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Fall 1998
The Man Who Knows Too Much
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Pulitzer Prize-winning human mulitprocesor Jared Diamond has a lot on his mind

By Catherine Seipp '78

No matter how much you think you know — or how much you may in fact know — odds are that Jared Diamond knows much, much more. The UCLA School of Medicine professor of physiology's breadth and depth of knowledge is enough to humble any reasonably intelligent person. Diamond is, by most any definition, a genius. The MacArthur Foundation gave him one of its genius awards in 1985. He has also won a Pulitzer (for Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), the Coues Award (from the American Ornithologists Union) and an honorary doctorate from Sejong University in Korea (for contributions to the greater understanding of the Korean alphabet).

Diamond has dazzled colleagues and students with his expertise in wide-ranging fields of knowledge for decades; recently he's begun to dazzle the world at large as well. Like Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, Diamond is that rare scientist who can speak to laymen - and be understood. Diamond's columns in the science magazines Discover, Nature and Natural History have brought his original thinking to a wider audience, and his books - The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Why Is Sex Fun? - are allowing him to reach even further. Guns, Germs, and Steel, in fact, sold some 25,000 copies the week it was awarded the Pulitzer.

"It's been doing very well, hovering on and off the best-seller lists," Diamond says, adding dryly, "I have to be very grateful because this is not a book about near-death experiences."

Though scientific literacy among the public at large remains lamentably low, it is the scientific community's own tunnel vision that seems most worrisome to Diamond these days. "Most scientists cannot understand other areas of science," he observes, "and most write in such a way that scientists in other fields can't understand them." He grabs a copy of Science magazine off his desk.

"Here is the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Somewhere in here it says that the main goal is to enhance the public's understanding of science. And yet, almost all of the articles cannot be understood even by a scientist outside the field; they're just written so technically."

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