Podcast • August 25, 2012

Bernd Heinrich and our Journey — from Life to Life

I went out to the wild woods of western Maine in the late summer to inhale the biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s experience of Life Everlasting — and just to behold a modern man in a cabin ...

I went out to the wild woods of western Maine in the late summer to inhale the biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s experience of Life Everlasting — and just to behold a modern man in a cabin he built himself, almost as simple as Thoreau’s. Of course I am wondering: how many of us could learn to live as Bernd Heinrich does for months at a stretch? Could he teach me to see what he’s been watching in this wilderness for 60 years?

Bernd Heinrich made his professional reputation getting to know ravens and bees the way his friend Edward O. Wilson got to know ants. They are among the great naturalists surviving in the DNA era when, as Wilson has remarked, big-time science has little time for anything larger than a cell. Heinrich is an all-round woods watcher of birds and plants. He can place us on the calender, within a day or two (as Emerson observed of Thoreau) just by looking — in this case, at the goldenrod coming into bloom. “The nights are getting colder. The fireweed is fading out. Spirea is coming in. You can see the color fading in the birches…”

Bernd Heinrich hooked me five years ago with his autobiography, about himself as a 10 year old German immgrant boy running wild in these same Maine woods. And he’s hooked me again with his reflection on The Animal Way of Death in the subtitle of Life Everlasting. The short form is the notion that it’s not from dust we come, to dust we shall return. It’s life all the way, unless we bury ourselves in metal caskets. The trick in grasping the point is to watch animal recycling in nature.

So we spend the afternoon looking at what vultures have done to a fallen porcupine in the woods, and what maggots are doing to a road-kill squirrel that Bernd has brought back to his cabin. “Icky stuff,” as Bernd says. The trick is to rethink the “Nevermore!” from Poe’s Raven. He might have said: “Ever after!” If a raven’s beak gets our remains, we’ll be on the wing, literally, almost immediately.

I’m reminded specially of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John 12:24, which Dostoevsky fixed as an epigraph at the start of The Brothers Karamazov: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

So we are watching something very grand going on and reflecting on big ideas of life through death — of resurrection, perhaps, and the reincarnation of bodies and ideas. “Without recycling,” Bernd Heinrich remarks, “all life would grind to a halt.” And I’m observing that death and recycling, as in the kernel that falls to the ground, may be the only route to immortality.

A week later I’m loving Bernd Heinrich’s train of thought. His implication, for starters, of a natural religion based our physical links to an unimaginably vast network — and of a moral obligation to all living things. “Not just to your neighbor,” he is saying, “but to the whole ecosystem.”

We’re the only animal with the knowledge that we’re part of something else… this knowledge of a physical connection with the rest of life; and it’s not a belief, it’s a knowledge…

We’re speaking of physical immortality. In the book I was also thinking of reincarnations, not only from physical to physical, but also in the case of humans especially, we are each seeded by ideas. We talked about Ed Wilson. He said: Bernd, you could run a marathon in two and a half hours. And that planted a seed in my mind, and I got out and started training, and I became an ultramarathoner and I ran also a marathon in two hours and twenty-two minutes. And in 24 hours I ran 156 miles, and it was a national record. So our immortality is not just physical. We are one of the few species who have immortality that is transmitted mentally, through ideas…

As Ed said, you know, the interest is more and more in the cell rather than in the organism.
Fewer and fewer people are actually in contact with the nature around us that really affects us. In other words, you can’t really know, for example, the plight of the ravens or the vultures unless you are out in nature… We don’t have enough naturalists… I am afraid of our power to cause damage. I see us as a plague who overruns our whole planet and upends the balance and creates an ecosystem that’s very, very simple where we don’t have this recycling, for one thing. And just the buildup of toxic effects, ad infinitum. It just seems like: when I was a kid nobody ever really thought about it. The idea that you could destroy the wilderness was just unthinkable. But now we’re thinking about it… because it’s actually happening.

Bernd Heinrich at his wilderness camp in Western Maine with Chris Lydon, August 2012

Podcast • April 30, 2012

Siddhartha Mukherjee: an innovator in the race?

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, ...

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, which Judt called “social democracy.”

Dr. Mukherjee wrote the enthralling “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which won the Pulitzer for non-fiction last year. So he is a big-picture diagnostician who looks first to the history of a disease and its treatment to frame his understanding. I think of him first as Tony Judt’s alter-ego in the oncology lab.

But then it turns up in a footnote that Siddhartha Mukherjee knew Tony Judt well for most of 20 years. Indian-born, American trained and twenty years younger than Judt, he was a Judt favorite in a running series of seminars on the full spectrum of medical, social and cultural maladies. They became close friends. “Benign skepticism” in the face of received wisdom was their common working principle. One of their shared methods was a process of sifting through wrong ideas of the problem. They had some persistent differences, too.

You see, Tony is a great eliminator. He arrives at his theory by the process of eliminating nonsense. He finds, as you know, that the answer already exists. You need to reset the clock. The answer existed in our past,” which for Tony Judt embraced the free education and robust public services he grew up on in 1960’s and ’70’s London. Tony’s thought was we could find those mechanisms again. “I thought Tony was spot-on about the malaise in our society, about a collapse in the public conversation… I differ in the sense that I believe less in elimination, more in innovation. I think that the answer does not exist… and in fact the solution is to innovate our way into the answer. Unfortunately I believe that if the country is facing perhaps a moral crisis in the political realm, I think we’re facing an innovation crisis in the scientific realm. And by that I mean that we don’t even know how to train minds — or we’re beginning to forget how to train minds to solve our way out of the problem. That’s what worries me.

So my question is: How would Siddhartha Mukherjee apply his “innovative, oppositionist, disruptive” repairs to the confusion and fear that shadow the public stage in 2012?

We have to innovate our way out of that, too. A good example of this is what I think of as a kind of ‘psychic innovation.’ Take, for instance, the immigration crisis. I think that is a reminder of the need for psychic innovation of that crisis. This is — historically — a nation founded on immigration. The fact that in 2012 that founding force is a crisis in Arizona, say, is a peculiar twist of human history. There must be an innovative way, an entrepreneurial way, to think about immigration and restore the kind of spirit that made it such a positive force in the 18th and 19th Centuries… There must be a political solution that allows this force of young minds desperately trying to get into this country and to convert that torpor that you and I are talking about. It’s an innovation problem. I came here as an outsider, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of social innovation. This country made society plastic. You know, elastic. Why is it that we’re now having a debate about whether we’re suffering from some kind of torpor, when in history you took society and molded it in a different image?

He leaves me with a different puzzle: what would a real innovator sound like in presidential politics? “Everything else is largely irrelevant,” Mukherjee declares. “There are many problems and the solution is to have an incredible engine of innovation. How do we silence all the distractions, and put all our energy into social innovation around health care, around debt, around the economy, so that the conversations become real?”

Photo by Rene + Radka.

Podcast • March 5, 2012

Lisa Randall: What we talk about when we talk about science…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)  I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about… Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)

 I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about…

Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in her Harvard Lab, March 1, 2012.

Lisa Randall — our village explainer of 21st Century science — is talking about subatomic particles. What I’m hearing are resonances of what used to be called a religious curiosity and hunger.

What big science wants to measure, she’s saying, in the speed-of-light smash-ups of protons inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the strong force that holds things together.” And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

It’s not just that the elusive “Higgs boson” in the LHC’s simulation of the Big Bang’s aftermath is often called “the God particle.” (Leon Lederman, who wrote the book, actually wanted to call it “the god-damned particle,” according to Lisa Randall, but his publisher wouldn’t let him). It’s more that so much of our conversation corresponds with the language of religion — starting with experimental leaps of faith, invisible planes of reality, unprovable understandings and the driven pursuit of the unknowable.

I like the line attributed to Chris Hill of the Fermi Lab — using the churchy word “rubric” which used to mean the headings in the Roman Missal printed in red. “The Higgs boson is really a rubric,” said Mr. Hill in Discover magazine. “We don’t know what we’re talking about.”

What I like about Lisa Randall’s books — Warped Passages, about extra dimensions, and now Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about inner and outer limits of the cosmos — is the air of assurance and also mystery. In her office at Harvard, she is touching on the approachable and the sublime, relaxed about the overlapping metaphors and human interests, the “common questions” arising from religion and science. And of course there is a faith inside science. As she says, “You have to believe it’s worth pursuing.”

Podcast • February 27, 2012

Dimitar Sasselov: new life in a young universe

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dimitar Sasselov (47 min, 21 meg) Dimitar Sasselov is bent on expanding a public conversation between astronomy and biology. Between the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally tiny. Between ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dimitar Sasselov (47 min, 21 meg)

Dimitar Sasselov is bent on expanding a public conversation between astronomy and biology. Between the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally tiny. Between “the big cold world of inanimate matter, plants, stars and galaxies — and what we call ‘life.'”

Where to look anew for extraterrestrial life is, relatively, the easy part. It’s on the earth-like planets (700-plus so far) that keep turning up on NASA’s space-based telescopes scanning the furthest stars. The hard part is just what to look for. “We don’t really know how to look for life that is anything but a carbon copy of ours,” Dimitar Sasselov is telling me.

We take it for granted that forces like gravity and the elements of our periodic table are everywhere the same, but what if life is not?

DS: Steven Jay Gould liked to say that if you rewind the reel and play the movie again — the movie, the history of life — it’s not going to be the same movie. And I believe he was right… It’s not going to be the same actors. It’s not going to be the same screenplay. But it’s going to be based on what’s near and dear to us. For life, that means there are functions which make a difference between life and non-life: the ability to self-sustain; the ability to adapt; the ability to create a system which is potentially and essentially eternal…

CL: What if the DNA and RNA decks — unlike the rules of gravity — have been re-shuffled out there?

DS: This is the big question. Not the historical origin of life, but: Is it a universal chemical law that biochemistries will be based on the same molecular rules as we are? Or are alternative biochemistries possible and, in fact, contingent on the environments that develop on those other planets? … Will we discover something we hadn’t imagined? Will we miss it altogether because we don’t know what we’re looking for?

The astronomist Dimitar Sasselov and I are picking up a conversation that began by accident late last year in the Boston Public Library. His work in the “Origins of Life” initiative at Harvard and his book on The Life of Super-Earths make a wonderful argument that science is social and that serendipity is vital. His main co-conspirator through through the last five years has been the Nobel Prize molecular biologist Jack W. Szostak, whose focus has been the lab construction of synthetic cellular life — light years, so to speak, from astronomy. Sasselov is remembering with pleasure, too, that he learned a lot about “the acoustics of stars” from horn players in the brass section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra when he arrived from Bulgaria twenty-odd years ago. He pines a bit for the cross-pollinating “intelligentsia” of Sofia in the bad old days of his growing up. And he will make you wonder what it would take to generate a public conversation across the spectrum of basic and applied sciences that are humming inside the innovative core of Boston-Cambridge today. To me Dimitar Sasselov sounds like the sort of scientist the rest of us could rally round, and of course he makes me wonder how the curious minds of Open Source could get in on his project.

He had an adept answer on the general question of Earth chauvinism — on the patriotism of the planet that expects life everywhere to be an imitation of ours. Where, I asked, would he place himself between the intuitive notion of Earth and Us at the center of things and Douglas Adams’ retort in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that we live on an “utterly insignificant little blue-green planet” with an ape-descended population so primitive we think digital watches are a big deal:

I think we are unique and exceptional, just because we explore this universe with our own roots. It’s a big point of my book that our planet is not the cradle of life or a home for life. The planet and life on it are the same thing. We are part of that living planet. If there are millions of those living planets in our galaxy, and there are a trillion of those galaxies out there, we are not alone… So yes, we are earth-centric because our roots are here, but that’s a good thing. That’s the same as bringing our own perspective to a brotherhood of perspectives out there — our own culture, if you will, where culture now is the biochemistry which makes us, where our self is not just homosapiens but the entire microbiome of trillions of microbes that live inside us, on top of us, as a part of ourselves. We are not who we think we are. And in a certain sense, that should bring us down to earth, literally, and also take this earth as one of those unique yet common trees of life which are, if not the first in this galaxy, certainly of the first generation in this young universe. So I see it both ways: I see both the Copernican principle of mediocrity: that we are not the center of this universe; and also I see us as proud Earthlings moving out there, exploring this universe and bringing with this exploration our own unique earthly roots with us.

Dimitar Sasselov, with Chris Lydon at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, February 21, 2012.

Podcast • October 19, 2010

Kevin Kelly on Tech: the Unabomber was Right; the Amish, too.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kevin Kelly (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Kevin Kelly, most engaging of technophiles, has never been a techie. He was a low-consumption hippie growing up, then dropped out ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kevin Kelly (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Kevin Kelly, most engaging of technophiles, has never been a techie. He was a low-consumption hippie growing up, then dropped out of college to photograph the simple life in Asia and Africa. In the 1970s, his twenties, he edited The Whole Earth Catalog, “…sort of like Google in paperback form,” Steve Jobs has said, “35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” In the 90s, Kevin Kelly became, of course, the genius ghost inside the WIRED magazine machine, where his title now is “senior maverick.” All along, and especially in his new book, What Technology Wants, the tilt of his thinking is away from gadgetry, very much in the direction of philosophy and theology.

The networking of computers 30 years ago marked a turning point, when Kelly came to see technology not just as a continuum from caveman times — a set of man-made systems we could not live without; but also as a process that was getting to have an organic and evolutionary life of its own. “We began to see through technology’s disguise as material and began to see it primarily as action,” he writes. “No longer a noun, technology was becoming a force — a vital spirit that throws us forward… Not a thing but a verb.”

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was right, Kelly argues, in seeing that technology is a wholistic, dynamic, self-aggrandizing process with “its own agenda.” He was wrong in failing to see that the freedom of his little shack was an illusion. “Millions of people,” Kevin Kelly is telling me, “flee their shacks every year to go to cities and live in slums. They’re coming to cities for increased choices and options, which is what technology brings us.” But the Amish, says Kelly from behind an Amish-ish beard, are righter than Kaczynski ever was. “They’re not Luddites,” Kelly says, “they’re hackers. They love to play with the rules.” Amish communities are driven by religious belief, but they’re also making choices. “When the cellphone comes along, the questions are: is this good for the family? And is it good for the community.” And then they make their choice collectively.

I am pushing Kevin Kelly to confront our worst fears of technology — those remote-control drones, for example, poisoning minds and morals of millions of people beyond the thousands who get blown up by them. What about the computer systems presumed to avert market collapses or BP drilling disasters, which have quickly come to seem a big arrogant part of the problem? Where is the progress to console us for the extinction of the tiger? But of course Kevin Kelly knows the dark side well. “Most problems today are technogenic,” he says, meaning they’re born in our machinery. “I regard these as illnesses,” he goes on, not knowing whether they’re terminal or not. But better technology is the only chance of a remedy. Or is it? Has this symbiotic relationship turned against its creator?

First of all, I think we are in large part an invention of our own minds, that we have made ourselves, that we invented language and language transformed our selves, and that our bodies, instead of slowing down are actually speeding up. Our biological evolution continues to speed up because of technology. But at the same time, of course, that we are the parents of what we make, we are also the children of it: we are both the master and the slave of technology. … We serve technology and technology serves us: that tension will never go away.

The question you’re asking is ‘What’s preventing technology from just taking over?’ and I think part of the answer is that we are always going to be part of it. When I talk about the autonomy of the Technium, we have to remember that we will always be part of it — the Technium includes us.

I think what’s happening is that we are going to transform ourselves, we are not the people who walked out of Africa and we will not be the same people that we are today in another twenty, thirty, hundred years. We are going to become something different.

Kevin Kelly with Chris Lydon, October 13, 2010

Podcast • September 14, 2009

Isaac Newton drops in at MIT

Alexander Pope’s couplet about Isaac Newton gives me goosebumps: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said: Let Newton be! and all was light. Epitaph… Intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey ...

Alexander Pope’s couplet about Isaac Newton gives me goosebumps:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said: Let Newton be! and all was light.

Epitaph… Intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey


If the “foundational scientist” Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) turned up one day at MIT, a sort of figment of Newton’s imagination, where might the conversation go these days?

Tom Levenson: In Newton's Playground

Tom Levenson: In Newton’s Playground

We are bandying questions with the master journalist Tom Levenson, the only man I know who has studied every word of Principia Mathematica.

Who at MIT would engage Isaac Newton on the subject of God?

Lots of people, Levenson argues.

Would Newton not take the “big bang” theory as an analog of the Bible’s story of Creaton?


What would intrigue him most in science today?

The biological sciences of mind and self.

Who could persuade Newton that evolutionary psychology is true science?

Maybe nobody.

Who’d you introduce him to on his first day at MIT?

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Wolfgang Ketterle, experimental atomic physicist. Marvin Minsky, scientist of mind and artificial intelligence. Rodney Brooks, roboticist. Nancy Hopkins, gene biologist…

In the miracle years of his early twenties, through the London plague of the mid-1660s, Isaac Newton codified most of what you and I know about apples, planets and moons in motion… about inertia, gravity and calculus, the mathematics of motion and change.

In Newton and the Counterfeiter, Tom Levenson, who runs the science-writing course at MIT, has extended the story to encompass Newton’s late career as Warden of the Royal Mint and remorseless detective and prosecutor of the notorious William Chaloner. Chaloner’s fatal sin was trying to debase not only England’s currency but also Newton’s beloved quasi-religious art and science of alchemy.

In conversation, I asked Tom Levenson to extend the yarn by another long imaginative leap. A guided tour, please, Tom, for the father of mathematical and rational science, around its sprawling citadel, from MIT’s brain labs to the departments of architecture and nanotechnology. Remembering specially that Newton — part medieval, part modern — was not exactly a Newtonian. The father of the Enlightenment was equally an alchemist, bent turning dross to gold, and a fervent, argumentative Unitarian Christian.

TL: I think where he would have been most intrigued, perhaps horrified, possibly even deeply saddened, is in the revolution in the biological sciences, the sciences of mind and self. I don’t think there was anything in 17th and early 18th century science, philosophy or theology that really prepared you, prepared anyone, for the impact of Darwin, the impact of Mendel, and for the impact of the truly rigorous application of the materialistic world view to who we are, how our bodies work, how our minds work; that’s were I think he would have had the greatest difficulty, not necessarily comprehending the underlying ideas, but dealing with the success of the results of this extraordinarily important line of inquiry.

CL: What is it that would trouble him? Is it the banishing of not only God, but of a deep mystery?

TL: I don’t think Isaac Newton wept much for the banishing of mysteries. I think he was committed to that as a proposition. But I do think he had a profound sense of himself as an agent of God. One of the scholars whom I most respect in this area, and whose work I drew upon, Simon Schaffer, at Cambridge, is writing now a book about angels in 17th century English thinking. And he argues, persuasively to me, that Newton saw himself as a kind of angel of the Lord. It’s very, very hard to hold onto that conception when you see how powerful the hypothesis that mind is a phenomenon of material brain, when you see how well that works, how much you can explain, how wonderfully we can intervene in the miseries of people using that as our basic presumption. The sense that there is a self that is not just my body, but a self that is my ideas, my thoughts, my emotions, my feelings, is one that we all hold very deeply, and that is being at least modified, if not entirely threatened by modern neurobiology. I think Newton would have found that difficult, very difficult. Many, many people do. He’s not unique. He has plenty of company today.

Thomas Levenson in conversation with Chris Lydon at MIT, September 3, 2009.

Podcast • July 17, 2009

Ronald Prinn and MIT’s Wheel of Fortune

Ronald Prinn is talking about what was arguably the biggest little news story on earth so far this year. It came from MIT’s global climate project: which reported in effect that the warming of the ...

Ronald Prinn is talking about what was arguably the biggest little news story on earth so far this year.

It came from MIT’s global climate project: which reported in effect that the warming of the planet is not a 2-alarm fire, after all, but a four-alarm fire… that in the lifetime of my grandchildren, the average temperature in this membrane of life around the earth will be warmer not by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, but 4 to 6 degrees Celsius, or as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A planet-changer, as they said. Play the “wheel of fortune” game here.

Zoom in here on a irresistible Google map project of all the coasts in the world to see if your house will be underwater in 50 years. You can set the rising sea level as high or low as you dare. The default is 7 meters.

The MIT report in May had everything to do with the House vote in Washington in June: the first ever to fix an American limit on the emission of greenhouse gases that are changing the climate. The vote was a squeaker – a seven vote spread for the Waxman-Markey bill that embodied the Obama climate policy. With Senate vote coming up and very much in doubt, I asked the chief of the MIT study, Ronald Prinn, to walk us through his research and the Wheel of Fortune gimmick that simulates a risk assessment for the only home that we – that any organic life we know about – ever had.

We’re talking about something not way in the future. We’re talking about young people born today. They’re going to see the results of the heritage we left them, the inheritance if you like of the planet…

I would show [skeptics in the Senate] the wheel, and say: “Here are the odds, the best that we can do with the knowledge we have, here are the odds.” And then just explain that if we landed on that 6-to-7 degree Centigrade warming by 2100, what it means simply for sea levels…

It’s going to cause strife that is not just economic strife but it is the possibility of widespread strife associated with just simply the changing coast lines. Bangladesh is largely — a significant fraction of the country — only one meter above sea level. What are they going to do? They’re going to move into India, I presume. And what if the Indus River dries up in the middle of one of the most politically delicate and dangerous places in the world. There it is. It is not just economic loss, it’s the possibility of wide-spread strife.

Those are the sorts of things I’d talk about. I’d talk about risk, and say what do they want to leave their children and grandchildren now, what is it they really want to be known for when people look back and say “they did something about this issue and thank goodness they did.”

Ronald Prinn of MIT with Chris Lydon, Cambridge, July 17, 2009.

Podcast • February 24, 2009

Jonah Lehrer: Brain Science for the Rest of Us

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jonah Lehrer. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Jonah Lehrer The joy of reading Jonah Lehrer is that he’s scientist enough to navigate oceans of brain-science lab reports. He ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jonah Lehrer. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

The joy of reading Jonah Lehrer is that he’s scientist enough to navigate oceans of brain-science lab reports. He knows the neural pathways where Blink meets Nudge. But he’s literature bug and humanist enough to remember that the proper study of man, as Alexander Pope had it, is you and me, the whole of Us.

Lehrer’s first triumph, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, made the case for art in an age of science. On the mystery of consciousness, he wrote: “It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

His new book How We Decide, which reads like a sequel, is a set of cautionary tales about the limits of the rational brain, that peculiarly human pre-frontal cortex, and by implication the limits of rational science. It is not reason — certainly not reason alone — that tells quarterback Tom Brady which receiver should get the pass, or that tells the pilot of a disabled plane how to land it. It’s not even reason that brings the best of our human gifts into balance. Lehrer quotes G. K. Chesterton: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Jonah Lehrer identifies himself with the modern doctor who tells you not to choose the MRI for your lower back pain but to study patience, or perhaps Yoga, instead. Not only have MRIs not solved the problem of back pain. “In fact, the new technology has probably made the problem worse. The machine simply sees too much. Doctors are overwhelmed with information and struggle to distinguish the significant from the irrelevant… This is the danger of too much information: it can actually interfere with understanding.”

Most of us read too little or too much about the booming brain sciences. If you’re going to sit down and talk with just one enthusiast who’s wise beyond his years, I’d make it Jonah Lehrer:

The body that knows better than the brain

One of the great themes of modern neuroscience is that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; that the brain knows much more than we know; that we’re always taking in all this information which allows us to swing at fastballs and find the open man in three and a half seconds before we’re sacked, and choose which cereal to buy in the supermarket. All of our decisions are shaped by these emotional signals, which is why when we get cut off from these emotional signals people become pathologically indecisive. That said, one of the other great themes of decision-making sciences in the last couple of decades – going back to Kahnemann and Tversky and lots of recent work in neuro-economics – is that as wise as the emotional brain is, as profoundy intuitive as it can be, the fact that it knows more than we know, it can also be incredibly dumb, incredibly idiotic; and it’s all about the situation. You can put the same brain mechanism which can be so wise on the football field and all of a sudden you have it pick stocks, or figure out which mortgage to get, and it could make the worst decision possible. So one of the things I tried to do in this book was construct a model of decision-making that wasn’t all about: We should always blink and trust our gut – or always be rational like homo economicus. But to say: the way you make decisions should depend on the kind of decision you’re making. That you have to begin with the situation, diagnose the situation, be pragmatic about it. And then work backwards from that and try to tailor your thought process, which we’re capable of doing, to the situation at hand.

Jonah Lehrer with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 23, 2009

There are surprising connections here to the Adam Smith you never knew, to 2/28 mortgages, to the war in Afghanistan, to William and Henry James, the folly of credit cards and the novelists Ian McEwen and Richard Powers. Listen to all of it, please, and leave a comment here.