The following is a conversation with Manolis Kellis, his second time on the podcast.
He’s a professor at MIT and head of the MIT Computational Biology Group.
He’s one of the most brilliant, productive, and kind people I’ve had the fortune of talking to.
A lot of my colleagues at MIT and former MIT faculty and students
wrote to me after our first conversation with some version of,
Manolis is awesome, isn’t he? I’m glad you guys are now friends. I am too. And I’m happy that
he makes time in his insanely busy schedule to sit down and have a chat with me.
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As a side note, let me say that I just got back from talking to Joe Rogan on his podcast,
my fifth time on there. I also got a chance to record a separate conversation with Joe
on this podcast. We talked on both quite a bit about his journey and his advice for mine.
One of the things that I think made his show special is that he just had fun and made choices
that didn’t get in the way of him having fun and loving life. I’m learning to do just that.
It’s tough since I’m naturally full of self doubt and anxiety,
but I’m learning to let go and have fun, even if my monotone robotic voice sometimes sounds otherwise.
For Joe, that involved talking to his friends, comedians, especially ones that brought out the
best in him. Duncan Trussell and the five hour first episode on Spotify comes to mind as an
example of that. Duncan has been a guest probably close to if not more than 50 times on Joe’s
podcast. My hope with amazing people like Manolis is to find my Duncan Trussell, my Joey Diaz,
and yes, even my Eddie Bravo. Obviously Joe and I are very different people but ultimately both
love life when we can interact often with people we love and who inspire us, make us smile,
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three months free and to support this podcast. And now here’s my conversation with Manolis Kallis.
What is beautiful about the human epigenome? Don’t get me started. So first of all,
as an engineering feat, the human epigenome manages the most compact, the most incredible
compaction you could imagine. So every single one of your cells contains two meters worth of DNA.
And this is compacted in a radius, which is one thousandth of a millimeter. That’s six orders of
magnitude. To give you a sense of scale, it’s as if a string as tall as the Burj Al Khalifa,
which is about a kilometer tall, was compacted into a tiny little ball the size of a millimeter.
And if you put it all together, if you stretch the trillions of cells that we have, we have about
30 trillion cells in your body. If you stretch the DNA, the two meters worth of DNA in every one of
your trillion cells, you would basically reach all the way to Jupiter a hundred times.
A hundred times. Yeah, it’s all curled up in there. It’s 30 trillion cells.
30 trillion cells, every one of them two meters worth of DNA. So all of that is compacted through
the epigenome. The epigenome basically has the ability to compact this massive amount of DNA
from here to Jupiter 10 times into one human body, into just the nuclei of one human body,
and the vast majority of the human body is not even these nuclei.
And that’s sort of the structural part. So that’s the boring part. That’s the structural part.
The functional part is way more interesting. So functionally, what the human epigenome allows
you to do is basically control the activity patterns of thousands of genes. So 20,000 genes
in your human body, every one of your cells only needs a few thousand of those, but a different
few thousand of those. And the way that your cells remember what their identity is, is basically
driven by the epigenome. So the epigenome is both structural in sort of making this dramatic
compaction, and it’s also functional in being able to actually control the activity patterns
of all your cells. Now, can we draw a definition distinction between the genome and the epigenome?
Again, being Greek, epi means on top of. So the genome is the DNA, and the epigenome is anything
on top of the DNA. And there’s three types of things on top of the DNA. The first is chemical
modifications on the DNA itself. So we like to think of four bases of the DNA, A, C, G, T. C
has a methyl form, which is sometimes referred to as the fifth base. So methyl C takes a different
meaning. So in the same way that you have annotations in a orchestra score that basically
say whether you should play something softly or loudly or space it out or interpret basically
the score, the human epigenome allows you to modify that primary score. So a modified C
basically says, play this one softly. It’s basically a sign of repression in a gene
regulatory region. I love how you’re talking about the function that emerges from the epigenome as a
musical score. It is in many ways. And every single cell plays a different part of that score.
It’s like having all of human knowledge in 23 volumes, like 23 giant books, which are your
chromosomes. And every single cell has a different profession, a different role. Some cells play the
piano and they’re looking at chapter seven from chromosome 23 and chapter four from chromosome
two and so on and so forth. And each of those pieces are all encoded in the same DNA. But
what the epigenome allows you to do is effectively conduct the orchestra and sort of coordinate the
pieces so that every instrument plays only the things that it needs to play. One thing that kind
of blows my mind, maybe you can tell me your thoughts about it, is the way evolution works
with natural selection is based on the final sort of the entirety of the orchestra musical
performance, right? But there’s these incredibly rich structural things, like each one of them
doing their own little job that somehow work together. The evolution selects based on the
final result and yet all the individual pieces are doing like infinitely minuscule specific things.
How the heck does that work? It’s a very good insight. And you can even go beyond that and
basically say evolution doesn’t select at the level of an organism. It actually selects at
the level of whole environments, whole ecosystems. So let me break this down. So you basically have
at the very bottom every single nucleotide being selected. But then that nucleotide function is
selected at the level of each gene and every, not even each gene, each gene regulatory control
element. And then those control elements are basically converging onto the function of the gene
and many genes are converging onto the function of one cell and many cells are converging into
the function of one tissue or organ. And all of these organs are converging onto the level of
an organism. But now that organism is not in isolation. So if you basically think about why
is altruism, for example, a thing, why are people being nice to each other? It was probably selected
and it was probably selected because those species that were just nasty to each other didn’t survive
as a species. And now if you think about symbiosis of, you know, there’s plants, for example, that
love CO2 and there’s humans that love O2 and we’re sort of, you know, trading different types of gases
to each other. If you look at ecosystems where one organism was just really nasty, that organism
actually died because everyone they were being nasty to was killed off. And then that kind of,
you know, universe of life is gone. So basically what emerges is selection at so many different
layers of benefit, including, you know, all of these nucleotides within a body interacting for
the emergent functions at the body level. Yeah. I wonder if it’s possible to break it down into
levels that’s selection even beyond humans. Like you said, environment, but there’s environments
at all different levels too, right? At the minuscule, at the organ level, at the tissue level,
like you said, maybe at the microscopic level. It would be fascinating if like there’s a kind of
selection going on, like both the quantum level and like the, the galaxy level. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
So, so yeah, let’s again, sort of break down these different layers. So basically if you think about
the environment in which a gene operates, that gene, of course, the first definition of environment
that we think of is pollution or sunlight or heat or cold and so on and so forth. That’s the external
environment. But every gene also operates at the level of the internal cellular environment that
it’s in. If I take a gene from say an African individual and I put it in a European context,
will it perform the same way? Probably not because there’s a cellular context of thousands of other
genes that that gene has co evolved with, you know, in the out of Africa event and, you know,
all of this sort of human history of evolution. So basically if you look at Neanderthal genes,
for example, which again happened long after that out of Africa event, there’s incompatibilities
between Neanderthal genes and modern human genes that can lead to diseases. So in the context of
the Neanderthal genome, that gene version, that allele was fine, but in the context of the modern
human genome, that Neanderthal gene version is actually detrimental. So it’s, it’s, you know,
that cellular environment constitutes the genetics of that gene, but also of course,
all of the epigenomics of that gene. It’s fascinating that the gene has a history.
I mean, we talked about this a little bit last time, but just, and then some of your research
goes into that, but the genes as they are today have, have a story from the beginning of time.
And then some, sometimes their story was like their path was useful for survival for the
particular organisms and sometimes not. That’s fascinating. Let me ask as a tangent. We kind
of started talking offline about Neanderthals. Do you have something interesting genetically,
biologically in terms of difference between Neanderthal and like the different branches
of human evolution that you find fascinating? Neanderthals are only one of about five branches
that we are pretty confident about. Branches of? Of out of Africa events. So basically there’s
Neanderthals, there’s Denisovans. What is the evidence for Denisovans? One tiny little fragment
of one pinky from one cave in Siberia. Recent, relatively recently discovered, right? Less than
10 years ago. Yeah. And those are like little folks, right? No, no, no, no, no. That’s yet
another one though. Homo florensis. It had the little folks instead of Indonesia. But then the
Denisovans are basically another branch that we only know about genetically from that one bone.
And eventually we realized that it’s one of the three major branches along with Neanderthal,
modern human and Denisovan. And then that one branch has now resurfaced in many different areas.
And we kind of know about the gene flow that happened in between them. So when I was reading
my Greek mythology, it was talking about the age of the heroes, these eras of human like,
you know, precursors that were wiped out by Zeus or by all kinds of wars and so on and so forth,
like the Titans and the, you know, it’s ridiculous to sort of read these stories as a kid because
you’re like, oh yeah, whatever. And then you’re growing up and you’re like, whoa, layers and
layers of human like ancestors. And who knows if those stories were inspired by bones that they
found that kind of looked human like, but were not quite human like. Who knows if stories of dragons
were inspired by bones of dinosaurs. And basically this archeological evidence has been there and has
probably entered the folk imagination, migrated into those stories, but it’s not that far removed
from what actually happened of massive wars of wiping out Neanderthals as humans are, modern
humans are populating, you know, Europe. Do you think, do you think what killed the Neanderthals
and all those other branches is human conflict or is it genetic conflict? So is it us humans being
the opposite of altruistic towards each other? Or is it some other competition at some other level,
like as we’re discussing? Yeah. So if you look at a lot of human traits today, they’re probably not
that far removed from the human traits that got us where we are now. So, you know, this whole
tribalism, you know, you’re my sports team or you’re my, you know, political party or you’re my,
you know, tiny little village. And therefore, you know, if you’re from that other village,
I hate you. But as soon as we’re both in the major city, I can’t believe we’re from the same region,
my friend, my family and like two neighboring countries fighting. And as soon as they’re off
in another country, you’re like, oh, I can’t believe that. So it’s, it’s kind of funny,
like this tribalism is nonsensical in many ways. It’s like cognitive incongruent that basically
we like kin and selection for, for sort of liking kin is hugely advantageous genetically.
Probably across all kinds of organisms, across all kinds of life. Yeah. So, so basically if you
now transport that to the sort of humans arriving in Europe and Neanderthals are everywhere,
what are you going to do? You’re going to kill them off. You know, there’s this battle for territory
and this battle for, they’re not like us. We have to get rid of them. So basically there’s a, you
know, very interesting mix there, but, and yet, and yet when you look at the genetics, there’s
tons of gene flow between them. So basically, you know, love romance between, you know, tribes,
but love spans the gap between the different tribes. It’s Romeo and Juliet across species
boundaries. Sneaks away from the village. Even before the out of Africa, there’s, you know,
within Africa selection, which was probably massive battles of larger and larger tribes
selecting for our social networking and savviness and, you know, probably all our conspiracy theory
genes are, you know, dating back from then. And, you know, so there’s a lot of this mischievousness
in the history of human evolution that unfortunately is still present in, you know, many ugly forms
today, but probably contributed to our success as a species in wiping out other species.
It just sucks that we don’t have neighboring species that are, you know, intelligent like us
that, but yet very different than us. So we have like, you know, dogs or wolves, I guess,
co evolved. They, they figured out how to neighbor up with humans in a friendly way and collaborate
and develop in time. You’re describing this as if the wolves made a choice.
It’s possible that the wolves never had a say, that basically humans were just so overpowering
that they had captive wolves. And then at every generation killed off eight of the nine pups and
only kept the one that was milder. And it only takes a few generations to then sort of have pups
that are really mild. And so the Neanderthals weren’t useful in the same way that wolves were.
I don’t know if it’s a question of useful. They were probably super useful. My thinking is that
they were scary, that basically something that almost resembles you is something that you try
to eliminate first. It’s too close. Yeah. And speaking of, you know, species that are intelligent
and sort of what’s left of evolution, it is a shame, exactly like you say, that so many different,
amazing life forms were extinct and the kind of boring ones remained. So if you look at the
dinosaurs, I mean, the diversity that they had, if you look at sub, you know, like there’s just so
many different lineages of life that were just abruptly killed. And yet out of that death emerged,
you know, many new kinds of really awesome lineages. Do you think there was in the history of
life on earth species that may be still alive today that are more intelligent than humans?
And we just don’t know. So there’s a case to be made for dolphins. Like if you look at their brains,
if you look at the way that they play, if you look at the way that they learn, you know, I mean,
they don’t have opposable thumbs and we do. So, you know, that probably made a big difference.
It’s terrifying to think that like, not terrifying, I don’t know how to feel about it,
that they’re more intelligent than us. It’s like the hitchhiker’s guide.
I know. But how do you define intelligence? Basically, like I was saying last time,
you know, stupid is a stupid does and smart is a smart does. So if the dolphins are basically
super smart, figured out the meaning of life and just go around playing with water all day,
which is probably the meaning of life, then we wouldn’t know because all they’re doing is kicking
water just like sharks are and sharks are probably pretty stupid. So basically it’s very difficult to
sort of judge a species intelligence unless they kind of go out of their way to demonstrate it.
Yeah, and that’s instructive for our understanding of any kind of life form.
You know, I recently talked to Sara Seager looking for life out there on other planets.
It’d be fascinating to think if we discover a habitable planet outside of Earth in one day,
maybe many centuries away, or be able to travel with like a robot there, how would we actually
know that this species would probably be able to detect that it’s a living being? But how would we
know if it’s an intelligent being? I mean, it’s both exciting and terrifying to sort of come face
to face with a life form that’s of another world. Like something that clearly is moving in a,
how would you say, like a deliberate way, and to then like ask, well, how do I ask that thing,
whether it’s intelligent?
No, but the question that you’re asking is applicable to every species on the Earth now.
On Earth now, yeah.
Yeah. So basically, you know, dolphins are a great example. We know that they’re,
you know, clearly capable hardware wise and behavior wise of intelligence.
You know, how do we communicate? So basically, if your question is about crossing species
boundaries of communication, the way that I want to put it is that humans have achieved
a level of sophistication in our behaviors, in our communication, in our language, in our ways
of expressing ourselves, that I have no doubt that if we encountered a human like form of
intelligence, we’d figure out their language in a few weeks. Like, it’d be just fine. As long as,
you know, of course, they’re both trusting each other, not annihilating each other, and not sort
of fearing each other and attacking each other.
What about, let me ask, just out of curiosity into science fiction land a little bit.
So clearly, you’re one of the top scientists in the world. So if we were to discover,
an alien life form, you would be brought in to study its genetics. Do you think the epigenome
that we talked about, the genome, the code, the digital code that underlies that alien life form
would be similar to ours? Like the, in fundamental ways, maybe not exactly, but in fundamental ways,
of how it’s structured?
Yeah. So you’re getting to the very definition of what we’re talking about.
Of how it’s structured. Yeah. So you’re getting to the very definition of life. You’re getting to
the very definition of what makes life, life, and how do we decode that life? And it’s so easy to
think that every life form would basically have to, you know, like oxygen, have to like heat from
the sun and rely on sort of being in the habitable zone of, you know, its solar system and so on and
so forth. But I think we have to sort of go beyond this sort of, oh, life on another planet must be
exactly like life is on earth. Because of course, life on earth happens to rely on the proximity to
the sun and benefit from that amount of energy. But we’re talking at timescales of human life,
where we kind of live, I don’t know, between, and I’m going to be super wide here. We’re going to
live between six earth months and, you know, 200 earth months or 200 earth years. So basically,
if you look at the timescale that we inhabit on earth, it is very much dictated by the amount of
energy that we receive from the sun. If you look at, I don’t know, Europa, you know, the smallest,
the fourth smallest moon of Jupiter, the smallest of the Galilean moons, and also the smallest
in its distance from Jupiter. It has an iron core, it has a rock exterior, it has ice all around it,
and it has probably massive liquid oceans underneath. And the gravitational pull of
Jupiter is probably creating all kinds of movement under that ice. How did life evolve on earth?
Yes, sure. Life now, most of life that we above the surface look at, has to do with exploiting
the solar energy for, you know, our daily behavior. But that’s not the case everywhere
on the planet. If you look at the bottom of the ocean, there are hydrothermal vents.
There’s both black smokers and white smokers, and they are near these volcanic, you know, ducts
that basically emanate a massive amount of energy from the core of our planet. What does life need?
It needs energy. Does it need energy from the sun? It couldn’t care less. Does it need energy from,
you know, the earth itself? Yeah, possibly. It could use that. And if you look at how did life
evolve on, you know, on earth, there are many theories. I mean, a kind of silly theory is that
it came from outer space, that basically there’s a meteorite out there that sort of landed on earth
and brought with it DNA material. I think it’s a little silly because it kind of pushes the buck
down the road. Basically the next question is how did it evolve over there? Whereas our planet has
basically all of the right ingredients, why wouldn’t evolve here? So basically let’s kind
of ignore that one. And now the two other competing hypotheses are from the outside in
or from the inside out. What’s that mean? From the outside in means from the surface to the
bottom of the ocean. From the inside out means from the bottom of the ocean to the surface.
So life on the surface is pretty brutal.
Life obviously evolved in the water and then there was an out of water event.
But basically before it exited, it was clearly in the water, which is a much nicer and shielded
environment. So just to be clear, on the surface, are you referring to the surface of the sea or
the bottom of the sea? Versus the bottom of the sea. And you’re saying life on the surface is
harsh. Life outside the water is horrible. It takes huge amounts of evolutionary innovations
to sustain living outside the water. That’s so interesting. Why is that? So it’s easier to,
life is easier in the water. Maybe, see, I’m telling dolphins are onto something.
We are 70% water. No, dolphins went back into the water.
Really? Oh, because dolphins are mammals.
Of course. Yeah.
Interesting. Well, again, they might be smarter. They went back. They’re like, screw this.
So if you basically think about the fact that we are 70% water,
we’re basically transporting the sea with us outside the sea. If we don’t have water for about
24 hours, we’re dry. And if you look at life under the sea, I mean, I don’t know if you’re a diver,
but when you go diving, your brain explodes. Again, when I say the boring life forms is what
we see all the time, like tetrapods. I mean, what a stupid boring body plan. Seriously. Just go dive
and you’ll see that a tiny little minority of the stuff under the sea, under the surface of the sea
is actually tetrapods. It’s like snails with all kinds of crazy appendages and colors and round
things and five way symmetric things and eight way symmetric things, all kinds of crazy body plans.
And only the tetrapod fish managed to get out. And then they gave rise to all the boring plans we
kind of see today of basically, you know, humans with four limbs, birds with four limbs, lizards
with four limbs, and you know, right? It’s kind of boring. If you look at, by comparison, life
underwater is teeming with diversity. So now let’s roll back the clock and basically say,
where did life in the ocean come from, from the surface or from the bottom?
Exactly. Those two options that you were mentioning.
Yeah, exactly. So basically life on the surface is one option. And then the idea there is that
there’s tides with the moon and the sun sort of causing all this movement. And this movement is
basically causing nutrients to sort of, you know, coalesce and, you know, bounce around,
et cetera. That’s one option. The second option, massive amount of energy from the core of our
the core of our planet basically exploited, leading to these basic ingredients of life forms.
And what are these basic ingredients? Metabolism, being able to take energy from the environment
and put it as part of yourself. Metabolism, it basically means transformation. Again, in the
Greek, it basically means taking stuff from, you know, like nutrients or energy source or anything,
and then making it your own. The second one is compartmentalization. If there’s no notion of self,
there can’t be evolution. You have to know where your own boundaries end and where the non self
boundaries begin. And that’s basically the lipid bilayer nowadays, which is extremely simple to
form. It’s basically just a bunch of lipids and then they eventually just self organize into a
membrane. So that’s a very natural way of forming a self. And then the third component is replication.
Replication doesn’t need to be self replication. It could be A helps make more of B, B helps make
more of C and C helps make more of A. Any kind of self reinforcement is what you need to ignite
the process of evolution. After you’ve ignited that process, you know, I don’t want to say all
hell breaks loose, but all paradise breaks loose. So basically you then boom, you know, have life
going. And the moment you have A, B, C, some kind of thing looping back onto A, you can make
modifications and you can improve. And then you let natural selection work. Is there some element
of that that’s like some state representation that stores information? Like maybe I should say
information. Absolutely. We like to think of life as the information propagation, which is DNA,
the messenger, which is RNA, and then the action, which is protein. So basically DNA,
we think is an essential part of life. That’s where the storage is. And therefore that early
life forms must have had some kind of storage medium DNA. If you look at how life actually
evolved, DNA was invented much later. Proteins were invented later. And RNA was fine by itself,
thank you very much, in an RNA world. So the early version of life as we know it today was in fact
RNA molecules performing all of the functions. The RNA molecule itself was the protein actuator
here by creating three dimensional folds through self hybridization. Self what? Self hybridization.
So basically the same way that DNA molecules can hybridize with themselves and basically
form this double helix. The single stranded RNA molecule can form partial double helices
in various places, creating structure as if you had a long string with complimentary parts,
and you could then sort of design kind of like origami like structures that will fold onto
themselves. And then you can make any shape from that. That early RNA world eventually got to
replication, where enzymes encoded in RNA would replicate RNA itself. And then that process
basically kicked off evolution. And that process of evolution then led to major innovations.
The first innovation was translation. So you start with an RNA molecule and you translate it
into another kind of form. And that’s the first kind of encoding. You’re like, well,
do you need some kind of code? Yeah, but the code was in fact one thing. It was conflated
with the actuators. The actuators were separated from the code only later on. So you first had
the self replicating code, which was also the actuator. And then you kind of have a functionalization,
partitioning of the functionalization, a sub functionalization of the proteins that are now
going to be the workhorse of life, but they’re not self replicating. The code remains the RNA.
So the most beautiful and most complex RNA machine known to man is the ribosome.
The ribosome is this massive factory that is able to translate RNA into protein.
The ribosome, I mean, if you want, I don’t know, divine intervention in the history of life,
the ribosome is it. That’s one of the great invention in the history of life.
It’s yeah. But again, you can’t think of great inventions as one time steps. They’re basically,
you know, the culmination of probably many competing software infrastructures for life
preservation that won out. And then when the ribosome was so efficient at making proteins,
all the other ones basically died out. And then the life forms that were using the modern ribosome
were basically the more successful ones because it could make proteins. And now those proteins
are much more versatile because RNA only has four bases. Proteins eventually have 20 amino acids,
not initially, but eventually. And then they can form in much more complex shapes and they can
create all kinds of additional machines. One of which is reverse transcriptase. So you basically
now have RNA. Again, we like to think of transcription as the normal, reverse transcription
as the oddball. Well, RNA preceded DNA. So reverse transcription actually was the first invention
before transcription itself. So basically RNA invents proteins, RNA and proteins together
invent DNA. So you now have a more stable medium and more stable backbone with two helices instead
of one, two strands instead of one, the double helix. And RNA basically says, listen, I’m tired.
I’m going to delegate all information storage to DNA and I’m going to delegate most actuation
to proteins. But that’s to you is not like a, that’s just an efficiency thing. It’s not a
fundamentally new innovation. That’s why when you’re asking is a separate information storage
medium a definition of life? I’m like, no, any kind of self preservation, self reinforcement.
And it didn’t need to be RNA based initially. It didn’t need to be self replication initially.
You just need to have enough RNA molecules randomly arising that reinforce each other
that ultimately lead to the, you know, the closing of that loop and the ignition of the evolutionary
process. Can we just rewind a little bit? Like if you were to bet all your money on the two options
in terms of where life started at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t know if this is answerable, but
how hard is the first step or if there’s something interesting you can say about that first leap
about from not life to life. Yeah. I think it’s inevitable on earth or just in the universe.
I think it’s inevitable. If you look at Europa, you know, going back the moon of Jupiter. It’s
also a really nice song by Santana. Europa basically has all the ingredients. It has,
you know, the core that can emit energy. It has the shielding through the ice sheet,
protecting it just like an atmosphere would. It even has a layer of oxygen,
probably sufficiently dense to sustain life. So my guess is that there’s probably
independently a reason life form already teeming in Europa because as soon as it today.
Is that exciting or terrifying to you?
It’s, I mean, as a scientist, I can’t wait to see non DNA based life forms. I can’t wait
because we are so born in, you know, sort of, as I would say in French, but basically we’re sort of,
you know, we are so narrow minded in our thinking of what life should look like that I can’t wait
for all that to just be blown away by the discovery of life elsewhere.
Let me bring you into another science fiction scenario. So on that point, if we discovered
life on Europa and you were brought in, you seem very excited, but how would you start looking at
that life in a way that’s useful to you as a scientist, but also not going to kill all of us?
So like to me, it’s a little bit scary because not, not because it’s a malevolent life. Like
it’s a dictator petting like a cat, it’s evil, but just the way life is, it seems to be very good at
conquering other life. So there’s a lot of science fiction movies based on that principle.
Yeah. And that’s sort of what causes the public to be so scared. But if you think about sort of,
would Europa life be scared of humans coming over and taking over? Chances are no, not even like
earth bacteria because earth bacteria would be wiped out in an instant in this foreign world
because they don’t know how to metabolize energy that doesn’t come from the types of energy sources
that are here. The levels of acidity may just kill us all off. And at the same way, in the converse
way, if you bring life from Europa on earth, it’ll die instantly because it’s too hot or because it
doesn’t need to know how to cope with, I don’t know, the sun’s radiation so close to these
completely inhabitable zone by their standards. So what we call the habitable zone might actually be
the inhabitable zone. Inhabitable for them. So the difference, if the environments are sufficiently
different, you think we’ll just not be able to even attack each other and the basic. It’ll take
massive amounts of engineering to create machines that will go there and sample the oceans,
basically drill through the layers of ice to basically sample and see what life is like
there and detecting it will probably be trivial. It definitely won’t be DNA based. It’s not like
we’re going to send a sequencer, but it’ll be some other kind of combination of chemicals
that will look nonrandom. So if you had to bet, if I took that life form we find in Europa and
like put it on a sandwich that you’re eating and like eat that sandwich. It’ll taste just fine.
Well, I know about that. Will it taste fine? That’s interesting. So the other question is,
do we have taste receptors for this? So where does our taste come from? It’s basically
adaptations to chemical molecules that we are used to seeing. We don’t have taste buds for
things we don’t even know about. So we won’t be able to know that this chemical tastes funny.
But you think it won’t be, it’s likely not to be dangerous. Like it won’t know how to even
interact. Do you think our immune system will even detect that something weird is going on?
Probably. And it’ll be very easy to detect because it’ll be very different from us.
But it won’t be able to sort of attack. I mean, the scene from, I don’t know,
Independence Day where like they’re communicating with the alien computer and they’re like,
ooh, I’m in. I mean, it’s hilarious because like Macs and PCs have trouble communicating.
I mean, let alone an alien technology or even alien DNA.
So, okay. Now I was talking about you being a scientist on earth, but say you were a scientist
that was shipped over to Europa to investigate if there’s life,
what would you look for in terms of signs of life?
Life is unmistakable, I would say. The way that life transforms a planet surrounding it
is not the kind of thing that you would expect from the physical laws alone.
So it’s, I would say that as soon as life arises, it creates this compartmentalization.
It starts pushing things away. It starts sort of keeping things inside that are self.
And there’s a whole signature that you can see from that. So when I was organizing my meaning
of life symposium, my friend who’s an astrophysicist, basically we were deciding on what
would be the themes for the symposium. And then I said, well, we’re going to have biology,
we’re going to have physics. And she’s like, oh, come on. Biology is just a small part of physics.
Everything’s a small part of physics.
And I mean, in many ways it is, but my immediate answer was, no, no, no, no, wait.
Life challenges physics. It supersedes physics. It sort of fights against physics.
And that’s what I would look for in Europe. I would basically look for this fight against physics
for anything that sort of signatures of not just entropy at work, not just things diffusing away,
not just gravitational pools, but clear signatures of, you remember when I was talking earlier about
this whole selection for environments, selection for biospheres, for ecosystems, for these multi
organism form of life. And I think that’s sort of the first thing that you can look for, you know,
chemical signatures that are not simply predicted from the reactions you would get randomly.
Such a beautiful way to look at life. So you’re basically leveraging some energy source to enable
you to resist the physics of the universe.
Fighting against physics. But that’s the first transformation. If you look at humans,
we’re way past that.
What do you mean by transformation?
So basically there’s layers. I sort of see life, you know, when we talk about the meaning of life,
life can be construed at many levels. We talked about life in the simplest form of sort of the
ignition of evolution. And that’s sort of the basic definition that you can check off. Yes,
it’s alive. But when Alexander the Great was asked to whom do you owe your life to your teachers
or to your parents? And Alexander the Great answered, I owe to my parents the zin, the life
itself. And I owe to my teachers the f zin, like euphony. F means good, the opposite of cacophony,
which means, you know, bad. So f zin, in his words, was basically living a human life.
A proper life. So basically we can go from the zin to the f zin. And that transformation has taken
several additional leaps. So basically, you know, life on Europa, I’m pretty sure has gotten to the
stage of A makes B makes C makes A again. But getting to the f zin is a whole other level. And
that level requires cooperation. That level requires altruism. That level requires specialization.
Remember how we were talking about the RNA specializing into DNA for storage, proteins,
and then compartmentalizations. And if you look at prokaryotic life, there’s no nucleus. It’s all
one soup of things intermingling. If you look at eukaryotic life, there’s no nucleus. There’s no
eukaryotic life. Again, U for true, good, you know. So a eukaryote basically has a nucleus,
and that’s where you compartmentalize further the organization of the information storage
from all of the daily activities. If you look at a human body plan or any animal,
you have a compartmentalization of the germline. You basically have one lineage that will basically
be saved for the future generations. And everything outside that lineage is almost superfluous. If you
think about it, the rest of your body, all it does is ensure that that lineage will make it
to the next generation, that these germlines will make it to the next generation. The rest is
packaging. I’m starting to be so blunt. And if you look at nutrition, you know, we’re deuterostomes.
What does deuterostome mean? Deutero means second, where this is the second mouth. The first mouth
is actually down here, it’s the oesophagus. So deuterostomes have evolved a second layer of
eating, kind of like alien with the two mouths. So you can think of us as alien where the first
mouth is up here and then the second mouth is down there. Is the first mouth just the
physical manipulation of the food to make it more consumable? Correct. And basically, again,
you know, if you look at a worm, it’s an extremely simple life form. It basically has a mouth,
it has an anus and it has, you know, just some organs in between that consume the food and just
spit out poo. Humans are basically a fancy form of that. So you basically have the mouth,
you have the digestive tract, and then you have limbs to get better at getting food.
You have eyesight, hearing, et cetera, to get better at getting food. And then you have,
of course, the germline and all of this food part, it’s just auxiliary to the germline.
So you basically have layers of addition, of compartmentalization, of specialization
on top of this zine to get all the way to the Earth zine.
Yeah. So like the worm is like Windows 95, very few features, very basic. And then
us humans are like Windows Vista, Windows 10, whatever it is.
Well, a few innovations beyond that.
Beyond that, all right. I don’t know.
We’re Windows 2000, at least we’re that way.
So, okay. That’s such a fascinating way to look at life as a set of transformations.
So like, is there some interesting transformations to our
history here on Earth that like appeal to you?
And what are the most brilliant innovations and transformations?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, this is such a fascinating question. Of course, like,
you know, we’re talking about basic, basic life forms and we’re talking about eukaryotic life
forms. And then the next big transformation is multicellular life forms, where the specialization
separates the germ line from everything else that accompanies it and sort of carries it.
And then that specialization then sort of has this massive new innovation, like above the second
mouth, which is this massive brain. And this massive brain is basically something that arises
much, much later on. Basically, you know, notochords, like having the first spinal cord,
this whole concept that along with these very simple layers, you basically now have
a coordinating agent and this coordinating agent is starting to make decisions.
And remember when we were talking about free will, I mean, you know, as a worm is hunting for food,
oh, it has plenty of free will. It can choose to, you know, follow chemotaxis to the left or
chemotaxis to the right. And maybe that’s free will because it’s unpredictable beyond a certain level.
So you basically now have more and more decision making and coordination of all of these different
body parts and organs by a central operating system, a central machine that basically will
control the rest of the body. And the other thing that I love talking about is the different
timescales at which things happen. You know, we’re talking about the human epigenome before.
The human epigenome is basically able to find what genes should be expressed in response to
environmental stimuli in the order of minutes and basically receive a stimulus, transfer all that
data through these humongously long string of searching and then sort of find what genes to
turn on and then create all that. All of that is happening in the timescale of minutes. Basically,
you know, three minutes to half an hour. That’s the expression response. But our daily life
doesn’t happen on the order of three minutes to half an hour. It happens on the order of
milliseconds. Like I throw a ball at you, you catch it right away. No gene expression changes
there. You just don’t have time to do that. So you basically have a layer of control built on
a hardware that supports it, but that hardware itself lives in a different timescale than the
controlling machine on top of that. Is that an accident, by the way? Is that like a feature?
Is it, was it possible for life to have evolved where the hour, the daily life of the organism
as it interacts with its environment was on a timescale similar to the way our internals work?
If you look at trees, they look kind of boring and stupid. You’re like looking at the tree like
stupid. If you speed up the movie of a tree from spring until October, you’ll be like, oh my God,
it’s intelligent. And the reason for that is that at that timescale, the tree is basically saying,
Oh, I’m looking for a, you know, a thing to catch onto. Ooh, I just caught onto that. I’m going to
grow more here. I’m going to spoil out there, et cetera. Like I can see the trees in my garden,
just growing and sort of, you know, looping around. And it’s all a matter of timescale.
It’s all a matter of timescale. And if you look at the human timescale, remember we were talking
about neoteny the last time around. The whole fact that our young are pretty useless until,
you know, maybe, you know, a few months of age, if not a few years of age, if not, I don’t know,
getting out of college. And then we, we basically hold them enabling their brain to continue being
malleable and infusing it with knowledge and thoughts as, you know, that period of neoteny
increases and expands. If you fast forward, I don’t know, another million years.
So humans have only been around, you know, different from apes for about that long.
Jump another unit of that, another human chimp divergence. What could happen
from an evolutionary timescale? A lot. One of the things that’s happening already is expansion of
human lifespan. We have longer and longer periods before we mature. And we have longer and longer
periods before we have babies. So intergenerational distance is, you know, grown from, I don’t know,
16 years to 40 years. You’re saying that’s in the genetics. No, no, not necessarily. But it’s,
it’s sort of an environmental tendency that’s happening. But as we medically expand human
lifespan, the generations might actually be pushed instead of 40 years to 60 years, to 100 years.
Like if we look at the long arc of the evolutionary history. Exactly. So as we start thinking about
intergalactic travel now, sorry, that’s a heck of a transition. Yeah. So let’s talk about it.
No, no, no, no, no. As we, as a species start thinking about, I’m talking about these transitions
that are happening, right? And that’s, that’s awesome. Continue along these transitions.
What does the future hold in the next million years? So the concept of us going to another planet
and that taking three human lifetimes might be a joke if the human lifetime starts being 400 years
or 800 years. So imagine, it’s all time scale. It’s all time scale. It’s just different time scales.
You asked me offline whether I would like to live forever. I mean, my answer is absolutely.
And there’s many different types of forevers. One forever is, do I want to live today forever?
Kind of like Groundhog Day. And the answer is absolutely. The stuff that I want to learn today
will probably take a lifetime just to learn, you know, basically to clear my to do list for the day.
You mean like relive the day and then, and then pick up different things from the richness of
the experiences that are all in today. There’s just so much happening in the world every single
day. So much knowledge that has happened already that just to catch up on that will probably take
me around forever. On that, on that point, I just, I would just love to see you in the Groundhog movie
just because you’re so naturally as a scientist, but just the way your mind works beautifully,
just all the richness of the experiences that you will pick up from that.
That’s a beautiful visual. I try to live each day as if it was Groundhog. I’m basically every
single day waking up and saying, all right, how would Bill Murray get out of that one?
Well, you know what, on a funny tangent, I got a chance to go to a Neuralink demonstration event.
I’m not usually familiar with Neuralink. And I talked to Elon for a while. And one of the
funny things he said on his Groundhog Day thing is, you know, it’s a beautiful dream to eventually
be able to replay our memories. So we’re kind of these recording machines. Our brain is kind of,
maybe a noisy recording machine of memories. And it would be beautiful if we can someday in the
future, maybe far into the future, be able to, like in the Groundhog Day situation, replay that.
And the funny comment that stuck with me is he said that maybe this, our conversation now,
is a replay of a previous memory. And that stuck with me because it would probably be my replay.
You know, who the hell am I? I’m just an idiot guy. But like Elon Musk is, you know, probably
because of SpaceX and so on, is probably going to be remembered as a special person,
one of our special apes in history. So if I wanted to replay a memory, probably be that one. You know,
talking to Elon for a while. That’s an interesting possibility from, if we think about time scales,
if we think about the richness of the experience through time that we humans take and be able to
replay some aspects of that, of that biology, that’s super interesting. But anyway, sorry for
the tangents. Let’s, yeah, you were talking about time scales and the expansion of the human lifetime
and the idea of intergalactic travel. Yeah. No, but you’re laughing about this. I can’t believe
you’re laughing about this. You’re talking about this. You’re talking about exploring alien worlds
and going to other planets. I mean, you know, when Sarah was here, she was talking about sort of going
to other planets when we find these life. I mean, I’m just very naturally, given the topics that
we’ve approached, talking about the timescale at which this will happen. So you think eventually
we will human or life, life will expand out into the universe. The point that I’m trying to make
is that an intergalactic species will probably find ways to engineer its biology in order to
expand the way that we experience time, expand the timescale that we experience. And going back to
this whole concept of, you know, would I like to live forever? Yes, I’d like to live forever. Even
if it was, even if it was stuck on the same day, I’d love to live forever because I would finally
have time to do all these things that I want to do. But if living forever actually comes with a perk
of watching the whole world evolve forever, I mean, that’s a huge perk. And I would, you know, just,
it’ll never get boring, just a never changing world. And then the mind, you know, sort of
the experiment that I want you to do is to also ask, what if I wanted to live forever
one day at a time every year or one day at a time every decade, would you choose that?
Or you would wake up and the world would be 10 years later every single day you wake up.
It’s the opposite of Groundhog Day where basically you always wake up and it’s always 10 years later.
So you’re saying that’s such a powerful, interesting concept that life is more
interesting if you’re, of all the life forms on earth, that you’re the slowest one.
Like trees have it right.
Like trees have it right. Olive trees. Like, you know, they’ve been there since the Minoan
civilization. And you know, that takes us back to the question you asked about sort of
the transformations that have happened in humanity. The Minoan civilization is one of them.
You know, there’s this paper that was published just a couple of years ago by one of my friends
that basically looked at the genetic makeup of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans in ancient
Greece and how they relate to modern Greeks. And they found that indeed there was very little gene
flow from, you know, the outside. And, you know, it’s fantastic to sort of think about these
amazing civilizations that transformed the way that human thought happens, that basically
looked for rules in nature, that looked for principles, that looked for the standard of beauty,
not human beauty, but beauty in the natural world. This whole concept that the world must
be elegant and there must be deeper ways of understanding that world. To me, that’s a massive
transformation of our species, similar to, you know, the earlier transformation that we’re talking
about of even involving a brain, of, you know, learning how to communicate language or the
evolution of eyesight. If you look at sort of, you know, we’re talking about these worms crawling
around and then sensing which direction are the chemicals more abundant, you know, chemotaxis. So
eventually they grow a nose. Eventually they grow, I mean, when I say nose, I mean, ways of sensing
chemicals. That’s probably one of the earliest senses. You know, we always talk about how deep
rooted it is in our brain. That’s one of the early senses. If you look at hearing, that’s a much later
sense. If you look at eyesight, that’s an intermediate sense where you’re basically sensing
where the light direction comes from. That’s probably something that life didn’t need until
it got, you know, into the surface and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of, you know, milestones.
And I was talking about the latest milestone, which is LIGO, last time of being able to detect
gravitational waves and sort of being able to sort of have a sense that humans haven’t had before.
So you see that as a yet another transformation. It gives us an extra little sense.
Of course. And now if you go back to this history of ancient Greece, I mean, this transformation
that happened, I mean, of course, the Egyptians had this incredible, you know, civilization for
thousands of years. But what happened in Greece was this whole concept of let’s break things down
and understand the natural world. Let’s break things down and understand physics. Let’s basically
build rules around architecture, about around elegance, around, you know, statues and tragedy.
I mean, another question that you asked me in passing was this whole concept of embracing the
good and the bad, embracing the full range of human emotions. And if you look at Greek tragedy,
it’s the definition of that. It’s, I mean, drama. I mean, again, it’s a Greek word,
but the whole concept of some problems that are just so vast and large that dying is the easy way
out. That death, oh, that’s the easy solution. You know, so I want to touch a little bit on that
point and sort of talk about this concept that life supersedes physics and that the brain supersedes
life. That basically we have a brain that can decide to not follow evolution’s path. We can
decide to not have children. We can decide to not eat. We can decide to suicide. We can decide to
sort of abolish communication with the outside world. I mean, all the things that make us human,
we can basically decide not to do that. And that is basically when the brain itself is basically
is basically superseding what evolution program is for. Okay. So one of the, it’s okay. My mind
was already blown at the beautiful formulation of the idea that life is a system that resists
physics and our brain, or perhaps the content of it, or however it may be functionally, our brain
is a thing that resists life. Yes. Yes. You’re, you’re so, you’re so brilliant.
But, but, but, but, but I want you to see all of that as continuum. Basically, you’re sort of
talking about the sort of individual transformations, but it’s a path that, that humanity has been
taking. It’s a transformation. It’s a path of transformation. And then I want us to think about
what it truly means to become human, like the F zine. And you asked me about what motivated
my meaning of life symposium. What motivated it in part, I mean, of course it was an inside joke
of turning 42, but what motivated it in part was actually a midlife crisis. So the joke that I
always like to say is Christos Papadimitriou, a famous Greek professor who was previously at
MIT, at Harvard, at Stanford, at Berkeley, everywhere. A brilliant, brilliant person. That’s
actually Costis’s advisor. So Christos Papadimitriou likes to say that when you’re an undergrad,
you work like a rat to get into grad school. And where you’re a grad student, you work like a rat
to get your PhD. And where you’re a postdoc, you work like a rat to get your assistant professor
position. And where you’re an assistant professor, you work like a rat to become a full professor.
And then when you’re a full professor, well, by then you’re basically a rat.
Oh, that’s brilliant.
So basically what happened to me is that I arrived at the end of the rat race.
You know, life is a rat race. You constantly have hurdles to jump over. You constantly have
tunnels and secret pathways. And I figured it all out. And eventually as I was turning 42,
I looked back and I was like, wow, that was an awesome rat race. But I’m not a rat.
I basically got out of the labyrinth and I was like, I’m not a rat, turns out.
Is that the first moment where you saw that you were in a rat race?
No, no, no. I’ve known that I’m in a rat race for a long time. It’s so easy to be in a rat race.
It’s so easy to be an undergrad. But you have problem sets. And you know, we’re all smart
people. You know, problem set, it has a solution. Somebody made it for you. You can just solve it.
Everything was made as a test. And you keep passing those tests and tests and tests and tests.
And you have tasks that are well defined. The PhD is a little different because it’s
more open ended, but yet you have an advisor who’s guiding you. And then you become a professor
and tenure is a well set defined set of tasks. And you do all that.
And at 42, I basically had bought a house, three kids, beautiful wife, tenure, awesome students,
tons of grants. Life was basically laid out for me. And that’s when I had my main life crisis.
That’s when people usually buy a Harley Davidson. And they basically say, I need something new. I
need something different and to be young myself, et cetera. But basically that was my realization
that it’s not a rat race, that there’s no rat race. It’s over. That I have to basically think,
how do I fully instantiate myself? How do I complete my transformation into an actual human
being? Because it’s very easy to sort of forget all the intangibles of life. It’s very hard to
just sort of think about the next task and the next task and it’s all metrics. And you know,
what is the number of viewers I have? What is the number of publications I have? What is the number
of citations, the number of talks, the number of grants? It’s very easy to quantify everything.
And then at some point you’re like, this is real life. It’s not a test anymore. And that’s something
that I told my wife early on. I was like, no, no, no, our life is not going to be let’s put the kids
through college. And that, you know, maybe that’s when I escaped the rat race. Maybe it continued
being a rat race. Maybe the next step would have been, all right, how do I make sure that my kid is
first in class? How do I make sure that they’re, you know, into the greatest college? And then,
you know, they’re into college. And then you’re like 60.
So how do you, how do you escape? What is the, is there a light at the end of the tunnel of a
midlife crisis? So, so you should watch that symposium because the videos were transformative
to me and to many others. So basically the advice that I received from all of my friends was so
meaningful. This, you know, there’s some, some advice that basically says you have to constantly
maintain unachievable goals. Goals that you can make progress towards, but you can never be fully
done with. And I think that’s almost playing into the sort of rat race thing. Like basically make
sure that there’s more obstacles for your little rat persona to jump through. So that’s one
possibility. So first of all, watch, is it available somewhere? It’s on YouTube, just Google,
Google meaning of life symposium. I should have known this. I mean, you should have told me this.
This is awesome. Okay. This is great. But, and also like, you know, saying rat race is, you know,
if we look at ratatouille, it’s not, I mean, that’s a beautiful, that’s a beautiful thing of,
of, of challenges and overcoming challenges. That could be fundamentally the meaning of life is,
to see life as a set of challenges and to fully engage in the overcoming of those challenges.
I would say that that’s embracing the rat race view of life. So, so a joke that we like to have
with my wife all the time is, we basically say, we, we, we pretend that we’re in this
all inclusive resort that we basically hired all these people to go on the Esplanade and play games
because we enjoy watching people playing on the Esplanade and we enjoy sort of laying and looking
at life and all the people biking and rollerblading and all of that. And then we’ve paid all these
people in this all inclusive resort that we live in. And then what are we going to do today? I’m
like, Oh, I’ve signed up for professor activities. It’s going to be awesome. They, they, they lined
up a bunch of super smart MIT students for me to meet with. I’m going to have a grant writing
meeting afterwards. It’s going to be awesome. And then she signed up for a bunch of consulting
activities. It’s going to be great. And then in the evening we just get back together and say,
Hey, how was your consulting today? So in a way, that’s another view of life of basically,
wait a minute. If I was a gazillionaire, what would I choose to do? I would probably pay an
awesome university to give me an office there and just pay a bunch of super smart people to work
with me, even though they don’t really want to, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In fact, I would
have exactly the life that I have now working my butt off every single day because it’s so freaking
fulfilling. So let’s clarify. It’s just a beautiful way. It’s almost like a video game view of life
that it’s a set of, I mean, again, game is not perhaps a positive term, but it’s a, it’s a,
it is a beautiful term. So do you, or do you not like the rat race view of life?
Because it is fulfilling in some fundamental way.
The rat race is about the goal. My view of life is about the path. So again, quoting Greece.
Those folks have come up with some good stuff.
So this Odysseus Elites basically wrote this beautiful poem about sort of going through life
saying, as you go through your journey, impersonating Ulysses of his voyage,
he says, wish that the path is long and arduous because when you get to Ithaca,
Ithaca, you might realize that it was all about the path, not the destination.
So the rat race view of life makes it all about the destination. It’s like,
how do I get through the maze to get there? But the all inclusive resort view of life
is about the path. It’s about, wow, today I couldn’t wish for a better set of activities
all programmed for me to enjoy having my brain, having my body, having my senses and, you know,
the life that I have. So it’s a very different kind of view. It’s focused on the journey,
not on the destination.
So you mentioned kind of the ups and downs of life and the midlife crisis.
And right now you said focusing kind of on the journey,
but what the journey involves is ups and downs. Is there advice or any kind of thoughts
that you can elucidate about the downs in your life, the hard parts of your life and
how you got out or maybe not, or is there, how do you see the dark parts of life?
So I’m so glad you’re asking this question because it’s something that our society does
a terrible job at preparing us for. Every Hollywood movie has to have a happy ending.
It is ridiculous. You can count on your 10 fingers the number of bad ending movies that
you’ve ever watched. And you probably wouldn’t need all 10 fingers. We strive to tell everyone,
yes, you can succeed. Yes, you’re a millionaire, just temporarily disabled. And yes, you know,
the prince will eventually figure out his princess and they will have a happily ever after ending.
And yes, the hero will be beaten and beaten and beaten, but you know that at the end of the movie,
the good guys will win. We need more movies where the bad guys win. We need more movies
where just everybody dies. Where just, you know, MacGyver doesn’t figure out how to disable the
bomb and just explodes. You just need more movies that are more realistic about the fact that life
kind of sucks sometimes and it’s okay. So again, growing up in Greece, I have been exposed to songs
that are not just sad, but they’re miserable. So one of them comes to mind and it’s basically
talking about this woman who’s lamenting in the early morning about losing the joyful kid,
the joyful young man who basically died in the civil war in the arms of our own fellow citizens.
And she’s like, if only he had died fighting the foreign forces, if only he had died at the,
you know, sides of the, you know, general, if only he had died with honor, I would be proud to have
lost the joyful kid. I mean, it’s devastating, right? It’s like, he didn’t just die. He died
without honor. And my friend who was with me was listening to the song and she’s like, this is
depressing. I’m like, whoa, you have to listen to another one. It’s not as sad. And she’s like, what,
this one died with honor? So that’s one example. It’s a kind of a celebration of misery. No, no,
no, no, no, no, no. So let me give you a couple more examples and then I’ll answer that question.
So another example is I picked up this book that I had from my childhood and I started reading
stories to my kids. And the first story is about these two children. One is really poor living on
the street and the other one is really rich, really living in the house in the bright light
above. And the poor one is wishing, looking at that window and wishing that he could have that
house. And the other one is at the window wishing that he was free, that he wasn’t sick all the time,
that he could escape outside. It’s only four pages long. And at the end, both children die.
One of them dies from cold, the other one dies from illness. And you’re like, how is that even
a children’s story? The next story, I’m like, okay, that’s fine. Let’s skip this one. So I read
this to my kids and then I read the next one. And the next one is about this woman whose brother is
at war against the Turks and he is going to die. And she prays to the Virgin, please don’t let him
die. And the Virgin appears and she’s like, no problem. Tell me who to kill instead. And she’s
like, anyone, anyone. No, no, no, no. Choose one. How about this Turk? This one has two kids,
a beautiful family waiting for him at home. She’s like, no, not this one, choose another one.
And then she goes through all the life stories of the others. She’s like, no, no, just don’t take
anyone. She’s like, I can’t do that. You can choose to bring your brother back. And he will be
depressed for the rest of his life because he didn’t fight at war, because he didn’t go to that
battle. And he will live without honor. And in the end, the woman decides to have her brother killed
instead because he dies with her. I mean, this is insane. So why am I giving you these examples?
It’s not a glorification of misery. It’s expanding your emotional range. It’s teaching you that,
and when I read these stories, I’m not a jerk. I’m crying out loud. I have tears. And my face
becomes red from the pain that I’m experiencing through these stories. It’s just so deeply
touching to embrace the suffering, not because of an accident, but because of a choice, the sacrifice
to embrace the fact that not everything is cute and rosy and always ending well. And I think that
we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our kids that just life sucks and life is unfair sometimes.
And that’s okay. And sometimes I read a story to my kids. I read a story every night. And sometimes
the story is horrible. And sometimes the story is good and sort of friendly and happy. And my kids
always ask, what’s the moral of the story? And sometimes there’s a moral and it’s like, oh,
you should be good or you should be nice. You should be helping each other, et cetera. And
sometimes there’s just no moral. And I tell my kids, you know what? Sometimes just life doesn’t
make sense and it’s okay. And you can’t comprehend everything. And I think this concept of how do you
deal with the bad days comes from the fact that we’re taught, we’re brainwashed into thinking that
every day should be a happy day. And we’re not ready to cope with misery. And the other thing
that crying through these stories teaches you is that you don’t have it nearly half as bad as you
think. Do you see what I mean? Basically, it tells you that, I mean, my mom would always tell me about
how she was transformed as a teenager when she volunteered in the hospital. And she saw all these
people at the brink of death, clinging for life and helping them out to best she could and crying
her heart out when they were dying. And sort of how that taught her the appreciation for what we
have every day. Waking up every morning and saying, my life doesn’t suck. My life is not nearly half
as bad as it could be. And sort of embracing the joy that we have of living where we live in the
moment we live. And I’m going to go further. If you look at the arc of human life, human existence
through the centuries, there’s no better way to be alive than now. I mean, we’re complaining about
every single little thing. But life expectancy is at an all time high. Sickness, all time low.
Pornness, misery, all time low. There’s no better time to be alive globally across all of human
existence. Number one. Number two, here in Boston, there’s no better place to be alive.
If you think about the amalgamation of science, engineering, technology, the ridiculously awesome
people you’re bringing every week to your podcast. I mean, this is the ancient Greece of modern
society. But the weather still sucks. No, let me put it this way. The weather gives us a range
of emotion. The full range. The full scenic range. That’s such a fascinating thing about human
psychology. I often reread this book. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. It’s Man’s Search
for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. And he talks about his living through the Holocaust and the
concentration camps. And even there where there’s human misery is at its highest, even there he
discovers these moments by observing the suffering, by accepting the suffering. He observes moments
of true joy of how great his life is relative to others at the camp who have it worse.
Yeah. So it’s a dangerous slippery slope to think that way because it’s basically being better than
Jones’s. And if, you know, if the house next door has a giant car, then you want to get a bigger
car or something like that. It’s not comparative misery. I think the way that I see it is slightly
different. It’s, and it’s not even thinking about all the worst possible outcomes that could have
happened, but didn’t. The example, as you were talking about the concentration camps, the most
horrible, I mean, one of the most horrible moments of human existence, is that the concentration
camps, I was thinking about pictures that I was seeing of kids in Syria in war torn zones. And
you’re looking at these kids. And again, I cried out loud, imagining my own son in the van after a
bomb explosion, watching his father die or his siblings die or losing his friends. It’s something
that we are not capable of fathoming. But if you actually put a seven year old in that situation,
the look that I saw in these kids eyes basically said, it is what it is. It was, and I’ve
experienced that with my own kid when he gets, like my three year old last, like two years ago,
who’s now my five year old, she was burned really badly with like hot chocolate and coffee that just
peeled off her skin. So you could actually see just her fragile skin had just peeled off.
And she was the happiest little kid. She was just going along with the punches.
It is what it is. She accepted it.
So it’s quite dramatic to sort of realize that children don’t say, oh, I could have it better.
They sort of embrace the moment, not embrace, but sort of accept the moment. And then
they can have moments of pure joy in a horrendous war torn country. And like so many people from
these war torn countries basically say, oh, you think you Americans are going to just come and
just send us a bunch of aid and food, et cetera? Yeah, sure. That’s helpful. But what do we dream
of? What do we struggle for? We struggle for love. We struggle for meaning. We struggle for,
you know, emotions and friendships. We struggle for the same things you guys struggle for.
We’re not just like every day waking up and saying, oh, I wish I had more food.
No, that’s just the given. I just don’t have enough food. But what we struggle with
are basically everything else. And that sort of gives you some perspective on life. It basically
says, you know, and another story that my mom told me when I was a kid is this story about sort of
this man who’s basically, you know, he sees the Christ appear in front of him and he says,
oh, Christ, I’m carrying all these problems. I’m carrying this big bag. Can you please take it from
me? And he’s like, sure. Let me just give you any other bag. And of course the person in Vienna
accepts his own bag. So acceptance, ultimately the path you recommend is acceptance. Every single
other bag is probably worse. It’s the evil you don’t know versus the evil you know. Like we all
struggle with our own problems. But if you look at the bigger picture, it’s just your path through
life. And if you embrace it, the good and the bad, every single day, it’s just joy, elation,
sadness, misery. If you don’t have both, you’re not a complete human being. You know, you can’t,
I mean, the last example I’m going to give is the movie Inside Out by Pixar. Beautiful movie.
Which one is that?
The one with the little characters controlling highly trained. So you basically have joy and
sadness and fear and disgust, et cetera. And the moral of the story, if you remember the movie,
the moral of the story is that in the end, joy is basically trying to fix everything,
to make everything happy. And she’s failing miserably and everything else is like crumbling
and falling apart. And the little girl basically becomes emotionless because all she knows how to
do is fake happiness. And I think it’s a very good analogy for our everyday society where we’re always
saying, are you happy? Are you happy? My mom calls me and she’s like, Manolis, are you happy? I’m
like, mom, stop asking this stupid question. No, I’m not happy. What you should be asking is if
I’m fulfilled. And that’s a very different thing. I don’t go around being happy.
I would love it if your mom called and said, Manolis, are you suffering beautifully or something
like that? That’s exactly right. That’s what she should be asking. Are you struggling to achieve
something great? That’s the question that mom should be asking. Hear that mom call me about
the suffering, not about how good are you doing? So what I tell her is that life is not about
maximizing happiness. Life is about accomplishing something meaningful. And accomplishing that
meaningful thing cannot come from a series of joyful moments. It comes from a series of struggles,
of successes and failures, of people being nasty to you and people being nice to you and embracing
the full thing. And if you supersede that constant need for gratification, if you supersede that
constant need for kindness, you suddenly know who you are. And what I like to say to my kid,
my son the other day was telling me, oh, so and so called me such and such. And I’m like,
are you such and such? He’s like, no. I’m like, ha ha, see, they were wrong. And what I tell him
is if you know who you are, what other people say about you only teaches you about them.
So it has no influence on your self esteem. If you know where you stand, you embrace the good,
but you also embrace the bad. I have plenty of bad and I’m embracing it. I’m a procrastinator.
I’m a procrastinator. How do I deal with that? I trick myself into procrastinating about mindless,
stupid little day to day things. And in that procrastination time doing important things
for the future. So accepting who you are, accepting your flaws, accepting the whole of it,
accepting the struggle, accepting the sleeplessness, accepting the fact that the journey
matters, hoping that your path to Ithaka is full of troubles because those troubles are the life
you will lead. Accepting that life will not start after the next milestone, that life has already
started a long time ago. And what you’re experiencing now is the life. This is it.
It’s not some kind of future thing that you work yourself hard to get to. And then after that,
you live happily ever after. To me, the happily ever after, that’s the end of the story. Nothing
happens after that. The struggle and the struggle and the struggle is much more interesting story
than they lived happily ever after. So I think we have to embrace that as a society that it’s
not just about the happy ending, that our kids are brainwashed into expecting that things will
be happy and rosy and it’s okay if they’re not. And they should keep struggling because the
struggle is the journey and the journey is the meaning of life. It’s not the end, it’s this
journey. What about accepting one of the harder things? We talked a little bit about immortality.
What about accepting that life ends? So do you, Manolis, think about your own mortality?
How, we talked about accepting that there’s ups and downs to life. What about the ultimate down,
which is the finality of it? Do you think about that? Do you fear it?
You also asked me if I’m afraid of getting older.
And that’s on the path to mortality. So let me talk about that first step and then the last step.
The last step.
Literally the last step. So getting older, what does that mean? When I was 18, when I was 20,
my brain, I felt was at my maximum. I was like, nothing is impossible. I can solve anything.
I could take any math puzzle, any logic puzzle, any programming puzzle and just solve it in
milliseconds. I just saw the answer through problems. I was like feeling invincible.
I would show up at lecture with my newspaper, lift up my head every now and then, point to errors,
just brat, complete brat. I would raise my hand and correct my professor from the whole classroom.
Total brat. I have some of those in my class now and it’s awesome. It’s like very…
I used to be you.
It teaches you humility.
So I felt invincible and I was like, this is it. This is awesome. I’m living the life.
10 years later, my brain didn’t work the same way. I wasn’t as good at the tiny little puzzles,
but it worked in different ways. And right now, 20 years later, it works in yet different ways.
And oh gosh, I love the journey.
Can you maybe give some hints of the interesting different ways that your brain works as it aged?
Yeah. I went from the phase of sheer speed and hardcore quantitative thinking to sort of stepping
back, being able to sort of make more connections, being able to sort of say, yeah, but let’s use
that thing. Sort of a huge new creativity being unleashed. Basically, when you’re young, you’re
sort of thinking about that one problem. You can sort of reconfigure all the variables
combinatorially in your head and just wipe it all out. When you’re just a little older,
you start getting more creative. You start bringing in things from different fields and different
contexts and sort of stepping outside the box. Basically, it’s like being in the rat race and
saying, there’s a ceiling. Why are we trying to get through that? So it’s sort of thinking outside
the box. And then at 40, what I’m going through now is this whole sort of embracing the path of
life. And when I say life has started already, it’s not a test anymore. This is basically
embracing the finality. Embracing that the journey is what it’s at. So what I like to say is live
every day as if it’s your last one and make plans as if you’ll never die. I always have the long term
that I’m sort of planning out for that will eventually become the short term. And I always have
the sort of short term. And I think this ability to sort of look at life in the past and look at
life in the future jointly and sort of embrace the continuity both of life in the universe and
on our planet, as well as life as a human being from the beginning to the end, just as a path,
as a journey, and just embracing every aspect of that. I mean, I was talking about parenthood the
other day and how amazingly fulfilling it is to sort of relive childhood through the eyes of my
kid, but with the perspective of a parent. So the sheer arrogance of youth watching this in my kid,
I can see myself when I was 18 correcting my professor. I felt so proud. Little did I know that
my professor was working on so much more interesting things than the three little
things he was putting on the board that day. And I was like, I’m invincible. But in fact, no,
just a little brat. And basically right now, I sort of can see the sort of journey with a little
more humility. I can sort of look at my own students with their unbelievable abilities,
being able to do things that I’m no longer able to do better than I probably was ever able to do.
But yet being able to guide them and shape their thinking and blow their minds with new ideas and
new directions through my perspective. And I know when something is solvable because I’ve been there,
but I’m not going to even bother. It’s not that I can’t do it. I’m sure I could if I tried,
but just I’m not interested in that anymore. So what I’m embracing this journey of aging
is how my brain is changing and how I’m constantly trying to figure out the niches,
the evolutionary niches that I’m best adapted for, for the tasks that I’m best at,
while hiring and recruiting both assistants and research scientists and students and postdocs,
and that will be the best at those tasks. But someone still has to see the big picture.
And I love being in that role. So at the timescale of a human lifespan,
you’re doing the same thing that the worm did at the evolutionary timescale of Growing Arms,
the specialization, the carp compartmentalization. I mean, it’s fascinating to think of what
80 year old Manolis would look back at the man that’s sitting here today
and laugh at the silliness, at the arrogance.
He finally figured out something.
I was like, no little thing. You didn’t figure out anything.
I mean, ultimately, it seems that if you’re introspective about life, it leads to a kind
of acceptance, a deeper and deeper acceptance of the whole of it.
Again, I want to be cautious about acceptance because it almost says that you can’t change it.
It’s sort of embracing the struggle and embracing the journey is the way that I would put it.
So you ultimately feel the journey isn’t just something that happens to you.
You shape it. You shape it. Remember how I was saying that Boston is the best place and the
best time to live in right now, in the history of humanity? I’m exaggerating a little bit.
But the way that I think about this is that if you look at the whole of cosmos,
where would you rather be if you’re just a bunch of molecules, roughly your biomass?
Where would you rather be? Would you rather be a rock on Mars?
Yeah, probably not. Would you rather be in a black hole? Probably not.
Would you rather be in an exploding supernova? Maybe that might be interesting.
But being on Earth is an awesome solar system, an awesome planetary system, an awesome,
you know, place to be in across all of space time.
It’s a pretty good place to be in as a bunch of molecules.
If you are a bunch of molecules on Earth today, being an animal with, you know, some kind of
awareness of the stuff around you is wonderful. Being a human among all animals is amazing
because you have all this introspection. And being a human who’s young, fit, athletic,
smart, et cetera, I mean, you know, you have so much to be happy for.
Beyond that, being surrounded by a bunch of awesome people that you interact with all the time.
I mean, I feel blessed to interact with the people I know, with the friends I have,
the dinners that I have, all of this. Students that I interact with, I’m so blessed.
And the last little blip in this awesomeness of local maximum, the last little blip comes from
being kind, being grateful, and being kind. I don’t know if you remember that little prayer
that I described last time of, thank you for all the good you’ve given me and give me strength
to give unto others with the same love that you’ve given to me. And the whole point of that is being
grateful and being kind. What does that do? From a purely egoistic perspective, it makes the people
around you happier. And it takes that little maximum a little bit further.
Because you’ll be surrounded by happy people, by being kind. That’s the purely egoistic view.
And the purely altruistic view, or maybe it’s egoistic as well, is that it’s just good to give.
It feels good to give. Like basically watching somebody who’s touched by what you said, watching
somebody who’s like appreciating a rapid response or a generous offer or just random acts of kindness.
It is so fulfilling. So evolutionarily, we were selected for that. There’s just such a good feeling
that comes from that. You know, it’s fascinating to think you said Boston is the best place,
and talking about kindness, that the very thought that Boston is the best place in the universe
is almost, it’s a kind of a gravitational field. Your thought and your very life in itself is a
kind of field that makes that real. Yeah, the self fulfilling prophecy. Yeah. By claiming it’s the
best and thinking it’s the best, it becomes the best. And you make others, it’s not a force that
just applies to your own cognition. It applies to the others around you. And then suddenly you live
in an even better place. Yeah. And it creates the reality, the actual reality, the social reality,
then it molds the environment. Exactly. One of the coolest things about you, I think, is you represent
the best of MIT, the spirit of MIT. I’m so glad that I’m fortunate enough to be able to talk to
you, because there’s a kind of cynicism about academia in parts that I think is undeserved,
and that there’s this, MIT, of course, but academic institutions is a sacred place where
ideas can flourish. And just in the same very way that you’re talking about is both kindness
and curiosity and that weird thing that happens when a bunch of curious descendants of apes get
together and just get excited in this ripple effect that happens. I mean, that’s the most
beautiful aspect of MIT. People might think competition and grants and position, like you
said, the rat race, but underneath it all is these curious human beings inspiring younger human
beings. And there’s this ripple effect that happens. And I’m so glad that, I mean, I’m glad that I get
a chance to record this because it inspires so many other students and so many other people to
do the same, to embrace the inner curious creature that it’s not about the race. So let’s talk about
the negatives. Let’s talk about, no, no, no, I’m serious. I’m serious. You have to embrace the good
and the bad. So let’s talk about the negative. Let’s address it. So why do people want positions
of power? Why do people want more money, more power, more this, more that? Remember the part
where I was saying, if you know who you are, what other people think about you, it makes no
difference to you. It only teaches you about them. Many people feel defunct about what they’re doing
and define themselves. They feel instantiated through the eyes of others. So being in a position
of power makes them feel better about themselves. Who knows what other kind of struggles they might
have that creates that need to feel better about themselves. But they have a bunch of struggles and
everybody has a bunch of struggles. And every time I see somebody behaving poorly, I’m basically
thinking, well, they’re in a tough spot right now. And it’s okay. I can kind of see how I would
behave badly in other circumstances as well. So I think if you take away that sort of having to
prove yourself in the eyes of others, life becomes so much easier. So when I first became a professor
at MIT, I started wearing adult clothes. It became a serious person, quote, unquote.
I basically had, I would always go around in my rollerblades and my shorts and a t shirt,
and eventually I was a professional. I bought all these khaki pants and these nice
shirts with, what do they call it, the patterns. And I was dressing with my nice belt every day,
showing up. And then a few months later, I was like, I can’t stand it. And I just went back to
my rollerblades and my t shirts and my shorts. And it was this struggle of sort of not feeling that
I fit in. I was so intimidated by all of my colleagues, just watching their incredible
achievements. The person’s next to me and the person on the floor below me, I was like, oh my
God, they clearly made a mistake. What the heck am I doing here? How will I ever live up to these
people’s standards? And eventually you grow up to realize that the way that I grew up to realize
that the way that other people perceived my work was very similar to the way that I perceived
other people’s work as flawless. I knew all of the flaws in my work. I knew the limitations. I knew
what I hadn’t managed to achieve. And what I saw was maybe a third of the way of what I was trying
to achieve. And I saw everything as flawed. What they saw, what I had achieved, they didn’t see
what I hadn’t achieved. They only saw the one third down, which was pretty good in their eyes.
So they all respected me and I was feeling miserable about myself. I was like, I’m not worthy.
And I think that this is a cognitive problem that we have. We kind of, it’s kind of like when we’re
talking about artificial general intelligence, AGI, of sort of, we kind of have this definition
that anything that machines can do is not intelligent and anything that they can’t do
is intelligent. Therefore, we narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow the field of what intelligence
truly means. And as soon as machines achieve self, I mean, it’s not intelligent anymore.
I feel like I was doing the same thing with myself. As soon as I could solve something,
it was the kind of thing that a kid like me could solve. And therefore it was kind of easy.
But to the others, it seemed hard. But to me, it seemed easy. So it was this kind of thing that
everything that my colleagues were doing seemed impossible to me. But everything that I was doing
seemed impossible to them. So it was that realization that sort of made me mature into
sort of a, not more confident, but more comfortable human being.
Can you actually linger on that a little bit? I mean, you mentioned Minsky. I remember he said
something in an interview where he said the secret to his, like the way he approached life was
to never be happy with anything he did. So there’s something powerful as a motivator
to doing exactly what you’re saying, which is everything you’ve achieved to see that as easy
and unimpressive. What do you do with that? Because clearly that’s a useful thing.
I think I’ve kind of matured past that. And I think the maturity past that is to sort of accept
what it is and accept that it has helped others build onto it and therefore advance human knowledge.
So it’s very easy to sort of fall into the trap of, oh, everything I’ve done is crap.
What I told you last time is that I always tell my students that our best work is ahead of us.
And I think that’s more of my mindset. That’s a beautiful way to put it.
Exactly. What we’ve done is strong. It’s great. It’s great for the time. And it’ll become obsolete
in 30 years. Not we can, we are doing even better. Exactly. So basically our next work
will just strive. And again, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
At some point you have to wrap. I was having a meeting with my student yesterday and it was like,
listen, we know this is not perfect, but it’s way better than anything that’s ever been done before.
You know how to improve it. But if you try to, your paper is never going to get published.
So there’s this balance of we’re already at the top of the field, get it out. And then you work
on the next improvement. And in my experience, this has never happened. We’ve never actually
worked on the next improvement. And that’s okay. It didn’t make a difference because you’re
basically putting a new stepping stone that others will be able to step on and surpass you.
My advisor in grad school would basically tell me, Manolis, let others write the second paper
in that field. Just write the first one, move on, move on to the next field. You don’t want to be
writing the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth paper in the same field. Just,
it’s very shocking to a student to hear that. Cause I was like, I was at the top of my game.
I was owning that field. I was doing it. I was doing it. I was doing it. I was doing it.
Owning that field. And I published the first paper. I’m like, I’m ready for two and three
and four. He’s like, move on. Just let it be. And I was like, Whoa. And it’s so liberating
to sort of not have to surpass everyone, but just put your little stepping stone out there
and others will step on it and put their own stones further and eventually cross a bigger
river than if you try to sort of make a giant leap all at once. So you need both.
SL. Beautifully put. So the funny thing is I’ve, I believe I closed the previous episode
with a Darwin quote about the power of poetry and music and life.
SL. I think your quote, and again, I only heard it once, was Darwin basically saying,
if I were to live life again, next time I would read more poetry and something about art every
week or something like that. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so interesting for somebody who studied life
at a very cold, I would say, genetic level to say that, yeah, the highest form of living
is the art. But like on that, which made me realize that you write poetry and I
forced you or maybe convinced you somehow to maybe share if it’s possible, if it’s okay,
some of the poetry you’ve written yourself in your life.
SL. So again, being Greek, a lot of my poems have been pretty miserable.
And I always like to say that it’s very hard for me to write a poem when I’m happy.
And I just have to be in a state of deep despair in order to write poems. But the first poem I ever
wrote was in English class. I was, I’m Greek, I grew up in Greece, but I was in a French high
school and I was taking English as a foreign language. So the English teacher basically
asked us to write a poem in English. So this is basically what I’m going to embarrass myself and
read from my 16 year old self many, many years ago.
SL. Can you give a little bit more context about who you were in this moment? So like just…
SL. So here’s what’s really interesting. In terms of growing up, how do we grow up?
SL. It’s very difficult to grow up if you’re in the same school, going from one class to the other,
and all your friends know you inside out. It’s very difficult to change. It’s very difficult to
grow up because they have a certain set of expectations for who you are and for how you’re
going to behave. So in many ways we kind of tend to get set in our ways and not change very much.
I think something that helped me grow up is that when I was 11 years old, I was a
kid in Greece in primary school. When I was 12 years old, I was a kid in Greece in a first year
of high school. When I was 13, I was in France, so basically moved countries and schools. The next
year, I moved schools again because it was a transition in the French educational system
from one school to the next. The next year after that, my family moved to New York in a French high
school there, and the next year after that, I’m moving to MIT. So basically between 11 and 19,
every single year, I actually had the opportunity to grow. I was not held by people who knew me,
and I could reinvent myself or reshape myself or reshape my personality, my emotions, as I was
growing up, especially in such a transformative time of a kid’s life from 11 to 17. I was
11 to 17. Okay, first of all, it’s so powerful that you think of it that way. Did you think of
it that way at the moment? Because it’s kind of a source. You said an opportunity to grow,
but it’s kind of suffering. I mean, you’re being torn away from the thing you know into a thing
you don’t know. So when we moved from South France to New York, I was pissed. I was pissed. I was
taking these long bike rides in the countryside, jumping in French swimming pools, and I had all
these wonderful friendships, going downtown and just staying by the fountains in the dim lit
streets of Aix en Provence in the South of France. It was magical. And suddenly, I moved to New York
City, a city of cement, of ugliness, like trash in the streets at every corner. It’s horrible.
Snow everywhere. Having never seen snow or like real snow in my life, I moved from Athens to South
France to suddenly New York. So I was pissed. But whether I saw it as an opportunity for growth,
I don’t think so. I don’t think that I was that self reflective. It was just how it happened.
Only now do you see it this way.
I saw it like that probably pretty early on, but not during those transitions. So basically,
during those transitions, I was just a kid being a kid. And maybe the time that I started seeing it
that way was maybe when I decided to stay at MIT as a professor after having been there as a student.
And I kind of saw the struggle of getting professors to not see you as a kid when they’re
your peers. And I was very flattered when one of my friends basically told me, oh, I remember you
in recitation when you first asked me a question. I said, wow, this kid. I’ll pay attention.
One day I’ll be a peer.
So it’s, you know, certainly my perception was that many of them could not see me as anything
but a kid. But it turns out that some of them saw me as something different than a kid even
before I was actually their colleague. So it’s kind of an interesting place because
what I like to say about MIT is that people treat you as equal no matter what stage.
And they respect you for what you say, not for who you are when you’re saying it.
And if I’m wrong, my students will tell me. They will have no reservation to just be bluntly,
you know, sorry. I don’t agree with that.
Yeah. I mean, the beautiful thing about you, sorry to put it this way, is, you know,
maybe people who weren’t familiar with your work beforehand might think, like,
might not realize that you’re a world class scientist who leads a large group and so on.
Because there’s a youthful nature to you that it’s, I mean, you talk like a first,
like an undergrad, you know, with the excitement and the fresh eyes and the sort of excitement
about the world. And that’s, first of all, super contagious and beautiful. You know,
it’s easy to sort of fall into behaving seriously because then people kind of start putting
you on a pedestal more into a position of power. You want to sort of act like you’re
in a position of power as opposed to allowing yourself to be lost in the just the curiosity,
the childish view of the world, which is just this open eyed love of knowledge.
And that was the transition that I was describing when I decided to go back to my rollerblades
and t shirt and baseball cap. Basically, you know, when I met my first postdoc,
it was basically, you know, he was interviewing for postdocs at MIT. He already had several
first author papers to his name in top journals. And my friend Yulia basically introduced me to
Alex Stark, who basically was interviewing at the time with Rick Young and with Eric Lander,
just like these massive names in the field. And I was just a first year faculty person with,
you know, zero credibility. And she basically says, Oh, there’s this friend of mine, Alex,
who’s visiting. He’s also German. You know, he wanted to meet you. I’m like, Oh, sounds great.
I’d love to talk science. I show up. We sit at the amphitheater in Stata. You know, I basically
arrive in my rollerblades, you know, jump a few steps, sit down wearing my blades. We’re having
this awesome conversation about science and about gene regulation and how the whole thing works and
sort of, you know, my perspective and his perspective. We’re just bouncing ideas for 30
minutes. And then I just dash off to my next meeting. And he basically emails me afterwards.
And I was giving him advice about how to interview with Eric Lander, how to interview with Rick Young
and how to sort of get a position with them. And then after a while, he emails me saying,
I would love to become a postdoc in your group. I’m like, what are you kidding me?
Like, so, so he basically didn’t care that I wear rollerblades and T shirt. All he cared
about was my ideas and sort of embracing the me with the childhood excitement about science
was basically what attracted him. It wasn’t the, wow, this guy runs a big lab or this and that.
He was just like, I like his ideas. I want to work with him. That, by the way, folks is the best of
MIT. That’s what MIT stands for. So that’s a beautiful story. But take me back to the poem
and where did this poem come from? Where’s your mindset? So who is the 17, 16 year old kid Manolis?
So again, I’ve just seen snow for the first time and I’m in New York. So I’m, you know,
maybe that’s where the sadness in the poem comes from. But anyway, we’re asked in class to write
an assignment. This is my third language. I’m not very good at it. So pardon me, but here’s what I
wrote. Children dance now all in row, children laughing at the snow. But in time’s endless flow,
children sooner or later grow. Men are mortal. We go by. If we know it, we may cry. But I thought
a love so sweet was immortal, was so deep. There I told you, darling sweet, that forever love would
keep. Blossomed spring and summer shined. Then blue autumn, winter died. One year passed, but the
clouds still remember all our vows. Never faked and never lied. All we did was stare and smile.
All alone, sitting down, to the snow we made our vow. But you told me you were right. Birds who
love are birds who cry. Now with laughter children play, yet the sky is so gray. Even if the snow
seems bright, without you have lost their light. Sun that sang and moon that smiled, all the stars
have ceased to shine. All of nature drew its grace, found its light within your face. Now you’re gone
and won’t return. Let the snow in my heart burn. There’s a Greek in there. That’s beautiful. That’s
beautiful, by the way. And the rhyming, the musicality, there’s both a simplicity and a
musicality to it. I’m 16. It’s my third language. No, no, no. So I really enjoy like Robert Frost
poems. I don’t mean simplicity in a bad way, in a negative way at all. Again, it’s very weird to
analyze your own poem, but I think it captures the simplicity of youth and the way that it kind of
starts with Children Dance Like Only Low. It basically, and it kind of shows that snow can be
interpreted first in the first verse as a happy thing, ta da da da da snow. And then in the end,
you know, now with laughter children play, I’m like, now I’ve grown basically. It’s this
transformation that we’re actually talking about, this whole men are mortal, we go by.
I’m sort of, you know, you’re saying, are you comfortable with growing old? I’m like,
duh. I was, I was since I was 16. And what’s really interesting is that, you know, again,
when I was 12 years old in our summer house in Greece, I remember sort of telling my sister
my outlook that I would have as a father for how to bring up my own kids. So it’s very weird that
I’ve always sort of seen the full path from, you know, a kid. From when you were young. Yeah. I
don’t know if you like this Joni Mitchell song. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down and still somehow it snows illusions I recall. It’s clouds illusions I
recall. I really don’t know clouds at all. So it’s really beautiful. So I think the Joni Mitchell
song, which again, I heard for the first time much, much after this, and I wouldn’t even compare
this to that. But what Joni Mitchell is saying that song is that you can see life from two
perspectives. You can see the good or the bad in both, you know, in everything you see. And I think
that’s the allegory of snow right now. You can see snow as this bright, white, wonderful thing,
or you can see snow as this miserable, you know, gray thing. So that’s sort of, and what I like
about the last verse now with laughter children play is that it’s a recall to the first one
where I was the kid enjoying careless life, and eventually was making promises that something
would be forever. And I think part of that is also the loss of my friendships in France,
of being in New York now and sort of everything’s gray. And, you know, even though the snow seems
bright, without you have lost their light, sun that sang and moon that smiled. So it’s this
concept that if you lose your love, the same thing can be perceived in a very different way.
Let me ask you this, because somebody wrote me this long email,
and I think you’re the perfect person to ask this. You mentioned love.
From a genetic perspective, what is it? What do you make of love? Why do we humans fall in love?
In your own life, why did you fall in love? You know, the email that was written to me was,
you always talk about mortality and fear of mortality, but you don’t ask about love. So I
don’t know if there’s some thoughts you could give about the role of love in your own life,
or the role of love in human life in general. I think love in many ways defines my life.
It’s basically, I like to say that I’m a human first and a professor second. And I think this
passion for life, this passion for, you know, everything around us. I mean, the only way to
describe that is love. It’s basically, you know, embracing your, you know, emotional self,
embracing the, you know, the non brainiac in you, embracing the sort of intangible, the
not very well defined. And even in my own research, I’m just very passionate about
everything I do. You know, there’s a certain passion that comes through. And what, I’m sorry,
again, being Greek, the etymology of the word passion. What was passion? Passion is suffering.
The etymology, when we talk about the passion of the Christ, it’s a suffering.
And in the Greek version of that word, pathos, like pathology, pathos is deep suffering. It’s
the concept of someone who’s sympathetic. Sympathetic means suffering together,
experiencing emotions together. So it’s funny that you ask me about love and I respond with passion,
passion for life, passion for research, passion for my family, for my children, for, you know.
So there’s a certain passion that defines me and everything else follows rather than the other way
around. I’m not first thinking with my brain, what is the most impactful paper we could write? And
then going after that, I’m thinking with my heart, what am I passionate about? What drives me? What
just like, you know, makes me take. And that’s a beautiful way to live, but I love it how the Greek
part of you just kind of connects it to the suffering. So if you could remove the suffering.
No, no, no, no, no, no. When I say suffering, I don’t mean suffering as in being miserable. I mean
suffering as in being emotionally invested in something. Remember, I mean, again, if you look
at this poem, what is it saying? It’s saying birds who love are birds who cry. Right? That’s the very
definition of love. Exposing your fragility. If you’re not afraid of suffering, you don’t fall
in love. As soon as you hold back, you protect, you shield your heart, no love can enter. So there’s
this Simon and Garfunkel song. I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island
never cries. So again, there’s some aspect of that into this poem. The fact that, you know,
but you told me, you know, there I told you, darling sweet, that forever love would keep,
is this intermediate thing. And then there’s a recall, but you told me you were right. Birds
who love are birds who cry. So it basically says that love is the fragility that you’re
willing to give to another person. It’s opening up your vulnerable spots. It’s sort of accepting
that there’s no safety net. You’re just giving yourself fully and you’re ready to be hurt.
So you’ve already been way too kind with your time, but I’m going to force you to stay here
just a few minutes longer as we’re talking about goodbyes. You have a really nice other poem here
about goodbyes. Can I force you to read it as well? Oh, twist my arm, twist my arm. So the next
poem was written specifically for our high school yearbook. So another poem written on demand,
the rest of them are just so miserable, written by pure, you know, sadness and melancholy.
But this one was also written on demand and it was basically saying goodbye, as is appropriate
right now, to my friends and sort of, again, reflecting this whole journey and transformation
through life. And also I think showing a little bit of introspection about how we kind of had it
easy in high school and we’re about to go into rougher waters. So the title is actually The Tide
Waters and it’s an analogy on that. So here it goes. All this was another lake, where some rest
we sailors take, waters calm and full of fish, we’ll find there what we wish, some seek fruit
and others feast, some of us just look for peace, some find fresh ships, other love, some seek both
and neither have. We were different when we came, each his own story and fame, different people had
we been, different cultures had we seen, different nature, different face, each unlike all in this
place. We had faced success, defeat, then in one lake came to meet. There, the orders that we
followed and the pride that we swallowed, made us one but not the same, joined us strangers who
there came. Sooner later, groups were made, tribes where differences will fade, some attached more
or less, others fought and made a mess. But again we have to go, what for, where to, we don’t know,
still we know it, we will try, there to rush, to flee, to fly. There’ll be some who wish to stay
but they’ll carry on away, we’ll continue on our journey as we came here, strong yet lonely.
From the lake a river flows, from the river many goals, on that river we will race, each will try
to find his pace, in that scene the sailors face, their first fear, defeat, disgrace,
defeat, disgrace, here and there comes out a face that the waters soon embrace. Some get lucky,
find their way, others sink beneath the waves, in this race we will part, some will settle near the
start, some set goals beyond the stars because the river carries far. You should know in what we’ve
done, the hard part is still to come. So I’ll have to say goodbye, don’t you worry, I won’t cry,
neither will they those who try, till the end, to keep their pride. But please know dearest friends
who are always there to mend, I will always need your hand, I will miss you till the end.
I don’t think there’s a better way to end it. Manolis, like I said last time, you’re one of
the most special people at MIT, one of the most special people in Boston, and whatever mental
force field that you’re applying in saying that Boston is the best city in the world,
MIT the best university in the world, you’re actually making it happen. So thank you so much
for talking to us, huge honor. Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for listening to
this conversation with Manolis Kellis, and thank you to our sponsors, Public Goods, Magic Spoon,
and ExpressVPN. Please check out these sponsors in the description to get a discount and to
support this podcast. If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube, review it with 5 Stars
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at Lex Friedman. And now, let me leave you with some words from another well known Greek,
Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great.
There is nothing impossible to him who will try. Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.