Despite their intense scientific depth, John Brockman runs these gatherings with the cool of an old school bohemian. A lot of these meetings indeed mark the beginning of a new phase in science history. One such example was a few years back, when he brought together the luminaries on behavioral economics, just before the financial crisis plunged mainstream economics into a massive identity crisis. Or the meeting of researchers on the new science of morality, when it was noted that the widening political divides were signs of the disintegration of American society. Organizing these gatherings over summer weekends at his country farm he assumes a role that actually dates from the 17th and 18th century, when the ladies of the big salons held morning and evening meetings in their living rooms under the guise of sociability, while they were actually fostering the convergence of the key ideas of the Enlightenment.
NETWORK OF IDEAS
The Salon was the engine of enlightenment. Now it's coming back. In the digital era the question might be different from the ones in the European cities of the 17th century. The rules are the same. Why is there such a great desire to spend some hours with likeminded peers in this age of the internet?
by Andrian Kreye, Editor, The Feuilleton (Arts & Essays), Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich.
The salon, which marked a entire era: Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar with her guests, including Goethe (third from left) and Herder (far right).
For more than a century now the salon as a gathering to exchange ideas has been a footnote of the history of ideas. With the advent of truly mass media this exchange had first been democratized, then in rapid and parallel changes diluted, radicalized, toned down, turned up, upside and down again. It has only been recently that a longing emerged for those afternoons in the grand suites of the socialites in the Paris, Vienna, Berlin or Weimar of centuries past, where streams of thought turned into tides of history, where refined social gatherings of the cultured elites became the engine of the Enlightenment.
Just like back then, today's new salons are mostly exclusive if not closed circles. If you do happen to be invited though you will swiftly notice the intellectual force of those gatherings. On a summer's day on Eastover Farm in Connecticut for example, in the middle of green rolling hills with horse paddocks and orchards under the sunny skies of New England. This is where New York literary agent John Brockman spends his weekends. Once a year, he invites a small group of scientists, artists and intellectuals who form the backbone of what is called the Third Culture. Which is less of a new culture, but a new form of debate across all disciplines traditionally divided into the humanities and the natural sciences, i.e., the first and second culture.
On that weekend, for example, he had invited a half-dozen men. Each of whom had a large footprint in their respective disciplines: the gene researcher Craig Venter, who was the first to sequence the human genome; his colleague George Church, Robert Shapiro, who explored the chemistry of DNA, the astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, quantum physicist Seth Lloyd, and the physicist Freeman Dyson, who sees in his his role as scientist the need to continually question universally accepted truths. A few science writers were also present, along with Deborah Triesman, literary editor at the New Yorker.
John Brockman, literary über agent and intellectual arbiter, wrote a trilogy of experimental, divisive books. Then, at age 32, he retired from writing ...more»
The artist Richard Hamilton once remarked that we only remember exhibitions that invent new rules of the game. This welcome new edition of Brockman's work is a thoroughly inspiring reminder of the fact that this observation can also be applied to books. —Hans Urich Obrist
HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. He is the author of Ways of Curating.
Foreword to By the Late John Brockman: EVER BROCKMAN
Since the 1960s, John Brockman's pioneering activities have been diverse and multidirectional, marked by a fearlessness and fluidity of thought. He has been a writer, a literary agent, a junction-maker between science and art, a curator, an avant-garde-film programmer, has worked in industry, for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and for The White House. He is also the founder of Edge Foundation and editor of Edge.org, an important platform for the exchange of knowledge between different fields that aims "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge".
Stewart Brand has called Brockman an "intellectual enzyme … an adroit enabler of otherwise impossible things". As Brockman himself puts it, "I look to … those who through their empirical work are changing the nature of ourselves and reality, whether they are scientists or not … people who are using technology and new communications ideologies to radically reboot the whole idea of human communication." First and foremost, he is driven by the question: "Who … will take us to the epistemological crossroads where everything has to be rethought? My entire career has been in pursuit of this vision."
Central to this approach is Brockman's fundamental opposition to the separation of art and science. Instead, he sees art as science and science as art. This way of thinking beyond the boundaries is a guiding theme that defines his activities, which focus on establishing networks. He "celebrates thinking smart versus the anesthesiology of wisdom", where experts ask questions not "in front of their peers in their academic discipline or their field, [but] in front of people who are their equals in other areas." This is why, when I first met him in the summer of 1998 at his farm in Connecticut, he became one of my great inspirations, reinforcing my conviction that pooling knowledge across disciplines is the future.
In one of our many conversations over the last fifteen years, Brockman remarked that "Life is the theatre of one chance." His life and work have been greatly informed by this idea. In 1964, he met the artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who was running the Film-makers' Cinematheque for underground cinema. Brockman was already working with underground film-makers, and video artists, which was at this time a revolutionary art genre. In 1965 Mekas asked him to take over the Cinematheque and to initiate an Expanded Cinema Festival there. He invited many great New York artists working in all fields, including Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman and Claes Oldenburg, to make a work integrating film for a special performance. These activities led to an invitation from leading scientists in biophysics, computation and cybernetics to bring a group of New York artists, film-makers and musicians to MIT in Cambridge Mass., for what was probably the first art-science symposium—an event that would have a lasting impact on his thinking and methods.
It's the case that a lot of the SALT speakers are book authors, and sometimes we get them when they're on book tour. But usually I'm finding them because I want the same body of research and analysis that they’ve done at book scale. These are not tweets. They're not even TED Talks, brilliant as those are. Those are short form; these are the long form. For somebody to hold forth for the better part of an hour, whatever it is they have to say, they have to have mastered quite a bit.
Over the past few years on a nearly monthly basis, Stewart Brand gets on a stage in San Francsico to do a Q&A with an eclectic array of interesting speakers, ranging from world-famous bestselling authors to young researchers and thinkers still under the radar. "My job is curator," he says, "but also I find the people, I get in touch with them, I invite them; they're not getting paid. They do get visibility in a serious context and a fantastic audience. I give a Q&A with them on the stage and then I summarize, which for me is the hardest, in some ways most interesting part because when Steven Pinker or Elaine Pagels or Jared Diamond or whoever talks for an hour, how do you summarize what they said in a couple hundred words and send that out to everybody? It's a form of writing compression that is hard, but I think worth doing. People like it."
The summaries of the SALT Talks, emailed to the membership and then posted on the Long Now website, are a highlight of the program. Check them out, and watch the videos of the talks at the Long Now Seminar page.
Last month I sat down with Brand in San Francisco, at the new Interval Cafe near the Golden Gate Bridge, the latest addition to the many projects coming out of his Long Now Foundation. I was particularly eager to talk to him as it's coming up on the 50-year mark of our first meeting in 1965 at the USCO psychedlic/cybernetic tabernacle in a converted church in Garnerville, NY. We've been in touch regularly ever since, talking about ideas, working on an occasional project. It's always interesting.
STEWART BRAND is Founder of the The Whole Earth Catalog, Co-founder and Co-chair of The Long Now Foundation, author of Whole Earth Discipline.
SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking
For 12 years now we've been doing monthly talks to the public called "Seminars About Long-term Thinking" that the Long Now Foundation sponsors in San Francisco. I don’t have a rap about the SALT Talks—Seminars for Long-term Thinking—this is one of those cases where the acronym rules. SALT talks are an ongoing territorial exploration of people who are talking, writing, thinking about things that bear relation—sometimes tangential—to long-term thinking, bearing in mind that the Long Now, as defined by Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz for the Long Now Foundation, is the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. So we're building a 10,000 Year Clock, we’re bringing back extinct species, we’re cataloging all the languages in the world, and we're giving a pretty highly visible stage to current thinkers.
When Steven Pinker writes his book, The Better Angels of our Nature—the book is incredible, his news is fantastic, that things are getting better in terms of violence and cruelty and injustice in a pretty constant long-term way—everyone wants to hear him say it and tell it with words and presence and slides and quizzing on the stage.
When I think of the work on social pain, and showing that some of the same neural regions that are involved in physical pain are involved in social pain, that can be very validating for people. For anyone who's felt the pain of losing somebody or who's felt the hurt feelings that come from being ostracized or bullied, there's something very validating in seeing this scientific work that shows it's not just in our head. It is in our head because it's in our brain. It's not just in our head, there is something biological going on that's interpreting the pain of social rejection as something that really is a painful experience.
NAOMI EISENBERGER is a professor in the Social Psychology program at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience laboratory as well as co-director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.
The kinds of questions that I'm interested in have to do with the feelings that come up in our closest social relationships. I've been on both sides of this equation, the negative side and the positive side. I've been very curious about both the painful feelings that we have when we lose our closest social relationships or we feel disconnected from others, as well as the pleasurable feelings that we have when we feel close and connected to those that we love. One of the things that we've been exploring in my Lab at UCLA is where those feelings come from. One way that we've been doing this is by turning to the brain to try to understand those feelings of social closeness or social distance.
We started off on the negative side. I started off with this question of: why do people talk about feeling hurt by social rejection? Why do they talk about the pain that comes up when they feel left out or excluded? It's a very palpable experience. Most people, if you ask them to think back to some very painful event in their life, instead of bringing up something that involves a broken bone they’ll often bring up an experience that involves losing a social relationship or being rejected. We all have these memories of being left out on the school playground or fears of being left out on the school playground. So I was very curious. Where do those fears and where do those feelings come from?
News & Events
9/5/2014 —Penn State Brandywine will host its first Common Read event of the academic year—a panel discussion titled, "What Is Brandywine Worried About"—on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 11:30 a.m. in the Vairo Library Amphitheatre. Students, faculty and staff are invited to this thought-provoking dialogue, which mirrors the theme of this year’s Common Read book, "What Should We Be Worried About?"
The event will feature six panelists, including Brandywine faculty, staff and students, who will discuss topics that concern each of them in today's world. Topics will range from educational issues to scientific reasoning and beyond.
"What Should We Be Worried About?," edited by John Brockman, is a collection of short essays revealing the planet’s most hidden threats. The essays are written by some of the world’s most influential scientists who were asked to disclose unknown situations that worry them. The result was a book that changes the way people view biology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy, physics, psychology, war, technology and much more.
The campus Common Read was created to provide an opportunity for the entire Brandywine community to participate in knowledgeable conversation about a shared text, allowing the campus to develop a dialogue focused on one central idea or question.
In the event of inclement weather, the panel discussion will be held in the Tomezsko Building, room 103. For more information about this year’s Common Read selection, visit Penn State Brandywine’s Common Read webpage.
The way nature is—the nature of flowers, the nature of birdsong and bird plumages—implies that subjective experiences are fundamentally important in biology. That the world looks the way it does and is the way it is because of their vital importance as sources of selection in organic diversity, and as a result we need to structure evolutionary biology to recognize the aesthetic, recognize the subjective experience.
...ducks are one of the few birds that still have a penis. It's a very weird structure. It has an explosive erection, its erection mechanisms are lymphatic instead of vascular, it's stored outside-in inside the cloaca and comes flying out, and they can get very lengthy—up to 40 centimeters, which is over a foot long on a duck that is itself not even a foot long. It's an extraordinary piece of biology. What's going on in these ducks?
In lots of ducks there's forced copulation. It's the equivalent of rape in ducks. In species where there is a lot of forced copulation, females have evolved or co-evolved complex vaginal morphologies that frustrate the intromission or frustrate entry of the penis during forced copulation. For example, the penis of ducks is counter-clockwise coiled and often has ridges or even teeth-like structures on the outside. In this case, in these species, the female has evolved a vagina that has dead end cul-de-sacs, so that if the penis goes down the wrong direction it’ll get bottled up and doesn’t perceive to be closer to the oviduct, or further up the oviduct and closer to ova. And then above the cul-de-sacs, the duck vagina has clockwise coils, so there's literally anti-screw devices that prevent intromission during forced copulation.
RICHARD PRUM is an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
DUCK SEX, AESTHETIC EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY
Over the last few years I've realized that a large portion of the work that I've been doing on bird color, on birdsong, on the evolution of display behavior, is really about one fundamental and important topic, and that's beauty—the role of beauty in nature and how it evolves. The question I'm asking myself a lot now is: what is beauty and how does it evolve? What are the consequences of beauty and its existence in nature?
There's a long history of people thinking about ornament in nature—those aspects of the body or the behavior of organisms that are attractive, which function in perception of other organisms. Usually we think about this in terms of sexual selection or mate choice, but there's a bunch of other contexts in which it can occur, like flowers attracting pollinators and fruits attracting frugivores, or even the opposite—a rattlesnake or a poisonous butterfly scaring away predators. These are all aspects of the body that function not in the regular way but in perception.
I'll tell you about my new favorite idea, which like all new favorite ideas, is really an old idea. This one, from the 1960s, was used only in a couple of studies. It's called "latitude of acceptance". If I want to persuade you, what I need to do is pitch my arguments so that they're in the range of a bubble around your current belief; it's not too far from your current belief, but it's within this bubble. If your belief is that you're really, really anti-guns, let's say, and I want to move you a bit, if I come along and say, "here's the pro-gun position," you're actually going to move further away. Okay? It's outside the bubble of things that I can consider as reasonable.
We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you're drunk, or when you've had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas. Once you do that, you don't try to get them to go to the other position, you try to get them to see there's some common ground that you don't share, but that you think would not be a crazy position to hold.
MATTHEW D. LIEBERMAN is a professor of psychology at UCLA. He is the author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.
LATITUDES OF ACCEPTANCE
When people ask me what I’m interested in studying, the first thing I tell them is that I have Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to science. They start out thinking that I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which I don't, but I do when it comes to science. So I tend to have ideas that range all over the place, and even though I was told early in graduate school to study one thing and study it very, very deeply, that never really worked for me, and I was lucky enough that I didn't have to.
My ideas tend to all focus on what we call loosely the "social brain." How is it that our brain evolved to make us social? How does it successfully make us social? What are its limitations? How does it lead to a context where we think we understand what's going on, but we're mistaken? That can lead to all sorts of interpersonal issues.