Saturday, August 09, 2008

In Memoriam Leo Zwell

History is a damn dim candle
over a damn dark abyss
-- W.S. Holt

My grandfather Leo Zwell died last week at age 92, so I thought I'd write a blog post (inadequately) commemorating his existence and lamenting his passing.

Leo and me, 1967

What a really exceptional person he was, and how glad I am to have known him.

He was a crystallographer by profession, and a really outstanding grandfather, but most of all I'll remember him as two things (in no particular order):

  • an inquisitive, careful, always-processing, generally-interested mind
  • a caring, loving human who always wanted to help, and to see that others were doing well
His attitude toward humanity was a subtle one, alluded to by a phrase I remember from a poem I wrote for him and my grandmother when I was 18 or so: "Cynically and with innocence." Of course, this is a rather typically Eastern-European-Jew sort of almost-but-not-quite-self-contradictory attitude, but he manifested it in a uniquely warm and thoughtful way.

He saw humans as hopelessly flawed, screwed-up animal creatures, dealt a mixed hand by evolution (a frequent saying of his was, "We're really just animals. Considering that we're really just animals like all the other animals, we're really not so bad ... we've actually come a long way.") -- yet he was dedicated to getting the most out of the flawed human-animal mind by understanding the world around him and encouraging others to do the same ... and to helping others nudge their flawed human existences in the direction of satisfaction and growth and cognizance rather than suffering and foolishness....

He thought people sometimes expected too much of humanity, given that after all we're just animals with mildly hyperdeveloped craniums. But then, he was also prone to push people to think more and more, to consider perspectives and avenues beyond what their culture or personality or habitual mind-set presented them with. It wasn't exactly "hope for the best, expect the worst" -- more like "expect the mixed-up and confused, but keep pushing for the better and better."

In conversations and in his own thinking on everyday or scientific topics, he was always willing to approach the world simply, in the manner of a child, just looking at reality without preconceived notions ... yet was also extremely interested in accumulating knowledge, and critical of people who govern their thinking and living in an ignorant way.... He was always great with children (at least until his very last years, when he occasionally became impatient), and one of the things he liked about kids was their natural inclination to be scientists and observers: he was always concerned to carefully and openly observe the world around him (and within him) and see what was actually there.

On a personal level, he was extremely important to me in two specific ways (beyond just being a loving and helpful family member), connected to the two qualities. I mentioned above...

Firstly: He was the one who got me into hard science, in the first place. Both of my parents were into social change and social science and such, and the general milieu of my early youth was left-wing hippie nonconformists, not hard scientists concerned with understanding physical or mathematical reality. Whenever we visited Leo (and we moved near him when I was 6, so I saw him often after that) he lectured me on physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and what-not ... and he had an endless reserve of stories about experiments he'd done, famous and non-famous scientists he'd worked with, and so forth.

Leo taught me some practical things about science and math, such as tricks for doing mental arithmetic ... and simple trigonometry, Newton's method, the basics of X-ray diffraction and so forth -- but that wasn't really the main point ... I could learn that stuff from books ... the main point was his enthusiasm for science and his immersion in the culture of science ... in the culture of thinking, learning, and communicating with a goal of incrementally understanding more and more about the world.... The cognitive/adaptive/communicational attitude was something he applied to every aspect of existence, including everyday human life, but he saw the scientific sphere as the place where thought and in-depth communication could really flourish.

The other major gift he gave me was: As a child, he was the only example I saw, up-close, of a man who had gotten really deeply into taking care of his kids. My father Ted Goertzel was a very good father and I learned an awful lot from engaging with him in wide-ranging intellectual conversations throughout my childhood ... we also traveled a lot together and played sports together and did many other rewarding things ... but, in our house as a child it was my mom who did the vast bulk of childcare. Leo on the other hand had taken on a large amount of the responsibility for taking care of my mother and her brother, himself -- and I could see this, even as a child myself, in the nature of his relationship with his adult children. I thought this was pretty interesting, and I could see that both he and his children had gained a huge amount from this (at the time, quite unusual) pattern.

Seeing the relationship between Leo and my mom was a lot of what imprinted me with the idea that caring for my kids was something I was supposed to do myself (another thing pushing me in this direction, was probably my mother's own radical-feminist emphasis on male-female equality) ... an idea that continues to absorb a significant portion of my life, as I have ~50% shared-with-my-ex-wife custody of my two still-under-18 kids (my oldest, Zar, is 18 and now a junior in university: damn that makes me feel old!!).

It is impossible for me to estimate the amount of personal reward I've gotten from following Leo down the child-caring path ... or the amount to which my thinking about human and AI cognition has been influenced by carefully observing and partaking of the mental and emotional development of my 3 kids....

These days it is not that shocking for a father to take an intensive hands-on role, but for Leo's generation it was anomalous, and -- while there were some specific situational reasons that pushed him in this direction, such as some temporary health problems on his wife's part -- I'm sure much of the the reason he took on this role as intensively as he did was just his overall passion for being helpful. His kids needed and valued his help, so from his view, it would have been unnatural not to provide as much help as was sensibly possible. He could have left it to his wife, but as a rule, he never really was one to leave things to others (another meme I've adopted from him: I too like to Get Things Done, and have a strong tendency toward getting them done myself rather than relying on others...).

I only knew Leo for the last 41/92 of his life, and I'm not going to try to convey nearly all that I knew of him, but I hope the observations I'll make here will transmit some meaningful (if tiny) fraction of the essence of the person.

This blog post will be sort of disorganized (it already is, and I'm just getting started!) ... I'm going to jump around in time a bit ... but that's the way memory works ... and anyway, as Leo and I discussed a few times, modern physics tells us the directionality of time is projected by the perceiving mind...

The end was distressing but, at least, not marked by great suffering. Leo's body faded gradually during the last few years, with an especially fast decline in the last 6 months after a surgery ... his death itself was about as humane as deaths get, with his daughter (my mother, who did an incomprehensibly great job of caring for him during his last years, all while holding down a very demanding more-than-full-time job running a social service program) at his side. He spent much of his last few hours listening to family members bid him farewell over the phone, and then he curled up in a fetal position and reluctantly let his worn-out body shut down.

One of the most interesting things about the last few years was what an astute observer he was about his own mental and physical deterioration. As each aspect of his functioning declined (arithmetic ability, memory for faces, memory for names, sense of direction), he would note this and analyze the particular nature of the deterioration. And he worried to the end about imposing a burden on his family, to which we would always reply that he had helped us a huge amount in the earlier part of his life, so we were more than happy to return the favor.

Indeed, helping others was -- as I already hinted above -- one of the biggest themes of Leo's life. The receptionist at the old folks' home where he lived for his last few years (Martin's Run) likes to tell a story about the day that Leo felt she looked bored and hungry sitting at her desk by the entrance, so he went to the kitchen and brought her some soup. Walking was slow for him at that time, but, he thought it was imperative that the receptionist be treated well. I don't remember any of the other residents at Martin's Run paying nearly so much attention to the well-being of the hired staff. But this meme went way back in Leo's life, to his roots growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, and then his political involvement in socialist organizations a little later on.

(His interest in socialism was never an abstract or theoretical thing; while, as a scientist, he appreciated very much the value of good theories with explanatory power, he never took much stock in social theories, considering them largely mumbo-jumbo. His interest in socialism was always very practical: he saw the world as full of people who needed help, and he thought that society should be organized in such a way that they got the help they needed. After the truth about the Soviet Union became clearer in the 1970's and 1980's he backed away from the more Marxist variants of socialism, but remained strongly attached to the caring-oriented values at the heart of the democratic socialist tradition.)

The (woefully inadequate) obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, after his death, read as follows:

Leo Zwell, 92, a retired scientist with the Joint Committee of X-Ray Powder Diffraction Standards in Swarthmore, died of heart failure on Wednesday at Martin's Run, a retirement community in Media where he had lived since 2002.

Mr. Zwell was a physicist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, U.S. Steel, and the U.S. Bureau of Standards before joining the Swarthmore firm in 1972.

He was a 1934 graduate of Brooklyn College. "He graduated at the age of 19," said his son, Michael, chief executive officer of his own human resources firm in Chicago.

"He was working full time" while in college "to put himself through school and contribute to his family's income," his son said. In the depths of the Depression, there was no money for advanced studies.

The Joint Committee, Michael Zwell said, is a publisher of research about X-raying of materials "to identify what their atomic structure was."

Besides his son, he is survived by his daughter, Carol Goertzel; sisters Gladys Berman and Priscilla Endler; four grandchildren; and a step-grandchild.

Mr. Zwell's wife of 54 years, Etta, died in 1994.

A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. today at Martin's Run, near Route 320 and Paxon Hollow Road outside Media.

A spokeswoman for the Humanity Gifts Registry said Mr. Zwell had donated his body to science.

(Small digressive note: Perhaps the most peculiar thing about this obituary is its failure to mention that my mother Carol Goertzel runs a very successful social service program in the Philadelphia area. Apparently some obituary-writers don't do much homework.)

me and my mom Carol (Leo's daughter),
kickin' it old school back in the good old days ...
1968 or so, Eugene, Oregon,
in the midst of all the hippy madness...
but I was more concerned with my box
than science or revolt or the Vietnam war...

Leo graduated high school at 14 (so he wound up entering college at 15, just as I did ... though he was a younger 15) and went to Brooklyn College, where he majored in chemistry. Unlike me (whew!) he worked full-time while in college, helping out in his father's parking garage (which he found rewarding though at times exhausting ... and one of his favorite topics of discourse was the incredible ethical and intellectual characteristics of his father, Pop Charlie ... Charlie Zwagilski before immigrating to the US from Eastern Europe and getting his name mutated).

Pop Charlie (holding my sister Rebecca)
and Grandma Sarah (holding me)

Pop Charlie before I knew him, back in the day

Not too long after graduating college Leo joined the WWII war effort, stationed in the lab rather than the battlefield, working on various projects related to creating better metallic compounds for use in missiles and other military devices. Like many others of that time, he found his innate tendency to pacifism called into question by the Nazi threat. All or nearly all of his relatives who had not emigrated to the US, were wiped out in one or another anti-Jewish purge in Eastern Europe.

After the war ended, he spent some time as a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, but eventually had to leave there due to McCarthyism: he was actively involved in efforts to politically organize scientists and engineers, and was hence falsely accused of un-Americanism. This episode had a lasting impact on his psyche, imprinting him with a cynicism about human nature and society that never quite left him after that. But, he went on to a very successful research career at US Steel in Pittsburgh, a major industrial research lab of its time ... and then after "retiring" from US Steel, spent 20 years working at the Joint Committee of X-Ray Powder Diffraction Standards in Swarthmore PA, where he pored over the crystallography research literature and figured out which of the many results published there seemed solid enough to enter into JCPDS's extensive databases.

(I briefly had a job helping him him with some of his JCPDS work during the summer of 1982, after my first year of college, but my duties consisted largely of photocopying and I confess I rapidly quit the job even though the small amount of pay was useful to me ... I did not, and still don't, have the patience to enjoy that sort of work....)

Leo during the JCPDS period

Had he been born a little later (a complicated counterfactual, but let's roll with it for the moment...) he would surely have gotten a PhD; but in his day you could do serious science without one ... and he surely did a lot of it. One trait of his that I did not inherit was his surpassing modesty: though he was brighter and more knowledgeable than many of the more famous and well-recognized scientists in the labs he worked in, he genuinely did not envy their greater glory and external recognition. Rather, he was contented to work in the background, analyzing peoples' data for them, solving the tough problems that no one else could solve, and pushing science ahead by helping others with their work as best he knew how.

Another excellent trait of his that I did not inherit was his incredible carefulness. He would review a body of data again and again, with never-failing concentration and precision, looking for subtle patterns, or subtle clues that some sort of error or irregularity might have occurred. There were various commonly-used formulas in the crystallographic literature that he considered inaccurate because the data from which they were derived had various issues; and I have little doubt he was correct. While I am not cognitively suited to be as careful as he was, watching his approach to understanding data was extremely educational for me, and throughout my career I have sought to work with people who are careful in the same way that he was, knowing that this is a virtue I lack.

He also taught me the value of teams in science. My inclination is to be a lone wolf and seek to range far and wide from others trying to solve the hardest problems by idiosyncratic means -- but he showed me that in science, an awful lot of things can only be achieved via different people with different strengths working together. What I'm doing now in my own career exemplifies this: in my thinking I remain a pretty-far-out-there lone wolf, but I'm happy to be working with a diverse, well-integrated R&D team that probably shares many characteristics with the teams he worked in at US Steel.

One theme that he often returned to in his ruminations and (extensive, sometimes rather excessive!) storytelling was that of Generalists versus Specialists. He considered himself more of a generalist, as he was always seeking to synthesize knowledge from different areas, and look for overall patterns of organization. On the other hand he also had deep specialized knowledge of particular areas such as X-ray diffraction data analysis. Only by integrating generalist and specialist traits, he felt, was it possible to really make profound scientific progress. He saw too many scientists as being generalists or specialists only, and felt that for this reason a lot less progress was made than could otherwise be the case.

In part, it was probably his very humbleness that allowed him to be so helpful to so many other scientists, during the course of his career. As they knew he didn't care to compete with them, they were comfortable sharing their doubts, questions, ideas and hard problems with him. He was always interested in arguing intellectual points -- with anyone, be they a famous scientist or a two year old child -- but rarely was there any rancor involved ... it was very much passionate, abstract argumentation in the Greek tradition. Ideas meant a lot to him, yet it was rare for him to hold someone's bad ideas against them as a human being. He had friends with whom he profoundly disagreed.

I recall, when my sister Rebecca (now a school principal) was 6, Leo was lecturing her on the need to avoid fashionable clothing and such, because making fashion statements was foolish and involved emphasizing the wrong things. (He liked to say how he'd worn the same clothes all his life, and watched them go in and out of style.) Rebecca argued back that being determinedly unfashionable was itself a kind of fashion statement, so should also be avoided according to his principles. He laughed and agreed with her, quite willing to take-lightly his own studied unfashionableness, and complimented her on her thoughtfulness. (Of course, Rebecca ultimately grew up not to be the kind of person who reads fashion magazines....)

One of Leo's and my biggest, long-running arguments regarded the future of humanity.

He believed human nature to be fundamentally flawed, and figured that all attempts to reform society and improve human nature were doomed to fail, based on the fundamentally screwed-up essence of human nature. He saw the scientific process as having a greater perfection than human nature, but still being deeply flawed in various ways due to the underlying flaws in the humans doing the science (when led to, for example, wrong formulas being perpetuated because the individuals advocating them were famous or people were simply too lazy to study the underlying data correctly).

When I argued to him that science could in fact be used to improve human nature, by modifying the brain or by uploading people into computers, he basically laughed off the idea. Not that he felt it was impossible, but that he felt he didn't have the conceptual background to really think about it thoroughly. I really wish I had discussed these topics with him when he was 55 or 60 rather than 75-92, but it just didn't occur to me, mostly because our conversations were more dominated by his own (interesting) interests. The most evocative thing he ever said on this topic was something like: "Fine, Ben, but by the time you modify the human brain to remove all the ethical problems and the foolishness, what you'll have won't be human anymore."

In other words, he saw screwed-up-ness as essential to the nature of humanity ... and he understood himself as inextricably part of this human web of screwed-up-ness ... but nevertheless he felt compelled to devote himself to gaining more and more understanding and helping all the other screwed-up humans as much as possible.

Still, I always had the feeling that if we argued long enough, I might have been able to bring him around to a point of view closer to my own radical futurism. Another of his excellent qualities was his ability to change his ideas and attitudes -- no matter how deep-seated -- based on evidence and reflection. This was evident in his scientific work, and also in his personal life: for instance he was raised with relatively sexist and homophobic attitudes (by modern standards), but gradually revised these over time as he observed they really did not explain what he saw around him, nor accord with his desire for general human happiness.

I also remember arguing with him that it might, one day, be possible to resurrect the dead in a scientific way. My argument was: If quantum theory is correct then all the information about everything that has ever happened is encoded in the perturbations of particles in the universe now, so that in principle dead people could be reconstituted from this information, if a being were smart and powerful enough to collect it and do the appropriate nanoengineering. On the other hand, who knows if quantum theory is correct ... and there are, er, some engineering difficulties in this plan. Leo certainly found this train of thought amusing -- but he was not of the emotional cast to draw any hope from it. As far as he was concerned, once he was dead, he was gone, and that was the end of it ... remote possibilities regarding far-future weirdball engineering feats didn't really enter his emotional world. He did not want to die, but he accepted it, and had no patience for superstitions or wishful thinking.

Another comment he frequently made was that he was "never bored." He claimed not to really understand the concept of boredom. "I always have my own mind," he said. "How can I be bored? There's always so much to think about and to wonder about."

Indeed when your attitudes are "Question Authority!" and furthermore "Question Everything!" (two attitudes that came down to me from both sides of my family with pretty overwhelming force), boredom is hard to come by, because there are always so many things to be questioning....

Even at the end, in fact, when his powers of thought were a fraction of their previous, he STILL was never-bored, and was always thinking and trying to understand things. At the very end, when his memory was gone, he was continually asking questions about the objects in the hospital room: what is that? What is that for? Who put that there?

In his last few hours, right before he lost the energy to talk, he was counting ... he counted from 1 to 36, slowly and carefully, as if to be sure all the numbers were still there, as if by attaching himself to the Platonic realm of numbers he was connecting with a reality more substantial than his fading body and memory ... as a non-religious person, he had no delusions of heavens or hells, but beyond our own personal worries, concerns and attachments, there is always the more permanent and perfect world of the Numbers ...

He had a great love of measurement as a way of understanding the world, and when we emptied out his drawers, boxes and closets after his death, we found a remarkable number of rulers, yardsticks, protractors, compasses, calculators and slide rules. (At a certain point, in Swarthmore, he adopted the habit of asking each visitor to his apartment, as soon as they walked in the door, to name their height ... and then proceeding to measure them, taking his daily dose of kindly schadenfreude from observing how nearly all males tend to overestimate their own heights.) Perhaps his most prized personal possession was his watch: when in the hospital the nurses took his watch from him, he felt completely at a loss until it was returned. I was reminded of the historical theory that the main reason Western civilization advanced so much further than others (such as the Chinese) was the invention, in the middle ages, of quantification, of precise empirical measurement. His career was based on measuring things and recognizing patterns in these measurements, and he was concerned with this till the end.

Well ... having written all that, it still seems pathetically inadequate, and there is so much more to say. Most of all I have left off the very, very long list of people whom Leo and his wife Etta helped in various ways during their lives -- going beyond family and colleagues, comprising a remarkable assemblage of individuals whom they encountered in one random way or another and tried their best to help on their ways through life.

I loved all 4 of my grandparents (the others died some time ago) ... and my other grandfather, Victor Goertzel, was also an accomplished scientist (a psychologist) with whom I had considerable intellectual interaction (for instance, when I was in my early 20's, Victor and my grandmother Mildred and my father and I co-authored a biography of Linus Pauling together) ... but I have to say that Leo is the only grandparent whom I really internalized, to the point of view where I sometimes feel like I have a miniature Leo Zwell homunculus living in some obscure corner of my brain, pointing out to me when someone needs help, and pointing out to me when some point on a data chart is likely to be an outlier, and urging me to doubt all my beliefs and ideas, especially the ones that are most important to me.

One of my favorite phrases was taught to me by my friend Bruce Klein, founder of the Immortality Institute and my collaborator in Novamente LLC: "To abolish the plague of involuntary death."

Indeed: few goals are as important. So sad that it did not happen in time for Grandpa Leo.

He had a good life and a very useful one (not always happy, there were bouts of depression and the usual real-life troubles, but overall a richly rewarding human existence) ... but even at 92 years, I can't help thinking that this excellent person's life was far, far too short.

P.S. The photos included in this blog post are among the many we took from Leo's apartment after his death.


G-man said...


Too bad he got pushed out of JPL by fear, but it sounds like he landed in a good place, and was able to be a teacher to you!

Also, I see your AGI lecture is getting more video links.

Have you looked into George Lakoff's 'cognitive linguistics', where he states that our thoughts are inseparable from the physical structure of our brains?

Thanks for your inspiration to all of us!

Unknown said...


Pat Parslow said...

From your description, it sounds as though Leo is a man we all should have met and got to know. I only hope that one day, somebody will remember me as fondly.

Unknown said...

Since last April visiting, I knew it was unaoidable that Leo might leave us soon. But still hearing this news two days ago made me sad and empty. I was honor to receive much precious help from him in middle 1980s. After I moved to California, I still kept contact with him and Etta, as matter of fact, my daughter's name was suggested by them 1n 1990. They are certainly among the best friends I have in US. After reading Ben's script, I must say I missed him more. Leo, I will forever remember you.

A Chinese American

Anonymous said...

Do you share your grandfather Leo's name as your middle name by any chance?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute about your grandfather. Leo Zwell's grandmother was my grandfather's (Samuel Feldstein) eldest sister. I am currently researching our family and it offered me a lot of insight. Thank you.
Debra Feldstein

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