Monday, May 19, 2014

Boy Genius

This is a sad story. It is a tale about a mathematician and a Montanan. It doesn’t end well, but started out brilliantly. It's also a cautionary tale. I'll leave conclusions and morals to the reader. Here is the beginning.

TK was born of Polish parents in Illinois on May 22, 1942. He was tested in the fifth grade and found to have an I.Q. of 167. That’s genius numbers.

Based on that result he was allowed to skip the sixth grade and went right into seventh. He later described this as a pivotal point in his life. He didn’t fit in with the older kids and he was subjected to bullying. (See how much difference one grade level can make?)

This added to his problems. As a child he had a fear of people and buildings and tended to play outside. He didn’t interact with children and his mother was so concerned about his poor social development that she thought he might be autistic.

In high school, he excelled academically and found most mathematics too simple to engage him. During his sophomore year he would cut classes and stay home to write in his journal. Mathematics became his obsession and he would spend long hours locked in his room practicing differential equations. (This is a form of advanced calculus which requires a tremendous grasp of operations to solve.) Throughout high school he easily surpassed his classmates. He was known for solving advanced Laplace transformations before his senior year and, even though placed in the most advanced classes at the school, he was intellectually restricted. He skipped the eleventh grade and graduated from high school at the age of 15.

He applied to Harvard University, and was accepted in 1958 at the age of 16. While at Harvard, he was taught by Williard Van Orman Quine. Quine is a famous logician, Harvard student, Harvard professor, and earned his PhD under Alfred North Whitehead. TK scored at the top of Quine's class with a 98.8% final grade. Perhaps the genius Quine recognized the fellow genius in TK. This pairing could have changed TK’s life for the good. Unfortunately, there was to be a very serious and negative impact at Harvard on TK.

He became involved with Henry Alexander Murray, a Harvard psychologist and professor for 30 years. Dr. Murray was responsible for the ethically questionable, CIA-sponsored MK ULTRA experiments in which twenty-two undergraduates were used as guinea pigs. TK was one of those twenty-two.

Students in Murray's study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student. Instead, they were subjected to a psychological experiment, which was an extremely stressful, personal, and prolonged psychological attack. Although his childhood was troubled, records suggest he was emotionally stable before his involvement with this study, and some have attributed some of his later emotional instability and concern about mind control to his participation in this study.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1962, at age 20, and subsequently enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in mathematics. His specialty was a branch of complex analysis known as geometric function theory. His professors at Michigan were impressed with his intellect and drive. His PhD thesis was so advanced that his advisor had difficulty understanding it, and members of the examining committee declared there were probably less than a dozen mathematicians in the entire US that could understand it fully. He was awarded a prize for the top mathematical dissertation that year. While at Michigan, he held a National Science Foundation fellowship and taught undergraduates for three years. He also published two articles related to his dissertation in mathematical journals, and four more after leaving Michigan.

In late 1967, TK became an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught undergraduate courses in geometry and calculus. He was noted as the youngest professor ever hired by the university, but this position proved short-lived. He received numerous complaints and low ratings from the undergraduates he taught. Many students noted that he seemed quite uncomfortable in a teaching environment, often stuttering and mumbling during lectures, becoming excessively nervous in front of a class, and ignoring students during designated office hours. Without explanation, he resigned from his position in 1969, at age 26.

It was the end of a short but impressive career. His superiors at Berkeley stated that, based on his impressive thesis and record of publications, he could have advanced up the ranks and been a senior member of the faculty today. But, instead, he returned to his parents home in Illinois for two years before moving to Montana. He built a small cabin a short distance outside the small town of Lincoln, Montana. Now Lincoln is on a small bi-way, Montana highway 200, which is a short cut between Missoula and Great Falls. Rather than drive down the Interstate to Helena and then north on the Interstate to Great Falls, the sleepy route 200 wanders through rolling hills and low mountains, and is interrupted half-way by the small town of Lincoln, population around 500 households and only one central street — the highway.

It was near this sleepy community that TK took up residence and lived a life of nature and books. It was a simple life on very little money, without electricity or running water. His original goal was to move out to a secluded place and become self-sufficient so that he could live autonomously. He began to teach himself survival skills such as tracking, edible plant identification, and how to construct primitive technologies such as bow drills. He quickly realized that it was not possible for him to live that way, as a result of watching the wild land around him get destroyed by development and industry.

In his own words, he stated:

The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It's kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply in to cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days' hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it... You just can't imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge.

He began isolated acts of sabotage and initially targeted the developments near his cabin. He began dedicating himself to reading about sociology and books on political philosophy, such as the works of Jacques Ellul, and also stepped up his campaign of sabotage. He soon came to the conclusion that more violent methods would be the only solution to what he saw as the problem of industrial civilization. He says that he lost faith in the idea of reform, and saw violent collapse as the only way to bring down the techno-industrial system.

Thus began his campaign of bombing that lasted for 17 years. He mailed or hand-delivered a series of increasingly sophisticated explosive devices that killed three people and injured twenty-three more. His first targets were universities and airlines which earned him the FBI code name of UNABOM for UNiversity and Airline BOMber. He was finally caught when his “manifesto” titled Industrial Society and Its Future was published at his insistence and threat and his brother recognized the style of writing and turned him in to the FBI.

FBI agents arrested Kaczynski on April 3, 1996, at his cabin in Montana, where he was found in an unkempt state. Searching his cabin, the investigators found a wealth of bomb components, 40,000 handwritten journal pages that included bomb-making experiments and descriptions of the Unabomber crimes; and one live bomb, ready for mailing. They also found what appeared to be the original typed manuscript of the manifesto.

Later the government sold off Kaczynski’s collection of books, papers, journals, and other materials found in the cabin despite Ted’s objections. The cabin was saved in a museum in Washington, D.C. and Kaczynski is serving a life term without hope of parole in the Super Max federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

And thus ends a boy genius. Left for us to decide is just what drove Ted Kaczynski insane. Was he too smart for his own good, a phrase I’ve heard from fellow Montanans, or did he see something in the future that the rest of us don’t realize? This is a sad story of a life gone wrong. The question you have to ask yourself is whether it was his life that went wrong, or is it all of ours that has gone wrong?

And so he joins the ranks of the green anarchists: Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Élisée Reclus, Henri Zisly, Émile Gravelle, Isaac Puente, Ethel Mannin, Leopold Kohr, Murray Bookchin, Fredy Perlman, Jacques Ellul, John Zerzan, Janet Biehl, …

What are they trying to tell us?

Take a look around you boy. It’s bound to scare you boy.
And you tell me … over and over and over again, my friend.

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