An Interview with Steve of Omni Brain


After a bit of a hiatus, ScienceBlogger interviews are back! And today, in honor of his one-year blogging anniversary, we feature Steve Higgins of Omni Brain.

What's your name?
James Stephen Higgins, but that James name is one of those crazy family things where every first-born male gets the name and every other one goes by their middle name—so I guess I'm the every other one. Steve is the short answer.

What's your blog called?
Omni Brain

What's up with that name?
There used to be this great sciency magazine (back in elementary school) called OMNI, published by the guy who publishes Hustler. At some point his wife, who was actually running the magazine, started to get into a whole aliens-and-ESP schtick and the real science started getting muddled with the really freakin' crazy stuff. I think the magazine died out shortly after that. But I really did enjoy the magazine—it was kind of like science from a futurist's prospective.

When I was looking for a blog title I remembered that magazine and thought there should be a reincarnation of sorts (except I don't take ESP and alien abduction seriously). I also realized that Omni Brain could be kind of funny since it implies that there is some all-knowing brain in control of everything.

How long have you been blogging, anyway?
It will be one year on the 21st of March.

Where are you from and where do you live now?
I grew up in and around the wonderful Philadelphia area, where I went to elementary school, high school, and college (with a couple of short stints in Baltimore, Washington and Aberdeen, Scotland). Now I'm in the incredibly flat and treeless state of Illinois at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?
Sure. That's how I've been supporting myself before and during graduate school. I've either been injecting mice with drugs, sticking people in MRI machines or moving dots around a screen by a couple pixels at a time (man that really drives undergrads nuts) for the last seven or eight years.

Any educational experiences or degrees you'd like to mention?
Well I'm a psychology Ph.D. student—not the kind that helps people, though. I think an engineer is as qualified to give people therapy as I am.

What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?
Well, I'm a huge neuroscience fan. I've been studying visual cognition with very little reference to the brain for the last year and a half, but I keep finding myself drawn back to the underlying neural mechanisms. I have a feeling I'll end up doing more neuro-related stuff as a post-doc. My interests outside of what I'm actually working on now are visual aesthetics—I'm really curious what design principles lead to the perception of pleasure.

I also want to take over the world.

Last book you read?
Lamb: The Gospel According to BiffChrist's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. Which was a humorous (as long as you're not super-religious) view of Christ's childhood during the missing years in the Bible. He goes on these adventures around the world with his buddy Biff, who somehow has been left out of the Bible because, as the angels say, he's an asshole.

Your idea of a perfect day?
Wake up—pack up my stuff—eat a quick breakfast—get on the road—drive a couple of hours to an amazingly beautiful place to play around in the outdoors. Hiking, fishing, boating, skiing, camping, whatever. And then come home really tired.

What's your greatest habitual annoyance?
Noise that I'm not in control of. Right now it's the noise from the highway and my neighbor's TV. I have ear plugs all around my condo.

What's your most marked characteristic?
The vestigial tail that I've had to cut a hole in all my pants for. OK, perhaps not. Maybe my nose? Or red beard if I haven't shaved for a while. If we're talking about psychological characteristics—I tend to say out loud what people are thinking. You know, the things totally inappropriate to say out loud. I can't help myself.

What's your fatal flaw?
Procrastination. I don't do well with deadlines.

Who are your favorite writers?
Herman Hesse, Robert Heinlein (although I haven't read any since I was in high school so I don't know if I like him anymore) and I guess a lot of the Russian authors (Gorky, Tolstoy, the usual suspects).

What would you like to be?
My real life goal is to be a working academic—teaching, research, etc.

My secret life goal is to own a restaurant or inn in a wintry vacation spot like Alaska or Colorado. I really enjoy cooking. Baking, on the other hand...if you want to build a brick house I might have some non-biodegradable brick-like things that have come out of my oven. I just don't like following directions.


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The publisher of Omni was Kathy Keeton Guccione, wife of Bob Guccione. He published Penthouse, not Hustler. The editor of the magazine for the first few years was Ben Bova. The magazine was an excellent blend of top-rate science fiction short stories and science fact articles. After Bova left the quality and quantity of science articles and science fiction stories were diminished. It took a few years for the ESP and crazy sh*t to totally overtake the magazine. The magazine did die a mostly painless death.

i'm horrible at keeping up on all the blogging that goes on, but i keep returning to omnibrain. it's nice to spice science up with a little humor once in a while :)