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Giles Brindley – The Ratio Club

Ratio Club

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Grey Walter and the Ratio Club by Margaret Boden (The Rutherford Journal

The British physiologist William Grey Walter (1910–1977) was an early member of the interdisciplinary Ratio Club. This was a small dining club that met several times a year from 1949 to 1955, with a nostalgic final meeting in 1958, at London’s National Hospital for Neurological Diseases. The founder-secretary was the neurosurgeon John Bates, who had worked (alongside the psychologist Kenneth Craik) on servomechanisms for gun turrets during the war.

The club was a pioneering source of ideas in what Norbert Wiener had recently dubbed ‘cybernetics’ Indeed, Bates’ archive shows that the letter inviting membership spoke of ‘people who had Wiener’s ideas before Wiener’s book appeared’.2 In fact, its founders had considered calling it the Craik Club, in memory of Craik’s work—not least, his stress on ‘synthetic’ models of psychological theories.3 In short, the club was the nucleus of a thriving British tradition of cybernetics, started independently of the transatlantic version.

The Ratio members—about twenty at any given time—were a very carefully chosen group. Several of them had been involved in wartime signals research or intelligence work at Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing had used primitive computers to decipher the Nazis’ Enigma code.4 They were drawn from a wide range of disciplines: clinical psychiatry and neurology, physiology, neuroanatomy, mathematics/statistics, physics, astrophysics, and the new areas of control engineering and computer science.5

The aim was to discuss novel ideas: their own, and those of guests—such as Warren McCulloch. Indeed, McCulloch—the prime author, a few years earlier, of what became the seminal paper in cognitive science (McCulloch and Pitts 1943)—was their very first speaker in December 1949. (Bates and Donald MacKay, who’d hatched the idea of the club on a shared train journey after visiting Grey Walter, knew that McCulloch was due to visit England and timed the first meeting accordingly.) Turing himself gave a guest talk on Educating a Digital Computer exactly a year later, and soon became a member. (His other talk to the club was on morphogenesis.) Professors were barred, to protect the openness of speculative discussion. So the imaginative anatomist J. Z. Young (who’d discovered the squid’s giant neurones, and later suggested the ‘selective’ account of learning)6 couldn’t join the club, but gave a talk as a guest.

The club’s archives contain a list of thirty possible discussion topics drawn up by Ashby (Owen Holland p.c.). Virtually all of these are still current. What’s more, if one ignores the details, they can’t be better answered now than they could in those days. These wide-ranging meetings were enormously influential, making intellectual waves that are still spreading in various areas of cognitive science. The neurophysiologist Horace Barlow (p.c.) now sees them as crucial for his own intellectual development, in leading him to think about the nervous system in terms of information theory.

And Giles Brindley, another important neuroscientist,1who was brought along as a guest by Barlow before joining for a short time, also remembers them as hugely exciting occasions.

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  1. Boden, M. A. (2006), Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press)