HOW I MET AL WILSON
by Professor Len Troncale
This story requires a lot of background. Both Al and I were invited to an interdisciplinary meeting of the ICP in Pacific Palisades circa 1969 where we met for the first time even though I lived then on the East Coast and he on the West Coast, 3000 miles distant. He was invited because he was already famous in many circles at many levels and the long story lies in why I, a mere unknown graduate student, was invited.
The Interdisciplinary Communications Program (ICP) was a legendary branch of the revered Smithsonian Institution. Before being taken over by the Smithsonian, the ICP was run by the prestigious New York Academy of Sciences. Given that Al and I were very interested in GST’s, isomorphies, and their underlying science for most of our lives it was ironic and yet appropriate that the ICP invited Al and I to the same meeting. That meeting entitled the “Technological Augmentation of Cognition” was sponsored by the legendary ONR (Office of Naval Research). The ICP was the same organization that ran a previous, historically significant meeting in Mexico wherein Margaret Mead, Ralph Gerard, and Norbert Wiener discussed and conceived of Feedback as a process true across many disciplines. This recognition led to the birth of the famous book by that same name by Wiener, and the start of the Cybernetics movement which continues to this day. That group, including two or three members of the Founders of the SGSR was termed the Macy Conferences. It was also the first rigorous recognition of an isomorphy that eventually turned out to be (at least to me) the most critically important feature of general theories of systems. Al and I had both already been working on Hierarchies, another such isomorphy, and so this meeting brought us together on common interests in a related historical setting, completely fortuitously. But the meeting was not even on these subjects. The title of its report in the journal Science, in fact, was “Information Processes in Living Systems” (see that report below) And I was living then in Washington, D.C. and the meeting was on the West Coast where Al lived. We would clearly otherwise never have met with 3000 miles of separation between us.
All and especially this ICP meeting were attended by very high level scientists. For example, this session was attended by Nobel Laureate and chemist Willard Libby (discoverer of radiocarbon dating), Patrick Suppes (Stanford), Seymour Papert ((boy wonder at MIT and later author of Mindstorms (which I was given the task by ICP to convince Papert to write just as others were given the task of convincing Weiner to write on Feedback)), Richard Atkinson (later Director of the National Science Foundation, chancellor of UCSD, and President of all the UC campuses). And Albert G. Wilson whose book on Hierarchies had just recently been published to much acclaim.
These ICP meetings were by invitation only among usually the top 10-15 U.S. academicians expert in the topic of the meeting, held at very exclusive locations (ours was held at one of the past U.S. President’s estate and in the hills of Malibu), all expenses paid by research organizations, and at which every word of a week of conversations and debates was recorded by stenographers as in courts across our nation. The strategy was to get the very best minds in our nation together for an intensive discussion on a cross-disciplinary topic of emerging relevance to the funding agencies responsible for envisioning and improving our human futures.
You might well ask why was a completely unknown science graduate student was invited to such a high level meeting? Actually I was invited as a “test” of my capabilities. The ICP was thinking of hiring me. And that is a background story in itself. In fact, I have written an essay on that story which you can find if you’re interested in an associated website. For me it was a delicious opportunity to trade ideas with the best minds. What a blessing for a young graduate student. And later, I guess after passing the “test,” I wrote the reports on the TAC meetings for ONR and the science public and became the Coordinator for those grants during their first years.
I remember later meeting with one of its participants high on a hill in San Diego, overlooking the UCSD campus at a dinner-reception of Dr. J.G. Miller, another Founder of the SGSR. (Atkinson after having served several President’s as Director of the National Science Foundation (another story) had by then become Chancellor of UCSD at the foot of the same hill and even later the President of all the Universities of California. He then asked me what had become of me, because doctors graduating at the time I did faced a very poor jobs market. What compassion!
Well, because of interviewing for a position at Caltech after leaving ICP and Washington, D.C., I found myself in Southern California again and contacted Al and Donna Wilson. Because of our mutual interests, Al and I met many times over the next decades, sometimes with his traveling to my mountain home in Mt. Baldy and sometimes me traveling to Topanga Canyon until he moved to Sebastopol in Northern California. We enjoyed many day-long walks with each other, as Donna would say, discussing systems, philosophy, religion, and the problems of the world, but never actually doing anything according to her. Donna and Al even had a regular groups of friends they would invite to Topanga Canyon for games and love of music. I even bought a “recorder” which was the instrument of choice for them. I even took Al on a week-long search for places for him to buy and retire after Donna passed away. We travelled across central California but never got as far as Northern on that trip. So I passed many happy days and much deep conversation with Albert G. Wilson from about 1969 to 2012, nearly half a century of friendship and stimulus.
Al would put me on his grants/contracts and I put him on several of mine. Perhaps the most notable story is one of my early grants for a National Model of Environmental Education (NMEE) for the Dept. of Education for $400,000. We both had a lot of grants for Systems Education and Systems Planning. Al so impressed the DOE agency heads that after that granting agency and I had a conflict & they took the grant away from me to give to my colleague Bela Banathy, at the Far West Labs on Educational Technology in San Francisco, he was offered the directorship of the grant. But, ever loyal and professional, he declined mainly because it might upset me. Al impressed everyone with his insights and noble bearing.
What were my personal impressions of Al? He had the ability to make everyone, of any pursuit or status, feel like they were contributing to his stimulating discussions. He raised people from wherever they were to a higher intellectual status. He had a formidable memory of all that he had read, inserting stories about the famous from the deep past whose names and quotes he always somehow saw as relevant to whatever the discussion was at the moment. He simply was a dramatic stimulus and supporter. He made each person feel valued and respected with the highest ethical standards of anyone I ever knew while trying to achieve the best future for all mankind.