posted August 2003


William H. Calvin, "Faster than what?  The nimble and the ponderous"  for Accelerating Change at Stanford (13 September 2003). See also

Powerpoint slides are here.

William H. Calvin 
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 University of Washington





Faster than what?

The Nimble and the Ponderous.


William H. Calvin


Fast is always relative to something.  Faster than earlier is accelerating change. Generally, when you see accelerating growth, you immediately think of cancer – unless, of course, you play the stock market, when you think of selling short to make money on the downside.

       But most problems associated with rapid change are due to being faster than some interacting process.  For example, faster in the center of the stream than the edges leads to turbulence.  The difference between an expansion and an explosion is whether other objects have time to get out of the way.  Always ask, “Faster than what?” and remember that old joke about the two guys being chased by the bear.  You don’t have to run faster than the bear, only faster than the other guy.

       Orderly growth also operates on the difference in two independent growth rates.  Two sheets of cells, where the layers are sticky, create a curved surface when one layer grows faster.  So faster-slower can be creative as well as destructive.  In prenatal development, the various sets of relative growth rates have to be carefully controlled.  Otherwise, birth defects result. 

       In society, some things are nimble and others are ponderous.  The speed of technological change means that major societal changes can be induced in less than a decade without planning or consent.  It took less than a decade to go from the knowledge of energy available from the atomic nucleus to a bomb.  The web took only a few years to achieve a billion web pages, indexed by free search engines.  But the speed of reaction (new policies) tends to be much slower; the Euro common currency took fifty years, two generations of politicians.  Achieving consensus can take decades for complex issues.  What happens in the meantime?


To order a copy of one of my more recent books, click on a cover for the link to 

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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