Me and Sir Karl Popper on the steps of his home

Sir Karl Popper and I on the steps of his home, 1994, photograph, 12 x 15 cm

I wrote to Sir Karl Popper that I had implemented his ideas on the logic of scientific discovery as computer procedures in an automatic speech recognition system done as part of my Ph.D. Thesis Automatic Speech recognition: a Refutation Approach. He invited me to visit his home in Croydon.

It was a beautiful day. I was only supposed to stay for a couple of hours but didn't leave till evening. The day before he had been visited by the Portuguese Prime Minister. Yes, really.

It was like being in a dream. I hadn't ever thought of being invited and now I was there it was completely unreal. I mean I was sitting outside listening to someone who's work had opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the business of learning which then led me to have visions of how the comprehension of something was like going through an arch in the side of a mountain and seeing the new landscape to be explored laid out before you on the other side. This was to be contrasted with the then thinking in computer circles that comprehension was like arriving at a sharp point, e.g. a node in a network say, here is the meaning. The meaning is at this point. The meaning IS this point. Total nonsense.

We spoke about the origins of life and the complexity of metabolic processes. I should actually say that he spoke. I listened with very occasional interjections but it did not matter. The intellectual life in the universities I have visited (nor conferences actually) does not have much of the intellect to it, it does not sparkle with curiosity or enthusiasm about ideas. These are very dry places. Questions are not welcome. New ideas, any ideas, are just .... what should we talk about at a conference .. i know, lets talk about anything else but ideas. So it was great to see that a mental life actually existed in the world, to experience it's existence!

He enthused about the work of Gunther Wachtershauser (who speculates that life may have originated as metabolic processes on iron or nickel crystals next to undersea volcanic vents). When Popper spoke of viruses he was virulent in his insistence that viruses were not living things. I could not understand the passion with which he felt this.

In different rooms in his house he had the different papers he was working on laid out in different rooms. In one room on a grand piano he had the proofs of a paper on Greek philosophy. In another he was editing the proofs he had got back from the printer. In a third the draft of a new paper. I guess he moved between the rooms working on each paper as the fancy took him.

Before leaving he gave me a copy of his book A World of Propensities and inscribed it with the words 'to Julius Guzy to remember'. He was a great man who had a great impact on my life.

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Page last modified: 18:29 Monday 13th. May 2013