Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Thinking

Before Francis Crick died, in 2004, he gave Eagleman some advice. “Look,” he said. “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.”

David Eagleman is the Francis Crick type of scientist, working on (lots of) big ideas, using as many different techniques as are needed to find the big answers: how does the brain deal with time? Why does it seem to pass at different rates depending on emotions and other factors? Can someone have a good sense of time?

It was while they were there that Eno told Eagleman the story that inspired the drumming study.

“I was working with Larry Mullen, Jr., on one of the U2 albums,” Eno told me. “ ‘All That You Don’t Leave Behind,’ or whatever it’s called.” Mullen was playing drums over a recording of the band and a click track—a computer-generated beat that was meant to keep all the overdubbed parts in synch. In this case, however, Mullen thought that the click track was slightly off: it was a fraction of a beat behind the rest of the band. “I said, ‘No, that can’t be so, Larry,’ ” Eno recalled. “ ‘We’ve all worked to that track, so it must be right.’ But he said, ‘Sorry, I just can’t play to it.’ ”

Eno eventually adjusted the click to Mullen’s satisfaction, but he was just humoring him. It was only later, after the drummer had left, that Eno checked the original track again and realized that Mullen was right: the click was off by six milliseconds. “The thing is,” Eno told me, “when we were adjusting it I once had it two milliseconds to the wrong side of the beat, and he said, ‘No, you’ve got to come back a bit.’ Which I think is absolutely staggering.”
All of this is from Burkhart Bilger's profile of Eagleman in The New Yorker. Eagleman comes across as brilliant, but an extreme workaholic--I wonder what his grad students are like.

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