About
Features
Editions
Press
Events
Dinner
Question Center
Subscribe

Edge 296—August 5, 2009
(7,700 words)

THE THIRD CULTURE

A SHORT COURSE ON SYNTHETIC GENOMICS
Edge Master Class 2009
George Church & J. Craig Venter

EDGE SUMMER READING
Recent and forthcoming titles from Edge Contributors

THE REALITY CLUB

Tim O'Reilly, Ed Regis, Victoria Stodden, Jesse Dylan, George Dyson, Alexandra Zukerman
on "A Short Course on Synthetic Genomics"

IN THE NEWS

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Synthetic Life
By John Markoff

THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
When Science & Poetry Were Friends
By Freeman Dyson


Follow Edge On

http://twitter.com/edge


Chris Anderson, W. Brian Arthur, John Barrow, Thomas Bass, Jeremy Bernstein, Susan Blackmore. Stewart Brand, John Brockman, Max Brockman, David Buss, Nicholas Christakis, Andy Clarke, Gregory Cochran,Jack Cohen, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Stanislas Dehaene, Keith Devlin, Denis Dutton, Freeman Dyson, David Eagleman, Todd Feinberg, James Fowler, Howard Gardner, Anthony Giddens, Daniel Goleman, Alison Gopnik, Susan Greenfield, Haim Harari, Henry Harpendening, Gerald Holton, Nicholas Humphrey, George Johnson, Steven Johnson, Stephen H Kellert, Marek Kohn, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Jonah Lehrer, John McWhorter, Thomas Metzinger, Oliver Morton, David G. Myers, Richard E. Nisbett, Alva Noë, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Dean Ornish, John Allen Paulos, Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Irene M. Pepperberg, Clifford Pickover, David G. Post, Douglas Rushkoff, Karl Sabbagh, Scott Sampson, Al Seckel, Clay Shirky, Gavin Schmidt, Tom Standage, Bruce Sterling, Ian Stewart, Steven Strogatz, Colin Tudge, Sherry Turkle, Antony Valentini, E.O. Wilson, Lewis Wolpert, Richard Wrangham, Carl Zimmer [...]

PERMALINK


On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of the some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.

In this future — whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already — life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made. ...

George Dyson, from The Introduction

A SHORT COURSE ON SYNTHETIC GENOMICS [7.30.09]
George Church & J. Craig Venter



Edge Master Class 2009
George Church & J. Craig Venter
The Andaz, Los Angeles, CA, July 24-6, 2009

AN EDGE SPECIAL PROJECT

GEORGE CHURCH, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director, Center for Computational Genetics, and Science Advisor to 23 and Me, and J. CRAIG VENTER, Founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. and President of the J. Craig Venter Institute and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, taught the Edge Master Class 2009: "A Short Course In Synthetic Genomics" at The Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, the weekend of July 24th-26th. On Saturday the 25th the class traveled by bus to Space X near LAX, where Sessions 1-4 were taught by George Church. On Sunday, the Class was held at The Andaz in West Hollywood. Craig Venter taught Session 5 and George Church taught Session 6. The topics covered over the course of a rigorous 2-day progam of six lectures included:

What is life, origins of life, in vitro synthetic life, mirror-life, metabolic engineering for hydrocarbons & pharmaceuticals, computational tools, electronic-biological interfaces, nanotech-molecular-manufacturing, biosensors, accelerated lab evolution, engineered personal stem cells, multi-virus-resistant cells, humanized-mice, bringing back extinct species, safety/security policy.

The entire Master Class is available in high quality HD Edge Video (about 6 hours).

The Edge Master Class 2009 advanced the themes and ideas presented in the historic Edge meeting "Life: What A Concept!" in August 2007.

___

Further Reading on Edge:
Constructive Biology: A Talk With George Church
[6.26.06]
Life: A Gene-Centric View Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins: A Conversation in Munich
(Moderator: John Brockman)
[1.21.08]


SESSION 1 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Dreams & Nightmares
[1:26]


SESSION 2 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Constructing Life from Chemicals [1:21]


SESSION 3 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Multi-enzyme, multi-drug, and multi-virus resistant life [1:06]


SESSION 4 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Humans 2.0 [33:15]


SESSION 5 @ THE ANDAZ [7.26.09]

From Darwin to New Fuels (In A Very Short Time)
[34:54]



SESSION 6 @ THE ANDAZ [7.26.09]

Engineering humans, pathogens and extinct species [40:35]


Thanks to Alex Miller and Tyler Crowley of Mahalo.com for shooting, editing, and posting the videos of the Edge Master Class 2009.


INTRODUCTION

INTRODUCTION: APE AND ESSENCE
By George Dyson

Sixty-one years ago Aldous Huxley published his lesser-known masterpiece, Ape and Essence, set in the Los Angeles of 2108. After a nuclear war (in the year 2008) devastates humanity's ability to reproduce high-fidelity copies of itself, a reversion to sub-human existence had been the result. A small group of scientists from New Zealand, spared from the catastrophe, arrives, a century later, to take notes. The story is presented, in keeping with the Hollywood location, in the form of a film script.

On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of the some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.

In this future — whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already— life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made.

The first day's lectures took place at Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket laboratories — where the latest Merlin and Kestrel engines (built with the loving care devoted to finely-tuned musical instruments) are unchanged, in principle, from those that Theodore von Karman was building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1948. The technology of biology, however, has completely changed.

Approaching Beverly Hills along Sunset Boulevard from Santa Monica, the first indications that you are nearing the destination are people encamped at the side of the road announcing "Star Maps" for sale. Beverly Hills is a surprisingly diverse community of interwoven lives, families, and livelihoods, and a Star Map offers only a rough approximation of where a few select people have their homes.

Synthetic Genomics is still at the Star Map stage. But it is becoming Google Earth much faster than most people think.

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.

George Dyson's Edge Bio Page

"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures. ... Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter. — Boston Globe



THE CLASS

Stewart Brand, Biologist, Long Now Foundation; Whole Earth Discipline
Larry Brilliant, M.D. Epidemiologist, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund
John Brockman, Publisher & Editor, Edge
Max Brockman, Literary Agent, Brockman, Inc.; What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science
Jason Calacanis, Internet Entrepreneur, Mahalo
George Dyson, Science Historian; Darwin Among the Machines
Jesse Dylan, Film-Maker, Form.tv, FreeForm.tv
Arie Emanuel, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment
Sam Harris, Neuroscientist, UCLA; The End of Faith
W. Daniel Hillis, Computer Scientist, Applied Minds; Pattern On The Stone
Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Senior Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council
Salar Kamangar, Vice President, Product Management, Google
Lawrence Krauss, Physicist, Origins Initiative, ASU; Hiding In The Mirror
John Markoff, Journalist, The New York Times; What The Dormouse Said
Katinka Matson, Cofounder, Edge; Artist, katinkamatson.com
Elon Musk, Physicist, SpaceX, Tesla Motors
Nathan Myhrvold, Physicist, CEO, Intellectual Ventures, LLC, The Road Ahead
Tim O'Reilly, Founder, O'Reilly Media, O'Reilly Radar
Larry Page, CoFounder, Google
Lucy Page Southworth, Biomedical Informatics Researcher, Stanford
Sean Parker, The Founders Fund; CoFounder Napster & Facebook
Ryan Phelan, Founder, DNA Direct
Nick Pritzker, Hyatt Development Corporation
Ed Regis, Writer; What Is Life
Terrence Sejnowski, Computational Neurobiologist, Salk; The Computational Brain
Maria Spiropulu, Physicist, Cern & Caltech
Victoria Stodden, Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School
Nassim Taleb, Essayist & Risk Engineer, The Black Swan
Richard Thaler, Behavioral Economist, U. Chicago; Nudge
Craig Venter, Genomics Researcher; CEO, Synthetic Genomics, A Life Decoded
Nathan Wolfe, Biologist, Global Virus Forecasting Initiative
Alexandra Zukerman, Assistant Editor, Edge



ON "A SHORT COURSE ON SYNTHETIC GENOMICS"
George Church & J. Craig Venter

Tim O'Reilly, Ed Regis, Victoria Stodden, Jesse Dylan, George Dyson, Alexandra Zukerman


TIM O'REILLY
Founder, O'Reilly Media, O'Reilly Radar

The Quantitative Revolution in Biology

George Church asked "Is life a qualitative or quantitative question?" Every revolution in science has come when we learn to measure and count rather than asking binary qualitative questions. Church didn't mention phlogiston, but it's what came to mind as a good analogy. Heat is not the presence or absence of some substance or quality, but rather a measurable characteristic of a complex thermodynamic system. Might not the same be true of life?

The measurement of self-replication as a continuum opens quantitative vistas. Here are a few tidbits from George Church and Craig Venter:

• The most minimal self-replicating system measured so far has 151 genes; bacteria and yeast about 4000; humans about 20,000.

• There are 12 possible amino acid bases (6 pairs); we ended up using 4 bases (2 pairs); other biological systems are possible.

• Humans are actually an ecology, not just an organism. The human microbiome: 23K human genes, 10K bacterial genes.

• Early estimates of the number of living organisms were limited to those that could be cultured in the laboratory; by sampling the DNA in water and soil, we have discovered that we undercounted by many orders of magnitude

• The biomass of bacteria deep in the earth is greater than the biomass of all visible plants and animals; ditto the biomass of ocean bacteria.

• The declining cost of gene sequencing is outpacing Moore's Law (1.5x/year): the number of base pairs sequenced per dollar is increasing at 10x per year.

Net: The current revolution in genomics and synthetic biology will be as profound as the emergence of modern chemistry and physics from medieval alchemy.


ED REGIS
Writer; What Is Life?

Almost fifteen years ago, in a profile of Leroy Hood, I quoted Bill Gates, who said: "The gene is by far the most sophisticated program around."

At the Edge Master Class last weekend I learned the extent to which we are now able to reprogram, rework, and essentially reinvent the gene. This gives us a degree of control over biological organisms — as well as synthetic ones- — hat was considered semi-science fictional in 1995. Back then scientists had genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce insulin. At the Edge event, by contrast, Craig Venter was talking about bacteria that could convert coal into methane gas and others that could produce jet fuel. It was merely a matter of doing the appropriate genomic engineering: by replacing the genome of one organism with that of another you could transform the old organism into something new and better.

George Church, for his part, described the prospect of synthetic organisms grown from mirror-image DNA; humanized mice, injected with human genes so that they would produce antibodies that the human body would not reject; and the possibility of resurrecting extinct species including the woolly mammoth and Neanderthal man.

But as far-out as these developments were, none of them was really surprising. After all, science and technology operate by systematically gaining knowledge of the world and then applying it intelligently. Thus we skip from miracle to miracle.

More extraordinary to me personally was the fact that the first day of the EDGE event was being held on the premises of a private rocket manufacturing facility in Los Angeles, SpaceX, which also builds Tesla electric vehicles, all under the leadership of Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. The place was mildly unbelievable, even after having seen it with my own eyes. In the age of Big Science, where it is not uncommon for scientific papers to be written by forty or more coauthors, the reign of the individual is not yet dead.


VICTORIA STODDEN
Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School

Craig Venter posed the question whether it is possible to reconstruct life from its constituent parts. Although he's come close, he hasn't done it (yet?) and neither has anyone else. Aside from the intrinsic interest of the question, its pursuit seems to be changing biological research in two fundamental ways encapsulated Venter's own words:

We have these 20 millions genes. I view these as design components. We actually have software now for designing species, where we can try and put these components together. The biggest problem with engineering biology on first principles is that we don’t know too many first principles. It's a minor problem! In fact, from doing this, if we build this robot that can make a million chromosomes a day, and a million transformations, and a million new species versions, it'll be the fastest way to establish what the first principles are, if we can track all that information and all the changes.           

Unlike physics or more mathematical fields, research in biology traditionally hasn't been a search for underlying principles, or had the explicit goal of developing grand unifying theories. A cynic could even argue funding incentives in biology encourage complexity: big labs are funded if they address very complicated, and thus more expensive to research, phenomena. Whether or not that's true, chemical reconstruction of the genome is a process from first principles, marking a change in approach that brings biological research closer in spirit to more technical fields. Venter seems to believe that answering questions such as, "Can we reconstruct life from its components?" "What genes are necessary for life?" "What do you really need to run cellular machinery?" and "What is a minimal organism that could survive?" will uncover first principles in biology, potentially structuring understanding deductively.            
Venter's use of combinatorial biological research is another potential sea-change in the way understanding is developed. This use of massive computing is analogous to that occurring in many other areas of scientific research, and the key is that discovery becomes less constrained by a priori assumptions or models (or understanding?).

Moore's Law and ever cheaper digital storage is giving scientists the luxury of solution search within increasingly large problem spaces. With complete search over the space of all possible solutions, in principle it is no longer necessary to reason one's way to the (an?) answer. This approach favors empirical evaluation over deductive reasoning. In Venter's biological context, presumably if automated search can find viable new species it will then be possible to investigate their unique life enabling characteristics. Perhaps through automated search?


JESSE DYLAN
Film-Maker, Form.tv, FreeForm.tv

What a revelation the The Master Class in Synthetic Genomics was. In addition to being informative on so many literal levels it reinforced the mystery and wonder of the world. George Church and Craig Venter were generous to give us a glimpse of where we are today and fire the imagination of where we are going. It's all science but seems beyond science fiction — living forever, reprogramming genes, resurrecting extinct species. All told at SpaceX — a place where people are reaching for the stars, not just thinking about it but building rockets to take us there. Where Elon Musk contemplates the vastness of space and our tiny place in it, where we gained a perspective on the things that are very small and beyond the vision of our eyes. So small it's a wonder we even know they are there. Thanks for giving us a profound glimpse into the future.

We are in such an early formative stage it makes one wonder where we will be in a hundred or even a thousand years. It's nice to be up against mysteries.


GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Darwin Among the Machines

End Of Species

We speak of reading and writing genomes — but no human mind can comprehend these lengthy texts. We are limited to snippet view in the library of life.

As Edge's own John Markoff reported from the recent Asilomar conference on artificial intelligence, the experts "generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet."

Who will ever write the code that ignites the spark? Craig Venter might be hinting at the answer when he tells us that "DNA... is absolutely the software of life." The language used by DNA is much closer to machine language than any language used by human brains. It should be no surprise that the recent explosion of coded communication between our genomes and our computers largely leaves us out.

"The notion that no intelligence is involved in biological evolution may prove to be one of the most spectacular examples of the kind of misunderstandings which may arise before two alien forms of intelligence become aware of one another," wrote viral geneticist (and synthetic biologist) Nils Barricelli in 1963. The entire evolutionary process "is a powerful intelligence mechanism (or genetic brain) that, in many ways, can be comparable or superior to the human brain as far as the ability of solving problems is concerned," he added in 1987, in the final paper he published before he died. "Whether there are ways to communicate with genetic brains of different symbioorganisms, for example by using their own genetic language, is a question only the future can answer."

We are getting close.


ALEXANDRA ZUKERMAN
Assistant Editor, Edge

As the meaning of George Church and Craig Venter's words permeated my ever-forming pre-frontal cortex at The Master Class, I cannot deny that I felt similar to the way George Eliot described her own emotions in 1879. Eliot, speaking as Theophrastus in a little-known collection of essays published that year, predicts that evermore perfecting machines will imminently supercede humans in "Shadows of the Coming Race:"

When, in the Bank of England, I see a wondrously delicate machine for testing sovereigns, a shrewd implacable little steel Rhadamanthus that, once the coins are delivered up to it, lifts and balances each in turn for the fraction of an instant, finds it wanting or sufficient, and dismisses it to right or left with rigorous justice; when I am told of micrometers and thermopiles and tasimeters which deal physically with the invisible, the impalpable, and the unimaginable; of cunning wires and wheels and pointing needles which will register your and my quickness so as to exclude flattering opinion; of a machine for drawing the right conclusion, which will doubtless by-and-by be improved into an automaton for finding true premises — my mind seeming too small for these things, I get a little out of it, like an unfortunate savage too suddenly brought face to face with civilisation, and I exclaim —

'Am I already in the shadow of the Coming Race? and will the creatures who are to transcend and finally supersede us be steely organisms, giving out the effluvia of the laboratory, and performing with infallible exactness more than everything that we have performed with a slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy?' 1

Whereas Theophrastus' friend, Trost (a play on Trust) is confident that the human being is and will remain the "nervous center to the utmost development of mechanical processes" and that "the subtly refined powers of machines will react in producing more subtly refined thinking processes which will occupy the minds set free from grosser labour," Theophrastus feels "average" and less energetic, readily imagining his subjugation by these steely organisms giving out the "effluvia of the laboratory." He imagines instead that machines operate upon him, measuring his thoughts and quickness of mind. Micrometers, thermopiles and tasimeters were invading the sanctity of his consciousness with their "unconscious perfection."

As George Church told us that "We're getting to a point where we can really program these cells as if they were an extension of a computer" and "This software builds its own hardware — it turns out biology does this really well," my sensibilities felt slightly jarred. Indeed, I felt as though I might be from an uncivilized time and place, suddenly finding myself on the platform as a flying train whizzed past (in fact, our tour of SpaceX and Tesla by Elon Musk was not far off!).

I asked myself the same question George Eliot posed to herself over one hundred years ago. If computing and genetics are converging, such that computers will be reading our genomes and perfecting them, has not Eliot's prediction come true? I wondered, as a historian of science, not so much about the implications of such a development, but about why computers have become so powerful. Why do we trust, as Trost does, artificial intelligence so much? Will scientists ultimately give their agency over to computers as we get closer to mediating our genomes and that of other forms of life? Will computers and artificial intelligence become a new "invisible hand" such as that which guides the free market without human intervention? I am curious about the role computers will be playing, as humans grant them more and more hegemony.

___

1
George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such


EDGE MASTER CLASS 2009 — PHOTO ALBUM


George Church

Craig Venter


Nassim Taleb


Nathan Myhrvold, Larry Page


Tim O'Reilly


Richard Thaler


Sean Parker, Thomas Kalil


Ari Emanuel, Jesse Dylan, Maria Spiropulu

[... Continue to Photo Album]


GEORGE CHURCH & CRAIG VENTER


GEORGE M. CHURCH is Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Center for Computational Genetics; Science Advisor to 23andMe.

With degrees from Duke University in Chemistry and Zoology, he co-authored research on 3D-software & RNA structure with Sung-Hou Kim. His PhD from Harvard in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology with Wally Gilbert included the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984; initiating the Human Genome Project then as a Research Scientist at newly-formed Biogen Inc. and a Monsanto Life Sciences Research Fellow at UCSF with Gail Martin.

He invented the broadly-applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and array DNA synthesizers. Technology transfer of automated sequencing & software to Genome Therapeutics Corp. resulted in the first commercial genome sequence (the human pathogen, H. pylori, 1994). He has served in advisory roles for 12 journals (including Nature Molecular Systems Biology), 5 granting agencies and 24 biotech companies (e.g. recently founding Codon Devices and LS9). Current research focuses on integrating biosystems-modeling with the Personal Genome Project & synthetic biology.

George Church's Edge Bio Page


J. CRAIG VENTER is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century for his invaluable contributions in genomic research, most notably for the first sequencing and analysis of the human genome published in 2001 and the most recent and most complete sequencing of his diploid human in genome in 2007. In addition to his role at SGI, he is founder and chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute. He was in the news last week with the announcement that SGI had received a $600 million investment from ExxonMobil to develop biofuels from algea.

Venter was the founder of Human Genome Sciences, Diversa Corporation and Celera Genomics. He and his teams have sequenced more than 300 organisms including human, fruit fly, mouse, rat, and dog as well as numerous microorganisms and plants. He is the author of A Life Decoded, as well as more than 200 research articles and is among the most cited scientists in the world. He is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, scientific awards and a member of many prestigious scientific organizations including the National Academy of Sciences.

J. Craig Venter's Edge Bio Page


"LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!" ON EDGE

"The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that Life: What A Concept was one of those memorable events that people in years to come will see as a crucial moment in history. After all, it's where the dawning of the age of biology was officially announced." — Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton (Arts & Ideas) Editor of Süddeutsche

"These are thoughts to make jaws drop...Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze." — Jordan Mejias, Arts Correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

The above quotes from the lede stories on the opinion pages of Germany's two largest newspapers refer to the historic 2007 Edge Special Event: Life: What A Concept!, which took place at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT on Monday, August 27th. Invited to address the topic "Life: What a Concept!" were Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd, who focused on their new, and in more than a few cases, startling research, and/or ideas in the biological sciences.

Newsweek, in an article on George Church and Craig Venter published on July 13, 2009 entitled "Biology's Odd Couple" referred to Edge's Life: What A Concept! event:

...The physicist Freeman Dyson has spoken of the ribosome as the key to the origin of life; two years ago, at an intimate gathering of some of the world's most imaginative scientists on a Connecticut farm, Dyson told Church, Venter and the three other researchers present that "the invention of the ribosome is the central mystery" of how living things ever came to be. ...

...When asked, at the Connecticut retreat, how their work was different, Church replied, "Craig is more productive." To which Venter graciously added, "I use George's techniques." As they build the new biology, they have moved closer and closer into each other's orbit, perhaps the better to see, in the work of the other, how the future is shaping up. And though their work gets at the core of living things—in ways that may give humans control over the very process that created life—they are capable of an almost comical diffidence. This isn't "playing God": "You're certainly not creating a universe," said Church at the discussion table in Connecticut.

"You're constructing things."
"You're only so big," Venter added.

"Pretty small," agreed Church. "Pretty small."

Life: What A Concept! is documented online with complete web text of the talks and discussions, streaming videos of the talks, , a photo gallery, and a free 43,000-word downloadable pdf e-book.

pdf download
(click here)

Reporting on the event, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton (Arts & Ideas) Editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote:

The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that Life: What A Concept was one of those memorable events that people in years to come will see as a crucial moment in history. After all, it's where the dawning of the age of biology was officially announced.

Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture. It is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce, he claims. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA."

Jordan Mejias, Arts Correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, noted that:

"These are thoughts to make jaws drop...Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze."

Responding to the downloadable pdf record of the event, Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired, wrote:

"The Life transcript book is fantastic. One of the better books I've read in a while. Super rich, high signal to noise, great subject."

Click here for the link to Life: What A Concept!: http://www.edge.org/documents/life/life_index.html.


ABOUT THE EDGE MASTER CLASS

To accomplish the extraordinary, you must seek extraordinary people. That's a question.

The Edge Master Class is the most recent iteration of Edge's development, which began its activities under than name "The Reality Club" in 1981.

It hs been compared to the early seventeenth-century Invisible College, a precursor to the Royal Society, whose members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another example is the nineteenth-century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age — James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Benjamin Franklin.

Edge, is different different from The Invisible College or the Lunar Society of Birmingham, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. Through its Master Classes, Edge gathers together intellectuals and technology pioneers who are exploring the themes of the post-industrial age.

Among the attendees of the Master Classes are: Jeff Bezos, Stewart Brand, Sergey Brin, George Church, Peter Diamandis, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Daniel Kahneman, Salar Kamangar, Dean Kamen, Seth Lloyd, Elon Musk, Nathan Myhrvold, Tim O'Reilly, Larry Page, Sean Parker, Paul Romer, Dimitar Sasselov, George Smoot, Richard Thaler, Anne Treisman, J. Craig Venter, Evan Williams, and Jimmy Wales.

Summary of the second day of the 2008 proceedings, science historian George Dyson wrote:

Retreating to the luxury of Sonoma to discuss economic theory in mid-2008 conveys images of Fiddling while Rome Burns. Do the architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook have anything to teach the behavioral economists—and anything to learn? So what? What's new?? As it turns out, all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years.

Indeed, Erling Norrby, former General Secretary of the Nobel committee, noted after post-class dinner. that it was "a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture".

Or, as the late James Lee Byars and I once wrote: "To accomplish the extraordinary, you must seek extraordinary people. That's a question."


PREVIOUS EDGE MASTER CLASSES

A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Edge Master Class 2008
RICHARD THALER, SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN, DANIEL KAHNEMAN
Gaige House, Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008

Behavioral economics was influenced by psychology from its inception—or perhaps more accurately, behavioral economists made friends with psychologists, taught them some economics and learned some psychology from them. The little economics I know I learned from Dick Thaler when we worked together 25 years ago. It is somewhat embarrassing for a psychologist to admit that there is an asymmetry between the two disciplines: I cannot imagine a psychologist who could be counted as a good economist without formal training in that discipline, but it seems to be easier for economists to be good psychologists. This is certainly the case for both Dick and Sendhil Mullainathan—they know a great deal of what is going on in modern psychology, but more importantly they have superb psychological intuition and are willing to trust it. — Daniel Kahneman

[...]

A SHORT COURSE IN THINKING ABOUT THINKING
Edge Master Class 2007
DANIEL KAHNEMAN
Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, CA, July 20-22, 2007


Recently, I spent several months working closely with Danny Kahneman, the psychologist who is the co-creator of behavioral economics (with his late collaborator Amos Tversky), for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

My discussions with him inspired a 2-day "Master Class" given by Kahneman for a group of twenty leading American business/Internet/culture innovators—a microcosm of the recently dominant sector of American business—in Napa, California in July. They came to hear him lecture on his ideas and research in diverse fields such as human judgment, decision making and behavioral economics and well-being. —JB

[...]



THE NEW YORK TIMES — TIERNEY LAB
August 3, 2009, 8:00 AM


Synthetic Life
By JOHN MARKOFF

There is a growing consensus (at least in Silicon Valley) that the information age is about to give way to the era of synthetic genetics. That was underscored recently when Harvard geneticist George Church and J. Craig Venter — of the race to decode the human genome fame — gave lectures before a small group of scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and writers in West Hollywood.

The event, billed as "A Short Course on Synthetic Genetics", was organized by John Brockman, the literary impresario (and book agent for several New York Times reporters, including this one) who publishes the cybersalon-style website www.edge.org, a forum dedicated to scientists (many of whom are his clients) and their ideas.

In roughly six hours of lectures both scientists tried to convey how the world will be changed by the ability to routinely read genetic sequences into computing systems and then store, replicate, alter and insert them back into living cells.

The rate at which this technology is now improving puts silicon to shame. Dr. Church noted that between 1970 and 2005 gene sequencing had taken place on a Moore’s Law pace, improving at about 1.5 times per year. Since then it has improved at the rate of an order of magnitude, or ten times annually.

In the process the cost of sequencing the human genome has plunged from $3 billion to $5 thousand and continues to fall. Dr. Church identified 17 companies and one "open source" project all pursuing different technologies to further push down cost and speed up the pace of sequencing.

As a consequence, the structure of the emerging synthetic genetics industry is beginning to mirror that of the semiconductor and computer industries, which are based on modular components and design tools.

The key to the vast growth of the computer industry took place during the 1970s when physicist Carver Mead helped give the industry a standard design approach based on modular components. Now that appears to be happening in the synthetic biology world as well.

For someone who has spent the past three decades writing about computing, Dr. Venter’s talk was eye-opening.

"I view DNA as an analog information system," he said. " and I hope to convince you in fact that it is absolutely the software of life."

[...]



THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
August 13, 2009

When Science & Poetry Were Friends
By Freeman Dyson

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 552 pp., $40.00

...If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry. Candidates for leadership of the modern Romantic Age are the biology wizards Kary Mullis, Dean Kamen, and Craig Venter, and the computer wizards Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Charles Simonyi. Craig Venter is the entrepreneur who taught the world how to read genomes fast; Kary Mullis is the surfer who taught the world how to multiply genomes fast; Dean Kamen is the medical engineer who taught the world how to make artificial hands that really work.

Each achievement of our modern pioneers resonates with echoes from the past. Venter sailed around the world on his yacht collecting genomes of microbes from the ocean and sequencing them wholesale, like Banks who sailed around the world collecting plants. Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction, which allows biologists to multiply a single molecule of DNA into a bucketful of identical molecules within a few hours, and after that spent most of his time surfing the beaches of California, like Davy who invented the miners' lamp and after that spent much of his time fly-fishing along the rivers of Scotland.

Dean Kamen builds linkages between living human brains and mechanical fingers and thumbs, like Victor Frankenstein, who sewed dead brains and hands together and brought them to life. Page and Brin built the giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge, like William Herschel, who built his giant forty-foot telescope to reach out to the limits of the universe. Simonyi was chief architect of software systems for Microsoft and later flew twice as a cosmonaut on the International Space Station, like the intrepid aeronauts Blanchard and Jeffries, who made the first aerial voyage from England to France by balloon in 1795. ...

... If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs like Venter and Kamen, academic professionals like Haussler, and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.

[...]


The engrossing essay collection which offers a youthful spin on some of the most pressing scientific issues of today—and tomorrow...Kinda scary? Yes! Super smart and interesting? Definitely. The Observer's Very Short List

"A captivating collection of essays ... a medley of big ideas." — Amanda Gefter, New Scientist

"The perfect collection for people who like to stay up on recent scientific research but haven't the time or expertise to go to the original sources." — Playback.stl.com

WHAT'S NEXT?
Dispatches on the Future of Science
Edited By Max Brockman

If these authors are the future of science, then the science of the future will be one exciting ride! Find out what the best minds of the new generation are thinking before the Nobel Committee does. A fascinating chronicle of the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

"A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years." — Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought

"Brockman has a nose for talent." — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan

"Capaciously accessible, these writings project a curiosity to which followers of science news will gravitate." — Booklist


"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures. ... Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter." — Boston Globe

Mahzarin Banaji, Samuel Barondes, Yochai Benkler, Paul Bloom, Rodney Brooks, Hubert Burda, George Church, Nicholas Christakis, Brian Cox, Iain Couzin, Helena Cronin, Paul Davies, Daniel C. Dennett, David Deutsch,Dennis Dutton, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Drew Endy, Peter Galison, Murray Gell-Mann, David Gelernter, Neil Gershenfeld, Anthony Giddens, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Rebecca Goldstein, John Gottman, Brian Greene, Anthony Greenwald, Alan Guth, David Haig, Marc D. Hauser, Walter Isaacson, Steve Jones, Daniel Kahneman, Stuart Kauffman, Ken Kesey, Stephen Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Armand Leroi, Seth Lloyd, Gary Marcus, John Markoff, Ernst Mayr, Marvin Minsky, Sendhil Mullainathan, Dennis Overbye, Dean Ornish, Elaine Pagels, Steven Pinker, Jordan Pollack, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Matt Ridley, Lee Smolin, Elisabeth Spelke, Scott Sampson, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar Sasselov, Stephen Schneider, Martin Seligman, Robert Shapiro, Clay Shirky, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Paul Steinhardt, Steven Strogatz, Seirian Sumner, Leonard Susskind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Taylor, Richard Thaler, Robert Trivers, Neil Turok, J.Craig Venter, Edward O. Wilson, Lewis Wolpert, Richard Wrangham, Philip Zimbardo

[Continue to Edge Video]



WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
El Mundo


Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online


WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?
Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT



[2007]

"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday


WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?
Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER
Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS


[2006]

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE?
Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


[2006]

"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer



[2008]



"Compelling"
"Stellar"
"Important"

[2006]

"Irresistible"
"Excellent"
"Fascinating"


[2006]

"incisive"
"deeply passionate"
"engaging"

[2004]

"Intriguing"
"Engrossing"
"Invigorating"



[1994]

"Rousing"
"Astonishing"
"Bloodthirsty"

[2000]

"Dazzling"
"Wondrous"
"Outstanding"


[2002]


"Provocative"
"Captivating"
"Mind-stretching"

Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

Alexandra Zukerman, Assistant Editor
contact: editor@edge.org
Copyright © 2009 By Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

|Top|