Creator of Ideonomy Known in Falmouth as the Man with the Cat
By: Brent Runyon
Patrick M. Gunkel rides a bicycle with his cat Tatiana in a small white pouch next to his stomach, turning heads as they travel through Falmouth; but that he rides a bicycle with his cat just may be the least interesting thing about him.
Mr. Gunkel never finished high school, but has been an independent researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting scholar at the University of Texas.
He invented a new “super science,” was the subject of an article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, and has written 21 books.
But it is the unusual sight of Mr. Gunkel and his cat on a bicycle that draws unwanted attention from strangers. Mr. Gunkel is a self-described private person and does not like to be bothered.
“I don’t want to be discourteous,” he said, but the repetitive questions are tiresome.
An estimated 66,000 people have stopped him to ask about his cat, Mr. Gunkel said. That number is an estimate but not an exaggeration, he said.
“It is very easy for a scientist to estimate what the numbers are,” he said. He has also been yelled at and spit upon while riding with his cat, he said, creating a potentially dangerous situation for Tatiana and him.
On a bike with a Turkish Van
The top two questions people ask when they stop him are, “What kind of cat is that?” and “How did you train your cat to ride with you on a bicycle?”
The answer to both questions is, “She is a Turkish Van,” he said.
The Turkish Van, Mr. Gunkel said, is an incredibly intelligent animal, originally from Turkey and renowned for its ability to fish, travel long distances, and run quickly. Mr. Gunkel’s cat is capable of running 32 miles per hour, he said.
“The Turkish Van is 95 percent muscle,” he said. They are very easy to train, but extremely rare outside of Turkey, because of trade restrictions, he said. There are only four or five Turkish Vans in the United States, he said.
Mr. Gunkel lives in an apartment in West Falmouth Village with Tatiana, his second Turkish Van. His first Turkish Van, Sinbad, also rode with him on the bicycle. Sinbad lived until she was 20 years old. He acquired her from two women in Austin, Texas, when she was 2.
When she died, friends and acquaintances sent notes of condolences, memories and photographs that were compiled into a book 200 pages long.
Recognized at MIT
For many years Mr. Gunkel and Sinbad lived in Woods Hole and were a common sight bicycling through town. They moved to Princeton, New Jersey, but moved back to Falmouth earlier this year to be near friends. He has also lived in Chicago, North Carolina, Boston, Austin, St. Louis, and Canada, he said.
Mr. Gunkel was born in Chicago at 11:32 PM on May 1, 1947, he said. His parents divorced when he was 3 and after that he lived with his father and stepmother, who was resentful of him. She assaulted him once, picked him up, kicked him and nearly killed him when she dropped him, he said.
As a child prodigy he developed his encyclopedic knowledge by reading thousands of books. After he dropped out of high school, he continued his education through self-instruction.
At the age of 24 in 1971, Mr. Gunkel walked into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology office of Edward Fredkin who happened to be discussing misunderstood geniuses with renowned artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky.
Mr. Gunkel launched into speech on his ideas about artificial intelligence, and they quickly identified him as exactly the kind of person they had just been talking about.
The timing was fortuitous for Mr. Gunkel, and MIT soon hired him as an independent researcher. During his years at MIT, Mr. Gunkel shifted his focus from artificial intelligence to the field of neuroscience.
“I sat down to understand the whole of the human brain,” he said. At the time, he was one of only a half dozen people at MIT researching the brain, he said.
A longtime friend of Mr. Gunkel’s, Harvard University Distinguished Professor of Law Robert C. Clark, called Mr. Gunkel the most interesting man he ever met.
Ideonomy, the science of ideas
His lifetime of studies led to the creation of ideonomy, the study of ideas, the world’s second super science after mathematics.
To create the science, Mr. Gunkel divided ideas into 235 subdivisions, such as analogies, behaviors, causes, descriptions, experiments, functions, generalizations, inventions, along with hundreds of others, which are then cross-referenced, resulting in thousands of comparisons organized as lists.
Each division is divided into further subdivisions, which are then cross-referenced, creating more and more diverse connections.
By cross-referencing and examining all ideas, ideonomy can lead to unusual connections. Mr. Gunkel has organized his thoughts and studies into hundred of graphs, diagrams and idea trees that are posted on a website at MIT dedicated to ideonomy and Mr. Gunkel.
Professor of Cognitive Science, Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, Whitman Richards hosts the website, which includes reams of Mr. Gunkel’s writings that have not been published elsewhere.
One chart, entitled, “A table applying 20 generic traits of hourglass analogs to 20 diverse hourglass analogs, as a test of both,” is a matrix of hundreds of comparisons between ideas. The charts themselves are meticulously organized, colorful and imaginative, but also overwhelming in their number.
Mr. Gunkel’s ideas are eccentric and unusual, but it is for that reason that other scientists and scholars have been drawn to him.
Perhaps the high point of his career came when a feature story about Mr. Gunkle and ideonomy ran on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on June 1, 1987, in which esteemed professors and intellectuals praised his ideas and ability to address topics in novel ways. The article helped him secure a position as a visiting scholar the University of Texas in Austin.
In 1997, Mr. Gunkel gave a series of talks at MIT introducing ideonomy to the students there. There was some interest, but the students failed to recognize the sheer complexity of the science, he said.
“That basically killed it,” he said.
Mr. Gunkel said he is not disappointed that his science has not caught on.
“The only way you ever get known in science is to die first. I joke with my friends that I should pretend to be dead for five or 10 years or so,” he said.
21 books in a box
Having recently moved into his apartment in West Falmouth, Mr. Gunkel said he is not working on a project at the moment as he adjusts to his new surroundings.
Asked to give an example of his work, he opened a box labeled, “The 21 Books I Have Written,” and thumbed through a heavy, bound volume of some of his writings.
The opening chapter happened to be “A Comment on the Theory of Writing in Books.” Pages of dense type flipped past in his fingers as he read some of the phrases aloud, creating a kind of hall of mirrors effect, as he read his writing about his theories on writing, while also commenting on his own writing style.
“This sentence is continuous, there are no periods, because that is the way I think,” he said.
Other ideas are more accessible. One essay entitled, “Why We Laugh,” is based on the premise that human beings form communities through laughter.
“We got through 10 million years because we laugh,” he said, erupting in a laugh himself.
Surrounded by books about everything from trees to Charles Darwin, Mr. Gunkel’s ideas do not come as quickly or cleanly as they once did.
At 63, he does not have every word, idea, and number at the tip of his tongue anymore. He lamented his inability to fully describe ideonomy and give examples.
Perhaps his inability to focus was the result of exhaustion. Mr. Gunkel said he was very tired because he stayed up watching the entire Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Civil War,” the night before.
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