Thursday, December 18, 2008

Enlightenment man

A FORMER vice-president, Al Gore, and one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, were already seated on the stage of Google’s “Zeitgeist” conference, an exclusive gathering for the intelligentsia, but the third chair was still empty. After a few minutes, Sergey Brin, the other founder of the world’s biggest internet company, joined them. Messrs Gore and Page gave him the floor, because Mr Brin had something important to say.

The global “thought leaders” in the audience at Zeitgeist had just spent two days talking about solving the world’s biggest problems by applying the Enlightenment values of reason and science that Google espouses. But Mr Brin, usually a very private man, opened with an uncharacteristically personal story. He talked about his mother, Eugenia, a Jewish-Russian immigrant and a former computer engineer at NASA, and her suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

The reason was that Mr Brin had recently discovered that he has inherited from his mother a mutation of a gene called LRRK2 that appears to predispose carriers to familial Parkinson’s. Thus Mr Brin, at the age of 35, had found out that he had a high statistical chance—between 20% and 80%, depending on the study—of developing Parkinson’s himself. To the surprise of many in the audience, this did not seem to bother him.

One member of the audience asked whether ignorance was not bliss in such matters, since knowledge would only lead to a life spent worrying. Mr Brin looked genuinely puzzled. First of all, he began, who’s talking about worrying? His discovery was merely a statistical insight, and Mr Brin, a wizard at mathematics, uses statistics without fretting about them. More importantly, he went on, his knowledge means that he can now take measures to ward off the disease. Exercise helps, as does smoking, apparently—although Mr Brin, to laughter, denied taking up cigarettes (a vice of his father’s).

But Mr Brin was making a much bigger point. Isn’t knowledge always good, and certainly always better than ignorance? Armed with it, Mr Brin is now in a position to fund and encourage research into this gene in particular, and Parkinson’s in general. He is likely to contact other bearers of the gene. In effect, Mr Brin regards his mutation of LRRK2 as a bug in his personal code, and thus as no different from the bugs in computer code that Google’s engineers fix every day. By helping himself, he can therefore help others as well. He considers himself lucky.

The moment in some ways sums up Mr Brin’s approach to life. Like Mr Page, he has a vision, as Google’s motto puts it, of making all the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”. Very soon after the two cooked up their new engine for web searches, in the late 1990s at Stanford University, they began thinking about information that is today beyond the web. Their vast project to digitise books has been the most controversial so far, prompting a lawsuit from a group of publishers in 2005 that was resolved in October. But Messrs Brin and Page have always taken a special interest in the sort of information that most people hold dearest: that about their health.