SBI – Department of Systems Biology and Bioinformatics
Faculty of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
University of Rostock
Ulmenstrasse 69 | 18057 Rostock
+49 381 498-7571
In remembrance of Allan Muir
On the 17th of October 2010, Allan Muir - a good friend and twice a visitor to the Department of Systems Biology & Bioinformatics at the University of Rostock - died from cancer.
For most of his academic working life Allan Muir was associated with the Department of Mathematics at City University, London where he mostly worked on game theory. He never retired from doing mathematics, his interest in maths, science, philosophy were inseparable from himself. I thought of the body of this gentle giant as a vehicle to carry this wonderful mind around. His last academic publication, entitled "On non-revealing rational expectations equilibrium", appeared in the journal Economic Theory in 2009 and in May 2011 will appear a contributed chapter on "The Complexity of Cell-Biological Systems" to Vol. 16 of the Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, edited by DM Gabbay, C Hooker, P Thagard, and J Woods. We completed this joint effort in June 2009 when he was 73 years old and his mind still held primacy over matter. He did not stop his studies right until the end.
I met Allan for the first time when he visited his friend Martin Zarrop in the Control Systems Centre at UMIST in Manchester, where I was a PhD student at the time. Thanks to his engaging character he took me to a public lecture in the Mathematics Department, down the road. On the way we stopped by a pub. The combination of walking and talking, drinking and thinking, which I experienced the first time on that summer day, was to become a unique experience in my intellectual development (although I could never manage the same quantities of beer). He is the most interesting person I have ever met in my life and no one has been more influential on my intellectual development than Allan. Many of the books I have read, the music I have listened to, my interests in systems theory and philosophy, are a consequence of my friendship with him. His general knowledge was astonishing but what I most admired is the way he approached a problem, how he answered questions through questions, how he could reduce something complex to its essence, could connect seemingly unrelated things and communicate it to the lucky ones who were allowed to tune in.
I could not match his mathematical skills, and it was clear to me that he would get little out of the encounters with me. It was thus to my surprise that I somehow managed to become a friend. What we shared, is an interest in good ideas, a curiosity about how ideas and facts come about. While it appeared to be a leisurely walk or casual chat for him, I was tense, trying to absorb and store as much of what he said as I could, to then later ponder about it. A few minutes with Allan or a short Email, would keep my mind busy for hours and days afterwards. We discussed a wide range of topics but a central theme of our common interest was the question for what realities there are, how we go about making sense of them and what the principal limitations are to the knowledge of our world. The earliest of Email from Allan, for which I kept a copy, is from 26th April 1996. It is a typical example of our communication over the 14 years of friendship that followed. Prior to the Email we discussed during a meeting in Manchester the "richness of reality going beyond our perceived reality" and since such broad philosophical questions may easily lose focus, Allan Email response was typical: "I've been trying to about all such matters of the following kind of mathematical exemplification. I (as god) generate a sequence of numbers according to some rule (the theory of everything!). At any stage you have seen only a finite number of these and there is always an infinite number yet to come. There is a reality (the rule), there are phenomena (what you have seen) and therefore hypotheses can be framed on those phenomena. This seems to be a rich enough metaphor to stand in for quite a lot of the features of the real world that we might wish to discuss." He would then typically add a couple of simple examples to explore the metaphor. In an article entitled "Holism and Reductionism are Compatible", published in "Against Biological Determinism" (1982, S.Rose ed.), this style of discussing abstract and general questions by concrete examples is apparent as well. He begins his article with a description of Newtonian mechanics, as a paradigm for mechanism in general. "This is employed as a concrete instance of ideas which have greater generality, for it already exhibits the limitations of mechanisms in embryo form. These limitations become chronic in the analysis of complex systems, when the openness of the sub-system becomes paramount." This allows him to discuss "closure [as] a conceptual simplification or, less legitimately, a metaphysical assumption that some largest conceivable system - the universe - exists." Using simple examples, he alludes to a fundamental concept in (dynamical) systems theory: "Conceptual closure amounts to an assumption of constancy for the external factors, or at least a sufficient regularity to permit their phenomenological description. [...] The efficacy of such analytical strategies is the principal justification for conceiving the world as structured into levels. The reductionism/holism controversy becomes a non-issue whenever adequate conditions permitting closure of a system are formulated. For reductionism merely insists that higher level variables be expressible in terms of lower ones without the importation of emergent factors, while holism reminds us that each part of a system is constrained by the context of the whole." His use of concrete examples from mathematics and systems theory encourages mathematicians, engineers and physicists to ponder about philosophical ideas that are relevant to their work in the natural sciences. One can argue about the direction in which to take the arguments but with the example or metaphor provided the debate will be more focused.
Browsing the heavy folder with printouts of our Email communication, I also notice that towards the end of his Emails he would usually return to something I said or sent to him, in order to encourage me with my ideas. More often than not, the middle part of a discussion would deal with mathematics. He would do his best to ensure one did not feel stupid and whenever he referred to a concept that might not be clear to his opposite, he would slip in a short description. Here is an example where the guiding part is put into italics: "The most intriguing thing you mention is the development of models over finite fields. As you probably know by now, a field is simply an algebraic structure allowing two operations which behave pretty much like addition and multiplication of numbers --- particularly in allowing inverses of every non-zero element which permits division of elements to be defined. That allows linear algebra ... ." Maths, philosophy and music, all could appear together in a communication with Allan. An Email from 2004 ends in characteristic style: "Now for the hard bit of this communication. I must condemn you to some variety of hell (which I have yet to devise) for presuming to question the infallibility of Beethoven. In common with any mediaeval theologian who enjoyed devising torments for heretics I, as the chief priest of Beethoven worship (there is only one god and he is Beethoven and I am his prophet), it will be necessary to cast you into a Beethovenless wilderness unless you recant. You will now kneel and repeat a thousand times "Beethoven is lord and Missa Solemnis is his master creation". With much love for a repentant sinner. Allan" Another Email from October 2008 ends: "Meanwhile I attach a couple of my recent poems: if you know the play "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" you'll realise, after reading these, that I am a Vogon captain. Regards, Allan".
His unusual style of reasoning and broad knowledge, his interest in others, the enthusiasm with which he approaches you and your ideas, the support for those who communicated with him, were combined with modesty, which was often self-deprecating. If he would hear me saying that he had a strong influence on me, he surely would have responded "poor Olaf" and apologised right away for the bad influence. As serious as we were about the questions we discussed, being with Allan was always great fun as well - he enjoyed a good joke as much as a good beer. In March 2010, when his illness was already a major concern, he - true to himself - sent to this friends an article entitled "Humour for Humanists".
That seriousness and good humour can go well together, is described by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who wrote in his The World as Will and Representation: "The opposite of laughter and joking is seriousness. This, accordingly, consists in the consciousness of the perfect agreement and congruity of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality. The serious person is convinced that he conceives things as they are, und that they are as he conceives them. This is just why the transition from profound seriousness to laughter is particularly easy, and can be brought about by trifles. For the more perfect that agreement, assumed by seriousness, appears to be, the more easily is it abolished, even by a trifling incongruity unexpectedly coming to light. Therefore the more capable of complete seriousness a person is, the more heartily can he laugh." In other words, once a certain understanding is reached one realises the pointlessness of it all - what remains is to laugh about it. Not taking yourself too serious, is a trait for which I admire the British, something I dearly miss in Germany. As Dame Edna said "Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century."
Allan Muir was, by all standards, unusual and unconventional. He will be remembered as an exceptional mind who cared about mathematics, science, philosophy, politics, society, music and most of all: people. Allan cared about people, and about what's wrong and what's right. The kindness and respect he showed, not just towards friends, but for virtually everyone he met was exceptional. He could see through things, see unfairness, injustice, irrationality and he did not benefit from the filter through which many people see, which makes things appear nice and easy.
He will be deeply missed.
Olaf Wolkenhauer, Rostock, October 2010