Questions for a Close Reading of “Connecting the Humanities and the Sciences”

Delivered by Walter Isaacson, The Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, May 12, 2014*

Full Text | 1. Think Different | 2. Turing vs. Lovelace | 3. The Partnership | 4. Final Lesson and Conclusion | Student Version | Video Link


Walter Isaacson studied history and literature at Harvard University and philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford. His flair for journalism was noted early and he began his career with The Sunday Times of London. Later, he worked for Time magazine, becoming its editor in 1996. He also served as chairman and CEO of CNN. 

Isaacson gained fame for his absorbing biographies of polymath talents, including the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, scientist Albert Einstein, and founding father Benjamin Franklin. He currently directs the Aspen Institute, a policy studies organization in Washington, D.C.


Instructions: Download each section of the lecture by clicking on the part subtitle so that you can mark it up as you read. We recommend that you have your students read the lecture twice. Do a first reading to get a sense of the overall argument. Then do a second, closer reading to see how the parts fit together. These questions are designed to guide you as you execute the second reading.

Part 1: “Think Different

  • What purpose does the opening anecdote about novelist Walker Percy serve?

[The opening anecdote about Percy, a previous Jefferson Lecturer, introduces Isaacson’s theme: the creativity that comes when science and the humanities interact.]

  • What insights did the author acquire from writing his biographies of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin?

[It helped him realize the importance of people who can stand on the intersection of the humanities and science—who can “think different.” Benjamin Franklin, “America’s founding humanist,” was also an experimental scientist who looked for ways in which his research could benefit society: for example, his experiments with electricity led to the most important invention of the age, the lightening rod. Franklin's friend and protégé, Thomas Jefferson, combined a love of science with that of the humanities. Both men were exemplars of the Enlightenment in which natural order and Newtonian science were thought to be the foundations of government.]

  • According to the lecturer, what is the greatest sentence ever written? What role did Franklin play in crafting this sentence? Why did the author come to this conclusion?

[Here, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths…”. Franklin edited the text and made several substantial improvements. For example, he changed “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” in Jefferson’s draft to “self-evident”. A suggested reply would be that the final version of the sentence reflects a fine balance of scientific thought: rationality and reason (self-evident truths) and the humanistic disciplines of philosophy and theology (divine providence). This argument strengthens the author’s thesis about need for science and the humanities to be interrelated.]

  • How did such qualities as “contempt for authority,” imagination, spirituality, and love of beauty serve Einstein in his life and work?

[“Contempt for authority” led Einstein to question received wisdom; imagination helped him visualize abstract theories, equations. His spiritual sensibility gave him a sense of humility: that there is something in the universe superior to man. An exposure to Mozart activated his love of beauty.]

  • How does the example of Einstein support the need to teach imagination and creative thinking alongside reasoning and scientific thinking? 

[The implication is that Einstein would not have made his discoveries without this combination of qualities.]

  • At this point the author mentions the downside of Einstein’s discoveries. What was it?

[His theory of relativity. Because it is so abstract and mathematical, it is very difficult for the layman to understand. Thus, it hastened the notion that science and the humanities are “two cultures” that don’t understand each other.]

  • Isaacson follows his discussion of Einstein with his lecture thesis. What is it? Why does he wait until now to introduce this thesis?

[That a human-technology symbiosis will bridge the gap between humanities and science.

Suggested answers: (1) Because he needed to lay the groundwork to establish a cogent argument. He did this by first emphasizing the synergy of the sciences and the humanities through multiple examples. (2) That Isaacson needed to offer a general audience background before introducing his thesis. (3) That as a non-technical lecture, Isaacson wanted to engage his audience with educational stories as well as inform and prepare them.]

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Part 2.  Two Schools of Thought: The Turing Approach vs. The Lovelace Approach

  • The speaker introduces us to Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, considered to be the “first computer programmer.” Identify two concepts of historic significance that she discovered.

[(1) Ada envisioned the modern day computer by realizing the Analytical Engine was capable of processing other symbols in addition to math; (2) Ada also realized that the Analytical Engine had no ability to think for itself or create on its own. This machine could only process what humans ordered it to do.]

  • The author links Ada’s discoveries with two concepts developed a century later by Alan Turning. What are Turing’s concepts and how are they related to Lady Lovelace’s discoveries?

[(1) Turing developed a formal description of a universal machine that could perform any logical operation. (2) Turing posed “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” asking how we can know whether a machine could think. He answered it with what became known as the “Turing Test.” He suggested a scenario where a problem would be posed to both a machine and a person. If the questioner couldn’t tell the difference between the answers, then it would follow that a machine was capable of thinking. Turing predicted the evolution of machines in the coming years that would meet such a challenge.]

  • Explain the two schools of thought (the “Turing approach” vs. the “Lovelace approach”) to the human-machine relationship.

[Turing approach: the ultimate goal of computing is artificial intelligence; Lovelace approach: machines will not replace humans but become partners with humans, each supplementing the strengths of the other. Humans will supply the originality and creativity that machines will never possess.]

  • Identify the contribution of each of the following along the path to artificial intelligence: (1) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; (2) 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal; (3) John von Neumann’s “mixed procedures”; (4) Frank Rosenblatt’s The Perceptron (machine); (5) IBM’s Deep Blue victory in chess; (6) IBM’s Watson victory in Jeopardy! (7) John von Neumann’s singularity (popularized by science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge).

[(1) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Frankenstein became a staple of science-fiction and raised the frightening specter of a man made machine having a separate intelligence and will;

(2) 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal: Hal is a character in the form of a futuristic computer who displays frightening human intention;

(3) John von Neumann’s “mixed procedures”: The architecture of computers is fundamentally different from the human brain. Computers are digital and deal in absolute units (black and white), whereas brains are analog and deal in streams of possibilities (many shades of gray). Future computers might do well to combine digital and analog operations;

(4) Frank Rosenblatt’s The Perceptron (machine): Rosenblatt formulated a mathematical approach for creating a machine with an artificial neural network like a brain. This computer would have the ability to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself, and be conscious of its own existence. It would also be capable of original thought;

(5) IBM’s Deep Blue victory in chess: Deep Blue was a chess-playing machine that beat the world champion.

(6) IBM’s Watson’s victory in Jeopardy!: Watson was a mega computer that beat Jeopardy! champions;

(7) John von Neumann’s singularity (popularized by science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge):

This is the moment when computers are not only smarter than humans but can also design themselves to be super smart, and will thus no longer need mere mortals.]

  • What conclusion does the author reach in this section?  Describe the challenges in artificial intelligence—what obstacles must be overcome as modern machines evolve into intelligent beings.

[The author asserts that “true artificial intelligence has remained a mirage, always about twenty years away.” There are many basic abilities to think and/or appear like humans that computers have yet to achieve.]

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Part 3. The Partnership

  • What is Licklider’s vision of “Man-Computer Symbiosis”? Why does the speaker believe this will triumph? Provide an example from the lecture to support your answer. Can you think of any drawbacks to this level of symbiosis between humans and machines?

[Licklider proposes a complementary relationship between humans and computers. In this vision, they will be coupled together very tightly and the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the early forms of information-handling machines.

The teams that built Deep Blue and Watson later adopted this symbiotic approach. They devised a tournament, held in 2005, where grandmasters of chess could work in teams with computers of their choice. The final winner was not a grandmaster nor a state-of-the-art computer, but two American amateurs who used three computers at the same time and knew how to manage the process of collaborating with their machines.

One possible drawback to such a symbiosis would be increasing human dependence on technology to the point of not being able to function independently without it. That could potentially backfire should the technology or the infrastructure come under attack, go haywire, or become compromised from another, unforeseen force such as a natural disaster.]

  • According to this lecture, even if a machine were able to pass both the Turing test and the Lovelace test, what final hurdle does artificial intelligence face?  How would this change the goal of computing? Does this raise any concerns?

[The final hurdle would be a “Licklider Test,” which would determine if a machine would be better off solving problems completely on its own rather than working in human partnership. This changes the goal from the evolution of artificial intelligence to the optimization of collaboration between human and machine capabilities—“to let the machines do what they do best and have them let us do what we do best.” One concern is the author’s use of the verb “let” in the last phrase (“have them let us…”) Is this giving machines a sentient power equal to humans? If so, could that backfire in some way?]

  • Alan Kay of Xerox PARC and Steve Jobs of Apple are held up as exemplars of this intersection between humans and technology. Describe how these pioneers refute the trend described in the excerpt of the Harvard Crimson article, “Let Them Eat Code"?

[Alan Kay grew up in a household of ideas that didn’t distinguish between “art” and “science”. Steve Jobs attended a creative liberal arts college and studied dance, calligraphy, and literature. These endeavors would later influence Jobs’ design innovations.]

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Part 4. Final Lesson and Conclusion

  • What lesson does the author draws from his investigation?

[Human beings remain relevant because we possess an imagination. We bring together new, original ideas in endless, ever-varying combinations. We discern patterns and appreciate their beauty. We have an ability to compose and tell stories. Our creativity involves values, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense that machines don’t possess. Humankind must nurture the capacities for expression and understanding in the arts and the humanities for they are the wellsprings of this creativity.]

  • Based upon the argument, do you agree that the next phase of the digital revolution will bring “the true fusion of technology with the creative industries”? What kind of future is in store for humankind should this innovative interplay between technology and the creative arts pan out?  Is there a shadow-side to this vision that is not discussed by the speaker?

[Isaacson envisions that machines and humans will get smarter together. They will play to each other’s strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses. There is also a potential shadow side to Isaacson’s sunny vision. What’s to say that artificial intelligence will never outstrip human intelligence at some point in its future evolution? Can humankind be certain of the ramifications of that? Could machines possibly be programmed to integrate an ethical construct that would mitigate any problems caused by such inequality?]

  • Consider the last paragraph. In the future the speaker envisions, those “that can connect the arts to the sciences and have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them up to beauty of both” will thrive. Why does Isaacson bring up the idea of rebellion here? Does this remind you of any figure(s) described in an earlier part of the lecture? How might this trait coupled with an ability to connect arts and science be a winning formula for future humankind?

[Rebellion involves the ability to challenge the conventional thinking and constructs of the age one is born into. Such an ability to think and act as an independent agent is fundamental to forging new paths in science, indeed, to making progress in any field. Einstein’s rebellious nature was offered as an exemplar of this type of iconoclastic behavior. 

Isaacson is holding up such independence of mind and spirit along with an ability to merge arts and science as the winning combination for the future. The act of interpretation afforded by a humanities program of study is just as essential as the act of calculation demanded by a STEM curriculum. The future will be inherited by those who have mastered both. They will then be able to integrate technology and the creative arts into new forms of expression. Future innovations will be spawned by those able to connect the unique capacities of human beings with the operations of technology.]

Topics for further investigation

  • Write an editorial response to this article, arguing either for or against the premise: Without the creativity that comes from the humanities, the sciences and technology of cognitive computing will not continue to advance in fruitful ways.
  • The lecture gives examples of notable figures that stand at the intersection of the humanities and technology. Discuss the contributions these figures have had on the realms of science and the humanities. Be sure to include their characteristic traits and attitudes. For example, is there a common drive underlying all these figures: Leonardo da Vinci; Benjamin Franklin; Thomas Jefferson; Albert Einstein; Ada Byron?
  • Read the full poem by Richard Brautigan, “Machines of Loving Grace,” which the speaker references in Part 3. The speaker extolls the poem’s “cybernetic meadow.” Research the term cybernetics. Describe the utopian vision Brautigan paints for humankind in this poem. Are there any potentially sinister aspects underlying this future?
  • In Part 4, the speaker notes that he will deviate from his storytelling method to “a Puritan sermon.” The reference is to Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a famous speech about the damnation of hell awaiting sinners on earth. Read the speech and discuss why the speaker would call us “sinners in the hands of an angry God”? What have we done? What is our “sin”?

Common Core State Standards

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

*Note: This essay version has been partitioned and subtitled by the editors in order to facilitate student interaction.  It may not conform in all details to the spoken lecture or transcript.

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