The knowledgeable comments of Magpie and Professor Auerbach reminded me yet again of the extraordinary power and reach of the world wide web. It seems that one cannot make a comment on any subject, however obscure, without flushing out one or two people who know all about it. The phenomenon puts me in mind of one of my happiest memories from the early eighties, when I was living in Boston and my first marriage was coming to an end. At Boston University in those days were two fine philosophers, Marx Wartofsky and Robert Cohen, who together ran something called the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science. Many times each academic year the Colloquium held public sessions at which invited speakers appeared. There was a large and very faithful following of Boston area folks drawn from every corner of the Academy who attended regularly. Some of us regulars were fortunate enough to be invited to the dinners held before the talks, events that were often the highlight of the evening.
Marx and Bob had a rather expansive notion of what counted as "Philosophy of Science," with the result that the talks ranged as widely as one could imagine, well beyond the narrow confines of that subject as it is customarily conceived. But the truly remarkable thing was that no matter how arcane and obscure the topic, there always seemed to be at least one person in the audience who was an expert on the subject and could be counted on to ask penetrating questions.
I recall one Colloquium session at which the renowned M. I. T. neurophysiologist Jerry Lettvin gave a talk on Newton's theory of vision. This was not as much of a reach as it might sound inasmuch as Lettvin's research was on the optic nerve of the frog. Lettvin was one of a kind, a large, fat, rumpled man married to a svelte, beautiful woman, Maggie, who ran a popular Public Television exercise show called "Maggie and the Beautiful Body." I was once sitting in Tulla's, an early coffee house in Cambridge where I hung out as a graduate student, arguing about Plato or some such topic, when Lettvin, who was sitting at the next table and overheard us, thrust himself into the conversation without so much as an introduction and became part of the argument. The talk at the Colloquium was impressive but hopelessly obscure. I mean, none of us knew anything about Newton's theory of vision. What would we ask when the question period started? Not to worry. Sure enough, sitting in the front row was an inoffensive little man, maybe a third of Lettvin's weight, who turned out to be the world's leading expert on Newton's theory of vision!
But the greatest example of the Colloquium's magical powers came on the evening that a member of the University of Massachusetts Medical School gave a truly horrifying lecture on the bloody human sacrifice rituals of the ancient Aztecs. It goes without saying that we were utterly ignorant of the subject, but by the end of the talk, we were all in a state of shock at the vivid descriptions of flayings, beheadings, disembowelings, and the like. [A touch of this tradition made its way into one of the Harrison Ford Indiana Jones movies.] As soon as the Chair called for questions, an impassioned young man jumped to his feet at the back of the room and said, in a loud, clear, belligerent voice, "I am a descendant of the ancient Aztecs, and you have it all wrong!" I thought the Boston Colloquium earned its chops that night.