible at drawing: trying to visualize things on the page is very difficult, as the two eyes constantly jostle, meaning there is no fixed point of focus to imagine from. This outweighs any artistic advantages I could gain from seeing a flat world.
Instead of leading me to art, it led me to thinking about thought. Seeing the two images competing, completing, complementing one another is to watch my own thought in real time. This is true for you also: the world you see is the inside of your head. When you open your eyes and gaze upon a sunset, you are actually watching your brain at work.
Your brain performs this illusion well. but in me it is far from perfect. When my attention changes between the two eyes, the images gain and shrink in relative vividness, even relative realness. I can see attention at work. As a child I used to sit and play with the two images, often in a futile attempt to achieve my dream of using two eyes as one.
That dream has not yet come true, and I increasingly wonder if it is such a dream at all. When I close my right eye, seeing with the good eye only, the world becomes still, static, even dull. It is like acquiring a newfound yet bland peace, like an ADHD sufferer suddenly finding calm and realizing they have nothing to do. Rather, my imperfect duet of the two eyes gives the world a living, breathing air, each glance birthing a new flurry of thoughts buzzing in this abstract, unfocussed theatre inside of my head, the theater that sees twice. Viewing can never be a quiet act for me. How much of my personality comes from this eccentric worldview I cannot tell, but I am inclined to be optimistic.
Whatever the answer, fate has given me at least one great gift. Through all of these moments, from long hours in hospitals taking tests, years wearing an eye patch to coax my brain into seeing, experiments in and frustrations with seeing double, a fascination with what I am and how I came to be was born, alongside the tiny speck of tissue that blocked the sight into my right eye. I became restlessly curious to understand this problem deep inside myself, a problem of myself and its partial doublement, and was drawn to reading and learning all that I could about brains. I went on to study neuroscience as an undergraduate, and then as a PhD student.
That is what this book was originally about: neuroscience, and the brain: the instrument that I thought makes the mind. But since then it has expanded, as my own life experience showed me my own embodiment. I will not give away the narrative of the book, but this is me in April 2017, in an intensive care bed following surgery on my aorta:
The author in an intensive card bed, April 22nd 2017.
This, and two other experiences around then, fundamentally changed my sense of self, my thoughts as a scientist, and ultimately this book, which has become as much a memoir of a scientist’s life as it is a book about the brain: my hopes, frustrations, thoughts, experiences, discoveries, friendships, training, successes, failures etc. The core parts of this book were written, at least in my head, during the build up and recovery from this operation. We shall come to this question of embodiment and the mind:body link.
Until then, to the fabrics of thought we go.
Note: this was written originally in March 2020 for a different blog.
You are probably just beginning a long period of isolation. I spent 2017 largely alone in my family home preparing for and recovering from a surgery to fix a serious illness, which ultimately took years to recover from fully. I thought the lessons I learnt might be useful to others now.
What I found is that ‘free time’ vanishes like a pile of sand gathered through open, welcoming hands. You only realise it is gone when a few grains are left. Twitter consumes.
Da Vinci’s words apply well: “Art breathes from constraint and suffocates from freedom.”. We may have dreams of how we will use our new found isolated freedom, but, if you are like me, your will will be captured by clickbait and the time will vanish without conscious countermeasures.
I suggest four simple habits and goals for the bunker:
‘Evil is whatever distracts’
We structure our bunker time for maximum quality of effort. The divide between ‘personal’ and ‘work’ is unclear, and so we shift between the two modes both incompletely and briefly.
The Deep Work phrase comes from Cal Newport’s book of the same name. Deep work is a sustained period of isolated concentration, without distracting influences. Newport argues that we have lost the ability to do this, instead spending our time consumed by the ‘shallows’ of email etc, and our productivity has quietly collapsed because of it.
Newport tells of famous (and non-famous) achievements made by deliberately cutting oneself off from the world for a specified period of time: no internet, no email, no phone calls, no social contact. Historically, Carl Jung worked in a tower for almost the entire day, cut off from distraction. Mark Twain had an isolated hut for writing, and would be summoned for dinner by a horn. Today distraction is far worse than then.
The essence of deep work is that an hour of continuous undistracted work is worth 3-4 hours of distracted, fragmented time, or of eight 15 minute blocks of undistracted work. It gets you ‘in the zone’, keeps your mind on task.
Crucial to deep work are two key things:
1 – Set aside deliberate blocks of time, say 2 hours, to work on something.
2 – Cut off all contact with the outside world during this time.
This may sound simple (it is), but when did you last do it? Set your day to be composed of around 1-4 blocks of deep work, depending upon length (when I met Newport he suggested that sustained intense deep work of more than 4 hours per day is challenging, which matches GH Hardy’s advice in ‘A mathematicians apology’). When distraction comes, say you are in ‘deep work’ – a polite f-off to ‘whatever distracts’.
In my experience, this is far more important and useful than expensive productivity apps. It also acts as a ‘free organisational tool’, forcing you to structure time and prioritise by picking your ‘deep work targets’ (see below).
To get a better sense of this, see this video which is an excellent summary of deep work by a youtube blogger who has interviewed Newport.
Something I have found very useful for ‘deep work’ is to play ‘coffee shop sounds’ – see this example (on spotify/apple music).
Two useful apps – freedom & self control. Freedom shuts the internet off, self control blocks specific sites. It will educate you about how quickly you reach for the twitter dopamine hit.
Note added 18th April 2021 – ‘E-mails ‘hurt IQ more than pot” – CNN
“He whose gaze is fixed on a distant star will not falter.” Leonardo Da Vinci
It’s easy to lose sight of the distant star indoors, especially for the infinite labyrinth of the internet at our single-click-away disposal. Deep work without direction will lead to piles of semi-finished things. Time becomes amorphous without targets at different timescales.
This sensation only gets worse without active countermeasures. What I found in my bunker year was that without clear weekly targets, weeks blurred into one another, and nothing ever got ‘done’ – books were left half read, essays begun and half forgotten. I did many things, but never finished them: I was a slave to momentary wills. Weekly targets give you clear ‘weekends’.
Targets must be used to create a sense of timescale, a sense of time as a resource to be used. Targets act at different timescales. I was fortunate enough to be educated in the Oxford tutorial system. A ‘hidden routine’ in this system is the weekly essay, which gives you a target and a ‘focus’. The weekly essay gave you your ‘local purpose’, the ‘stepping stone’ to the exams and, more importantly, to being a scientist.
Without this weekly essay as a PhD student, I found myself wandering. I lacked the productivity of my undergraduate stays, spending much time dithering. I only realised what I was missing in the final year of my thesis: clear weekly targets, very few in number. This is a difficult thing to do as cleanly as when a mentor sets them, but it’s a skill I have since consciously worked on. In essence, this is about being mindful of the goals you have, rendering them explicit, rather than simply aiming for vague notions of productivity.
The Oxford term system also provides a mental scaffolding of time – I can still remember what I was doing each term of Oxford, and I used to be able to remember individuals week (3rd week), because they were placed within the structure of 3 terms with holidays. Each term is 8 weeks, with long vacations, meaning you have a total of 6 divisions to the year. It is likely we will be bunkered for a year on-and-off: divide that time up. I follow the oxford system now using an Oxford diary.
Likewise, without clear daily targets, it is easy to find yourself at lunch having done nothing but ‘deep work’ on whatever came up in the morning’s emails. Setting targets is a simple way of prioritising. For this, ZenHabit’s MIT’s is very useful: Zen Habits on MITs – identify 1-3 of the most important tasks for the day and structure your time around it. Note that having a long conversation with someone often is an MIT – today I tried to sneak a call in and ended up with so much to follow up on that I had to schedule a deep work session on it.
Your work time therefore becomes a hierarchy of targets.
Pick daily, weekly and termly targets, and remind yourself of them daily. I put the weekly targets in my diary so I see them everyday. Think in the future – where do I need to be?
A nice phrase is ‘a year is shorter than you think, 10 years is longer than you think’ – I read it on twitter some time ago and can’t find the source, but it is not original to me.
States of mind are something that we find ourselves at the mercy of in our isolation, as it is easy to get ‘stuck’ in a mindset without external cues to nudge us out of it, or even point out that we are in a maladptive mindset. We assume what 16th century zen master Takuan Soho calls right-mindedness, that our mind is free to deal with what it needs to deal with, rather than stopping in distraction. Yet our state of mind depends greatly on surroundings, and we usually only realise we have gone astray some time after it happens.
Monasteries use chanting, rituals, daily schedules to keep the monastic mind focussed upon its higher calling. They also use the physical environment, a topic for a later blog. Our work environment, for better or worse, sculpts this also. You may find, as I did, that the sudden removal of the cruxes and stimuli of our work mind reveal the very existence of those cruxes and stimuli. Freedom reveals the benefits of constraints. The trip to work in the morning tunes the mind for what’s to come. Seeing the boss reminds you of the importance of deadlines. Travelling home at night helps ‘switch off’ – somewhat reduced by the curse of chronic connectivity.
In the eastern arts, the frailty of will is recognised and deliberately honed. In Zen in the art of Archery, Herrigel tells of a master of painting preparing for and executing a painting in front of pupils:
“A painter seats himself before his pupils. He examines his brush and slowly makes it ready for use, carefully rubs ink, straightens the long strip of paper that lies before him on the mat, and finally, after lapsing for a while into profound concentration, in which he sits like one inviolable, he produces with rapid, absolutely sure strokes a picture which, capable of no further correction and needing none, serves the class as a model. A flower master begins the lesson by cautiously untying the bast which holds together the flowers and sprays of blossom, and laying it to one side carefully rolled up.
………But why doesn’t the teacher allow these preliminaries, unavoidable though they are, to be done by an experienced pupil? Does it lend wings to his visionary and plastic powers if he rubs the ink himself, if he unties the bast so elaborately instead of cutting it and carelessly throwing it away? And what impels him to repeat this process at every single lesson, and, with the same remorseless insistence, to make his pupils copy it without the least alteration? He sticks to this traditional custom because he knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating. The meditative repose in which he performs them gives him that vital loosening and equability of all his powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.”
I can try to distill this down into two simplest parts: first, have strict work hours, and non-work hours. Second, when you are to work, try to have a consistent place for it, and a routine to start/end the work. For me, it is to shut everything else down, remove all distractions for the task at hand, and set a timer. Then I think for several minutes about what is to come, which acts as a ‘work meditation’ akin to the organisation of the painter’s studio Herrigel describes.
I also recommend spending 25 minutes in the morning on a planning/tidying session. For example, today I took out my small notebook, reviewed my projects page of my notebook, and identified three priorities. I then simply thought about those priorities, visualising how i would do them, what I would need etc. When it came to do them, my mind was ‘ready’.
Deliberate rest is an important concept, relating to the divide between personal and work. Being on an iPhone looking on instagram is not rest, it is a reward seeking behaviour and stimulating. I strongly recommend setting strict ‘work hours’ and ‘personal hours’. Experiment in the benefits of cutting yourself off in the evenings, deep-work style.
The single most important thing I did in my year of isolation, except for having a huge operation and eating lots of food to recover, was to begin meditating. The meditation that I focussed upon is Hakuin’s Nanso meditation, about which much of my book is centered, as well as more standard ‘clear the mind’ meditation.
An exceptional piece of writing on meditation comes from Dogen, effectively the father of the Soto school of Zen: ‘recommending zazen to all people’. I say more about this in the long-form version.
“All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”
Below is an interview conducted in April 2013 and printed in the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper. It was in part this interview that began the Orion project. It was part of the visit to Oxford in which he gave a talk on innovation.
Garry Kasparov is widely considered to be the strongest chess player of all time. The youngest world champion in history when only twenty-two, he lost just a single match against a human in his twenty-five-year career. Now retired, he is a leader in the Russian opposition movement and a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.
One of the first things you notice about Kasparov is his intensity: he walks rapidly, and when in conversation his whole body seems to focus, confronting the questions I pose. Life, then, mirrors chess, where Kasparov was renowned as much for his compelling chess style as his results. It is a style that he describes as “very dynamic, aggressive chess, dominant chess”, contrasting with the more “pure”, “long-term” approach of the current #1 ranked player Magnus Carlsen.
He speaks quickly, jumping between sentences. This energy is important. For him chess consisted in intense encounters that required mental but also physical preparation, with championship matches lasting months. “Exercise was a very important part of my overall preparation” he says, “to be in the perfect shape before the match you have to work out the combination of your body and your mind, so feeling strong and being in excellent shape physically always helped to generate more energy.”
His memory is extraordinary. Kasparov reputedly could remember every professional game of chess that he had ever played, so I printed out two chess positions, selected randomly from a huge online database of his games. As soon as he glimpsed them, he told me when and where the games were played and named his opponent. He even knew which round of the tournament the games were from, the subsequent moves, and the improvements that he should have made. It was a surprising start to an interview, yet Kasparov merely looked indifferent. “But these are my own games…” he said, his voice trailing off. “You could have made that a lot harder”, added his aide, laughing.
For Kasparov, analysing one’s mistakes is crucial to success. “When playing chess I learnt that every decision requires post-mortem analysis… There is no such thing as a perfect game.” Optimising his performance was a matter of finding a unique approach: you have to “build your own — which is only your own — decision making formula to maximise the effect of your strengths, and to minimise, obviously, the negative effect of your weaknesses.”
In early 2005, after being the number one ranked grandmaster for more than twenty years, he retired from chess to shift his energy toward restoring democracy in his home country, Russia. A constant critic of the regime, he was recently detained and beaten whilst at the Pussy Riot trial rallies.
Does Kasparov still hope to overthrow Putin? “I think that things are heating up, but this is not a linear process. its like a volcano, you have all the signs about eruption, but you can’t say its going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” The man who predicted the fall of communism does not have strong predictions for Russia’s future. “I believe that Mr Putin under no circumstances will survive his six-year term. In the next two/three years maximum we will see a major explosion in Russia. I’m not saying it will bring us positive results, but I think the status quo, the current status quo in Russia, is doomed and is about to expire.”
It was the global economic stagnation that drew Kasparov to Oxford: he visited the Oxford Martin School to meet with academics and students from Oxford University to continue to develop his view of the crisis, which he has formed along with Paypal innovators Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. From Kasparov there is no talk of restructuring debt, or of yearly growth targets. To him, the crisis results from the “virus of risk-averse society”, where innovation has stagnated and short-term thinking has triumphed.
In his event at the Oxford Martin School, Kasparov contrasted the mid-twentieth century and today, pointing to the rapid development of antibiotics, rocket technology, nuclear technology and more. Even the internet has its origins in the 1960s. And today? Our planes travel at the same speed they did in the 1950s. Our major recent technological developments, mobile technology and computers, are actually advances from the mid-twentieth century. Our satellites are launched in a similar manner to Sputnik. Growth comes not from technological advance but from the housing market. We are even running out of antibiotics.
What went wrong? He points to the emergence of a safe, ‘milestone driven’ approach to progress. ‘Nobody wants to take a risk, and it reflects very much the over-cautious nature of the publicly or privately funded science today’. He points to the present lack of big, blue-sky projects, such as the Apollo missions.
To Kasparov, this shift began in the “late sixties”, but was only visible much later. “We had such a huge pile of innovations allocated over decades, so that’s why you didn’t even feel it in the seventies or eighties. I think the first time where we actually could feel the heat was the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The existential threat for the free world has disappeared, and it helped to expose the public appetite for a safe, comfortable life.”
Kasparov sees Fukuyama’s End of History as symptomatic of this shift, the view that society has reached an endpoint. “So the world reached the end of history, so now we can afford, you know, to enjoy the life we inherited from our parents and grandparents.” He hits the table, emphasising the point. “No more sacrifices, the ideal of sacrifice has disappeared from the public, private and social agenda.
“Now its time to recognise that the notion that the next generation will have a better life than the previous one may not work, actually, it will not work.” So can we do anything? “Of course we can… At the end of the day its about public pressure… If the public wanted a Mars expedition, Americans would be landing on Mars in this decade.”
Kasparov admits there is “no immediate solution.” The answer lies in creating opportunities. “All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”
This is an article published in the Telegraph in June 2018 by myself and my brother, concerning UK national strategy in science and innovation. We called on the UK to ‘lead the future by creating it’. Below it is a comment and endorsement of it as ‘good advice’ by computing pioneer Alan Kay, whose phrase ‘create the future’ was an inspiration.
Science holds the key, June 7th 2018, Telegraph, James W. Phillips & Matthew G. Phillips
The 2008 crisis should have led us to reshape how our economy works. But a decade on, what has really changed? The public knows that the same attitude that got us into the previous economic crisis will not bring us long-term prosperity, yet there is little vision from our leaders of what the future should look like. Our politicians are sleeping, yet have no dreams. To solve this, we must change emphasis from creating “growth” to creating the future: the former is an inevitable product of the latter.
Britain used to create the future, and we must return to this role by turning to scientists and engineers. Science defined the last century by creating new industries. It will define this century too: robotics, clean energy, artificial intelligence, cures for disease and other unexpected advances lie in wait. The country that gives birth to these industries will lead the world, and yet we seem incapable of action.
So how can we create new industries quickly? A clue lies in a small number of institutes that produced a strikingly large number of key advances. Bell Labs produced much of the technology underlying computing. The Palo Alto Research Centre did the same for the internet. There are simple rules of thumb about how great science arises, embodied in such institutes. They provided ambitious long-term funding to scientists, avoided unnecessary bureaucracy and chased high-risk, high-reward projects.
Today, scientists spend much of their time completing paperwork. A culture of endless accountability has arisen out of a fear of misspending a single pound. We’ve seen examples of routine purchases of LEDs that cost under £10 having to go through a nine-step bureaucratic review process.
Scientists on the cusp of great breakthroughs can be slowed by years mired in review boards and waiting on a decision from on high. Their discoveries are thus made, and capitalised on, elsewhere. We waste money, miss patents, lose cures and drive talented scientists away to high-paid jobs. You don’t cure cancer with paperwork. Rather than invigilate every single decision, we should do spot checks retrospectively, as is done with tax returns.
A similar risk aversion is present in the science funding process. Many scientists are forced to specify years in advance what they intend to do, and spend their time continually applying for very short, small grants. However, it is the unexpected, the failures and the accidental, which are the inevitable cost and source of fruit in the scientific pursuit. It takes time, it takes long-term thinking, it takes flexibility. Peter Higgs, Nobel laureate who predicted the Higgs Boson, says he wouldn’t stand a chance of being funded today for lack of a track record. This leads scientists collectively to pursue incremental, low-risk, low-payoff work.
The current funding system is also top-down, prescriptive and homogenous, administered centrally from London. It is slow to respond to change and cut off from the real world.
We should return to funding university departments more directly, allowing more rapid, situation-aware decision-making of the kind present in start-ups, and create a diversity of funding systems. This is how the best research facilities in history operated, yet we do not learn their key lesson: that science cannot be managed by central edict, but flourishes through independent inquiry.
While Britain built much of modern science, today it neglects it, lagging behind other comparable nations in funding, and instead prioritising a financial industry prone to blowing up. Consider that we spent more money bailing out the banks in a single year than we have on science in the entirety of history.
We scarcely pause to consider the difference in return on investment. Rather than prop up old industries, we should invest in world-leading research institutes with a specific emphasis on high-risk, high-payoff research.
Those who say this is not government’s role fail the test of history. Much great science has come from government investment in times of crisis. Without Nasa, there would be no SpaceX. These government investments were used to provide a long-term, transformative vision on a scale that cannot be achieved through private investment alone – especially where there is a high risk of failure but high reward in success. The payoff of previous investments was enormous, so why not replicate the defence funding agencies that led to them with peacetime civilian equivalents?
In order to be the nation where new discoveries are made, we must take decisive steps to make the UK a magnet for talented young scientists.
However, a recent report on ensuring a successful UK research endeavour scarcely mentioned young scientists at all. An increased focus on this goal, alongside simple steps like long-term funding and guaranteed work visas for their spouses, would go a long way. In short, we should be to scientific innovation what we are to finance: a highly connected nerve centre for the global economy.
The political candidate that can leverage a pro-science platform to combine economic stimulus with the reality of economic pragmatism will transform the UK. We should lead the future by creating it.
Comment from Alan Kay:
Good advice! However, I’m afraid that currently in the US there is nothing like the fabled Bell Labs or ARPA-PARC funding, at least in computing where I’m most aware of what is and is not happening (I’m the “Alan Kay” of the famous quote).
It is possible that things were still better a few years ago in the US than in the UK (I live in London half the year and in Los Angeles the other half). But I have some reasons to doubt. Since the new “president”, the US does not even have a science advisor, nor is there any sign of desire for one.
A visit to the classic Bell Labs of its heyday would reveal many things. One of the simplest was a sign posted randomly around: “Either do something very useful, or very beautiful”. Funders today won’t fund the second at all, and are afraid to fund at the risk level needed for the first.
It is difficult to sum up ARPA-PARC, but one interesting perspective on this kind of funding was that it was both long range and stratospherically visionary, and part of the vision was that good results included “better problems” (i.e. “problem finding” was highly valued and funded well) and good results included “good people” (i.e. long range funding should also create the next generations of researchers). in fact, virtually all of the researchers at Xerox PARC had their degrees funded by ARPA, they were “research results” who were able to get better research results.
Since the “D” was put on ARPA in the early 70s, it was then not able to do what it did in the 60s. NSF in the US never did this kind of funding. I spent quite a lot of time on some of the NSF Advisory Boards and it was pretty much impossible to bridge the gap between what was actually needed and the difficulties the Foundation has with congressional oversight (and some of the stipulations of their mission).
Bob Noyce (one of the founders of Intel) used to say “Wealth is created by Scientists, Engineers and Artists, everyone else just moves it around”.
Einstein said “We cannot solve important problems of the world using the same level of thinking we used to create them”.
A nice phrase by Vi Hart is “We must insure human wisdom exceeds human power”.
To make it to the 22nd century at all, and especially in better shape than we are now, we need to heed all three of these sayings, and support them as the civilization we are sometimes trying to become. It’s the only context in which “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” makes any useful sense.