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Paul Stories


Please post stories for all of us to share. 

And as Paul would say, "that's cute!"



Ann Dixon's picture

Paul on Wikipedia

Dear Friends of Paul!

You can now find Paul on Wikipedia, and I hope you read the profile and enjoy. If you have any facts about Paul to share, feel free to edit. Wikipedia is pretty strict about citing sources.

Many thanks to Dr. Marie A. Vitulli for her Wikipedia expertise and support.


jrlewis's picture

Against Originality

My writing owes a debt of gratitude to Paul Grobstein for his applied neurobiology, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the ever-growing archive known as Serendip. In my undergraduate time, Paul was the white rabbit who led me down the interdisciplinary rabbit hole. I coined the phrase Alice in Wonderland Philosophy to describe the practice of approaching the arts and humanities from training and qualifications in the natural sciences. I paired this phrase with its converse, Through the Looking Glass Poetics, in order to structure my dissertation in creative and critical writing on interdisciplinary practice. Through the Looking Glass Poetics is the practice of approaching the natural sciences from training and qualifications in the arts and humanities. My first poetry collection, Phenomenology of the Feral, is an example of Through the Looking Glass Poetics and features Paul Grobstein, the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, and the fluorescent white rabbit chimaera Alba. I have defended my ongoing commitment to exploring current scientific research through poetry as being haunted by the ghost of these literal and metaphorical white rabbits. This story is some kind of afterlife…

 rabbit with tentacles for ears

Doctor Charlie's picture

Aww phooey.

Hard to imagine. I worked for Paul in the early 80's at the U. of C. I was at Paul & Peggy's wedding. That they could both be gone when I am still what I consider to be young (ish) seems somehow unfair. He was a sort of hybrid, both scientist and Shaman, who unfailingly both found new viewpoints and embraced other's viewpoints. He introduced me to Single Malt Scotch, and to a new way of allowing creativity while still providing guidance. What a mind! Complex, volatile, beautiful.

Jennie Braun Serendip Visitor's picture

Paul Grobstein

Just some backstory:
Fifty years ago I graduated in the same high school class as Paul Grobstein. I did not know him personally, but he was known to every one of our 400+ classmates and probably the rest of the school as well. He was the editor of the school newspaper, specializing in editorials decrying the lack of leadership in student government. According to the yearbook our senior year, he played basketball and participated in track. He was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and belonged to the Philosophy Club, which certainly seems to fit in with many of the descriptions I have read in this forum. In our senior year, he was voted Most Radical.
Neurobiology isn't a field that I think any of us would have expected him to be interested in--but the descriptions I have read in this forum about a free-thinking, endless and open curiosity, engaged in ideas, and slightly eccentric scholar I think were established even all those years ago. He was one of those people that stirred things up and made you remember him.

Michael Schulz's picture

What I have learned from Paul's example

Paul left quite a legacy at Bryn Mawr College, and I will feel honored to wear his Stanford cap and gown at commencement this year, when my first graduate student receives his degree. (Thank you, Jed! That's very kind of you to make Paul's robes available to me. And thank you Kim, Anne, Alice, and Marc for making this connection.)

It's now my seventh year at Bryn Mawr College, and from early on in my time here, Paul stood out to me as an uniquely thoughtful, questioning, and creative individual who really made a difference at the college. Let me say a few words about what I feel I have learned from his example.

In 2009, I co-organized a Class of 1902 Lecture with the philosophy department, by a speaker named Guy Blaylock who talked about interpretational problems in quantum mechanics. Paul followed this lecture with a flurry of email messages to the speaker and physics faculty, and posted some of his thoughts here:

How did he have time to do this?! He attended a lecture in another department, personally engaged everyone, wrote a blog entry placing major themes from the talk within the broader human context of subjectivity of empirical observation, and linked to a large number of related blog entries inspired by similar experiences that show he does this sort of thing all the time. I on the other hand, went more or less back to survival mode, preparing my courses, reappointment dossier, and so on.

Like many of us in academia, Paul would get incredibly excited about ideas, but unlike most of us, he managed to consistently keep the real substance of the joy of thinking and at the forefront of his daily activities in a public and inclusive way. It is so easy to get buried beneath the practical pressures of grading, course preparation, and scholarly publication in one's discipline, and to relegate this universal childlike intellectual spark to the back burner, but Paul made it a shared priority. It is also true that as we advance in our disciplines and specialize, we tend to grow apart from one another. But, there is always something special about the original seed, the root, the central foundational essence of any field. This is usually the most interesting part and touches on the broadest and most universal questions — the ones we can share with others. It is the organic living earth that feeds the individual and collective satisfaction of contemplative souls driven dually by the arrogance of a quest to understand what others have not yet understood, and by the humility of an awareness that this understanding is of value only to the extent that it can be meaningfully shared with others. Without it, we risk finding ourselves on ever bifurcating scholarly branches, lost in synthetic and lonely detail.

It's hard to walk this talk, and I can't say I've succeeded at harmonizing my life's work, values, and intellectual curiosity in this way. However, it is important to keep trying. To me, Paul's example is proof that another way is possible.

All the best, Michael

Ann Dixon's picture


Dear Paul,

Audrey decided her Halloween costume this year would be academic PhD robes -- to be a professor (why doesn't she think that to be a professor is to wear jeans?!). I asked her what subject she was a professor of, and there was only a slight pause before she announced, "Biology!" 

I know you would smile, and I would tease you because her fave is microbiology. But there may be frogs in the future once again!


KG's picture

Missing you today. Happy

Missing you today. Happy birthday, and thank you for helping me belief in myself through times I really needed it. You helped my thoughts develop from ramblings that were all over the place into meaningful, logical, and reasonable ideas and made me feel like I had worthwhile things to say and share. Thank you for what you gave, and continue to give me.

alesnick's picture


The Body a Tree

The body a tree.
God a wind.

When he moves me like this,
Like this,

Angels bump heads with each other
Gathering beneath my cheeks,
Holding their wine

Catching the brilliant tear,


-- Hafiz

Congwen Wang's picture

I still remember the first

I can't believe that I didn't think of posting here until now...

I still remember the first time I met Paul. It was the neurobio class in my second semester of freshman year. At the time I was a hot-blooded, newly-declared bio major, with all of the not so mature thoughts about college and life.  In that class meeting, he talked about how everything we know or see might just be the construction of our brains. Thinking that science was about truth, about the absolute, about the objective, I thought he was ridiculous.  But because I couldn't find another biology class that could fit into my schedule, I decided to stay in his class for another couple of weeks.

It turned out to be one of the rightest decisions I've made in college. I can't describe how everything happened; in the end, it's not really about the class, either. To me, it's about a journey of knowing science, knowing him, and knowing myself. About a life of constantly questioning and thinking. Not everyone likes Paul, because not everyone listens to him, and not everyone knows how. I'm glad I did, and I think I would be a very different person if I didn't.

Memory is such a deceptive thing - we remember, we forget, we paint it with colors of emotions. I wouldn't say that I'll forever remember Paul, but I hope that all of the good things he inspired will stay with me till the end.

Ann Dixon's picture

Memorial Service at Bryn Mawr College for Paul

The memorial service for Paul is Sunday, November 20th in the Hepburn Teaching Theater, Goodhart, Bryn Mawr College.  It will begin at 2:00 pm, and everyone is invited.

Cassandra Phillips-Sears's picture

I am sorry to hear that Prof.

I am sorry to hear that Prof. Grobstein is gone; he taught my first CSem course and confirmed for me that BMC was the place for me to be when I was a nervous undergrad.

alesnick's picture


hi, cassandra --

it's good to hear your words; paul was/is a strong confirmer and I also learn/ed much from him about place: how a given place, whatever it is, is capable of being a "take-off point" (a fave term of Paul's), not a trap.  i'm offering that paul is changed, greatly, not gone -- having taken off from this place.

Alexis Miller Mayo's picture

I met Paul in 6th grade, Stanford Elementary

I post this just so people will know how long ago Paul started in science. He and I were in 6th grade, Junior High and Senior High together. Both of our fathers were teaching at Stanford. My clearest memory of Paul in 6th grade was doing a science project with him. It had to do with watching mice go through a simple maze and then teaching them to go through it differently. It was my first experience with someone cussing too! We had to mark the mice to tell them apart so we notched their ears. Paul would hold them and I would do the dirty work. Only he got bitten and, oh my, what words!

I also remember him riding to a dance on a bicycle in high school with his date on the handlebars. I'm not sure if his car broke down or what, but I have that image stuck in my brain.

I'm so sorry to hear that he is gone, but I am delighted to see all the good work he left behind.

Anne Dalke's picture


So here's a story that is making Paul laugh, I'm sure, in whatever form he now inhabits….
It's certainly making the universe chuckle. It's about Serendip as prankster, and..

the beautiful logic of randomness.

One of the things that I have loved about Serendip, since I first started to play in this space, is the ability it's given me to illustrate my words, to upload photographs and images to bring my language "home." And in my enthusiasm, one of the things I have failed to do is organize my images (which @ the moment surely number well over 1,000) in any rational, reasonable, identifiable or retrievable fashion.

So: I spent a lot of time selecting the images to represent Paul's words, as well as those written by me and my colleagues, in the Evolving Occasion we shared @ the Bryn Mawr Faculty Meeting last week; and I spent a considerable amount time afterwards re-shaping the page, archiving it so others could enjoy what we'd created. I thought the page was finished, static, done with.

last night, in the core course in gender and sexuality which I'm co-teaching with Kaye Edwards, we were discussing, as culminating text, Paul's essay on Cultures as Ability, in which he asks if we can "recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor ... build on diverse abilities rather than deficits ... an assembly of strengths ... learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves….?"

One student had written in our course forum that she found this "an absurd idea …. it would be splendid to live in union and identify with others based on the skills and abilities they do possess, but … being the voyeur is so much a part of the unconscious shared human experience that to promote an abling culture that doesn't point out or identify difference would be near impossible".

Another student wrote that, while she found it "mind-bending and inspiring to read radical/theoretical texts," she was annoyed that they "never explicitly admit the degree to which their ideas require some kind of HUGE fundamental shift in society …. the readings progressively move toward acknowledging the kind of deeper radicalism (especially new political and economic systems) such ideas require."

In response to these responses, and in an attempt to get the class to think together about what concrete, pragmatic changes we might initiate in the world as we know it, I asked the students in last night's class to "imagine--and then map--utopia." After our session ended, I uploaded their images, including one created by a group who thought that "utopia was a VERY BAD idea," and so had imaged their response as a "black hole":

This morning, working with Ann on several Serendip matters, we happened to notice that the "black hole" had replaced one of the images --of Paul teaching, brain in hand--

in our Evolving Occasion. We figured out that when I had uploaded this image, tagged as "1.jpg," into the image file, it had kicked out and replaced the "1.jpg" that was there already, the one of Paul and the brain. I renamed the latter, replaced it on the page, laughed w/ Ann and Paul about this….

and went to my office to find a note from my co-teacher Kaye, describing what she saw on our course forum: " The map with the black hole is not included, but there is a pix of Paul holding the brain."

What the … ???? Did the images somehow "switch"? But how could they have, if...?

Kaye's picture

reproducing Paul?

Both images in this message show up as Paul on my screen, and I'm left wondering what happened to the black hole image.  Has Paul morphed into a black hole, drawing all of Serendip back "home" to him?  Has he gone viral?

Ann Dixon's picture

Ann->Kaye: Do you have a


Do you have a second browser on your computer? (like internet explorer and also firefox?) If you do, copy the link into that one and tell us what you see, please.


the black hole on internet explorer!


This could actually be a great way to explain what we see vs. so-called objective reality, eh? What we see is like the browser, and it can be something very different than what someone else’s browser sees which can be very different from what the website server sees, etc.


aybala50's picture


with this amusing mistake Paul holding the brain is utopia then?

Ann Dixon's picture

An Evolving Occasion of Indeterminate Duration

A group of Paul's faculty friends wrote and presented today "An Evolving Occasion of Indeterminate Duration .

rachelr's picture



One of the most striking things that someone has said to me was in "The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Story" when Paul talked to us about the word "vacilando." Surprisingly, UrbanDictionary's definition is almost identical to what Paul told us (same quotation and all). I love the idea, I love the journey being more inmortant than the destination. I think this is something Paul really lived by. In one of our last classes together he told us that he would never die- he will always be here with us, his ideas and the stories of his journey being more important than wherever he is now. I think about him teaching us about "vacilando" often. His physical presence is missed.

1. Vacilando
Vacilando is a Spanish term for the act of wandering when the experience of travel is more important than reaching the specific destination.

John Steinbeck (in Travels With Charley: In Search of America, 1962) wrote:

“ In Spanish there is a word for which I can't find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.
Mini Kahlon's picture


I am a bit in shock - I checked in to facebook, one of the rare occasions, and saw a note from a couple of months back from Francesca Mariani, my classmate from bryn mawr in the late '80s, about Paul's passing.

Paul made an indelible imprint on my life. Above all, he reset standards for me on what I should expect from my own ruminations, internal life. No small thoughts, small visions, small abstractions here - ideas at scale, that's what Paul symbolized for me.

I am wracked with sorrow that the trip I meant to make, with (re) meeting him as a highlight, never came to pass before his passing. I would really like to know if there will be a fall memorial, and I'd like to make every effort to go.

Serendip Visitor's picture

I feel the same way

"I am wracked with sorrow that the trip I meant to make, with (re) meeting him as a highlight, never came to pass before his passing."

alesnick's picture

Dear Mini

Greetings -- I am a faculty colleague of Paul's at Bryn Mawr.  I came to the college in '97, so our paths didn't cross there, but they clearly did/have in relation to what Paul taught.  I smile at your term, "reset standards," as "standards" was such a useful key term for Paul when he would talk about the need and promise of each person to set (and revise as wanted) his/her own.  The term "scale" also resonates as a deep interest of his, and one he helped me open up in my imagination.  I appreciate, too, your comment about valuing your internal life.  Paul showed people how thinking and feeling are part of the ongoing creation and expansion of the universe. Part of it -- no more, no less. 

As plans evolve re: gathering/going on exploring with/about Paul, we will share the word here :)

-- Alice 

W. Keith Sgrillo's picture

More Stories...Please!!!

I, like others, still sit here thinking that he would be with us for ever. The profoundness of his stories still resonate about us. So much so, that recently my Principal asked if I could get that "Quircky Professor" I always talk about to come do a staff development for our school to open the school year. As one could imagine, my eyes welled up with tears and I just could not bring myself to admit that in fact he couldn't. All I could do is utter, "Ill see." I somehow feel that Paul would see that as silly, but after reading all that everyone has posted I know that I was truly blessed to have been able to explore the world and myself with him and all that have attended his summer institues. I have always told people that I learned more in the two to three weeks at Bryn Mawr each summer than I did in my 4+ college and graduate years. I think it is a great credit to Bryn Mawr for recognizing the brilliance of Paul and what he brought to the world. I somehow find myself drawn as much to all your "stories" about Paul as I was to the man himself. Thank you all for sharing your stories and enriching my life by telling them. Like him, they are a treasure!

alesnick's picture

valuing stories

Hi, Keith -- 

I remember with gladness meeting you at one of the Summer Institutes.  I too am grateful for this space for people to gather and share love, recognition, gratitude, and joy for/with Paul.  Your note also makes me wonder about ways you could get back to your principal . . . what your having said "I'll see" could be leading to.  I'm thinking that with this answer you created a space of/for open-ended transactional inquiry :) -- perhaps to collaborate with Paul in a new way?  Let me know if you want to talk about this; also if you would like to find a time to visit together, share more stories?

-- Alice

Lisa Lamprou's picture

To Better One's Self

Hello All,

It has taken me forever to write something on this blog. I can give you a variety of reasons, but I think I would probably put 'denial' at the top of that list. Today is a pretty dreary day and as such really mirrors my mood. I have been reading this blog on an almost daily basis and I am truly amazed to say that I thought it was impossible to care about and respect Paul more than I already did - but hearing about his endless interactions and unwavering support of others has once again made the impossible - possible. Thanks for that Paul. I met Paul my Sophomore year at BMC - a period of time during which I really had no idea who I was or what I was going to do with my life.

To give you a little bit of background - I was an international student - my family lived (and still lives) in Athens, Greece. My freshman year was a disaster and as a Sophomore I was hanging on by a thread. I was on academic probation and as far as I was concerned felt that I lacked dedication and drive.


The first class that I took with Paul was Neurobiology and Behavior - for the first time in a long time I wanted to get to class in the morning - to listen to Paul tell me that I basically knew very little about "the big picture" - what a relief - no wonder I was so under-dedicated and unmotivated :) Days turned into weeks and Paul and I moved our interactions from the classroom to his office. I remember the countless hours I spent sitting across from him complaining, staring, humming, studying, reading, talking... Paul seemed to put life and life's problems into perspective. Thinking back I cannot even recall what I was complaining about, but no issue that I had was too insignificant for Paul to discuss. For the first time since I left home and traveled across the Atlantic to attend college in a foreign country - did I feel like an adult. Paul's questions about my life, or discussions were what I believe allowed me to make that transition from naive high school student to still very naive but more grown up college student.

I remember one thing in particular Paul used to do to me - on the days when I would enter his office claiming that my life was a "shit storm" and that I was unprepared for an exam, a presentation, a meeting with another professor, etc. etc. Paul used to say "Lisa, where are you know?"... I would say "the biology department".... and Paul would respond with "In what city?"

L: "Bryn Mawr"
P: "State?"
L: "Pennsylvania"
P: "Country?"
L: "U.S.A"
P: "Planet?"
L: "Earth"
P: "Galaxy?"
L: "Paul what is the point here?!!!!!!!"
P: "Well you aren't thinking about the initial problem are you?"

:) :) :) :) This is how Paul dealt with my high-strung personality and tendency to complain.

In reality as I sit here and write I realize that I could go on and on and on with memories and stories and ideas that Paul instilled in me. But what I feel that I need to say is that Paul changed me. He fundamentally changed the way I think and what I value. Paul left an imprint on both my heart and my mind. I can say - without a doubt - that I have never met anyone like Paul and do not believe that I ever will again. Paul was an extraordinary human being, a caring mentor and a friend when I needed one. Paul made me feel like it was okay that I didn't have everything figured out. That it was okay I made mistakes, and that it was those mistakes that made me unique. I will miss Paul everyday. The thought of returning to BMC over and over and him never again being there near breaks my heart. But those imprints that he made are never going anywhere and that reassures me.

One of the most remarkable individuals I have known in my short 24 years. Paul Grobstein inspired me in ways I do not even know how to explain. He is one of the select few who I consider responsible for making me a biology major and the individual I am today. Those lucky enough to have known Paul understand.


David Feingold's picture


I would first like to introduce myself, as I did not attend Bryn Mawr, I did not teach there, nor have I ever met Paul (we were on a first name basis) in person. My name is David Feingold, the contributor of Serendip from the section on Exploring Disability: Images and Thoughts. I just found out about Paul's passing and am emotionally grieving as if I lost my own father. I remember the first time I wrote Paul about my mood disorder and art images that had been accompanying my road to better mental health. I asked him if there was room in Serendip for imparting information on my experience. Thinking this professor would be too busy to answer an email from someone he never knew, I was surprised to see a response almost immediately. Paul was excited to learn about this doctoral student's experience with bipolar disorder, the accompanying art work and presentation material I gave at conferences at Columbia and Syracuse Universities. Out of nowhere was this brilliant man who took a personal and academic interest in what I had to offer. Various correspondence between Paul and me, solidified what I thought would otherwise be a very brief and surface relationship. Paul quickly became my mentor of sorts, although I'm not sure if he ever realized that. Perhaps that is true of others who knew and learned from him. I was taking classes for my doctorate program (in disability studies) when I collaborated with Paul and am now working on my dissertation. I was looking forward to sharing my progress of my dissertation with Paul, but I see that will never come to be. Instead I will think of Paul as I complete my research and write my autoethnography. He will be sitting on my shoulder, encouraging me to question, seek, push the envelope of knowledge, and most of all, commit myself to discovery. I will be dedicating the rest of my work in Paul's honor and hope to pay him homage by contributing one more entry to Serendip about my work in his name, when my dissertation is completed. Thank you Paul--I'll always remember and appreciate the short but meaningful time we spent in collaboration.

Ann Dixon's picture

Friends, please view David's

Friends, please view David's work on Exploring Disability: Images and Thoughts.

David, I'm Paul's colleague, and know that Paul thought the world of your work, and you. He was so excited when he first saw these images, and he had to share them with everyone. You and your work (past, present and future) will always have a home on Serendip.


Julie G.'s picture

See what you see, then see something else

I took Paul's last E-Sem class on evolution and stories. I was a returning student and was trepedatious about entering a classroom full of seventeen/eighteen year-olds. But then this giant with grizzly sideburns came into the room, chest-hair poking out of his salmon-colored shirt, as he strolled over to the computer and pinched the bridge of his nose. I figured I had bigger things to worry about than age.

I began intimidated by Paul, then I was frustrated and angered by Paul, then I - and everyone in the class - came to love Paul. One of the first things I realized is that there were no "right" answers with him - there were some that held more potential than others, but he wasn't a professor you could find the niche of and work within that realm to ensure a decent grade. The lack of that niche was unsettling; you either spent the whole time guessing about what he might prefer, or you surrendered and were simply honest. He listened intently. I came to know the bridge-pinch as a processing maneuver, when thoughts were being reined in to form sentences. He cultivated an environment of intense discussion, livelihood, silliness and joy. I remember one class opening with a young woman telling Paul he had to have a nickname and would he prefer "P. Grobes" or "Paulie G"? (He picked the latter.) I also remember a deep, frustrating and disturbing class dedicated to hashing out the ethics of a tale of incest. Paul wasn't afraid of disturbing - he encouraged us to dive head-first into it, asking as many questions as we could along the way.

As the semester moved forward, Paul's class became an anchor for me. The materials and thoughts it provoked were relatable to just about everything and they helped me immensely in adjusting to my new situation. We talked about logic, stories, perception and movement. I would - and still do - bring these conversations up with friends, generating new tangents, new threads of thought.

I don't think I realized how much Paul's presence, intellect and caring mattered to me until I saw the sign posted on his office at the start of Spring semester, saying that he was ill and wouldn't be there. I'd venture down every now and then with the small hope that I might find him with his feet up, his hands behind his head; that that loose smile would spread on his face and he'd ask a question.

I'm so grateful that I met Paul and shared some time and space with him, for however briefly, in this big, big universe.

Ted Wong's picture


Paul had some ideas about biology that I enjoyed thinking of as a little bit crackpot. One of our recurring bones of contention was the role of selection in evolution. Paul, ever focused on the generative, the emergent, saw evolution mainly as a process of exploration of the phenotype space. For Paul, evolution's drivers were diversification and complexification: evolution's creative processes, rather than the competition and winnowing that most biologists (starting with Darwin) focus on.

I remember one conversation in particular in which Paul said to me that evolution is like diffusion over the space of all possible forms. I asked, "Okay, so what's doing the diffusing?" Paul smiled and answered with that slight added emphasis that he used in order to let people know that he was about to pack a paragraph's worth of meaning into the very next word he was to say: "Matter."

I actually quite like that. Most biologists talk only about molecules, cells, organisms, species. More than any other scientist I know, Paul talked about life. He anthropomorphized life, and he considered (perfectly rightly, but who but him would bother to talk about it?) life to be a mere subset of matter.

It comforts me to think that Paul, though no longer part of that subset, is still participating in evolution, that generative, creative, emergent process which he found to be so beautiful.

W. Keith Sgrillo's picture

About Paul

I think it is safe to say that Paul was more than a teacher, facilitator, and intellectual but a friend as well. I have attended several of Paul’s institutes and have found not only enrichment as a teacher, but more importantly as a person. I have had two or three individuals in my life that helped sculpt me as a teacher and a person and I am very proud to say that Paul is in that list. His inquiries into the world and the people that inhabit it was one of magnificent splendor. Over the past 7 plus years, I had the opportunity to pick Paul’s brain if you will, and find insight into the world that I had been searching for since I was a child. Through his words, patients, and gentle heart I was able to find the answers to many of the questions I had. The most profound message that helped me make sense of my world, to quote Paul, is “This is my story.” I am very proud and touched that I was able to be a part of his story, and he mine. Those of us that had the good fortune to be a part of his legacy ensures that there will be better teachers to pass on “stories” for years to come. I always took pleasure in sharing stories outside of classes with Paul and getting the time to know him, as well as the time he took to get to know me. I always talk about Paul and what I was able to take away from him and to share his stories. Thanks Paul for all you have done!

Michelle Mancini's picture

not really a story

I had the pleasure of taking Paul's Neurobio course way back in the late 80's, to fulfill a requirement. It is one of two or three classes that I still viscerally remember (and very positively remember). Part of this is because the material was so different from that in most of my classes. But part of it had to be because of Paul. What he said, how he said it. His voice, so resonant and pleasing to listen to, resonates in my head all these years later.

And I have wonderful memories of talking with and listening to (and being listened to by) Paul these last 9 years that I have been working here. Not as many as I now wish I did: somehow I thought he'd always be here . . .

But even when I wasn't talking with him, one of the joys of my work here has been hearing students talk about him. I often say that one of the things I like about my job is the opportunity to play intellectual matchmaker. There have been many students over the years to whom I've said, "You know, you should really think about taking Neurobio and Behavior (or Bio 103)." Many of them have done so, and although I know many of those would have found their way to Paul without me, I still take pleasure in remembering those moments.

I can't picture Bryn Mawr without him. I've said that many times in recent weeks. Thanks to all for helping me realize that for a long time to come, at least, I don't really have to. And yet . . .

Arshiya Bose's picture


My life has been disruptive ever since Stories of Evolution/Evolution of Stories. Paul and Anne created a stirring and 6 years on, I feel as committed to such engagement in science/philosophy/stuff as I did back in Bryn Mawr. That class and the interactions that followed (at the Centre for Science and Society, Universe Bar, various Bryn Mawr Greens...) jumped out and beyond the curriculum for me. It was the first time in my academic career that I really didn't give a damn what my grades were. I didn't look at my transcript even. That would have seemed perverse...Paul's passing has made me think about the impact that teachers can have. He wasn't an animated teacher and looking back, his presentations were really quite rudimentary. But he was honest with you. In a world where everyone is polite and students want nothing more than to feel loved and flattered by your teachers, Paul didn't feed you any such falseness. With Paul, sitting in his class, listening to him talk, you were what you were and it was how it was...Today, my brain/mind (and said the Tibetan way, gesturing to your heart) feel a little without.

Whitney Quesenbery &#039;76's picture

Walking...and falling.

I met Paul Grobstein long after my college years, when he gave a talk for the Princeton Alumnae Club. I was just starting to understand the role of stories in my work as a user experience/usability designer, and couldn't tear myself away from Serendip.

When Paul agreed to give a talk at the Usability Professionals' Association, he connected the dots between our (largely cognitive) work and his in neurobiology. One of his examples -- I forget the context now -- was that to walk is to let ourselves fall, and then catch ourselves, over and over. Whenever I think of him, I hear Laurie Anderson's song Walking and Falling.

I wish I had known him better.

Ann Dixon's picture

Playing with Paul

Paul and I have been friends for almost 25 years. I don’t remember our first meeting when he came to Bryn Mawr in ‘86, but I remember one of his first quirky tech questions. I was working at the computer center, which was almost unimaginably different than it is today.  There were only two full-time staff to support faculty computing at the College, there was no connection to the Internet, and it was the first year most people on campus had ever used email. Most tech questions were on the order of how to do footnotes in a word processing document, or how to use the stats package to do regressions. And Paul? Paul wanted to know how he could change his process name (nickname) on the VAX:

$ show users
Username            Process Name               Terminal
ann Lt. Uhura tty04
pgrobste Biology = Life tty10

And then, years before instant messaging was going to hit popular culture, he wanted to know how to “talk” to other users on the VAX:

$ send pgrobste “see? it’s easy!”

Paul loved to play with computers, and so did I. He called it “fiddling,” unstructured exploration of what things could do, and we enjoyed showing off fun toys to each other in a sort of playful competition. We were still doing this in 1993 when I was at grad school at Penn, and after much discussion, we struck a deal that resulted in what you know as Serendip.

Serendip has been both a product and a source of our friendship in a loopy sort of way for the last 17 years. As an example, Paul was the first person I met at Bryn Mawr who thought and talked extensively about the “two culture” divide. Paul and I both had two-culture brains equally at home in the humanities and the sciences, and over the years, we had many conversations about boundaries, dichotomies, processes and methodologies of information processing. Serendip is intentionally a place of open-ended inquiry where interdisciplinarity is the norm. Calling Tim Burke: come play in Serendip’s habitat, created for like-minded people.

Paul loved games and liked to say that play was serious business, and Serendip’s essence, our habitat, is a playground. I enjoyed co-creating some of the games in the playground, and have enjoyed the many games Laura C. co-created with Paul there too. He would say, “that’s cute,” or “that’s very cute!” if he were pleased with something. If it were really over the top, he would say, “that’s a real gas!” Besides the playground, Paul played with all kinds of technology. Many of us heard about the greatest app (of the week) for the iPhone that he had found, and he followed the scuttlebutt on what Apple was likely to announce next. We were still playing with new technology (iPad apps) while waiting in doctor’s waiting rooms this year.

Playing with automotive tech, he loved driving “stick” in what we called “Paul’s flashy red car;” he loved the GPS; and he was gleeful about hooking up his iPhone to it. And he was one of the first to drive the Prius, an electric/gas hybrid car,  that I bought in 2003 (me, white knuckled in the passenger seat!).

I could always count on Paul finding and enjoying the new, new thing, so long as it were “generative.” He didn’t love novelty for its own sake, but for where it could take you.  I guess you could say the same was true of his relationships with people –he looked for ongoing generative results from relationships. This expectation could make it difficult to be his friend, as has been noted by others here. Arguing, for example, was not to be taken personally, but a means of creative destruction opening a path to something new (or not). Alice’s Breaking Project  intrigued him for many of these reasons.

One thing I can say for sure is that Paul loved kids, his own, mine and others, and he found them endlessly “generative” and fun.  My family enjoyed 300+ dinners with him, and over these years, we played a lot of games and read some favorite books. One of his favorite books (and our’s) is Dr. Seuss’s  McElligot's Pool:

"Young man," laughed the farmer, 
"You're sort of a fool!
You'll never catch fish
In McElligot's Pool!"

All sorts of imaginative possibilities are generated (we like the “cat fish” and the “cow fish,” of course), even in the face of adult skepticism.  Thematically, it’s similar to a favorite song from Paul, Suzy and the Alligator. He valued and sought out the wide-open possibilities of imagination and life, and intellectual and personal boxes were eschewed without regard for the consequences. He was definitely in the camp with the kids!

Rachel's SerendipPeople have asked me frequently, “what will become of Serendip now?” You will find Paul’s influence all over Serendip, as I do, but Paul and I shared the belief that Serendip has been its own individual entity since Serendip was born.  Look around Serendip – you will also find plenty of things that Paul didn’t care about or even disagreed with. It’s part of letting Serendip be Serendip.

Its wellspring will always tap those imaginative possibilities of McElligot's Pool and Suzy and the Alligator. There is a very good reason why it is named “Serendip.” Serendip will evolve in unpredictable ways, as we all do.


Serendip is a gathering place for people who suspect that life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete. Originating in interactions among neurobiologists, computer scientists, business people, and educators, Serendip is both an expanding forum and a continually developing set of resources to explore and support intellectual and social change in education, in social organization... and in how one makes sense of life.  (Paul Grobstein, 1996)


jrlewis's picture

My love affair with science

My love affair with science began eight years ago with the word serendipity.  During the first meeting of my honors chemistry class, the teacher read the story of teflon’s discovery by a young DuPont scientist. (  The teacher argued that being receptive to serendipity is the mark of a good scientist.  Curiosity and conscientiousness were the essential ingredients.  Memorization was secondary; the next book she read to us from was the CRC. 



As a freshman at Bryn Mawr, I was delighted to discover Serendip.  It was an expansion of everything I had loved about my sophomore chemistry class.  I spent many hours silently lurking on Serendip before meeting Paul.  Imagine how surprised I was to learn that Paul found chemistry one of the more boring sciences!  We argued about the central science’s merits quite a lot at the beginning of our relationship.  He was the only person I knew to doubt the great glory of chemistry.  He used the phrase “thinking like a chemist” as a minor insult.  It was incredibly refreshing at a time when I was terribly frustrated with my chosen major.   My conversations with Paul helped evolve my understanding of chemistry and the role it could play in my life.  He even let me sneak a little medicinal chemistry into my senior paper for the biology department.   

joycetheriot's picture

Paul's K-12 Teacher Institutes

These are wonderful Paul stories, particularly zip lines. How sweet to share that time of Paul’s complete joy and the funny photo. Paul’s persona is frankly legendary. I agree with Wil that knowing the “prickly pear” enriched self-discovery. Additionally, thank you Ann for the work you put into this site by maintaining a connected flow and linking Paul’s poetry, photos and papers. Reading through them was comforting especially knowing that Serendip will be a surviving wellspring of his thoughts to immerse oneself at any time.
I am a grateful graduate of five of Paul’s Summer Institutes. As a result, my high school science teaching has evolved significantly.

My practice now includes an overlay of storytelling within the content to support students’ personal connections. I confess that I initially fought against Paul’s notion of science as a story. Unsurprisingly he welcomed my arguments, encouraged my point of view and allowed the time that I needed to eventually recognize that I was telling my own personal story of science. Paul successfully demonstrated the teaching methodology that promoted metacognition. I needed to experience, think and reach my own understanding. Paul was brilliant in his mastery of the emergent process. Our Teacher Institutes were fabulous. So lovely to watch Paul intertwine his intricate threads of possibilities, spinning them in midair and waiting patiently for the following flurry of teacher reactions.

Paul presented stimulating scenarios and I valued the teacher responses that ensued. His Institutes’ culture supported creativity and nurtured the possibility of designing new ways of thinking. In my quest to engage my students in science I found a wonderful teacher and friend. Paul’s mentorship in evolving my practice will definitely influence my future classes just as his outreach to K-12 teachers (spanning more than a decade) will impact many of their future cohorts of science students. I’m confident and thankful that the designs of this master weaver will last for generations.

Ann Dixon's picture

summer institutes

Thanks so much for posting. Paul really loved doing the summer institutes, and they actually spanned two full decades, beginning in 1990 (pre-Serendip!). You and other institute teachers are warmly welcome to continue building and using materials on Serendip, as we all continue to evolve our understandings of stories, science and teaching.


alesnick's picture

I began working with Paul

I began working with Paul about 8 years ago, when he invited me to use Serendip as the Web platform for a new course. While creating the course page (an outgrowth of which continues to flourish on Serendip), Paul suggested we find an image to introduce it.  We landed on an intensely lit blue doorway, door open with an exit sign overhead; Paul showed me how to add it to the page. I enjoyed the sense of possibility, daring, and moving into the unknown that the exit door suggested -- just what I wanted the course to signal.  (Paul, I hear you now:"There is always a way out.")  I also wanted the course to have as its epigraph a passage from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem:" "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

Paul didn't like Leonard Cohen very much (though I tried to talk him into it).  Too mystical and abstract.  Paul used the term "crack" a lot, though, in his work on loopy science.  "The crack" in his formulation was a source of light, change, creative disruption.  When Paul typed the lines into the page, he left out "the" so it read, "that's how light gets in."  When I timidly pointed out the error (this was years ago, mind, when I was in awe of him and not yet a lucky colleague and friend . . . still in awe, but no longer timid), Paul explained that he didn't like the "the" because it limited and bounded "light" -- made it sound spiritual rather than actual.  

Paul: a light source, a liberating agent, a generous, curious, caring cat.  Talking with him was, and I am findiing continues to be, amazing. All my life, I am seeking conversation that brings my heart and mind closer to union with the creative source of the universe.  Conversation with Paul was and is that, always that: like writing, reading, and traveling inside a great big book (website?) of meaning, chance, and change. 

During the Evolving Systems phase, Paul and I argued about and explored the question whether love is as foundational to evolving systems as form, aesthetics, and meaning.  Walking alongside him while he experienced illness this winter/spring, I have gained deep respect for the love, light, and caring his family carried/carries with and for him, and he for them.  In/as Paul, love and learning, loving learning, learning love . . . all of these ARE light.  Warming, too.

Mark Lord's picture

1. On the day it seemed the

On the day it seemed the outerworld could do naught to roust the inner, spied in the muck of the empty lake: an egret feeding in a renegade rivulet notes her notice. She leaps over gravity, laboring into flight. Her partner joins her & they lift off together, around the bend (synchronous wings). Follow them to the vanishing point and discover a slender wooden skiff, half-buried in the lakebed, maybe from the 20s, less rotten than you'd imagine, made by hand.

Once, it too had been blue.

Dear Anne,

Can you post this image? I took this picture during one of the last Evolving Systems group conversations. The way that Paul was all stretched out and so comfortable and was silhouetted against the blinds just struck me. In retrospect it seems like a strange impulse to exercise in the middle of a conversation, without telling anyone or (until now) showing anyone. Strange things happen sometimes.

Paul's loss is weighing heavy on me. I spent the better part of the night tracing old threads on Serendip. His presence there borders on the infinite.

I feel resonance with your inability, as expressed on the stories page, to pick out and tell a single story about Paul. For someone who was so committed to storytelling as a concept and for someone who was, let's be honest, possessed of enough idiosyncrasies to inspire any number of amusing anecdotes, there seems to be a failure of a central narrative, or rather, most of us to whom the responsibility has fallen to play the role of narrator in these stories...perhaps aren't able to feel the kind of traction that an omniscient narrator wants to have as s/he begins to spin out her web. Maybe that's partly because the story of Paul is not really captured in either his peculiarities or in our isolated bemusements of him. Paul's storytelling was conversation, it lived in the back and forth of every moment. And while he was always working towards (and often from) some kind of conclusion or hypothesis, what was most valuable about the experience of being with Paul was the evolution of the story, its ebb and flow in and through each of its incarnations.

The first time I recall being aware of Paul, he spoke for a very long time from the back of a faculty meeting about why he should be able to smoke in his lab and office and why the College's (then new) smoking policy violated the sanctity of what he considered an extension of his home. I remember how totally comfortable he seemed to be talking (and talking), having and extending his ideas as he spoke them, taking his time, and making his point quite elegantly. I also recall how, even as a devoted smoker, which I was back then, I was surprised by the complete lunacy of his argument, which was outrageous in equal measures for its incapacity to recognize the impact of smoke on others and for its total failure to recognize that his position was hopeless.

Of course Paul was all of the things my sketch of a story suggests about him: eloquent, occasionally long-winded, deeply committed to his work and its connection to his life, passionate, oblivious, and a tilter-against-windmills. But this impression is too static, too limited, at once too quick to identify him and too slow. And my first impression of him, because it was a first impression, is almost simple enough to be inscribed in a way that contains some meaning. And yet who Paul actually was and what he did that seem to me to be *remarkable* are almost completely excluded from this sketch. To our students and to our acquaintances we are perhaps all always destined to be punchlines or hopelessly cartooned in their recollections. The brain, as Paul never tired of pointing out, makes shortcuts in perception that forestalls authentic knowing. The story of Paul wants this included in it. It insists.

It also wants to say that it is not and cannot be a monologue. One does not know Paul by describing him, relating him, or sharing observations about him. One knows Paul in conversation and the story of him, if it can be told, will need to be told in many and diverse voices. And it will be an impoverished tale in part for not having his own voice present in its telling, but it will perhaps be enriched by his reverberations, which ring in many of our voices--those of students, colleagues, friends, and correspondents.

It will certainly be enriched by our behaving as if he is listening, even if this is merely an operating fiction and no truth about the universe. It is a story about the universe and Paul's place in it.

This is the beginning of what I waited all night to come. Thanks for being there to write this to. I think it turns out that whatever it is that I'm saying has to do with saying and knowing as collaborative acts. Which makes saying and knowing inherently theatrical. And scientific as well, since each utterance is a hypothesis that one tests on one's interlocutors. One tries, as Beckett says, and fails...then tries again and fails again, always endeavoring to fail better, or as Paul liked to say, to get it less wrong.

All best wishes. I look forward to being with you Saturday. And after.


admin's picture

Link to image

The image that Mark is referring to was posted earlier, here.

Anne Dalke's picture

Difficult, different, disruptive...

The service that Jed, Rachel and Anneliese planned for Paul last night was beautiful. I loved sitting out on the terrace of Harriton House, looking up @ the sky, ringed by the trees, remembering together that copper beech who was our friend and colleague...I loved all the stories, of course, and I loved, especially, the mobiles featuring photos from all the different eras of Paul's life, the ever-expanding circle of those he knew.

One of my strongest emotions was the surprising realization of how many of you who gathered for that ceremony I first met, and became friends with, through Paul. Because I spent so much time hanging out with him, I was lucky enough to come to know, and work with, that Swarthmore social science cohort, as well as many of the scientists @ Bryn Mawr. I really enjoyed speaking w/ so many of you yesterday evening, and was full of gratitude to Paul for having enlarged my own circle in that way; I felt full of joy and connection last night.

I'm hoping that those who didn't get a chance to speak about Paul yesterday evening will take the opportunity to do so here. And that those who did speak might be willing to record some of what they said?

Here are the notes I spoke from:

He was my friend.

He was a difficult friend.  Paul and I had very different personalities. There were a lot of things he could not be bothered with, including many of the social niceties: he shrugged off others’ expectations, forgot to pay his bills on time, laughed @ what he was fond of calling the human comedy. He also suffered from debilitating depressions, and came to believe that such periods were productive ones, times of relative disengagement that allowed a “needed rebuilding,” an "internal realignment.”

So, we kept each other company, for these past ten years, as depressive periods alternated with bursts of energy—writing, teaching, working, and always talking, talking, talking—together. Paul wasn’t the easiest friend for an extrovert like me. He called himself an “unstable loner,” identified himself as somewhere “on the spectrum,” and wrote once that  “a little more conversational handicappedness might be good for all of us.”

Paul celebrated change, but he could be also maddeningly unwilling to change his own settled habits--@ least in most of the directions I pointed out to him as offering real possibilities! (How many of us tried to get him to stop smoking?) But maybe, he said often, when I complained about some irritating predilection or another, we should start with the presumption that such difference is valuable?

Because, of course, it was precisely Paul’s freedom from social convention and expectation that made him such a good friend.  He saw things differently. He could surprise me by taking up the role (as he called it) of “spear carrier” for some absurd or hopeless cause. He could be unimaginably generous with his time and energy, if there were a particular project or conversation that engaged his attention.

Paul’s philosophy of life celebrated randomness, chance, and serendipity—these, he thought, made the world a place of possibility, and gave us freedom: if we don’t know what’s going to happen, if we (therefore) can’t get it right, if we (therefore) can’t control the outcome, then there was space there for him—there is space for all of us—to make a difference in the way the world is going.

As Leonard Cohen sang,
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.”

That crack was key to Paul’s teaching—he was always on the look-out for what wasn’t “perfect,” for the sentence that didn’t cohere in the otherwise well-ordered essay, for the observation that didn’t “fit” the larger claim--that’s where the light got in. The “crack” was cultural background, personal temperament, individual creativity—whatever enables each one of us to see things differently from the rest, and so enlarges the picture for us all.

Paul also believed, quite strongly, that we could learn to see things differently than  we ourselves saw them. One Sunday afternoon about seven years ago, he sat down at his office computer to write a letter to Rene Descartes, telling him that his phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” needed some correcting: “it encourages people to believe that there is a stable ‘I,’ something that itself is not to be changed. And that misses entirely the point of "thinking”… the ability to reflect on and bring about changes in who we are: "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am."

Paul believed in—and encouraged many of us to believe in-- the possibility of individual change. He also believed in—and encouraged many of us to believe in-- the possibility of social change. One of the weirdest of his many weird locutions was the “fuchsia dot”: the key to evolving social structures, he thought, was continual renovation in response to group feedback. This model requires someone like himself, positioned to "read" the input from group members, able to recognize the patterns articulated by them, and feed them back to the group for correction. For some reason, he called the people, like himself, who could detect these large patterns, “fuchsia dots.” Only one of the many mysteries to emerge from his unruly, generative unconscious.

Paul’s friend Tim Burke called him “the last to occupy his niche in the academic ecosystem”: “the role of the generalist, integrative, and speculative thinker who was once at the heart of the idea of the liberal arts…. As in nature, emptying out such an ecological niche can sometimes damage the entire web of life in unexpected ways.”

I don’t think so. We are all here tonight, filling that niche. As another old friend wrote in the Serendip blog of Paul stories, “yes, you are gone. But it's OK, we have you all backed up at home.”

Not just backed up, but carried within us. As another friend, David Ross, mused, “What a marvelous, subversive legacy Paul created at Bryn Mawr! When someone questions, when unexpected light fills the room, when the stately dance toward mediocrity is disrupted – I will think of Paul. “

As will I, of my difficult, different, disruptive friend.

roian's picture


Dear Anne,
It was great to meet you in person, and I like to think that Paul would have enjoyed being a part of our conversation (and, in fact, was). I have a paper to send you (the one on race/shirt color) but the email you gave me is bouncing--can you send me an email?

roian's picture

memorial for paul at bryn mawr?

Hi Anne,
I had heard there would be a memorial for Paul at Bryn Mawr in the fall. I wasn't able to make the one in July, and I wanted to be sure to be able to come. I'm sure many of the other people posting and lurking on this page would like to know as well. Is there such a memorial in the works? If so, would it be OK to post the time and location here? Many thanks for your words.


Ann Dixon's picture

memorial for Paul


It is now scheduled for is Sunday, November 20th in the Hepburn Teaching Theater, Goodhart, Bryn Mawr College.  It will begin at 2:00 pm, and everyone is invited.

Hope to see you there, Ann

Laura Cyckowski's picture

depression, stories, fuschia dots

Thanks, Anne, for posting what you read on Saturday, it is very beautiful. I especially liked that you touched on his notion of depression as productive. In the spirit of story sharing, a (short) story... I've been thinking a lot about how much I learned from him—about science & inquiry, "getting it less wrong", storytelling & revising, meaning making, play, thinking broadly, inter/transdisciplinary collaboration, the brain/behavior, the conscious/unconscious, a comfort in chance & randomness... I could go on and on. I think, though, that of everything I learned from him, I've come to learn the most about myself/my brain. We spent a lot of time talking about mental health and, in particular, about depression. With his help and through ours and others' conversations, we/I were able to come to a better and more productive understanding of depression... as "adaptive", a period of unconscious revision necessary for continued evolution of the self—a story that is definitely "different" and perhaps "difficult", but one that he felt was very much worth sharing and one that I found truly valuable in helping me understand and re-conceive my own depression. He and I also talked frequently about the need for more "fuschia dots" in mental health and it his him and these conversations that have shaped my career aspirations. There is so much that I owe to him and I will sorely miss him.

Jessica Watkins's picture


I can't say my first memory of Paul was very appetizing or appealing; in fact, it was a little terrifying at the time. I was living at Bryn Mawr while participating in the Science for College program, two years before I actually knew I would be going to school here. We had group discussions/activities with a different college professor every day, and when I saw on our program that a neurobiologist was to speak, I could barely contain my excitement (our week so far had been filled with quantum physics and geological experiments--we needed a change). An hour later, in walked Paul with a large cooler (I knew his research had involved frogs in some form or another, so I could only guess as to what kind of gifts he came bearing). He was tall, mysterious, quiet (he barely said anything when he first walked through the doorway); he had us on the edge of our seats without having to say a word. He stepped forward, arm outstretched, hand gripped around the handle of the bright blue box containing God Knows What.

Before we knew it he had whipped out a human brain, dripping with formaldehyde, and plunked it on the table with a satisfying plop. I was thoroughly shocked and disgusted; as a group, we weren't sure what to do. Who was this grey man who kept body parts in boxes and didn't even bother to lay out a tissue before he went slapping them down on the same table we were going to eat lunch on in 2 hours? Was this how Bryn Mawr operated, hiring strange, sloppy faculty to come in and scare potential students?

Eventually we got over it.  By the time lunch came around, none of us wanted to leave the conversation we had been having about the brain and all its quirks (although a few of us might have wanted to change locations to a new, less smelly table). And that is exactly how Paul managed to make me feel every time I saw him after that fateful day--a little bewildered at first, but then completely happy to be in his presence. I will never forget his quiet, his thoughtful pauses, the way he would raise one eyebrow and drag down his lips when he was processing a new idea. He was one of the very few people in my life that actually cared about what everyone had to say, and I can only pray that someday I will attain that level of acceptance and generosity. 

I will miss you dearly, Paul--squishy brain and all.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

the brain

A couple photos I took of him teaching with his "squishy" brain. I found it hilarious (and teased him for it) that he transported it around in a lunchbox.


Anne Dalke's picture

Niche displacement

I expect that Paul would be both touched and amused by the homage Tim Burke paid to him, yesterday, @ Easily Distracted:

Paul Grobstein embodied what I once thought all professors were like: contemplative, perpetually playfully delighted by ideas, generously engaged by anything crossing their path, unworldly, a touch eccentric, impractical, absent-minded, vaguely grumpy in affect…. Paul was one of the few to take on the role of the generalist, integrative, and speculative thinker who I think was once at the heart of the idea of the liberal arts….one of the last of his kind in the academic ecosystem. As in nature, emptying out such an ecological niche can sometimes damage the entire web of life in unexpected ways.

Paul would be touched, of course, to be recognized, so generously, for who he was and what he did. But I expect he'd be bemused, too, by Tim's nostalgia for what is no more. For I think the story Paul's been telling for the past few decades is neither nostalgic or tragic, but pragmatic--or even joyful: it's a tale about endless ongoingness. And thanks to him, there's lots of niche displacement on-going these days!

(While I'm recording homages, see also the nice one that just appeared in the Journal of Research Practice, an international, interdiscipinary journal that Paul helped support--via the Center for Science in Society--and which published several of his essays.)

lk's picture

A few more

The pictures of Paul are heartbreaking, especially the one with his pipe from so long ago. If we'd only known. I can't resist, though, sharing a few more of my own. The first is a "Portrait of the Scientist As A Young Man," 1991-ish.

The other -- well, like Ann's picture (wonderful picture of Audrey!), Paul was always so happy with children, in this case two of mine. That little girl is now 22.

Mary Ferrell's picture


Early 2000's -How I loved those worn out boat shoes and those flannel shirts ... Paul was one special guy who made me feel at home in Bryn Mawr College. He was the antithesis of elitism, welcoming all to share the joy of learning. A charismatic leader into topics such as, where is the "I" box in the brain and "randomness" but also, somehow, a friend. Paul, thank you! Love and Peace!

Ann Dixon's picture


Paul and Audrey, 2005

Alex Reyes's picture

a change of plans

In the early 80's, I was an undergrad at the U. of C. in need of research experience to get into medical school. And so when Paul agreed to let me volunteer in his lab, I felt a sense of relief because I had successfully duped him into thinking that I was really interested in research. In reality, I was hoping to be a gofer for one of the grad student and do some mindless job which wouldn't drain too much brain energy. Doing something uninteresting was of course impossible with Paul and sure enough, within a few months, I found myself applying to graduate school instead of medical school.

My time in Paul's lab really set the framework for how I would eventually do research in my own lab. Back then, we were looking for the central pattern generator that allows the frog to calculate the location of the prey and then generate a sequence of ballistic movements to capture it. There was a rather complicated mathematical model at the time suggesting that it was in the cerebellum. Neither of us was particularly adept at math so we were both pushing our boundaries. Nevertheless, with some effort and through countless discussions, we were able to get a rudimentary understanding of the equations and design a battery of experiments to test the model. In the end, the theory turned out to be wrong but I became a believer in the general approach.

I owe the man a lot. Had he been even a teeny bit unenthusiastic about science or uncaring about my project, I would have chosen a different path.

Jan's picture

"a very high stakes argument of breath-taking complexity"

Below is an initial editor's comment on Paul's essay, "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond," the first of seven published by Bryn Mawr's Emergence Working Group in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the journal, Soundings.

"The author has described the evolution of a bipartite brain with capacities for both emergence and rules-and- properties thinking .. and asserted that we needn't choose between these perspectives. ... He next claims that we should evaluate both approaches to inquiry according to their usefulness and generativity. This claim, then, sets up the following section, where the author argues that in the interests of innovation and productivity we need to become non-foundationalists and give up our notions of truth, reality, and objectivity. A quantum leap to be sure! ... Indeed, it is a very high stakes argument of breath-taking complexity in which nothing less than truth itself is in question... it is not clear how far the author is actually willing to go in banishing the notion of an objective world. He seems to waver between a world "half created and half discovered" like the one experienced by Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" and a more radical vision of experience in which "the construction of the brain" creates all of the "properties and rules" found in those "things out there."

Jan Trembley

sburgmay's picture

“You realize that brown doesn’t exist, don’t you?”

“You realize that brown doesn’t exist, don’t you?” So began my friendship with Paul Grobstein many years ago.   Color theory, color perception, color linguistics filled hours of discussion.  And as he did with others, he challenged me to doubt what my eyes told me was out there and instead acknowledge the role of the brain.  But serendipitously (!) this happened to coincide with my development as a watercolorist, and it is here where Paul probably influenced me the most.  He and his ideas inspired many paintings. 

Sharon J. Nieter Burgmayer's Intuition Honored 

One of the first was my attempt to capture his mental image of the unconscious: a deep pool from which emerged triangular blue “tabs” (he called them): those were ideas that floated up and out.   He loved to critique what I came up with in my paintings and he examined them as windows on my unconscious.  Sometimes even an argument would generate painting ideas:  this pair was done as a rebuttal to his assertion that ‘becoming’ meant the same thing as “being”. 

Sharon J. Nieter Burgmayer's Being Becoming

So for me, Paul’s insistence on thinking outside the box—actually, just forget the box altogether!—became a terrific muse for the synthesis of my images.

admin's picture

Thank you, Sharon

Your paintings inspired Paul, as well.

For Serendip visitors, Paul's introductory description of Sharon Nieter Burgmayers's watercolor exhibit on Serendip, Transformation, 2002, is here.

He particularly liked to talk about "Understanding," pictured to the left. One class, Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Telling and Re-Telling Stories About Ourselves in the World, fall 2001, had this online discussion.


Julia Heberle's picture

A Lab Tech From the 80's

Paul in his University of Chicago office in the early '80s

There have been two times in my life when I could not stop thinking about a job I had interviewed for and desperately wanted. One is my current job as a Psychology professor, and the other was being Paul's lab tech. And I did not even know the man. I just knew I wanted that job, that it would be right for me, that I had to have it. How could I have known how right I was, that more than 25 years later, I would still talk about it, remember things I had learned, value it as much as I do? And for so many more reasons than what it offered then, steady employment post college, with vacation and health benefits. I got most of my training directly from Paul, as his prior tech Charlie was departing quickly. I expressed some anxiety about being able to do the most important part of the job, brain surgery. His response was to tell me to hold out my hands, curl and clench my fingers in a partial fist, and hold them steady. He pronounced that I had "surgeon's paws", and that I would be fine. And I believed him. There was so much about working with Paul that went like that. He expressed his confidence in me, and I believed him. Sometimes his confidence was about the fact that yes, I could do that figure just one more time and get it exactly right (pre-Mac days), and my belief in myself might have been a bit grudging after the umpteumpth version. Paul's lab, at that time, was small, but very diverse in terms of student level. He worked with undergraduates (Ari Berkowitz above), techs, several M.D/Ph.D. students, and collaborated with a number of other faculty. I never felt low status, despite being almost the the lowest in that hierarchy, and I knew this was special when I looked around at other labs in the Neurscience dept at U of C. I felt privileged to work for Paul. My two years with him were years of massive transition, as he married again, became a father to two wonderful children, and was denied tenure. In that time, with all of that going on, he found time to help me with my applications to graduate school in psychology, to help me take my next professional steps.


How do you miss someone you have only seen a few times in a quarter century, only emailed occasionally? I do miss him, and that tells me how important Paul has been to me, not only for those two years as they unfolded, but everything since. I cherish his memory, and am forever grateful for the many things he taught me about living and doing science.
Julia Heberle
Albright College
Psychology Department

Anne Dalke's picture

Genre: Paul in his office


Julia's wonderful image of Paul makes me realize that there must be several decades of this "genre" of photograph: Paul, ever-more-graying, among the ever-growing stacks in his office. (This one was taken by Maria Scott-Wittenborn a few years ago.) I seem to remember others, included one covered in spider webbing.... Who's got copies of these??

Laura Cyckowski's picture

I don't have one with spider

I don't have one with spider webs (though I believe it), but I thought I'd share this one--taken in the new office he moved into last summer. This was right after he moved in, so the piles hadn't had time to build up (though they did). For as chaotic and packed with stuff as his other office was, I always found it very comforting to work in. It was a reminder of all the different things he was interested in, which was reassuring to me that the world was rich with things to learn about and if someone as smart as he was never bored and could always find something interesting and new to think about, then I and others could too.

Maureen England's picture


I think I probably drived Paul crazy in the Evolution of Stories/Story of Evolution class. In most of our seminars I would debate consistently about brain function in animals and humans and scientific fact. I embrace the 'there is no right or wrong' whereas scientific Paul studied the 'black and white.' But I remember the tiny smile in the corner of his mouth while we fired theories at each other; knowing that he enjoyed the debates as much as I did.

He will be greatly missed. I'm glad I had the experience of his teaching.


Elaine de Castro McFarland 's picture


He pushed me to think - beyond the assignment, beyond the syllabus, beyond the discipline. He taught me to make connections where I didn't think they were possible. His very essence and presence was inspirational, motivational, uplifting. He made learning exciting. After graduating, perhaps I felt he was Bigger Than Life or something, and I didn't send those "hello, how are you?" emails. Now I regret not keeping in touch. I wish I had conveyed to him how much he meant to me, to my learning, to my development into who I am today - but perhaps I didn't realize it until now. Rest in peace. - elaine BMC '99

kg's picture


My dad and I had trouble finding things to talk about, but Paul's intro bio course changed a lot of that. For a semester, my freshman year, my dad followed the class on Serendip, and we'd talk about ideas Paul brought up (what makes something living?), and for that semester, my dad and I had a real relationship and would talk often, and that continued to build. Paul's ideas, and his ways of thinking about ideas, really changed me. His door was always open, and when I was freaking out about graduating and not knowing what I was going to do, he told me I didn't have to know. He said just take what feels like the next right step for right now, and eventually, one step will lead to another and you'll be where you're supposed to be. Words I live by today.

What a huge loss.

Ari Berkowitz's picture

from a friend from another era


Paul in Chicago, 1984

I only heard of Paul's passing a few hours ago and found this forum via Google. I don't know any of you who have posted so far, except Karen Greif, and I haven't seen Paul more than 2 or 3 times in the past 25 years, but I I still feel a strong connection to him. Paul's influence as a teacher and lab head set me on the path of behavioral neurobiology, where I still am.

I first took a course of his in 1981, in my 2nd year of college at the University of Chicago (and then took every other class he offered there). I remember from the first day of class it seemed like all the other students were terrified of Paul, as his large frame loomed over us and he proclaimed in a booming voice how things are. But every now and then he would make a dry quip and I think I was the only one smiling. Soon after that course, I began working in his lab (at first, just as a volunteer) and eventually became his lab technician (and for a time Peggy Hollyday's as well). I left the country to travel for more than a year and when I returned without notice and showed up in his lab at UC, he immediately offered me my job back. When he moved to Bryn Mawr a few months later, I moved with him and helped get his lab up and running there, until I left for grad school in the fall of 1987.

I remember many stories about Paul, because he was a huge influence on me. He used to sit in his office at UC (which was inside his lab), reading or thinking, and then he would suddenly walk out of his office, chomping on his pipe, and tell us what he'd just thought of. We would all stop our work and turn to hear what it was. Right or wrong, it was almost always thought-provoking. Once he came out and said, "you know, thinking is harder than carrying concrete blocks." I said, "have you ever carried concrete blocks? I haven't, but I've carried straw bales, and I'd rather think." I did a project with him in which we injected tritiated thymidine into tadpoles at different ages and then examined the brains when they were all juvenile frogs, to birthdate neurons in the visual midbrain. (Like all the other undergraduate research I know of that went on in his lab, it was never written up for publication-Paul really wasn't concerned about publications!). I tried to be efficient by processing the brains of 7 animals at the same time. I placed each brain in a white, plastic cassette and then moved the cassettes sequentially through various solutions before embedding them in paraffin and sectioning them. I used a black Sharpie to label each plastic cassette with the animal's name. When the cassettes came out of methyl salicylate, however, they were all a clean white-there was no trace of the Sharpie-it had completely dissolved away-so there was no way to tell at what age each animal had been injected. I was distraught and I went to see Paul immediately to tell him of this disaster I was responsible for. He listened calmly until I was done. Then he said: "First, don't kill yourself. Second, next time write the name of the animal in pencil on a piece of paper inside the cassette. Third, we will still be able to use the data; you'll see."

When he was denied tenure by that department (probably because they counted up his publications and the number wasn't high enough), he posted two pieces of paper on his office door, side-by-side, indicating their apparent equivalence. One was his CV. The other was a certificate the state of Illinois sent people for being good drivers. I always loved his sense of humor!

Laura Cyckowski's picture

Particularly loved the last

Particularly loved the last part about the CV/certificate, thank you for sharing!

admin's picture


Thanks Ari, for the great stories and pix!


anneliese's picture

Thank you, Ari!

So glad you found/jumped into building this space.

roian's picture

I find it hilarious

that even though I haven't stayed in touch with Paul much since I graduated (in 1990), just *thinking* about him puts me in that uncomfortable, unsettled, productive state of not being sure about anything

I teach "that's cute" as the highest praise to pretty much everyone I work with, and I'm a card carrying systems neurobiologist, partly because of Paul's Neurobiology and Behavior course.

I've had many people important to me die, but with Paul I have the oddest feeling. In reminds me most strongly of the following:
I am always losing things. For years, I would have small notebooks full of addresses, recipes, notes, poems, and I would inevitably lose them and feel this horrible, jolting loss. Then I got a palm pilot, and used it for all those things, and I lost it. And instead of the horrible, jolting loss, mirabile!, I felt "that's OK, I have everything backed up at home". Somehow, that's how I feel now. Yes, you are important to me, Paul. And yes, you are gone. But it's OK, I have you all backed up at home.

Dagmar Ebaugh (nee Mueller)'s picture

Roian - well said (Hi Roian,

Roian - well said (Hi Roian, by the way)! ;-)

Doug Blank's picture

emergence: life and death

emergence: life and death
Name: Paul Grobs (pgrobste@brynmawr)
Date: 11/29/2002 12:52
Link to this Comment: 3907

Ted provided some useful information through our listserv, as follows:
* 29 October 2002: Per Bak, Physicist of Sudden Change, Dies at 54 -
* 5 November 2002: Art Winfree, 60, Scientist Who Studied Biological Rhythms, Is Dead -
* 10 November 2002: René Thom, 79, Inventor of Catastrophe Theory, Dies -
Anne expressed some concern about the trend. I replied:
Calm down. Interesting issue, hope we can get the group to it:
DEATH is an ESSENTIAL element of "emergence'

1. Second law of thermodynamics
2. Some VERY interesting theory/ongoing story-telling about "Maxwell's Demon"
Might be worth picking up on this theme next semester.

From: /forum/viewforum.php?forum_id=170&palette=lightyellow#3907

Anne Dalke's picture

Paul and Bad Poetry

It has long been curious to me, since Paul was so interested in complexity and ambiguity, that his taste in poetry ran to completely clear -- I'd say actually, absolutely kitch-y -- pieces, w/ rhythm and rhyme schemes that were insistently regular and predictable; when I tried to get him hooked on something more (he thought: needlessly) complex, he'd read it over, shake his head, and ask, ""why can't they just say what they mean?"  This puzzled me.

But, for the record: favorites of Paul's that I know about/heard often recited include Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" and Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." He also really liked Kipling's "If"  (the occasion for one of our many arguments, and the provocation for my writing an alternative version). He was fond, too, of Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" (especially as sung by Phil Ochs), -- and four years ago, when he retired from directing the Center for Science in Society (which had been a very important venue--created and maintained by him for seven years), I wrote a mock-heroic riff, "The Ballad of Grobsteinman," to celebrate what he had accomplished (which was, really, pretty heroic).

He also really loved to recite "The Cremation of Sam McGee," and was known (I was there for this, too) to recite for his students  a riff on the poem which he had written himself in high school:
Now the bias let's take
That clear we may make
Just who yours truly might be
And why he should want
Others to haunt
With pictures so open and free.

He's one to whom living
His creed I'm giving
Encompasses all man knows and does.
To sit and see life
Its varieties rife
Serves as its own Because.

And yet to see
With a capital Be
Requires as well that one is
And so he will sit
In the random sieve
And view lives, others and his.

And errors he'll make
For he too has a stake
In how he wants things to be
And can't ever quite know
From his vantage point low
What eternity can see.

There are strange things done
Under moon and sun
By those who search to Live
The tales of the race
Through time and space
Appear as from a Random Sieve
To the Lasting Same
Who view the game
It must look the dance of the blind
But to those down below
Who play the show ...

Finally, there was a (much better!) poem called "En Paz" (At Peace), by Amado Nervo, which Paul loved to quote (head back, eyes closed, reciting from memory in Spanish). He told me years ago --and then again this January-- that it would serve well as his epitaph.

lk's picture

Life you owe me nothing

Thank you, Anne, for remembering this. En Paz was a poem he told to me over and over again over our many years. For Paul, to love and be loved was truly to be at peace.

Anne Dalke's picture

"The Brain --is wider than...."

Any full account of Paul's poetry predilections would have to include (of course! how did I forget this??) Emily Dickinson's "The Brain --is wider than the Sky," w/ which he began every neurobio course, brain and behavior institute, psychoanalytic talk, professional presentation and Serendip playground for DECADES....

admin's picture

Brain and Behavior too

And also the Brain and Behavior section on Serendip (since 1995).

Anne Dalke's picture

Image of Paul, by Mark Lord

em madsen's picture

It Works Better if you Hold it Upright

Paul spoke those words to me on a blustery and rainy March afternoon; I was struggling on my way back to my dorm, and holding my umbrella sideways just to block the wind. I think he knew I was frustrated, and his words made the rest of the trip less difficult and more amusing, as I thought about the way we use tools as opposed to the way they are meant to be used.
After taking class with Paul, I always used to take a roundabout way home to Brecon through Park Science, right past his door, in hopes of passing by and falling into conversation. You always knew you were going to think and rethink as he settled back into his chair and placed his shoes on the desk.
Hearing of his death, one of the things I remember most was a way he had of saying hello or goodbye, which involved him holding up his palm so that you could match your palm up with it. I like thinking about all the imprints of his energy he left, both at Bryn Mawr, and now throughout the world, through this technique.

alesnick's picture

GRIST: making thoughts-in-process public

Paul and the Internet had a wonderful relationship. How often I heard him say, "Would you put that on the forum?" And if I did, there would be a response from Paul -- inviting, playful, curious.  Paul was deeply committed to the generative potential of open-ended transactional inquiry, and found the Web a wonderful setting to put that commitment into practice.  He was imaginative and tireless in nurturing online dialogue and in inventing communities and pedagogies to support it.  Working from his theory of generosity -- that is is fundamentally not a matter of giving what one has, but of interacting with others via the presumption that they (and one oneself) have valuable things to contribute to the process of creating and recreating meaning -- he did not toil to listen, but instead accepted and encouraged "thoughts-in-process" as welcome, necessary grist (one of his keywords) for inquiry.  For me, some of these online exchanges were revelatory.  In one, from early in the Evolving Systems project, a few of us got to talking about what the cosmos says when it talks to us in its own terms (Paul's formulation). I asked What?  Paul's answer: "Notice that I am bigger and stranger than anything you have yet imagined based on your experiences to date.   And the more you experience and imagine, the bigger and stranger I will get." When another colleague questioned this claim, asserting that the cosmos is silent, Paul replied, "Yes, 'rare and wondrous moments when we can feel ourselves at one with this silence' are to be valued as the closest we can get to "hearing" the cosmos at any given time.  But I wouldn't advise just waiting around for them.  They depend on hearing the chatter of art, science, day to day life, and on chattering onself."  

Laura Cyckowski's picture

Paul and the Internet

Ann reminded me yesterday of how he thought of Serendip as a person. Ever evolving and changing like a person.

Jody Cohen's picture


every year i invited paul to come talk to the students in a summer program i co-facilitated at bryn mawr. and every year he came--always on the first friday morning of the program when the students were just getting comfortable with each other and settled with what we were doing. and instead of speaking in some pre-decided way, paul would first ask to hear a little about them and what they were doing here. i don't know just what he picked up on, but he'd go on to pose a few provocative questions--different each year and keyed to the particular group--and pretty soon he'd have all of us unsettled in that very focused way that's about puzzling out new ideas. and he'd go on and do that with us, letting our questions emerge and take and shift shape...until we'd leave for lunch, together in a new way.

Karen  Greif's picture

the endless debate

I think it is safe to say that Paul and I disagreed about almost everything pertaining to science and educational philosophy. We argued about data interpretation, the significance of newly published articles, what one could (and could not) ask of students, the balance between course content and open student response, and so on. Sparring with him over 25 years was a source of stimulation (and frustration) over 25 years at Bryn Mawr. I would like to think we both learned a lot from our exchanges. In the past couple of years, we found ourselves agreeing more and more--something that made me very nervous! I will miss our debates, whether brief or extended, whether trivial or deeply significant. That we were able to trust each other enough to REALLY disagree without ever touching the core of our friendship is the measure of our relationship. I will treasure it all.

Douglas Blank's picture

The first time I saw Paul...

The first time I saw Paul was 10 years and 3 months ago. I was giving my job talk at Bryn Mawr, and some ways into it, I saw a disheveled man pacing outside the classroom. He eventually came into the room and sat near the back. I thought he was a homeless man from the local community. At the end of the talk, he asked a question: "Do you really think this is the way to create artificial intelligence?" This was not a homeless man, but someone that cut right to the issue. "No, this is the way that we currently have to do it. I think we need something more... emergent," I replied. That was Paul, and he become one of my best friends at BMC.

Emergence became a theme of all of ours: many of us met every week, nearly continuously, for 5 years to discuss "it". This wouldn't have happened---couldn't have happened---without Paul. He certainly did everyone! What patience!

I learned much from Paul on all aspects of life during the last 10 years. I hope we can all continue our serendipitous adventure as exemplified by Paul.

Alison Cook-Sather's picture

Living Landscapes

I have been thinking about how people, as much as any other natural element, create and contribute to the landscapes we live in. Paul was a deep force of nature — strong, quiet, insistent on life. He was one of the first people to welcome me to Bryn Mawr. And I mean welcome: to greet me, to invite me into conversation, to affirm my place in the landscape. That was 17 years ago, and so to lose Paul feels like losing something that should always be there (Sandy’s giant Copper Beach). I keep remembering – and not comprehending – that he is gone. And so I am comforted by his words (thanks, Anne, for surfacing them) that we might "come to see disappearance not as loss but rather as transformation… joyful acknowledgement that what has lived beside us now lives inside us." Paul certainly lives inside me, and when I lit a candle for him and placed it, at dusk on the day he died, among the bright red poppies that fill the fields here in England, I thought of how Paul welcomed so many not only into the landscape of Bryn Mawr but into our own interior landscapes, making us at home in both.

Mike Sears's picture

blah blah blah

My first memory of Paul was at my job seminar. The details are foggy but he asked, "So you are saying 'blah blah blah?' " Excitedly, I answered 'blah blah blah' back. Thing is, we both got it, forgot it, and probably no one else did. To this day I am here at Bryn Mawr because of that exchange (..seriously). Nothing Paul said since was more profound...or less profound. I'll miss Paul for the everyday exchanges that no one else caught or cared about. They meant the world to me. And they will carry on.

Anne Dalke's picture

Revising Stories


Like Julia  and Laura, I'm having trouble selecting from a rich trove of stories about Paul. He taught me so much, from really helpful practical things (like how to write html code), to really large life-changing things (like the neat trick of telling stories, not in order to preserve what has been, but rather to lay the ground for revising what is and might be: he insisted that there are always alternative ways to tell any story). Two months after our last class ended, I found myself continuing such revisionary conversations in the course forum, talking w/ Paul about "the last chance to see," about science (failing to!) correct its own mistakes, and about mental health and diversity.


My best stories of Paul are all about just such ongoing, ever-revised conversations--many in front of our classes, or with other teachers in the summer institutes; many more in faculty working groups, but mostly one-on-one, sitting on the friendship bench in Morris Woods, leaning against a tree in Ashbridge Park, walking around Appleford, or (in colder weather) just sitting in his car w/ the windows cracked open, to let out the pipe smoke. We argued about fidelity vs. freedom, stability vs. newness, "sticky" brains vs. "slippery" ones, communal company-keeping vs. individual idiosyncrasy; and always, always about the usefulness of constructing binaries like those in this sentence (in which, as you might imagine, I was always the one clinging to the first term, he the one urging consideration of the new possibilities opened up by the second).

Together and with others we published essays about storytelling and emergence and interdisciplinarity.  I tried unsuccessfully to engage him in the interpretation of complex poems; he tried unsuccessfully to teach me some complex mathematics. He got me to read some science fiction, and enticed me from Henry James into a shared love of his brother William  (though I wasn't able to lead him back along the return path). We shared a deep pleasure in big rich contemporary (revisionary!) novels like Ahab's Wife and Middlesex (which we taught together); we brought George Lakoff to campus, and Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Wai Chee Dimock, and--most astonishingly of all--Octavia Butler (now THAT was a night! She wouldn't eat during the dinner we'd planned @ Yangming before her talk, and afterwards we could NOT find a place open in Bryn Mawr that served vegetarian food. We actually drove her back to Swarthmore, where she was staying, w/out ever feeding her, and thereby acquired a VERY BAD reputation among Octavia Butler lovers….)


It also occurs to me that among the stories gathered here should be included some of the best ones Paul told himself--especially, of course, his so-relevant Learning from Extinctions ("maybe we could come to see disappearance not as loss but rather as transformation, an untragic, perhaps even joyful acknowledgement that what has lived beside us now lives inside us?") My personal favorites also include a couple of old chestnuts: his '89 Alumnae Bulletin essay, Diversity and Deviance ("the objective, as seen from the biological standpoint, is clear: a social and political system which respects and nurtures differences instead of attempting to eliminate them") and his '01 thoughts about science education: This Isn't Just My problem, Friend  ("Thinking IS dangerous, and risky…but being able to think, is the only way to make anything BETTER than it is, and … its a hell of a lot better then sitting in one place and trying to hold everything together").

I also really like two essays from '03: War Is a Bad Metaphor  ("there is in the case of terrorism, as in the case of cancer, no well-defined or single invader or enemy the destruction of whom will 'fix the problem'. There is instead a disturbance in the patterns of communication and understandings among human beings") and Some Thoughts on Academic Structure:
" 1) stop trying to find fault with one another
2) proceed on the assumption that we all have relevant and valuable local expertise
3) recognize that what problems we have are problems of coordination/communication to which we all contribute in one way or another
4) get on with the necessary (and endless) task of evolving our forms of information sharing to enhance the intellectual/educational enterprise in which we are all engaged and to which we are all committed."


 And I'm especially fond, too, of a short piece on Cultures of Ability which Paul just wrote last year ("by learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves we could as well contribute to bringing into being a more humane culture, a culture of ability rather than disability?").

Finally, any list of "the best of Paul" would have to include the amazingly wide-ranging web conversations he generated by Writing Descartes ("I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"), and by reflecting publicly, and repeatedly, on The Place of the US in the World Commmunity  ("It is … time to … to commit ourselves anew to finding ways to tell our collective human story in a way from which no one feels estranged"). Much more along these lines can be found on his homepage @ /local/grobstein.html


Riki's picture

Thanks for these pictures,

Thanks for these pictures, Anne. Paul had a great sense of humor. I only have one picture of him so it's nice to see these.

jrlewis's picture

more stories

"Story is the umbilical cord that connects us to the past, present, and future… Story is a relationship between the teller and the listener, a responsibility. . . . Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another."— Terry Tempest Williams (Pieces of White Shell)

lk's picture

zip lines

Paul saw the flyer for the zip line almost as soon as we checked into the resort in St Lucia. It wouldn't have been my first choice, or even, frankly, my second for something to do. I thought we would spend the week lying on the beach, exploring the towns, drinking rum punches. But for all his contemplation, Paul had a sense of adventure and always sought out the unusual; in this case he was drawn to the exotic -- zip lining and snorkeling. Our trip through the rain forest treetops was as liberating as he had promised. "Just go," he urged, as they pushed me off. His smile was radiant as he flew through the air.

But it was the snorkeling he loved most. You have to give up a sense of direction to get the most out of snorkeling; you have to let the undercurrents direct you and slow your mind way down. It was the perfect environment for Paul, who loved nothing more than to follow his nose. Words often got in the way for him, and he sought out ways to get out of his busy mind. He trusted and preferred to live in his unconscious. Again and again we would swim among the fish; he couldn’t get enough of that feeling of letting go. We did explore the towns and drink rum punches, but we never lay on the beach. There was too much adventure in him.

aybala50's picture

My first memory of Paul

The first time I ever saw Paul was in my College Seminar class with Anne Dalke. He was a visitor and what I mostly remember is him leading a discussion on reality and what is real. The question was whether the table in the center of the classroom was real. I hated it and became frustrated, but I did find him interesting. 

Then, preregistration time was coming up and I noticed Paul was teaching a class called Neurobiology and Behavior. It sounded interesting, but it had a prerequisite that I had not completed. So...I e-mailed him and asked him if he'd let me take the class anyways. He responded that we should meet so we set up a time. I went into see him and after basic introductions his first question for me was that darned is the table real question. I finally snapped and said 'who cares! as long as I can use it why does it matter?!' As soon as I said it I regretted my small outburst and feared that he would not let me take his class. After a few short moments that seemed so long to me Paul merely looked straight at me and said "You have an interesting mind". That was it and then he moved on. 

I ended up taking 2 classes with Paul and feel very fortunate that I got to know him before he passed. He truly was an amazing man.  

Naa Kwarley Quartey's picture

Professor Paul Grobstein

Professor Paul Grobstein taught me to question. Everything. My beiefs, established norms...everything I can think of. He also taught me to make my own philosophy of the world instead of following what others have prescribed - to tell my own story, so to speak.

As he used to say in class, "the world is full of stories, some of which are lies, none of which are true!"

He will be greatly missed.

alesnick's picture

flying the plane via iPhone

One pretty fall day a few years ago, Paul and I were taking a walk. It was a couple of days before I was scheduled to travel by plane, something I'd grown rusty at and fearful about since 9/11 and several years staying in or close to the nest. I had been sharing my nervousness with different friends: one offered reassurance via a statistical outlook (more dangerous to drive to work, that sort of thing); another commiserated and shared the bracing philosophy that while unpleasant flying, and nerves about it, are just the price of doing business in the world. Paul said, "Oh! I have an app on my phone -- a fun game that lets me fly planes. So I'll use it to keep your plane safe in the air until it's time for it to land." I felt immediately calm and safe. Even though I knew at the same time that Paul wouldn't actually ask, know, or remember my flight information. He spoke directly and helpfully to my unconscious. It was like magic. For several flights post that one, I asked him to fly the plane and he agreed readily. Last time I flew, it was to New Orleans, this past April. I wasn't scared. I called Paul from the French Quarter, thanked him for a good flight, and asked how he was feeling. He shared that, I said a bit about the conference. Then I told him that I had a dilemma: go to a session or stroll through the music festival underway in the neighborhood. His voice smiled as he said he'd recommend the music. He also recommended I try a Hurricane. So I did.

lk's picture

The fun part is that Paul was

The fun part is that Paul was fascinated by plane crashes. He followed crashes avidly, and had really alarming knowledge of some of the biggies.

Riki's picture

Paul's toy

I remember him showing me this game! There was another game that involved cars -- Laura probably remembers what it was called. He was so excited when he first got his iPhone -- "Would you like to see my new toy?" I think is what he said to me. Around that time I was very depressed, so whenever I would go to see him he would show me some new app or feature on his iPhone, knowing that all I really needed was to be distracted from my thoughts. He was very pleased with its ability to take pictures and video. That summer he had taken a trip with Jed and Rachel to California, and when he came back he showed me some videos he thought were very relaxing -- one of the ocean and another of jellyfish.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

one of his favorites

Flight Control. He mentioned several times this was one of his all-time favorite iPhone games and convinced me to download it. In it you control the paths of airplanes and land them. It gets progressively harder as more planes come and you have to keep track of them all. I remember he used this game in an analogy about the brain and episodes of depression that was really helpful to me. The brain/conscious/self ("the air traffic controller") works hard to monitor and keep in check subparts of the self/unconscious ("the airplanes"); everything is okay for awhile but eventually you lose focus and lose track of everything. All these little parts of the self/unconscious seem to get out of control, resulting in an overall sense of incoherence and disorder, and depression ("crashing") results.

Brie Stark's picture

Instead of thinking, "Is this

Instead of thinking, "Is this right?," Paul taught me how to think, "Is this less wrong?"

Paul opened my eyes to the concept of a very strange thing - being wrong!  I had never before been too comfortable with making my own opinions heard in a paper for a scientific class, but as soon as I began writing for his neurobiology and behavior class, I realized that I needed to start stepping out of my comfort zone.  When I interned with him the summer after this class, he would always ask me, "what else?  Where can we take this?" I learned that this was the beauty of an idea: that it could be forever expanded and made less wrong, and that it could fit any given situation if you were willing to seriously think about it.  So now, some two years after that internship, I always think, "what would Paul say to this idea?" and that helps me look at it from a different angle and really appreciate the depth of knowledge that one idea can tap into.  I also would inwardly chuckle when I thought about what I imagined would be going through his head all at one time: funny ideas, dry humor, philosophical musings and, of course, that love of science.  All mixed together, Paul was quite the character.

Thanks for everything! 

Arlo Brandon Weil's picture

Missing Paul....

Paul was one of my absolute favorite people. During my decade at Bryn Mawr I never saw someone else more in Park Science than I saw Paul. Every Saturday, every Sunday, everyday. Smoking, puffing, thinking, talking, smiling, sitting, leaning back arms clasped over head …just being Paul. The many afternoon breaks to his office, the many morning conversations over coffee, the many random stops in the hall will most surely be missed by me. Paul forced me to think in ways I was, and am, unaccustomed to. Our discussions about what science is, how to teach science, the evolution of scientific thought and inquiry, the different perceptions of science, etc., are, and will continue to be, some of my most cherished intellectual experiences.

My heart aches at the early loss of a friend, but I know he wouldn’t want that, so I will just smile, remember and be happy I got to know and experience Paul Grobstein as one of the truest people I have ever had the fortune of interacting with.

I love you Paul!

Sandy Schram's picture

copper beach

I read Paul's commentary on loss just now through teary eyes, only to discover he was again, still, after he no longer is here, helping me to think anew and imagine unforeseen possibilities. His idea that every death is a disruption that implies not just a loss but a possibility for gain immediately resonated with me (even as much as I did not want to believe it at this moment). I thought of our Copper Beach, a tall, perhaps 40 foot high massive, tree that stood for years on the front north corner of our home at 57 Station Road. If you go by there now, you will not see it: we lost it a few years back after long efforts to keep it alive. It was so sad to see it go and, of course, I was convinced I had done something wrong (Joan, my wife, is less prone to these second-guessings). Yet, quickly the rhododendrons all around the tree starting growing due to the greater sunlight exposure, and they have become massive, beautiful, colorful additions to our front yard spring flowerings. All made possible by the death of our much beloved Copper Beach. I think that Paul is Bryn Mawr's Copper Beach (not the tree on the quad near his office). May his passing be the basis for a greater flowering of the intellectual diversity he so long so eloquently championed.

jrlewis's picture

Out of Infinitely Many More

I remember the summer I interned at the institute, trying to surprise Paul with a present from the farm.  While watering the horses one night, I happened upon an amphibian and managed to catch it with a shovel.  The poor creature survived the night in a plastic bucket and the horrors of my driving.  I proudly showed my catch to another teacher only to be mocked for my folly at finding, not a frog, but a toad.  I was crestfallen; this was no laboaratory mascot.  Still, I shyly showed my catch to Paul, expecting little.


“A toad!” he cried, breaking into a smile, “how cute!”  He then proceeded to explain how toads more closely resemble mammals than frogs and mammals are the epitome of cuteness.  At my request, he showed me the most obvious difference between frogs and toads, the parotid gland.  Then he searched the bio department for an adequate aquarium and finding none, purchased one at Petco.  We kept Charlie/Charlotte for the summer.  Three more toads after her.  

Laura Cyckowski's picture

So, what do you know?

This is a really great idea. I have known Professor Grobstein for 7 years, lots of stories and memories to choose from. I’ll start with this one… I’ve spent much time as a student and after graduating working on things for Serendip. The computer I worked from is in the side office right next to the office he had for a long time. I liked that I could hear when he’d get up to take a break from whatever he was working on. It meant that he would wander in eventually and he would sit down to talk. When he wasn’t taking a break to “go puff on his pipe” (as he would say) he would usually come in with his coffee (always in his steel Starbucks coffee mug). He would put his coffee on the table, sit down, maybe put his feet up on the table or chair and lean back, hands behind his head, and he’d say “So, what do you know?”. It was easy to talk to him, he was interested in and curious about so many things. Biology, the brain, science, psychology, mental health, human behavior, culture, philosophy, learning, education, the list goes on. The way he had of thinking about things was so inspiring and refreshing. Things I wouldn’t normally be interested in I became excited about. Anyway, after talking he would invariably leave without his coffee mug and would come back a few minutes later asking if anyone had seen his coffee. Eventually, I started sneaking into his office when he’d go to smoke his pipe. I’d hide his coffee mug so that he would come looking for it, that way he’d sit down to talk some more. :)

alesnick's picture

receiving that question

When Paul would ask, "What do you know?" my mind and heart would be happy and amazed. (I'm smiling as I write this, remembering the feeling.) I felt graced by sudden, freely given authority and the invitation to use it, share it, make something with it. Going around so often feeling I didn't know, wasn't sure . . .this question, from a person whose knowledge and learning were so deep and wide, was so encouraging, and such fun. Paul would also ask, "What are you thinking about?" And he would say, "Keep talking." And we did, and we do, and we will.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

Him asking this always made

Him asking this always made me feel confident in what I had to say and that I had valuable, interesting stories to share with him and others.

Riki's picture

Paul made me feel that way

Paul made me feel that way too. My freshman year he asked me to read over a paper he was submitting for publication; he wanted to know what I thought of it. I couldn't believe he would want my opinion on his paper -- what did I know about anything? But that's just it. To Paul, everyone is an expert in some way and has something interesting to contribute. I don't think I understood what his paper was about, so I asked him a lot of questions. He probably leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and said, "That's interesting. I never thought about it that way."

Judie McCoyd's picture

Paul and stories

Like "Wil Franklin", I find it hard to find a story about Paul (though I loved reading the one of Audrey). The idea of "smooth as a lullaby and prickly as a pear" rings for me. For me, the story of Paul is about his qualities and ideas.

I remember when Roland, Paul and I had lunch to talk about starting the book group that became the Graduate Idea Forum (GIF) in early 2000. So many of my memories of Paul are tied up in that group as we challenged one another- I questioned his "passionate skepticism" with my "passionate curiosity," disagreed about having only coin-flip decisions (his assertion which he backed off of a little in one of our final visits), or his insistence that frog brain and cortex are all there is (and me a lover of the limbic system!). I felt like we all provoked one another to new ways of thinking, experiencing and feeling. Yet for all the provocation, there was always warmth, positive regard and authenticity- characteristics I know from my work create ripe opportunities for growth.

I think that for me, one of the gifts of Paul was his ability to provoke growth in others and his joy in seeing it happen.

I recently was at a funeral where someone stood and said of the deceased- "I didn't know Glenn, I'd only met him 2-3 times: but I can say this, I could never confuse him for anyone else." I think we could probably all say something similar.

Paul was like no other- provocative & caring, open & opinionated, depressed & joyful- not typical polar opposites, but always flowing among varied "situated positions"; revising stories; flowing like water in life and now flowing like air. Keeping that spirit alive seems an important project to continue in his honor.

Deepak's picture

So long, Paul

We will keep playing, and discovering...

Deepak's picture


Serendip represents and embodies Paul's philosophy, in life and in academics, of learning and discovery through play and happy accidents.

We will all miss you, Paul.

But, we will keep playing and discovering.


Wil Franklin's picture

A Friendly Attractor and a White Hole

More feelings about Paul than a story, but it is how I’m remembering him…



More a friendly attractor than a strange one, but some of both;

A node, a warp in spacetime.

Opposite a black hole, rather a white;

An event horizon upon crossing all mass and energy expands out infinitely.

Complex and textured;

Smooth as a lullaby and prickly as a pear.

Knowing him is discovering yourself, knowing himself.

Did he make everyone feel as much?

Imagine that!

admin's picture

Sitting on the Hole game

Every week when she was a baby, Paul played the Sitting on the Hole game with Audrey.

"Heeeeere's Audrey! Audrey was sitting on a hole. But she didn't KNOW she was sitting on a hole. When alllll of a sudden, when she least expected it, the hole opened up, annnnnnnnd BOOM!"

(huge laughing from both of them)

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