Early Intellectual Influences
The "Life of the Mind" (such as it was) In My Early Years.
My Early Exposure to Books, Ideas, etc.
My parents were intelligent people with sound High School educations. There
were always books around; a modest bookshelf full or so; nothing challenging
intellectually. My parents got the monthly Readers Digest Condensed
Books for a long time, and from early years, I was taken to the library.
Early in my childhood, they bought the World Book Encyclopedia;
later -- perhaps around my Junior High School years, they got the Encyclopedia
Britannia, which I loved (My mother recently teased my Dad about getting
it for himself). They also subscribed to a Life-Time science series, with
loads of glossy illustrations. They provided visually interesting overviews
of different sciences, but were not very deep or challenging.
My mother's father is uneducated and exceptionally intelligent, extremely
social, driven to accomplishment, and fun loving. He is still running around
and soon to be ninety. He grew up on a farm and, I gather, only went to
school when there was no farm work to do. He often posed riddles for me
to work out, and as my college career went on and on, he would sometimes
say "Well, get all the education you can. If they can make penicillin out
of mold they can surely make somethin out of you."
My family belonged to the Methodist church, and all, including me, regularly
attended Sunday School and Church services until my mid-teens (when I stopped
believing in it, and no longer attended regularly if at all). Sunday school
was a good time to discuss the state of the world and our responses to
it, which I took very seriously. I remember a kid who always wanted to
discuss "Big Time Wrestling" in Sunday school, partly, I'm sure, because
it would annoy the teacher. I developed some of my earnestness about "the
world", and penchant for thinking long and hard and saying "deep" things
in that atmosphere. I was secretly pleased if someone said "Hal doesn't
say much, but when he does, you should listen (or some such thing)".
Early Reading Habits, and Discovery of "Science"
I read some of the usual boy's adventure stories through elementary school
(up to 6th grade), but my reading and interests took a special turn when,
around the second grade, someone subscribed me to a monthly series of kids
science books, called "All About" books -- they were all titled something
like All About Butterflies and Moths, All about Volcanoes and
Earthquakes, and so forth. I took to these books, and began to think
I'd be a "scientist" when I grew up. I always had the ambition to somehow
comprehend everything (perhaps the "All About" books helped plant
that idea), and so it never occurred to me, in the years that I thought
I wanted to be a "scientist", to be some particular kind of scientist.
My notion, as a child, of wanting to be a scientist really
was a cover for sky-high spiritual and intellectual ambitions.
More "Scientific" Encouragements
I also got quite a few science oriented gifts at Christmas and birthdays
-- one or two chemistry sets, a microscope, in the elementary or Junior
High school years. My use of the chemistry sets was very limited. Much
of the problem with these, as with books of "experiments", and with the
way science was mostly taught in school, was that I disliked reproducing
other people's experiments. I was interested in exploring and understanding
naturally occurring, not contrived, things; the challenge of understanding
new things about history stimulates me, but the guessing of "who did it"
in a mystery novel has no appeal for me. Anyway, I quickly got bored with
performing "cookbook" sequences, mixing one part of this with two parts
of that, heating the test tube, and "voila", it turns blue.
I remember, in Junior High and High school, being taught a little about
theoretical models of atoms and molecules, but no way at all to test any
of the theories, or relate them to experience. The laboratory experiments
were not designed, I think, to reveal how theory meets reality. Rather,
they were exercises in following somewhat intricate and precise procedures
(using sensitive scales and tiny scoops to get a gram of this and two grams
of that), with, in the end, a recognizable result (like the combination
of two colorless liquids into a red liquid, or producing something that
smells like bananas (or rather like a poor quality artificial banana flavoring
-- which depressed rather than impressed me).
[I heard once of a teacher who liked to make a demonstration
of putting a little water into a gasoline can, heating it till the water
boils, quickly screwing on the lid, and removing it from the heat, whereupon
the can gets crumpled -- its sides cave in -- due to 15 pounds per square
inch of air pressure, against less on the inside (most of the air gets
driven out by the steam; then the steam turns back into water, leaving
a vacuum). This gives a demonstration of the abstract, hard to believe,
fact, that we walk around with this sort of pressure (15 pounds) on every
inch of our body's surface, but never feel it. That is still hard to grasp,
but the experiment provides a foothold for our understanding. It is a very
clear case of theory meeting fact. A careful exploration of the behavior
of gases, and gas pressure, led Robert Boyle to theorize that gases are
composed of discrete particles separated by space, and the closer these
particles are brought together, the more pressure the gas will exert. What
is the principal of this? Is the gas "pressure" on a given surface the
result of so many molecules of gas per (chose some unit of time)
pelting that surface? And does halving the amount of space the gas occupies
double the number of molecules hitting the surface per (time
I remember fairly well a set of electronics projects I was given, one of
which was to build a microphone (out of, little more than fiberboard, graphite,
some kind of thin diaphragm, and screws and/or glue for putting it together).
I associate this electronics set with my father, who, I believe got involved
with me in it, helping me learn some of the skills of soldering, etc. One
of the projects was to construct a sort of "analogue computer". I think
it was kind of a crude slide rule that operated on electronic principles.
I even did a half-hearted "science fair" project based on this "analogue
computer". There was little or no real thought put into it.
Another project was to make a "strobe light" - which blinked on and
off rapidly at an adjustable rate (using it in the dark, one could point
it at a rotating phonograph record, and adjust it until the record appeared
to stand still, and - in theory at least - by reading off the speed of
oscillation of the strobe light, check the speed of rotation of the turntable).
I liked the strobe light particularly. Unlike the microphone (I think one
could make a crude radio too), it was unfamiliar; conceptually new, and
at the same time, once the concept was revealed, easy to grasp. I suspect
its relating to perception also attracted me; I was also fascinated by
the method by which an illusion of movement is produced in movies; I was
able to understand, through that experiment (or demonstration), why tank
treads in war movies often appear to be moving in the wrong direction (i.e.
backwards), as the tank moves forward.
Thoughts about Thought, and the History of Science
I never realized it until today, but those "All About" books gave
me my first taste of history of science. Furthermore, I'm getting
what feels like an exciting insight -- that the history of science
taught me however much I grasp of the real nature of science, while books,
classes, etc., whose purpose was to teach science to children and youths
gave me far less of a sense of what science really is.
Those little "All About" books dealt largely with the scientists
themselves, giving some sense of their grappling with the facts and how
they arrived at their discoveries. The books and classes gave, very schematically,
some of the end results of those endeavors -- those facts that seem to
have left us little to do except crank out extrapolations.
Hypnosis, "Split Personality", and Exploring the Nature of the Mind
I must have had a particular fascination, for a while (in elementary school
is my guess) with hypnosis. My mother likes to recall that I stepped into
a conversation once, beginning with "Speaking of hypnosis", when nobody
was, in fact, speaking of hypnosis. It is hard for me to imagine myself
doing that; perhaps I only interrupted another topic and began, out of
the blue, talking about hypnosis, and the incident got embellished. Anyway,
this seems like the earliest clear evidence of an interest directly in
the workings of the mind. I think people have, since the discovery of hypnosis,
been disturbed by this sort of interruptability of our consciousness. The
first hypnotists, like Mesmer, seem to have (see Asimov's Biog. Encyc...)
stumbled across the use of hypnosis to relieve psychosomatic disorders;
thus they were at the threshold of discovering the multiplicity of beings
(shades of the Trinity) that exist within a human being. Freud would later
apply hypnosis to what he properly saw as some kind of mental problem (what
they called hysteria, or psychosomatic paralysis), and would give respectability
to the notion of multiple beings (or consciousnesses) within a human being.
Some time in my junior high school years (about the age of 13, it seems
to me), I did a little investigation on my own (a "literature search" through
encyclopedias, etc.) of schizophrenia. I had more than half a notion
that I was schizophrenic. Schizophrenia, as far as I could make out then,
was a tendency of the mind to fragmentation. The word is often misused
as if it stood for the much rarer phenomenon of multiple personality disorder,
where 2 or more basically coherent (though usually maladjusted) personalities
seem to inhabit the same body. It is very common, at any rate, to speak,
for instance, of a self contradictory government policy as "schizophrenic",
as if "schizophrenic" denoted a double nature, or "split personality" rather
than a quite fragmented personality.
Anyway, I continued to think often of schizophrenia, and to look into
other psychological topics, to read books (and in a few years to subscribe
to Psychology Today). One thing I knew at that time was that I was
in a lot of mental or emotional anguish, so, like many people who get into
the study of psychology, I was trying to help myself. Over the years, I
read The Three Faces of Eve, about the author's own experience with
multiple personality disorder; read about megavitamin therapy, which was
supposed to be having phenomenal successes with schizophrenics through
the use of massive doses of niacinimide; about Arthur Janov's primal scream
therapy, and, of course, the many approaches reported on in Psychology
Looking back, I can also view it as part of an emerging fascination
with the notion of two or more beings in one. This extended to a fascination
with symbiotic relationships. That is, in biology, when two species have
formed some kind of bond, each performing a needed service for the other,
and getting something in return. In some cases, at least, they appear to
be one organism.
For a time, beginning in junior high school (7th-9th grades), I read
a lot of science fiction. I particularly (perhaps mainly) liked the many
stories and novels that explored the nature of the mind. They might deal
with telepathy (exploring the question "What would it be like for two minds
to be in direct contact with each other; perceiving the other as
directly as one perceives oneself?"). Or "What would it be like for one
person's mind to pass into another's body?" Childhood's End, by
Arthur C. Clark, plays with the supposition that there are many races of
intelligent beings throughout the universe, and that they all, or nearly
all, pass from one important stage of development to another -- from childhood
to adulthood; the childhood of an intelligent species being characterized
by separateness of being; adulthood, by a merging of all the consciousnesses
into one. Actually, I think all the children on Earth merge and lose their
separate personalities, while the adults, unable to do this, are left behind.
All of this is assisted by a race of "midwifes" who know how to assist
other races in their transformation, but can't achieve it themselves. Solaris,
by Stanislov Lem -- though I only read it a few years ago, is about a planet,
discovered by Earth astronauts, whose whole surface seems to be covered
with water, but a water which is in constant, restless movement; the momentary
creation of intricate formations. Much more than could be explained by
the action of wind and tide. The Earth astronauts who were sent to explore
the planet set down on its surface in some kind of floating vessel, but
one after the other went mad as the planet, in some way, interacted with
their dreaming selves, creating physical embodiments of the beings of their
imagination, and turning their lives into a waking physical theatre of
[Summary of school days stretching all the way to High
School:] I developed into a bright child who hated school, testing
at or near the top for my school on all those computerized tests, but grade
wise, ranking, near the middle of a class of 500+ students (I had a mixture
of high and low grades; I would get caught up in a subject, for a while,
while stubbornly ignoring others).
[What accounts for my unhappiness, loneliness, etc.,
during most of my life? Since my running away from home is coming up, that
would seem to be relevant.]
Until my teen, or pre-teen, years, I wanted to be a "scientist", but in
my early to middle teen years (1964-69), I sort of didn't see that as a
profession for a right-thinking American; I had a strong and generalized
drive to challenge the world as I found it. From my unwillingness to gravitate
towards, or form a sustained interest, in any particular specialty, it
seems I really had more
of a philosophical than a scientific (in today's world of science) bent.
It eventually became clear
to me that I really cared about the question "What is this thing, or process,
called 'science'?". What distinguishes this mode of thought, or of investigation,
that constantly leads to such drastic changes in the way we live?.