Thinking Out Loud

David Pacchioli
September 01, 1993
abstract image of black and white tile floor reflected in a twisted gold sculpture
Clifford Pickover

What if we. . . . ran an undersea pipeline from the mouth of the Amazon to the northwest coast of Africa, carrying enough fresh water to quench the thirst of the northern Sahara? Such a tunnel, 4,300 kilometers long and 80 meters in diameter, would provide more than 1,000 times the amount of fresh water that desalination plants could muster using the same amount of energy. It could render a million square kilometers habitable. Its construction would employ the world's heavy industry for over a decade, offering a needed boost to the global economy.

What if we. . . could focus ultrasound waves to create a non- invasive device for stimulating selected areas of the human brain, enhancing thinking and alleviating pain?

What if. . . monkeys, our evolutionary forebears, invented mathematics?

These are the voyages of the 16-year-old international journal Speculations in Science and Technology.

Its new editor is an associate professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, Akhlesh Lakhtakia, a bright- eyed man in his middle-thirties whose thoughts jump ahead of a playful smile. In his office in Hammond building, a stack of recent submissions scrawled with "Rejected" or "Sent to Press" in yellow marker fill a cardboard box. Return addresses read France, Venezuela, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Japan, India, California and Texas.

"What if Icarus had been a balloon pilot?"

"Why do multisexual living beings not exist?"

Lakhtakia shifts, puts one batch of papers down, picks up another. "Here's a good one," he reports. "By an earth scientist. Speculating on a north-south ridge on the floor of the Indian Ocean, why it happened." And another, by two medical doctors, on an evolutionary origin for cancer.

The next, marked "Rejected", has an angry follow-up letter attached, in which the author calls Lakhtakia "another of the popes of science." He sighs briefly. The following correspondent signs himself simply, "A citizen of the universe."

Lakhtakia shuffles the papers. He is trying to explain the journal's selection criteria.

"Is everything we publish true?" he asks, carefully settling another pile back into the box. Then answers: "No."

But everything is at least plausible. Flights of fancy are important, but we are not interested in the purely fanciful. This journal is devoted to new ways of thinking about what people have already observed."

He cites the famous comment on Kepler, the one about fruitful error being preferable to sterile truth.

"Every once in a while we write on wrong things," he adds. "I see that as no problem whatsoever."

Speculations in Science and Technology was the brainchild of an American in Australia. William M. Honig, an electrical engineer, had left New York and a career in industry in 1972 to join the faculty of the Western Australia Institute of Technology, in "the beautiful remote city of Perth." Honig had published numerous papers in his field. He was frustrated, though, by the lack of acceptance of some of his more speculative ideas in physics, and by what he called "the canonical policy of established journals." He had met a number of colleagues of like mind and, in 1977, he decided to do something about it. He assembled an editorial board of well-known scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner and a member of the Royal Society, and with some financing from his university and the rest from his savings, launched a journal of his own.

"Recognizing the value of frank speculation as preceding theoretical and experimental construction," announced the opening editorial, "and noting that the informal dissemination of ideas has been impeded by the huge growth and differentiation of all scientific fields . . . we welcome papers dealing with specialised, general, and interdisciplinary topics in the physical, mathematical, biological, medical, and engineering sciences. No topics related to ESP, UFO, etc., will be accepted."

Some 2,500 letters poured in over the first five months. (One early correspondent, writer Arthur C. Clarke, found Speculations "fascinating, but 90 percent over my head." Clarke couldn't resist offering up a few casual speculations of his own: "Is it possible to photograph, or make an objective record of, 'phosphenes,'—the fascinating and infinitely varied images seen when pressing on the closed eyes? This would be of great psychological and optical interest.") There were "favourable but cautionary" notices in Science and the New York Times, among other publications. By the end of the first year, Honig was able to strike a deal with the publisher Elsevier Sequoia, of Lausanne, Switzerland; despite changing hands and continents in the intervening 15 years, the journal has been appearing ever since.

The wealth of topics it has considered is boggling. The journal's pages have hosted lively debate on ball lightning and schizophrenic cognition, black holes and the prediction of heart attacks, body transplants and interstellar communication, as well as the perennial exchanges on the nature of subatomic particles.

There have been bumps along the way. Honig had expressly sought to create a forum for those outside the institutional mainstream, as well as for establishment scientists brave enough to air their speculative views. But papers from these "solitary workers," he reports, were often uninformed or unintelligible, their authors frequently hostile to criticism. Although part of his mission to outsiders, as Honig conceived it, was to school them in scientific conventions, and although the journal fostered an impressive degree of intellectual exchange—with published give-and-take between authors, reviewers, and referees—which many writers remarked was of value, Honig was forced to endure such an "unending stream of abuse" from other correspondents that, he wrote wryly, "I have come to realise the great usefulness that the social environment of established institutions provides."

Hobbyhorse riding was another frustration. In 1979 and '80, when, for the Einstein centennial, Honig announced that not one but three special issues of the journal would be devoted to alternatives to the Special Theory of Relativity, 400 papers flooded his office, many "from high-school students, college undergraduates, tradesmen, and businessmen. They were all deeply offended by the fact that modern physics . . . did not adhere to the general axiomatic tenets of Newtonian-type classical theories." A moratorium on Special Relativity had to be declared.

From the beginning there were questions about the nature—and value—of scientific speculation. To Honig, speculation meant first an idea "which may not be supported by a currently accepted body of experimental or theoretical work. . . . Its usefulness is that it may help to uncover ideas and procedures of ultimate utility and, in the contentious discussions of these ideas, clarify our understandings." To him, the "success" of such ideas is seen in their adoption—or rejection. "All that we ask is tolerance, which should be enough, because if our ideas are any good and if the forum is tolerated then such ideas will ultimately win out." Speculation, he adds, "is meta (to the side of) science and rightly so; only those ideas which survive the speculative arena would then enter science."

The substantive influence of the journal is not easy to gauge. But in the early '80s, Speculations was one of the first publications to take seriously the ramifications of chirality, or handedness, for the field of biomedicine. (Unawareness that the molecules in a chemical reaction could be left- or right- "handed" was the cause of the thalidomide birth-defects tragedy of the early 1960s.) Honig, who stepped down as editor in 1985, has speculated that other papers, on the mechanisms of cancer and artificial intelligence, and other topics, have planted seeds that flowered elsewhere. Many authors, he suspects, have used Speculations as a workshop for their ideas, but may be reluctant to cite a non-mainstream journal in subsequent, more buttoned- down, publications.

Two years ago, with Honig's successor, the British crystallographer Alan L. MacKay, approaching retirement, Clifford Pickover, a biologist serving on Speculations' editorial board, contacted his friend Lakhtakia at Penn State.

Lakhtakia had read the original announcement for Speculations back in 1978, as an undergraduate in electronics engineering at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India. A nationally recognized scholar, he had from there embarked to graduate school in the United States, and on to a stunningly prolific early career in optics and electromagnetics, publishing 200 papers before he reached 35.

His credentials, as Pickover well knew, included a remarkably wide-ranging intellect and a sense of humor. Lakhtakia can talk at length on Darwin as well as on enantiospecificity, on the changing cultural myth of the scientist as well as on liquid crystals. His resume, before the pages of technical citations, notes his receipt, in 1990, of a Diploma in Children's Literature. He has published a paper exploring "Certain Quinary Aspects of the Hindu Civilization," in the journal Symmetry. His most requested reprint, from the Journal of Recreational Mathematics, confesses an epiphanic moment in his understanding of fractals that occurred while he was perusing Dr. Seuss's: The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. "My ideal is not an expert," Lakhtakia has said, "it is a Renaissance personality. A thinking mind."

At first he refused the chief editorship of Speculations, not eager to take on more to do. After getting his feet wet as American editor of the journal, however, he found the work to his liking, and when MacKay retired in January 1993, Lakhtakia accepted the title of editor in chief, stipulating that he be allowed to appoint two assistant editors to share the load. Thus Renata Engel and Eliot Fried, two of his contemporaries and colleagues in engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, were introduced to the journal. Their freshness, he felt, would be an asset. "We need that youthful vigor. Thinking in new ways occurs to younger people more easily."

Lakhtakia also added new faces to the editorial board, seeking to broaden its collective expertise, and took steps to revamp the journal's editorial policies. "Up to now, one editor ran it," he explains. "I think that's all right for subjects of a queen, but not for citizens of a democracy." Papers can now be submitted to (and accepted by) any of the 11 editorial-board members, as well as any of the staff. "This should dilute the effects of an editor's proclivities. The aim is to be a general science journal."

That said, Lakhtakia also expects that he and his Penn State colleagues will put their own particular stamp on Speculations. One factor is their common background in engineering, which, he says, inclines them more toward observations than the purely theoretical. Another quality they will consciously promote is social responsibility.

"The environment will definitely be an area of focus," Lakhtakia says. "I think that we can all worry about superstrings if we can first survive on the planet. Scientists of all stripes should be addressing this." In the United States, the journal has already begun a collaboration with the Science, Technology, and Society program, an interdisciplinary organization which stresses science's ethical context. At the group's national meeting in January, Speculations sponsored a symposium on rational speculation.

Sitting around a conference table in a quiet oasis in the busy dean's office in Hammond, Lakhtakia and his fellow editors struggle with the ongoing task of defining their composite vision of the journal's scope and purpose.

"Ideas need to be critiqued, they need to be worked out," says Engel. "In the science and engineering communities, things are geared to 'prove it, show how it works.' But ideas start someplace else. A lot of what is in Speculations is stuff that would be talked about around the coffee machine or at a conference, but wouldn't otherwise be in print. It's getting ideas out early on."

"To me," Fried adds, "speculative means to encompass different approaches than the traditional ones. This is my main orientation— taking a new tack on hot issues."

"We are not open to porcine-winged speculation," Lakhtakia says, with a smile. "There must be at least some observed facts—that's an important criterion for us." At the same time, he suggests, he believes in the need to challenge established paradigms. To take on the real popes of science. And just to think out loud. "When physicists are not even sure what an electron is, how can we be sure what is invalid speculation? The widest possible latitude must be given."

Akhlesh Lakhtakia, Ph.D., is associate professor of engineering science and mechanics in the College of Engineering, 224C Hammond Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4319. Renata S. Engel, Ph.D., and Eliot Fried, Ph.D., are assistant professors in the same department. Speculations in Science and Technology is published by Science and Technology Letters, P.O. Box 81, Northwood, Middx HA6 3DN, United Kingdom .

Last Updated September 01, 1993