The Frontal Cortex

Richard Powers

This interview with the novelist from The Believer is a few months old, but it’s well worth a read:

Something truly interesting is happening in many basic sciences, a real revolution in human knowing. For a long time–centuries–empiricism has tried to understand the whole in terms of its isolated parts, and then to write out precise and simple rules about the controlled behavior of those parts in isolation. In recent decades, with the explosion of the life sciences and with a new appreciation in physics and chemistry of emergent and complex systems, a new kind of holism has emerged. Researchers, coming up against the limits of old-style reductionism while studying large, dynamic systems, have found that the whole can sometimes best be understood in terms of the whole. New attempts to describe richly interacting real-world phenomena have turned increasingly to complex models and simulations as valid scientific tools.

But that’s the way that fiction has known things for a long time: through complex, connected models. Through massive simulation.

And if you haven’t read The Echo Maker, then you are missing out on the best neuroscience novel since Saturday.


  1. #1 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    June 28, 2007

    I wonder if the particles inside an ATOM will one day be found to be MULTI-POTENTIAL (somewhat like the multiple cell line potentials of a embryonic stem cell which could become any one of a variety of unique cells until some point of no reversal ) … ie, atomic particles become what they need to become in order to maintain the mass / energy / force balance of the atom!

    It seems like every few years, atomic physicists come up with the need for a new particle to balance their data and theories.

    While it is recognized that the mass / energy of any particular particle within any particular atom cannot be known beyond a probably, it must also be appreciated that the mass / energy of the last particle in that same examined atom must have a definite mass / energy to keep all the forces in balance.

    The multi-potential approach to atomic physics might help unify the particle – pulse theories: pulse while multi-potential; particle when a defined mass / energy path is declared.

    Just a thought.

  2. #2 Oran Kelley
    June 28, 2007

    I’ve always had a tough time with Powers. He definitely seems like a smart guy, seems to have some interesting ideas, but I just can’t read him.

    He seems susceptible to many of the complaints made by Gore Vidal about the “R and D” school–including Pynchon & Barth.

    Pretty much the same point made by Peck, complaining of the lack of “‘a true empathetic undercurrent’ and what he elsewhere disdains as ‘pomo shenanigans.'” (from a NYT feature on Peck)

    James Wood in Guardian to same effect: “Time and again novelists are praised for their wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge. (Richard Powers is the best example, but Tom Wolfe also gets an easy ride simply for “knowing things”.) The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.”

    Is this latest novel a departure from former practice, or am I liable to get the same mileage as before?

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