My week: Steven Pinker

The eminent psychologist and author jogs his way around America and Britain, swears on air, joins his partner on a tandem, and delights in using the word 'gobsmacked'

Sunday October 14, 2007

Observer

One of my favourite kinds of movie is the American picaresque, in which the characters make their way across the country, learning about life against the gorgeous backdrops of that vast land. The closest experience available to an academic scribbler is the book tour and I've been travelling - across the US and Britain - to publicise The Stuff of Thought

Recently, I acquired a taste for train travel, partly because I live in a converted loft across the street from Boston's main station. (The move from across the river after years of living in Cambridge was the idea of my partner, novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who felt that Cambridge was too suburban and that downtown Boston was the closest she would get to her beloved Manhattan.)

I asked my publisher to book me on trains for the shorter legs of the trip and when my hosts learnt that I was arriving by train, they reacted as if I was travelling by stagecoach. But these days, trains are quicker than planes for short hops and many American trains hug the coastline and provide views of egret-filled marshes, sparkling blue seas and, on a Seattle-Portland trip, Mount St Helens.

I try to jog in every city I visit and I particularly enjoy harbour-front paths that let me ogle big ships, railroad bridges and the ruins of factories and warehouses. Accompanying me is my Apple iPhone, which lets me to listen to 1,500 songs, take phone calls, answer email and send photographs of the scenery home to Rebecca. (Yes, I am a nerd.)

I spent my birthday in Philadelphia with two colleagues. Soon after we sat down, the door of the restaurant opened and Rebecca walked in - she had conspired with them to surprise me as my birthday present. I was gobsmacked. The reason I recount this episode is that I have always wanted an occasion to use the word 'gobsmacked', which is unknown in America.

One chapter of my book is on the psychology of swearing. In the course of my bookshop lecture, I mention many of the taboo words in English. (I don't swear, I tell people; I talk about swearing.) Several passages reliably bring the house down, including a 16th-century curse advising someone to engage in an undignified sexual act with a cow and a verbatim recitation of the Clean Airwaves Act, a piece of legislation stipulating what you can't say on the radio that is so filthy it effectively outlaws discussion of itself.

The exception to the expected merriment was a lecture hosted by a megachurch in Dallas and introduced by the minister; my usual laugh lines drew only nervous titters. I worried that I had offended the audience but then learnt at the signing that everyone enjoyed the lecture - they just didn't know whether they were allowed to laugh in front of the minister. I suspect that the minister found the lecture funny, too, but didn't know whether he was allowed to laugh in front of his parishioners.

The Clean Airwaves Act and similar legislation calls for ruinous fines for any station that lets a taboo word slip out over the airwaves. So, in radio interviews, I was mindful to use euphemisms like freakin' and the s-word. The only problematic city, once again, was Dallas. On a public radio programme, I mentioned that in Quebecois French the standard curses are goddam tabernacle and goddam chalice. The host turned white and lunged for the bleep button..The producer came in and whispered to her that there was nothing wrong with saying 'goddam' on the air; she had overreacted to the new broadcast prudery. The same squeamishness was not evidenced by political magazine the New Republic, which not only ran a juicy, uncensored excerpt from the book that week, but edited it so that the very first word of the article was 'fucking'.

I was grateful that the publisher granted me a conjugal visit during a gap in the schedule and I flew back to Massachusetts. Rebecca and I drove to our vacation house on Cape Cod, where we watched old Woody Allen movies, hiked in a bird sanctuary, grilled fish and pedalled 25 miles on our tandem into Provincetown, the charming town at the tip of the cape inhabited by artists, Portuguese fishermen and people of every sexual orientation you can think of and many you can't.

When time permits, I try to see interesting people in the cities I visit. In Seattle, I met Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who is shy in personality but flamboyant in his philanthropy. Among other things, he has funded a TV series on evolution (a daring act in creation-mad America), a rock'n'roll museum designed to look like a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo and an institute for brain science (for which I am an adviser), which developed an atlas of gene expression in the mouse brain and which is working on a similar one for the human brain. We spoke about how hard it is to visualise the 3-D anatomy of the brain, Paul's new mega-yacht (suitable for a James Bond villain) and how the psychology of moralisation leads people to favour ineffective solutions to global warming.

In Los Angeles, I meet Virginia Postrel, a libertarian columnist who published a book on the rise of aesthetics in modern economies and is working on a book on the concept of glamour. By coincidence, I had just had a drink in Washington with Sally Satel, a psychiatrist who wrote a book on political correctness in medicine called PC MD

The coincidence is that Sally's body contains one of Virginia's kidneys. Two years ago, Sally was facing death from a rare kidney disease and published an article on the shortage of living kidney donors. Virginia read the article and, in an act of pure altruism, offered Sally, a complete stranger, one of hers.

It saved Sally's life and Sally has since become an advocate of a regulated market in organ donation - the idea that living organ donors should be financially compensated, because the incentive would increase the supply of kidneys and save the lives of thousands of people less fortunate than her who currently die on organ donation waiting lists.

Her argument is completely reasonable to me, yet blazingly controversial to everyone else. It is the story of my life.

The Pinker CV

The Life
Born September 1954, Montreal, Canada. Twice married and twice divorced, lives with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein in Boston.

The Work
Academic career split between Harvard and MIT, currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His interests centre on language and mind. Five books for general audiences, including The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. His latest, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, is published this month. Takes part today in the 24-Hour Interview Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian News and Media Limited 2007