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Marvin Minsky's hand in the box


'This looks like a bird but no bird looks like this'
Jeremy Bernstein Scientist
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One of the people that I got to know when I was an undergraduate at Harvard was Marvin Minsky and he... was, I think, in the same class that I was in, although he's a little older because he was in the Navy or in something. He was in something or other and he'd come back. When I went to Harvard in '47, there were a lot of returning veterans and that was a hard year to get in, making it all the more remarkable that two of us got in from our small high school, Columbia Grammar, in New York. And I'm not quite sure how I heard about Marvin, but there were just these… if you were in mathematics, there were just these smart people that you heard about and Marvin was known as a smart person. And then he got into artificial intelligence and he got a contract from the Navy to build a robot. And he had a pet hamster and the pet hamster sat on top of the machine and when he turned on the machine, which had lights and things, the hamster got excited and ran around its cage. So a Navy inspector came in because they were financing the thing and he looked at it, and the… Marvin turned on the machine and the hamster ran around, the Navy inspector stared at the hamster, and Marvin said, 'The next one we build will look like a bird'. Which I've always loved.

And the other thing he told me once. He had drawn a picture of a bird, which he showed me. He said, 'This looks like a bird, but no bird looks like this'. He's an extremely interesting guy. I haven't seen him… we email occasionally but I haven't seen him for a couple of years.

Born in 1929, Jeremy Bernstein is an American physicist, educator and writer known for the clarity of his writing for the lay reader on the major issues of modern physics. After graduating from Harvard University, Bernstein worked at Harvard and at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. In 1962 he became an Associate Professor of Physics at New York University, and later a Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, a position he continues to hold. He was also on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, New York, Marvin Minsky

Duration: 2 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: 15th June 2011

Date story went live: 07 October 2011