Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted in 1953 of revealing the secrets of our nuclear cupcake recipe to the Soviets. Varying sources from Howard Zinn to the FBI have argued back and forth constantly over how much either of them were involved, if one used the other as bait, and so on - and pretty much everyone agrees that the information that one or more of them may or may not have passed along would have been nothing substantially more than whatever was teased out of security leaks in the Manhattan Project. Let's be odd characters and dismiss all of this as completely peripheral to the taste that these two notorious figures shared with one William Cosby.

JELL-O: DESSERT OF SOVIET AGENTS™

That's right, the all-American pudding was perverted to the cause of the Communist International, according to the prosecution in US vs. Julius & Ethel Rosenberg and Martin Sobell. Providing an exhibit in the form of a randomly purchased Jell-O pudding box, that familiar little cardboard 2-cup container, prosecutor Roy Cohn explained the ingenious method used in the plot to bring capitalism to its knees. In order to identify his co-conspirator, Julius Rosenberg had apparently taken one half of an emptied box of the dessert (we must impress on the reader: flavor unknown!) that had been torn not-so-neatly in the middle. Upon meeting his contact from the USSR, he would squint shiftily, darkly, and in a thoroughly Marxist manner, and quietly show his half of the box to the figure in question. The perfidious Stalinist goon would hold up his half, and the two would match perfectly! The ragged edges of each side of the box provided a perfect sign and countersign that no snitch would ever be able to fake, simply by the whim of Fate and physics when the box was torn. This was not unlike those two-piece necklaces that were ever so popular when I was in fifth grade, except when these halves were joined, the principal figures were indeed "FRIENDS 4EVER" - in COMMUNISM!

Thus was the connection established between the two men who would make off with "the secret of the atomic bomb" (which "secret" now - what's in the briefcase? The eleven secret herbs and spices?) A crafty form of communication, this. But not, by some standards, kosher for the Jewish Rosenbergs, as the gelatin powder contained, among other ingredients, pulverized pig bones. We'll probably never know if they actually partook of the delicacy, of course.

This historical novelty has been used by philosopher Daniel Dennett to make certain points about thought experiments as conducted by his colleagues in cognitive studies. Each half Rosenberg Jell-O Box provides a perfect "M-detector", that is, an unfalsifiable way of "understanding" the other side, "M", to provoke a certain response - in this case, the identification of a co-conspirator. The method for the two boxes to combine is intensely complex, as each tear must find its counterpart in the "information" contained on the other side. But if all information on one side of the box was recorded and understood by an observer, then a perfect copy of the opposite side could be envisioned by that same observer.

Many thinkers in the field of cognitive studies struggle with the idea of an information-based understanding of the world by the human brain, in the sense that the human brain consciously understands information. This "split" in knowledge and subjective experience is symbolized by the endless grousing over qualia, or mental states with a certain subjective character, like "seeing red". Those who promote qualia as a wide-ranging explanation posit a woman who has been born and raised in a room completely without color other than black and white, but has nevertheless accrued all information about the neural and psychological response of the human brain to color. When this woman is finally let out of this room to see her first color, these philosophers demand, wouldn't she "learn" something new that she could not have learned in the first room, even though she knew all about color? Couldn't we put a blue banana in front of her and have her not even blink an eye?

It is the easiest thing in the world, and seemingly the most obvious, to throw up one's hands and admit that this must be right - because how can knowing all about something be the same as "experience" of it? Dennett explains that this is completely faulty, because the woman in the room knows not "a lot" about color, or even "most" of that body of knowledge, but "all" of it. And since she knows all of it, she will understand perfectly how certain wavelengths of light, reflected back at her eyes, will alter her physical and psychological state. She knows, with all of this information, every aspect of the "experience" of color. It is, in fact, old hat to her, and you would not have a woman slapping her forehead and saying "So that's what blue looks like!". This is because the thought experiment gives her an inordinate amount of knowledge that no real human being could ever hope to achieve, that is, "all" knowledge about a subject.

She, in other words, has contained within her mind every tear, jagged edge, crevice, and minute detail of one half of the Rosenberg Jell-O Box. She would be a tremendous asset to the United States government in this case, as certain means at her disposal would allow her to make an M-detector completely indistinguishable from the original, and thus gain the incriminating knowledge that would put the treacherous Commies in the electric chair. She would "know" the Rosenberg Jell-O Box, and in this we have understanding of how information translates into experience. Which doesn't make the thought experiment totally worthless, but certainly brings into question theories that use it as a given.


Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Little Brown & Co (Pap); ISBN: 0316180661; (October 1992)

Linder, Doug. "THE TRIAL OF THE ROSENBERGS: AN ACCOUNT". http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/ROS_ACCT.HTM .

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