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James Gleick Ends Faster Tour at MIT

By Steve Hoberman

James Gleick, one of America’s most established science writers, wrapped up his latest book tour promoting Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything Wednesday in Room 10-250.

Gleick talked to 150 diverse listeners about “hurry sickness,” “leisure industries,” and other assaults of an increasingly fast paced world on “free time.” Gleick had planned to speak in October, but was rained out by what he called “an anticlimactic hurricane Floyd.”

We are “awash in stuff,” Gleick wrote. Faster argues that the rapid increases in people, web sites, products, channels, and other innovations are fueling each other as never before. “I developed a conviction that superficially similar phenomena were deeply related” he said.

He explained how the increased demands made by companies on our television and bandwidth are changing the nature of those industries and media. For example, things were different when people were buying just “Marlboros or Lucky Strikes,” Gleick said. Now that there are hundreds of channels and products, “time has become money’s doppleganger:” Competing for time has become part of competing for money. TV programs no longer fade out to black, but instead cut directly to the advertisements. He talked about slogans like, “Don’t have time for a yeast infection” (“As if anybody did” retorts Gleick), and innovations like “placebo door close buttons” on elevators that don’t actually work. Gleick is serious about the speeding up phenomenon, but “I try not to make any moral judgements,” he says.

Although he “liked science as a kid,” Gleick never took any advanced science courses in school. After majoring in English at Harvard, he went to work for the New York Times, where he now writes a Sunday column called “Fast Forward.”

Writing science books posed a kind of challenge for Gleick, since he had to learn a great deal to follow the drama and progress of his scientist subjects. “It was kind of an accident that I was writing about science,” he admitted.

His column usually discusses the social effects (sometimes comically presented) of science and technology. It once featured America’s Y2K issue. Over the last ten years, “you haven’t been able to walk a hundred feet without hearing about a ‘down’ computer,” chuckled Gleick. “The whole thing is absurd.”

Gleick’s book Chaos chronicled the development of chaos theory, which demonstrated the enormous relevance of fractals and nonlinear phenomena to biology, chemistry, and physics. Gleick’s story begins with accidental discoveries about the sensitivity of weather models at MIT’s Woods Hole facility, and leads the reader through the lives and discoveries of Benoit Mandelbrot and Steve Smale, among others.

The author won the Pulitzer Prize for Genius, an account of Richard Feyman’s life and work that describes his impact in and out of the physics community. Although his picture of the MIT alumnus is detailed and complete, I “never met Feynman,” Gleick said.