I am currently in the process of making a deep study of the work of Ross Ashby, and I came across this obituary written by Stafford Beer in his library (which is archived at Liverpool John Moores University), tucked away on sheets of typescript inside a copy of Ashby's book "Design for a Brain". It is extremely illuminating.
It was meant to be published in a journal of the American Society for Cybernetics called 'Forum' in (or around) 1972 (when Ashby died) - I would have thought Beer would have a copy, but it isn't in the archive, so it's pretty inaccessible.
Requisite Ross - by Stafford Beer
‘Someone is boring me. I think it is me’. Thus once remarked the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Often when talking to people about Ross Ashby I am myself assailed by this feeling; and I am quite serious in saying that I know that it is Ross himself who sets it up in me. It is open to you to interpret that remark in various ways. The least challenging is to say if you will (though I shall not) that obviously the focussing of memory on a man who hated effusion would prompt the suggestion not to be too effusive. If you were to say this, then I reckon that Ross would applaud your use of Occam’s Razor – and then come at you with a merciless scalpel about the ‘obviously’ you used.
Ashby was a man of such precise and incisive thought processes that he did indeed operate as a surgeon of the intellect, whereas he was far too gentle and sensitive a person to have been the neurosurgeon that this ‘brain man’ of our great affection might otherwise have become. Perhaps he did not always realize that some people have even less relish for the dissection of their treasured notions of what-it’s-all-about than for the dissection of their prefrontal lobes. At least you get a general anaesthetic for that, and not a shot of Ashby’s Special – which could evoke instant hypersensitivity. Ashby’s British compatriots are especially ingenious (so I being me have also observed) in finding ways in which to accommodate the most irrefutable evidence that their model is wrong. It would be culpable to deny the evidence: they do not. It would be absurd to alter the model: all right-thinking people know it to be right. The basic trick is to acknowledge all aspects of the effort that has been made, and its great importance – ‘when the time is ripe’. Of course the time is never quite ripe; meanwhile, certain (undetectable) adjustments to the model are understood to have been made. And so on.
Most sadly, this lack of recognition in Britain of his discoveries hurt Ross deeply: he felt that his important new concepts (as they were and remain) were being spurned (as they were and still) both by The Establishment, and by those engaged in managing affairs. He often spoke to me of his outrage as to the impregnability of the first, and of his simple amazement at the incomprehension of the second. So I would engage him in discourse about the pathology of those very mechanisms of viability that he himself had disclosed, and beg him not to suffer any hurt himself; it was for the loss of the scientific and practical advances which he had conceived and made possible – but which he blamed himself for not managing to effect. Well, he gave us who study his works all those ideas free of charge. Let us accept that gift and handle it impeccably, for it was passed to us (I have been seeking to show) with exceptional innocence.
At the start I expressed, though I did not explain, the difficulty I have in speaking of Ross. After many false starts to this note, I managed to get going by firing both barrels of the only critical gun at my disposal, one after the other. Negative effusion, you see. Suddenly (surprise, surprise) they too have just turned themselves into a twenty-one gun salute.
Ashby did not want personal plaudits; and, as I said, he hated effusion – although without doubt he recognized and also returned love. It was, in these circumstances, a risky course on which I embarked in the British University where I teach. I nominated W Ross Ashby for a Doctorate in Science Honoris causa. Now this was after his return from the United States as Professor Emeritus. I wrote an encomium, as required, which I dared not show him. He would have his chance to turn down the honour when it was offered. He would certainly be cross with me, but might accept it for the sake of cybernetics; and that might in turn secretly ameliorate his hurt. The selection committee met, announced the year’s honorary degrees, and departed. I heard nothing at all. So I made enquiries. I was told that Ross’s name did not appear in ‘Who’s Why’. Perhaps you have experienced the feeling that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was exactly this kind of twaddle that the honour was intended to put down in principle – and to lay to rest for ever in his case.
It did not at this point occur again to me that I might after all be doing just the wrong thing. I was incensed for Ross’s reputation; he was sitting unbeknownst of these entire developments at his home in Bristol, and visiting nearby Cardiff as an Honorary Professorial Fellow. Moreover, I was angry with my own incompetence. The next year, then, his name went forward again. This time it was accompanied by a huge dossier. There were letters of support from every cybernetician in the world whose name would count. In addition, there were Nobel Laureates, leading scientists from other disciplines, top managers…. For all that I can now remember, I may have cited the Queen. At any rate, this was a dossier to wring the heart of Genghis Khan. Just a few weeks before the selection committee met again, the said W Ross Ashby died. Despite a certain austerity of manner behind which the shyness hid, Ross usually laughed a lot. And I can hear his laughter now – this being the first he has heard of these well-meant fiascos.
You will have noticed that I am treating the change to write about my friend anecdotally. Others, more archival in their scholarship than I, will surely write brilliantly about his scientific achievements. I believe in the oral tradition. Anyone can gain access to the official story; But I had the privilege that it is now up to me to answer for. Is this for reasons of self-indulgence, or for the dubious delights of gossip mongering, or what? The answer lies in the what, as I hope you have recognized by now. Hearken then again:
I have another good and true friend, to whom I mentioned the project of this special edition of Forum. One of the issues about which he and I always vehemently disagreed is the status of the Law of Requisite Variety (which, in and out of season, I reference as Ashby’s Law – and I hope that you will too). For, argues this friend, it is a mere tautology. ‘Only variety can absorb variety.’ Always suspect the word ‘mere’. Consider: the entire corpus of mathematics is either tautologous – or wrong. Wrong is wrong. Tautologies are right, and that’s a start. What’s wrong cannot be (directly) useful. Were it not so, mathematics would never be useful – but they are. And no-one calls them ‘mere’ (except as do I in too many cases of misconceived OR).
Well, this other friend with whom I disagreed about Ashby’s Law and to whom I mentioned this very edition of Forum, became quite angry. He asked me not to talk to him any more about this issue of about the contribution what you are now reading. Was this because of his hostility to Ashby’s Law? Now, it was not. It was because (my friend said) a scientist had the right to express himself as he chose; and he should therefore be judged by his published and authenticated works. It was at best superfluous, certainly impertinent, and potentially damaging to talk anecdotally about the man himself. But, I argued, published works suffer variety attenuation by the rules of the publication game: especially if an author be too diffident to challenge or to circumvent those rules. Only variety can absorb variety, after all – so if we do not have it, we must needs generate it. Was it not possible that the full flowering of the recipient understanding could be amplified by the injection of variety concerning the further nature of the author? Was that author capable of jokes? Did he customarily employ the full pelt of dramatic irony? Were his mathematics suspect? Did he ever publish things (such as on television, where there is a permanent record) on an off-day? And if, as in Ross’s case, he were capable of learning the clarinet at retirement age, would or would not that throw light on his control of his own development and innovative qualities? No (the answers were tetchy by now) it would not.
I cannot be sure when first we met; but Ross Ashby and I were seeing each other regularly in the second half of the ‘fifties. I was in the Sheffield steel industry then, and he was in Bristol – where also were two prominent cyberneticians. There was Frank George at the University, then alarming a psychology department oriented primarily towards monkeys with biscuit-tins-full of electronics simulating neuronal systems (he is now Professor of Cybernetics at Brunel University in Uxbridge). There was Grey Walter at the Burden Neurological Institute, who was the world authority of electroencephalography – but who was experimenting also with cybernetic tortoises of his own invention. Ashby himself, who was later to become Director of the Burden, was Director of Research (he was a psychologist) at Banwood House Hospital in Gloucester – which is where he worked when he wrote both his books. It was a regular practice for me, not surprisingly, to visit all three in Bristol in those years; and sometimes Ashby came to visit my department in United Steel.
It is hard to remember that Ross was a generation ahead of me. It did not feel like that; he would not allow it; he chopped off my awe at the knees. THAT was something he TAUGHT me about. It is more useful to confess to that than to acknowledge that he drew my attention to Bourbakian algebraic topology – although that was his (earlier) doing too, and very useful it proved to be.
Ashby’s later papers involving this kind of mathematics will take many years to elucidate. A large number belongs to the public domain (through the microfiches of the BCL publication made available through the University of Illinois Urbana). There is in addition, it seems 7188 pages of notebooks so far undisclosed… It is predictable that many future doctoral theses lie, inanimately suspended, in this yet-fecund soil.
Then what can here be said, in this short and anecdotal memoire, about Ashby’s view of algebraic topology? The answer is: he wore it round his neck.
Meticulous in intellect, meticulous in dress: and, unobtrusively beneath his tie, he wore a thin gold chain – consisting of a triple loop. It was in fact a topological knot, and one that fascinated him. I shall tell you how to make it; because he liked to demonstrate its subtle properties, and because I am holding in my other hand than the hand that holds my pen the nylon ropes that Ross himself strung together as the exemplar for the jeweller who made the golden chain. It was kindly passes to me by Mrs Ashby; and if any reader has ever seen me wearing a triple string of wooden beads, it is the copy that I made of Ross’s knot.
I think it was in 1957 that I invited Ross Ashby and Grey Walter out to lunch in Bristol. Both wore beards, but there the similarity ended. Ross had on a black jacket and striped trousers – or maybe not: the point is that he wore the most formal of his uniforms. Grey was wearing a suit that appeared to have been fabricated out of a green billiard baize – together with a string tie (think of the date; think of England!). I can still recall large chunks of the conversation, and so probably can the other diners nearby, who were taking in the scene open-mouthed, as if it were some sort of cabaret.
I approached the most difficult aspect of these recollections: the way in which Ross Ashby handled ‘awkward’ situations. This luncheon was certainly one, as all three of us expected it to be. The powerful magnetism exerted by these two older men had opposite polarity. Both behaved with the utmost courtesy, and I was beginning to learn how Ross would operate… [...] – we stood together to represent Britain in several international cybernetic scenes.
To provide details of any of these affairs would be journalistic, indiscrete and – in one word – uncouth. I just want to record that Ross Ashby would never ‘take advantage’; that he was perplexed by skullduggery (which he was certainly far too clever not to recognize); that he was endlessly gentle and endlessly tenacious – the most dire combination of all loving souls. Earlier, I used the word ‘innocent’, an operational synonym for which is ‘look out’.
Such impeccable behaviour took it out of him; and although he was wiry seemed to acknowledge his physical limits. I was three times with him when he simple stopped. On the most dramatic of these occasions, he not only stopped – but vanished. We had been in a negotiation together, and suddenly I was alone; bogus excuses had to be made…. ‘sudden recall’ and so on. Havivng no idea of the truth, but unworried for him, I limped on: two days later he reappeared – in a café that we had been frequenting. He had driven his car deep into the forest, and locked himself in to play the clarinet. He had had enough, but enough. Ashby knew Ashby’s law. It is astonishing: few people can thus assimilate what they have had occasion to know.
Late in 1960, a group of Heinz von Foerster’s friends were together in the evening at Heinz’s home in Urbana, Illinois. A complicated ballet ensued, the choreography of which I do not altogether remember. At the precisely proper – the balletic - moment, Heinz offered Ross a Chain in BCL. He quietly accepted, without a moment’s pause, and asked to telephone his wife back home in Bristol. It was the middle of the night: thank goodness that the sun moves from East to West. Everyone concerned was totally astonished – Mrs Ashby, I think I may say, especially. And so he changed his life: for vitally important years 1961- - 1970, W Ross Ashby MD was Professor in the Department of Biophysics and Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer psychiatrist.
We walked back alone together to the Faculty Club, where we had adjacent rooms, across the campus under a full moon. We were strolling quietly and relaxed. I told him that I was amazed at his instance decisiveness. He asked me why. I talked about his scientific acumen, his meticulous methodology, his exactitude: I had expected him to ask for a year to consider, to evaluate the evidence for and against emigration. Surely his response had been atypically irrational?
Someone is boring me. I think it’s me.
All right Ross. That’s it.