[Adapted from Alison Gopnik's essay] for www.edge.org, in response to the website's 2012 annual question: "What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?"
You can hear this faint alarm bell of anxiety ringing in the title of John Brockman's thought-provoking collection of essays, How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? (Note the implication: the internet is moulding us, not the other way around.)...Thankfully, many of Edge's essayists violently disagree with each other. To some, the internet is "a work of genius, one of the highest achievements of the human species" (Richard Dawkins) and "the most human of technologies" (the historian Noga Arikha). To others, it is "the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of the television" (the neurobiologist Leo Chalupa) and "nothing more... than a very useful, and very dumb, butler" (the neuroscientist Joshua Greene). .. The essays are peppered with insights. These include a theory that virtual cities will encourage states of psychosis, as real cities already do, and the observation that what we call old media (books, newspapers, television) are, in fact, very recent inventions, whereas websites based on communal sharing, such as Facebook, signal a return to prehistoric, tribal patterns of communication
She is intellectually fearless, deeply serious about science, personally effervescent and always curious. Her interests are environmental sustainability (particularly fish), the evolution and function of guilt, honour and shame, and the role of IT in shaping environmental action - all of which fall under a broad interest in the tragedy of the commons. ...
I was told some years ago that the reason why some species of sea turtles migrate all the way across the South Atlantic to lay their eggs on the east coast of South America after mating on the west coast of Africa is that when the behavior started, Gondwanaland was just beginning to break apart (that would be between 130 and 110 million years ago), and these turtles were just swimming across the narrow strait to lay their eggs. Each year the swim was a little longer—maybe an inch or so—but who could notice that? Eventually they were crossing the ocean to lay their eggs, having no idea, of course, why they would do such an extravagant thing.
And the answers do not disappoint. In fact, reinforce, if proof were still needed the deep sense of cultural path Edge: breaking the walls that traditionally separate scientific specialties and interdisciplinary approach to research in this time of great change, not only preference intellectual or fashionable slogan, but real preconditions for an exploration of the very sources of innovative knowledge.
... Science theories that explain puzzling human behavior or the inner workings of the universe were also particular favorites of the Edge contributors: Psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, is partial to one that accounts for why teenagers are so restless, reckless and emotional. Two brain systems, an emotional motivational system and a cognitive control system, have fallen out of sync, she explains. ...
Chris Stringer, a leading scientist at theLondon Museum of Natural History, has been in the thick of human origins research for the last forty years.
Recently he was interviewed in a video for John Brockman’s Edge site. (It’s almost forty-five minutes long, but well worth watching in full.) A couple of points in his discussion there caught my interest.
Every January, John Brockman, the impresario and literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge.org, asks his circle of scientists, digerati and humanities scholars to tackle one question. ... The responses, released at midnight on Sunday, provide a crash course in science both well known and far out-of-the-box, as admired by the likes of Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, physicist Freeman Dyson and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
... many nominated ideas were not from those found in science courses taught in school or college. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University thinks the most beautiful idea to him would be emergence, in which complex phenomena almost magically comes into being from extremely simple components. For example, a human being arises from a few thousand genes. The intelligence of an ant colony - labor specialization, intricate underground nests comes from the seemingly senseless behavior of thousands of individual ants. He says that "Critically, there's no blueprint or central source of command and out of this emerges a highly efficient colony."
The concept of collective intelligence proposed by the science writer Matt Ridley goes in this direction: we live in a society centered on the cult of 'individual intelligence, the charisma and meritocracy, but the development of the human species was gregarious but guaranteed the ability to operate complex systems "networking", through the division of labor and the sharing of objectives.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Einstein's reinterpretation of the cosmos through general relativity and the idea that we live in one of an infinity of universes are some of the most elegant and beautiful human ideas, according to a group of the world's leading thinkers.
A sort of scientific-cultural online salon, Edge poses its annual big question to a select group of thinkers and publishes their responses. This year's essayists include biologist Richard Dawkins, geographer Jared Diamond and computer scientist David Gelernter. It all goes online at 12:01 a.m. Sunday morning. edge.org.
Perhaps without ever having encountered this volume, Peter Milligan mimics perfectly the dramas and the cogitations of those third-phase essays in Dangerous Idea in his recent Hellblazer Annual: Suicide Bridge. At its heart, what is truly dangerous about ideas, and what is the danger in these ideas spreading?
Edge.org...bona-fide marketplace of ideas regularly illuminating, but sometimes intriguingly conservative, in response to the crisply formulated question. Brockman's book is diverse enough to inform you about how to think about it and, more importantly, how to defend it.
Indeed, the success of the TED video lectures and Edge.org — a Web site that John Brockman, an author and a book agent, created in 1996 and that has published dozens of video and text “conversations” with scientists — is evidence that the Internet has made it possible to gather small audiences intensely interested in subjects frequently ignored by the general news media.
...In 1996 the Reality Club morphed into online salon Edge.org, a place where, he explains, "science and scientific methods are being brought into areas where no one ever thought it was possible, like morality, psychology, into decision making." Like Brockman himself, Edge is wholly unpretentious: "There's no talking down to people, there's no baby talk, if somebody talks for an hour-and-a-half, I print it.
To say that John Brockman is a literary agent is like saying that David Hockney is a photographer. For while it's true that Hockney has indeed made astonishingly creative use of photography, and Brockman is indeed a successful literary agent who represents an enviable stable of high-profile scientists and communicators, in both cases the description rather understates the reality. More accurate ways of describing Brockman would be to say that he is a "cultural impresario" or, as his friend Stewart Brand puts it, an "intellectual enzyme". (Brand goes on helpfully to explain that an enzyme is "a biological catalyst – an adroit enabler of otherwise impossible things".)
The first thing you notice about Brockman, though, is the interesting way he bridges CP Snow's "Two Cultures" – the parallel universes of the arts and the sciences. When profilers ask him for pictures, one he often sends shows him with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, no less. Or shots of the billboard photographs of his head that were used to publicise an eminently forgettable 1968 movie, . But he's also one of the few people around who can phone Nobel laureates in science with a good chance that they will take the call.
Gumbrecht's ideas (...of science and humanities fusing for a greater scope of science) are nothing new. Such fusions have been around since the sciences have framed and made possible the global rise of Europe and the West. The Royal Society of England under Isaac Newton would be one example. The Berlin-Brandenburg Acadamy of Sciences and Humanities, created by Friedrich II., would be another. There is also the literary agent John Brockman who gives the thinkers who are in his view the world's brightest minds a question to respond to online in a strictly limited number of characters.
Humanities and sciences have traditionally been seen as “two cultures”, though as early as 1959, in his book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow was calling for them to close the communication gap to answer the big questions facing humankind. Some 30 years later, literary agent John Brockman coined the term “the third culture”. Over the past few years, his network of scientists and thinkers has been tackling questions that have traditionally been the preserve of religion and philosophy: the origins and meaning of life and what human nature – and human ethics – really are.