If your notion of a dangerous idea is handing the car keys to Lindsay Lohan or entering a biker bar and calling its patrons a bunch of pansies, you might want to steer clear of this book.
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers On The Unthinkable deals strictly with the bigger-picture stuff, gathering 108 bright lights from around the world to proffer theories and opinions on everything from the meaning of life and our relevance in the universe (or absence thereof) to the erosion of democracy.
These "what if" scenarios have been compiled by John Brockman, founder of the "third culture" website The Edge (www.edge.org), an online forum for fellow eggheads and a community – to quote the site – "of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is quite properly drawing praise for its thorough, step-by-step chronicle of the great man's long and eventful life, but if you want a briefer, quirkier, more multifaceted picture of Einstein, try "My Einstein" (Pantheon, 2006). The latter, edited by John Brockman, is a bouquet of brilliant essays by Einstein's intellectual peers: top scientists who know their way around a quark. My quarrel with the Isaacson biography is that it occasionally feels padded, as if the author is just adding anecdotes to thicken the sauce, whereas the essays in the Brockman book are zippy and personal.
En 1959, C. P. Snow dictó en Cambridge una famosa conferencia titulada Las dos culturas y la revolución científica, deplorando la escisión académica y profesional entre el ramo de las ciencias y el de las letras. En 1991, el agente literario John Brockman popularizó el concepto de la tercera cultura, para referirse a la entrada en escena de los científicos-escritores. Nacería así un nuevo humanismo. Un nuevo humanismo que ya no sería tanto el humanismo clásico cuanto una nueva hibridación entre ciencias y letras.
En lo que concierne a la filosofía, este nuevo humanismo debería estar atento no sólo a la ciencia, sino al mayor número posible de corrientes de pensamiento vivo. Ello es que la filosofía no debe estar encerrada en un departamento académico profesional, sino ejercerse en un cruce interdisciplinario y en "conversación" -como dijera el recientemente desaparecido Richard Rorty- con todas las demás ciencias. La filosofía tiene que trazar mapas de la realidad. El filósofo es, en palabras de Platón, "el que tiene la visión de conjunto (synoptikós)", es decir, el que organiza lo más relevante de la "información almacenada" (cultura) y esboza nuevas cosmovisiones (provisionales, pero coherentes). Por otra parte, la inicial intuición de los filósofos "analíticos" -que fueron los primeros en señalar la importancia de evitar las trampas que nos tiende el lenguaje- no debe echarse en saco roto.
Pienso, así, que un nuevo humanismo debería asumir ciertas reformas lingüísticas. Recordemos, por ejemplo, lo mucho que nos sigue condicionando todavía el viejo constructo aristotélico hecho de sujeto, verbo y predicado, que es también el modelo cartesiano de cognición sujeto-objeto. Esta convención es responsable -como ya denunciaran tanto Buda como David Hume- de incurrir en la falacia de creer que hay mente cuando lo único seguro es que hay actos mentales.
Lo que ocurre es que en el género filosófico las palabras tienen que transmitir conceptos, y por ahí caben pocas florituras. En filosofía es muy difícil salirse de un determinado modelo gramatical. Martin Heidegger ya explicó que tuvo que renunciar a escribir la segunda parte de El ser y el tiempo por la inadecuación del lenguaje de la metafísica que siempre identifica el ser con el ente, olvidando la diferencia ontológica. Hoy, cuando la filosofía tiende a confundirse con la literatura, ¿qué otros recursos caben? Gregory Bateson solía decir que hay que acostumbrarse a una nueva forma de pensar que substituya los objetos por relaciones. Pero substituir los objetos por relaciones es contar historias. De modo que Gregory Bateson nos estaba invitando a contar historias.
En todo caso, si bien se ha producido el "giro lingüístico", nuestros hábitos sintácticos han cambiado poco. Y ya digo que se comprende. El ya citado Heidegger, en su segunda época, reivindicó la poesía -cuyo ejemplo supremo sería Hölderlin- como modelo de lenguaje no objetivante, no reducido a simple instrumento de información. Sólo que Heidegger llegó a embriagarse tanto de "oscuridad poética" que difícilmente se le podía seguir. En cuanto a los lenguajes formales usados por las ciencias duras, sucede que al final sólo son accesibles a un grupo reducidísimo de especialistas. Así, pongo por caso, todavía las gentes ilustradas pudieron digerir en su día la teoría de la gravitación de Newton, e incluso la de la relatividad de Einstein (aunque ésta ya menos, la constancia de la velocidad de la luz es estrictamente contraintuitiva); pero ¿quién es capaz de seguir la endiablada complejidad matemática de la teoría de las supercuerdas?
Y, con todo, hay ahí un camino a mi juicio irreversible. Pues, al margen del lenguaje que uno utilice, ha sonado la hora de liberarse de la tiranía de la intuición, el sentido común y otros embelecos parecidos.
Por otra parte, ¿por qué la realidad habría de ser completamente inteligible? De entrada, el teorema de Gödel impugna la noción misma de una teoría completa de la natura: cualquier sistema de axiomas moderadamente complejo plantea preguntas que los axiomas no pueden responder. De otro lado,la Teoría de la Evolución confirma nuestra oscuridad. Nada nos obliga a pensar que el mundo ha de ser completamente inteligible. Al menos para nosotros, simios pensantes. Al menos en relación a lo que nosotros, simios pensantes, entendemos por inteligibilidad.
En resolución. Un nuevo humanismo debería comenzar por una cura de modestia, y quizá abjurando del mismo y arrogante concepto de humanismo, el que coloca al animal humano como centro y referencia de todo lo que existe. Un nuevo humanismo, compatible con la sensibilidad metafísica, no puede ponerse de espaldas a la ciencia. Naturalmente, no se trata de incurrir en el oscurantismo pseudocientífico denunciado por Alan Sokal y Jean Bricmont en su conocido libro Imposturas intelectuales. No hay que usar la jerga científica en contextos que no le corresponden. Tampoco se trata de caer en un relativismo epistémico radical (que surge de una mala digestión de las obras de Kuhn y Feyerabend), ni de creer que la ciencia es una mera narración, o una pura construcción social. Ni de buscar síntesis atolondradas entre Ciencia y Mística. La tarea es previa y más respetuosa con la autonomía de la ciencia. Se trata de conocer de verdad nuestros condicionamientos esenciales. Se trata de que los paradigmas científicos fecunden realmente a los discursos filosóficos e incluso literarios.
Ello es que es la totalidad de la cultura la que permanentemente está en juego y se renueva. Se renueva desde la interfecundación de las distintas disciplinas. Hoy procede, incluso, elaborar un nuevo concepto de los "textos sagrados" que no hay que ir a buscar donde las fuentes están ya secas. Por ejemplo, ¿llegará algún día en que algún Sumo Pontífice de la Iglesia católica escriba algo verdaderamente inspirado, algo real, sin esos horribles amaneramientos de los documentos oficiales? No parece probable, y tampoco hace falta. Los verdaderos "textos sagrados" de la tradición occidental son, desde hace siglos, los de los grandes autores. Platón y Aristóteles, Dante y Shakespeare. Pero también Victoria, Bach, Haendel, Beethoven. Y Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. Y Arquímedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. Y Paul Celan y Bela Bartok. Etcétera. Todos ellos son "autores sagrados". Canónicos. La Física Cuántica es un monumento no menos inspirado que la Biblia. Ni menos ambiguo. Escribe el científico Arthur I. Miller: "Como una gran obra literaria, la teoría cuántica está abierta a multitud de interpretaciones".
Se equivocan pues quienes oponen la ciencia a los textos sagrados, o la ciencia al arte. Respetando los correspondientes ámbitos de autonomía, todo forma parte de un mismo prodigioso forcejeo. La persecución de lo real. Que en cierto modo es también la persecución de lo absoluto. Lo absoluto que se presiente, aunque sea inaccesible. Ciertamente, la fusión de saberes como en el Renacimiento ya no es posible. La montaña de la especialización es demasiado alta. Ahora bien, cabe hacer que los diferentes saberes "comuniquen". Comuniquen sin "reducirse" los unos a los otros. Es el meollo de lo que Edgar Morin ha llamado "transdisciplinariedad", la que, sin buscar un principio unitario de todos los conocimientos (lo cual también sería reduccionismo), aspira a una comunicación entre las disciplinas sobre la base de un pensamiento "complejo". Ni todo es física, ni todo es biología, ni todo es sociología, ni todo es antropología; pero cabe enlazar estas áreas cibernéticamente.
¿Enciclopedismo? Más bien puesta en ciclo del bucle físico/biológico/social/antropológico. Ello es que las grandes preguntas se renuevan, el tema de la condición humana está en juego y la permeabilidad entre ciencias, artes y letras se convierte en una exigencia central de nuestro tiempo.
What is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable Edited by John Brockman (Simon and Schuster, £12.99)
JOHN Brockman is a kind of entrepreneur of ideas. He runs edge.org, a website for boffins, and writes and edits clever books on subjects such as the future and God. Here, he has had what might be his whizziest idea yet. He simply asked the cleverest scientists in the world to tell him one thing: what is the most dangerous idea they can think of? And they did. And it's really good.
When you ask clever people about dangerous ideas, it turns out, they normally say one of two things. Some say that we, as a species, are becoming too clever for our own good - that our ideas are excellent, and that, pretty soon, life will get much worse as a result.
Others say quite the opposite - that the human race has no idea about anything, and that, pretty soon, we'll realise this fact, and that, as a result, life will be much worse. Of course I'm simplifying.
But not much.
Let's start with John Horgan, of the Stevens Institute of Technology. What, he asks quite reasonably, would happen if we managed to get to the bottom of the "neural code", and understood exactly how the brain works? "Will we be liberated or enslaved by this knowledge?" he asks. Quite possibly enslaved, because nobody would be able to believe in the soul any more.
And David Buss, the Darwinian psychologist famous for his research into human mating behaviour, wonders what might happen if we understood ourselves so well that we could grasp the concept "that evil has evolved".
That, in other words, lots of us are descended from tyrants such as Attila the Hun. And that, therefore, he has passed on some of his evil genes to us.
In the end, says Buss, we need to face up to this. "The danger," he says, "comes from people who refuse to recognise that there are dark sides to human nature."
The geneticist Craig Venter has similar worries - understanding the fact that we are all different, genetically speaking, challenges the cosy, politically-correct word we have got used to.
There's more of this - the fear that, in the end, good ideas might actually have bad consequences. What will happen, asks the psychologist Diane Halpern, when we know enough to be able to choose the sex of our children? Too many boys, she believes. She's done the research, and it doesn't look promising.
On the other hand, what if we don't know anything? The Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind wonders about the effect of the " landscape" idea on the future of physics. What if the universe is so big that, "rather than being a homogeneous, mono-colored blanket, it is a crazy-quilt patchwork of different environments"? In this case, we might realise that we only have knowledge of an infinitely small part of it. And then, dispirited, we might give up the ghost.
Maths in the digital age, writes the Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz, has entered a troublesome new world. These days, we are able prove theorems by crunching numbers in unearthly quantities. But we have no insight - we may know that something is true, but not why. Scary, no? And psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives us a good reason why we haven't had signals from other life-forms - because, if they ever did exist, they got so good at sating themselves with junk food and video games that they died out.
A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling. But is anything else out there? Quite possibly. As the physicist W Daniel Hillis says: "I don't share my most dangerous ideas."
If you think the web is full of trivial rubbish, you will find the intellectual badinage of edge.org to be a blessed counterpoint. This online magazine from the eponymous foundation links to the latest articles by the likes of scientists Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker: heralds the new "third culture" who are "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives".
NORMAL, Ill. -- To get some idea of the brouhaha currently enveloping linguists, occupants of a usually quiet corner of the ivory tower, suppose a high-school physics teacher found a hole in the theory of relativity.
Students of language consider Noam Chomsky the Einstein of their discipline. Linguistics is a very old science, but beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky so revolutionized the field that linguists refer to the time prior to his work as B.C., or before Chomsky.
They may have to add another marker: A.D., after Dan.
Daniel Everett, a faculty member at Illinois State University, has done field work among a tiny tribe in the Amazon. He reports that their obscure language lacks a fundamental characteristic that, according to Chomsky's theory, underlies all human language.
With that declaration, Everett pitted himself against a giant in the field, and modest ISU against the nation's elite universities. In the process, he drew national attention to this arcane field and enveloped scholars around the world in a battle that plays out over and over in -- this is academia, after all -- conferences and seminars. ...
The son of a Boston wholesale flower seller, he adapted his father's business methods in his work as a pop publicist and management consultant. He went on to become a successful literary agent, specialising in top science writers and — with an online 'intellectual salon' — building a reputation as a tireless promoter of influential ideas. Interview by Andrew Brown
In 1968 John Brockman was promoting a film called Head , starring the Monkees. His idea of publicity was simply to have the whole town covered in posters showing a head, with no caption. Naturally, the chosen head was his. Grotesquely solarised, with blue-grey lips and and scarlet spectacles, fashionable, suggestive of intellectual power, impossible to decipher, there he stood against a thousand walls, looking down on the city of New York.
The posters have long since faded, but Brockman's position remains the same, gazing inscrutably on anything interesting in Manhattan. Now he is one of the most successful literary agents in the world, but to his friends and clients he is much more: an impresario and promoter of scientific ideas who is changing the way that all educated people think about the world. Richard Dawkins, his friend and client, says, "his Edge web site has been well described as an online salon, for scientists and for other intellectuals who care about science. John Brockman may have the most enviable address book in the English-speaking world, and he uses it to promote science and scientific literature in a way that nobody else does."
Portrait copyright © by Eamonn McCabe
Anyone today who thinks that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world has been influenced by Brockman's taste. As well as Dawkins, he represents Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, and Sir Martin Rees, as well as three Nobel prize winners and almost all the other famous popular scientists. His old friend Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and later the promoter of the Clock of the Long Now, which is intended to run for 10,000 years, says: "It's so easy to think the guy's just a high-class pimp that it's quite easy to ignore the impact on the intellectual culture of the west that John has enabled by getting his artist and scientist friends out to the world. There is a whole cohort of intellectuals who are interacting with each other and would not [be able to] without John."
Brockman himself says, "Confusion is good. Then try awkwardness. Then you fall back on contradiction. Those are my three friends." Fortunately, they are not his only friends. When asked for photographs of himself as a young man, he sends one where he is standing with Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol on the day Dylan visited Warhol's Factory. In the course of a couple of hours' conversation, he brings up encounters with (amongst others) John Cage; Robert Rauschenberg; Sam Sheppard; Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the founders of Google, with whom he had just had lunch along with his client Craig Venter, the genome researcher; "Rupert" (Murdoch); Stewart Brand; Elaine Pagels, an influential historian of religion; Hunter S Thompson; Richard Dawkins; Daniel Dennett; Nicholas Humphrey, the psychologist; Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel-winning physicist; the actor Dennis Hopper; and Steve Case of AOL.
He even mentions Huey P Newton, the Black Panther. "Sometime around 1987 or '88, I get a call from Huey, who was a close friend of mine, who I was trying to avoid, because it had been revealed that he was actually gratuitously murdering people . . . you know, shooting them. He was flipping out. He wasn't talking about revolution or anything. Newton's message said: 'Me and my buddy Bob Trivers — we're going to write a book on deceit and self-deception.'" Robert Trivers was one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the past 50 years, and came up with the hugely influential idea of "reciprocal altruism" as a graduate student at Harvard in the early 70s before his career was interrupted by psychological problems and he went off to live in the Jamaican jungle for some years. (He is now back at Harvard, in a chair funded by a friend of Brockman's.) Brockman continues: "Soon after that, he [Newton] died a very nasty death: just a crummy sidewalk dope deal. This was no way for a real revolutionary . . .
"A couple of years ago, I made a rare visit to LA and was doing my favourite thing: watching the movie stars round the pool, and I got a message: Bob Trivers called. 'John. It's Bob Trivers. As I was saying. I've got the proposal ready. It's for a book on deceit and self-deception.'" Such a book will be ideal Brockman fodder. It takes science out to the edges of society yet deals with subjects of eternal importance. It captures a theory at the stage when it is most vigorously fighting for its life. It is written by the man who made the discovery, which is an important point.
Though Brockman has made some journalists a lot of money, his truly unique selling point is that he has made real scientists far more. In 1999, for example, at the height of the pop science boom, he sold the world rights to a book by the theoretical physicist Brian Greene for $2m. Some of his books have proved initially trickier. Gell-Mann had to return an advance of $500,000 for a book, The Quark and the Jaguar, delivered late, that Bantam rejected. Brockman subsequently sold it to WH Freeman for a reported $50,000.
Many would agree that at least half his clients are truly remarkable thinkers, but there is room for disagreement about which half. For instance, he represents Sir John Maddox, the former editor of Nature, but also Rupert Sheldrake, whose heretical ideas about biology were denounced by Maddox in a Nature editorial that suggested Sheldrake's book A New Science of Life be burnt. Brockman has sold most of Richard Dawkins' books, but also the Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, which claimed that everything significant in the world up to the death of Princess Diana could have been predicted by reading every seventh letter in the Hebrew Bible, and the novel The Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl by Tracy Quan, which was the first account of a prostitute's life to be serialised on the Internet.
"He likes proposals to be about two pages long, no more, and then he likes to get an auction going," one of his authors says. "You'll get a call from him, and he's walking down Fifth Avenue on his cellphone, saying that he's got Simon & Schuster to bid 100,000 and now he will see what happens. A quarter of an hour later, Bantam has bid 125,000 and then he says he'll go back to S&S and see if he can get 150,000. But he's got an attention span of about half an hour. If the book isn't sold within a week, forget it."
Tom Standage, the technology editor of the Economist, had his first book sold by Brockman on the basis of an outline one paragraph long. He sent it off in a speculative spirit and the next thing he heard was the rustle of a contract crawling towards him from the fax machine. Standage says: "He feels he's failed if a book earns out its advance and pays royalties because that means he hasn't got as much from the publishers as he could have done."
This is how the young Brockman learned from his father, a broker in the wholesale flower market in Boston, to hustle sales. "He dominated the carnation industry. He would go to the Boston flower market, which was owned by the growers, who formed a cooperative. All these Swedes and Norwegians would be growing gladiolas and carnations and they'd bring them in at three in the morning and leave them like a long aisle. There'd be thousands of flowers, and you had to sell them, or they died. He said to me 'you gotta move them, they're going to die'. And one day, 40 years later, I'm on the phone, and I had a chilling feeling as I felt my father's voice coming through me, like, 'they're going to die'. So, why am I always so fixated on closing the deal, getting the next book in? It comes from that experience. That was a pure market situation. So, that's the way I run my business. It's not literary. It's not publishing. It's business. I have got properties to sell, on behalf of my clients.
"My job is to do the best I can for them and I do it by making a market. The market decides. But knowing how to make a market involves . . . some capacities." The capacities are at the heart of his business, but it's hard to describe them. He has a keen sense for interesting ideas, but also for the ways in which they fit into society. For instance, he would never call himself an atheist, he says, in America: "I mean I don't believe: I'm sure there's no God. I'm sure there's no afterlife. But don't call me an atheist. It's like a losers' club. When I hear the word atheist, I think of some crummy motel where they're having a function and these people have nowhere else to go. That's what it means in America. In the UK it's very different."
The Brockmans were the children of immigrants — John's father's family had come from Austria — and grew up in a largely poor and Catholic neighbourhood of Boston and he remains extremely sensitive to anti-Semitism. "There were no books in our house. My father could barely read. He was a brilliant man but he was on the streets working at eight years old. My mother read a little bit, but, you know, it was a little encyclopedia.
"My parents were poor. My father started a business the day I was born which became a successful business. But we grew up in a tough neighbourhood called Dorchester, which was an Irish-Catholic bastion, where this radical right-wing priest went up and down the streets telling people to kill Jews. So that's how my brother and I grew up." He has one brother, a retired physicist, who is three years older. "We quickly found out, going to school, that . . . we were personally responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. We had a lot of fighting to do, and most of it on the losing end, because there were always 30 of them to two of us. My brother got the worse of it. My mother was a tough cookie. She would kick him out of the house if he didn't fight hard enough. Luckily in those days you didn't get killed; you just got a bloody nose. But it was tough."
"Confusion is good. Then try awkwardness. Then you fall back on contradiction. Those are my three friends."
This mixture of pugnacity and sensitivity about ethnicity can still surface. When he was upset by a profile in the Sunday Times magazine, which he thought played to an anti-Semitic stereotype, he complained straight to Rupert Murdoch (using Murdoch's banker, another of his contacts, as an intermediary).
Brockman was a poor student in high school and was turned down for 17 colleges before studying business, finishing up with an MBA from Columbia University in New York. He worked selling tax shelters for a while, but in the evenings he was hanging out with all the artists he could find. He stacked chairs in the theatre with the young Sam Sheppard; he went to dinner parties with John Cage; he started to put on film festivals and then multi-media extravagances at about the same time as Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters in San Francisco and Andy Warhol in New York. This early attraction to the art world seems to have set his style. The art that he was involved with qualified as art simply because everyone involved decided it was.
In this flux, it seemed the only certainty was scientific truth, but he was early attracted to the idea of science, of computing as a metaphor for everything. Stewart Brand first met him in the early 60s: "I was in the army as an officer and spending the weekends in New York — he was in the thick of the multimedia scene that was the cutting edge of performance pop art. He was an impresario, who could help organise events and people and media and be essential to the process, but unlike a lot of people he was actually alert to what the art was about, just as later, as an agent, he was alert to what the books were about. So far as I was concerned he was another artist in the group of artists I was running with."
Life at a glance
Born: February 16 1941 Boston, Massachusetts.
Educated: Babson Institute of Business Administration; Columbia University, New York.
Employment: 1965-69 Multimedia artist; '74-present, literary agent; founder Brockman, Inc; chairman Content.com.
Married: Katinka Matson (one son, Max, 1981).
Some books: 1969 By the Late John Brockman; '88 Doing Science: The Reality Club; '95 The Third Culture; '96 Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite; '03 The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century; '04 Science at the Edge.
In 1967 Brockman discovered how to sell flower power while it was still fresh. A business school friend who had gone to work for a paper company asked Brockman to help motivate the sales force for their line of sanitary towels. This was at a time when the New York Times was solemnly explaining that "Total environment" discothèques, such as Cheetah and The Electric Circus in New York, were turning on their patrons with high-decibel rock'n'roll combined with pulsing lights, flashing slide images, and electronic "colour mists". Brockman asked — and got — a fee of $15,000 despite having no consulting experience. He put on a multimedia show for the salesmen: they lay on the floor of a shiny vinyl wigwam while four sound systems played them Beatles songs, bird calls, company advertising slogans with an executive shouting about market statistics and competitive products, and a film showed a young woman wearing a dress made of the company's paper which she ripped down to her navel. In the 60s it was cutting-edge art, an "intermedia kinetic experience", and the salesmen exposed to it reportedly sold an additional 17% of feminine hygiene products in the next quarter. Brockman took the show around nine cities for the company, energising its sales force nationwide, and was established as a consultant who could sell his services to anyone.
But it was not enough. His book By the Late John Brockman was unfavourably reviewed, but he was not discouraged and continued to write and edit books — 18 at last count. One,Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein and Frankenstein , had to be hurriedly withdrawn after portions were found to have been plagiarised from an article by James Gleick, the author of Chaos , one of the first big pop science hits and not a Brockman client. Brockman blamed one of his assistants.
Brockman's later books have mostly been collections of interviews with friends and clients, salted and sometimes vinegared as well with their opinions of each other. He has a made a Christmas tradition of asking questions of 100 or so people and circulating their responses. "What do you believe to be true, but cannot prove?" was the most recent one, in 2004, and is a fine example of Brockman's method as an editor or curator of thought. The question was supplied by Nicholas Humphrey, but it was Brockman who spotted its potential, and then knew 120 interesting people who were prepared to answer it. Humphrey's own answer is characteristically thought-provoking: "I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery . . . so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives." Philip Anderson, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, believes that string theory is a waste of time. Randolph Nesse, an evolutionary biologist, believes, but cannot prove, that believing things without proof is evolutionary advantageous; Ian McEwan that no part of his consciousness will survive death.
Brockman has constantly reinvented himself. He has been at the leading edge of intellectual fashion for the past 30 years. In the late 90s, just before the dot.com bubble popped, he told an interviewer from Wired magazine that he wanted to be "post-interesting". Looking back on all the ideas he has enthused about you glimpse a mind that rushes around like a border collie — tirelessly and gracefully pursuing anything that moves, but absolutely uninterested in things that stay still, and liable, if shut up in a car, to get bored and eat all the upholstery. Like a lot of successful salesmen, part of his secret is that he is interested in people for their own sake as well as for what they can do for him, and can study them with extraordinary concentration, solemnly placing out, beside the journalist's machine, two tape recorders of his own at the beginning of an interview. To be under his attentive, almost affectionate gaze, is to know how a sheep feels in front of a collie.
Twice in the course of a couple of hours' chat he says "you ought to write a book about that". He became a book agent by accident. He was talking about God to the scientist John Lilly, a friend of Brand's, whose research into dolphins and LSD was one of the first tendrils of a scientific study of consciousness, and he realised Lilly had a book there. He sold the proposal and found a new business where his talents and his interests coincided.
He has been in the vanguard of the trend towards larger advances at the expense of royalties, and a model of rewards in which a few superstars make gigantic sums and almost everyone else makes next to nothing. His first enormous commercial success came in the early 80s, as personal computers started to appear. He understood that software manuals would need publishing just as normal books do. In the end, the idea of software publishers didn't work out, but not before Brockman had made a fortune from the idea. He started an annual dinner for the other players in the business, called the millionaires' dinner. Later, when this seemed unimpressive, he renamed it the billionaires' dinner; then the scientists' dinner — whatever worked to bring lively people round him.
"Throughout history, only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody"
He works with and is married to Katinka Matson, the daughter of a New York literary agent who was AD Peters's partner in 50s. "She actually makes the wheels turn in the office," says Tom Standage. The Brockmans have one son, Max, who works in the family business as a third-generation agent, and who was blessed in his crib by a drunken dance performed round it by Hunter S Thompson, Dennis Hopper and Gerd Stern, a multi-media artist from the avant-garde scene.
After the first boom in personal computers and their software blew out, Brockman was perfectly placed for the next boom, in writing about the people who made it. The house magazine of that boom was Wired, which sold itself to Conde Nast as "The magazine which branded the digital age"; it is almost an obligation on the editor of Wired to be a Brockman client. He set out his manifesto in the early 90s for what he called the Third Culture: "Traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often non-empirical. By contrast, the Third Culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
Everything was speeding up, too. Brockman had always been quick to close a deal. Now he demanded pinball-fast reactions from the editors he sold to. One trick was to watch the front page of the New York Times and get a quick book proposal out of every science story that appeared there. This mean that if you were a Brockman client on the staff of the New York Times a front page splash was not just professionally gratifying, but also a potential route to a large cheque. There was a danger that this constituted a temptation to hype. When one New York Times journalist, Gina Kolata, followed a "cure for cancer" splash with a book contract the next day, there was an outcry and the book was eventually cancelled.
For Brockman, America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. He wrote: "The emergence of the Third Culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the pre-eminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging Third Culture. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesiser, a publicist, a communicator." Brockman, it hardly needs saying, is the true intellectual's agent.
Of course, this was angrily resented by those outside the magic circle, especially if they were themselves intellectuals in every respect save being represented by him. But any anger or ridicule stays off the record. Who knows when they will need to deal with him? Who knows when he could bless them with a million dollars, and whisk them into the magic circle?
Yet it is a tribute to Brockman's personality that people who have known him a long time like him a great deal. Stewart Brand says: "The salon-keeper has an interesting balancing act between highlighting the people they're attracted to and also having a strong enough personality so that they are taken seriously as a peer. People do not feel threatened by him or competitive with him. They either admire him or profess to be amused by him. But you look behind that, and you realise that they don't look down on him at all."
The magic circle has gone by different names and using different degrees of formality. In the 90s it was a manifested in a physical gathering, run with Heinz Pagels, called the Reality Club. The elite would come together and talk about the work that interested them. They didn't have to be his clients, and many of them weren't. But all invested their time in ideas he was promoting. Pagels died in an accident and Brockman says he didn't have the heart to go on by himself. Instead, he set up his Edge website, where he puts up new interviews every month, which can be read as transcripts or watched as videos, with commentaries.
It all reinforces his idea that reality is essentially social. Even the name, the Reality Club, goes right back to his earliest big idea: that reality is what the smart people, who should be friends of John Brockman, decide to make of the world: "It's an argument that I have with all my scientist friends, and I lose it every time. They don't buy it at all. It's very primitivistic, I'm told, or even solipsism, but it works for me."
In 2005, the American anthropologist Daniel Everett published an article in Current Anthropology in which he presented his insights into Pirahã life, acquired over years spent living with the tribe. Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth....
Genres crumble, divisions fade in light of tragedy
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
...Contemporary culture is a blur, a haze, a hodgepodge, a constant shuffle play on the natural-born iPod known as the human consciousness. The old hierarchies -- high art, low art, enlightenment, junk -- are dead. The ancient demarcations of poem and story and painting are pointless.
Genres are dissolving. Boundaries are disintegrating. Old lines of stratification and division and roping-off of subject areas, gone. Next thing you know, they'll be taking the 9/11 commission's austere and straightforward exegesis of the defining national tragedy of our lifetimes and turning it into a comic book. ...
... Modern technology, then, may have been almost as urgent a target for the 9/11 terrorists as were the helpless humans they murdered. The audacity of the attacks may have arisen from a desire to splash the world with the ghastly imagery of technology run amok, of technology outsmarting itself to bring about chaos and death. Thus the arts -- still our chief means of engaging with ideas, even the heinous ideas of terrorists -- must grapple with technology's double-edged sword: Some of us see it as redemptive and positive, while others see it as threateningly negative.
John Brockman, founder of a Web site illuminating the interplay of science and culture (www.edge.org), believes technological advances are always beneficial, despite the lethal misgivings that certain groups harbor. Science "figures out how things work and thus can make them work better," he wrote in an e-mail. "As an activity, as a state of mind, it is fundamentally optimistic."
And so here we stand, clutching a comic book in one hand and a copy of "Hamlet" in the other, listening to an aria through one headphone and a Dixie Chicks ballad through the other, looking out at a landscape that seems ancient and exhausted -- and bright and new. A world in which we are, every second, individuals and vital parts of communities as well.
Philip Zimbardo used to be one of my heroes, but no longer. The psychologist dreamt up the Stanford Prison experiment, in which 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as either captive or guard in a mock prison. Guards were given uniforms and power; prisoners were stripped of their names and privileges, and were ordered to remain largely silent. The nightly toilet run saw the prisoners blindfolded and shackled together before being marched to the bathroom.
The experiment, in 1971, was stopped after just six days because the guards had become sadists and the prisoners depressives. Remember, they all started off as nice, normal college kids. The experiment became a totem of a thing called “situational” evil: good people, when put into bad situations, could become brutes. It has furnished an explanation — but not exoneration — for atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib (Professor Zimbardo appeared as a defence witness at the trial of a soldier charged with torture at the Iraqi prison).
I had always assumed it was Professor Zimbardo who called time. In fact, it was a young psychologist called Christina Maslach. Professor Zimbardo, who had just started dating Dr Maslach, had invited her over to impress her. Instead, after witnessing the toilet run, she fled in horror, telling Professor Zimbardo she no longer wanted to know him. The experiment, she said, had dehumanised its instigator as well as its participants.
So, Professor Zimbardo stopped the experiment because he risked losing the woman he loved. He calls Dr Maslach a hero for challenging the wisdom that the experiment was a justifiable study of human nature. And it is has led him, he tells the Edge website (www.edge.org), to consider the flip side of evil: the psychology of heroism.
Just as some people can be made to grow horns, others grow haloes. Yet, so little is known about heroes, other than that they often say, in the face of mountainous evidence to the contrary, that they didn’t do anything special. Do heroes ever contemplate the risks? Or do they consider them and then override them? Such basic research, Professor Zimbardo says, has never been conducted but should be, ideally in the immediate aftermath of a heroic act.
We must also cultivate a different heroic imagination in the young. Dangerously, children grow up believing that heroism is the preserve of the legendary rather than the ordinary: Achilles or Superman. He says: “The secondary consequence is for us to say, ‘I could never be that . . . or bear such a burden’. I think, on the other hand, we each could say, ‘I could do what Christina Maslach did’.” Indeed: we need heroes who will stop another Enron, another Abu Ghraib, another questionable psychology experiment.
By the way, Professor Zimbardo and the now Professor Maslach celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary this year.
Slide into evil. In the Stanford Prison Study in 1971, university students were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards and then placed in a mock prison setting in the basement of the campus psych building. The guards became so oppressive and sadistic, and the prisoners so passive and depressed, that the two-week study was ended after six days. Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo is featured on edge.org in a lengthy discussion of evil and heroism. He calls the study a "cautionary tale of the many ways in which good people can be readily and easily seduced into evil. . . . Those who sustain an illusion of invulnerability are the easiest touch for the con man, the cult recruiter or the social psychologist ready to demonstrate how easy it is to twist such arrogance into submission."
In an original EDGE essay, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger claims that the Web's ability to aggregate public opinion and knowledge into some form of "collective intelligence" is leading to a new politics of knowledge. According to Sanger, the power to establish what "we all know'" is shifting out of the hands of a small elite group and becoming more of a conversation open to anyone with a Net connection. However, Sanger is also the founder of Citizendium, a competitor to Wikipedia that, according to its Web site, "aims to improve on (the Wikipedia) model by adding 'gentle expert oversight' and requiring contributors to use their real names." In this essay, titled "Who Says We Know: On The New Politics Of Knowledge," Sanger argues that a lack of "expert" oversight leads to unreliable information, something he sees as a major flaw in knowledge egalitarianism. I'm sure this essay will spark as much fiery debate as the previous essay in this EDGE series, Jaron Lanier's "Digital Maoism." From Sanger's essay:
Today's Establishment is nervous about Web 2.0 and Establishment-bashers love it, and for the same reason: its egalitarianism about knowledge means that, with the chorus (or cacophony) of voices out there, there is so much dissent, about everything, that there is a lot less of what "we all know." Insofar as the unity of our culture depends on a large body of background knowledge, handing a megaphone to everyone has the effect of fracturing our culture.
I, at least, think it is wonderful that the power to declare what we all know is no longer exclusively in the hands of a professional elite. A giant, open, global conversation has just begun—one that will live on for the rest of human history—and its potential for good is tremendous. Perhaps our culture is fracturing, but we may choose to interpret that as the sign of a healthy liberal society, precisely because knowledge egalitarianism gives a voice to those minorities who think that what "we all know" is actually false. And—as one of the fathers of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, argued—an unfettered, vigorous exchange of opinion ought to improve our grasp of the truth.
This makes a nice story; but it's not the whole story.
As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths. As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers. With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life's work to know stuff. This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one. We can imagine a Web 2.0 with experts. We can imagine an Internet that is still egalitarian, but which is more open and welcoming to specialists. The new politics of knowledge that I advocate would place experts at the head of the table, but—unlike the old order—gives the general public a place at the table as well.
In 1992, John Brockman defined the concept of the third culture in his essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture": " The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
For John Brockman, the strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet. Scientific subjects now receive outstanding treatment in the pages in newspapers and magazines.
Molecular Biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, the neuronal theory of the chaos, networks, the inflationary universe, adaptive fractals, complex systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotecnology, human genome, the virtual reality, etc., are some of the new scientific subjects that they are transmitted to the present society under new metaphors created by the intellectuals of the third culture.
In the third culture a new philosophy of the nature is being born whose sustenance is in the understanding of the complexity of the evolution. According to Brockman, very complex systems, such as the organisms, brains, the biosphere or the own universe, were not constructed following a deterministic design, but all are evolutionary processes, whose interpretation through images and metaphors has been the function of the intellectuals of the third culture, and in this regard they attempt to express their deeper reflections in an accessible way for the intelligent reading public.
In spite of its critics, the third culture is alive and in the heat of development. Books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene, Stephen Pinker, Martin Rees, etcetera, are indispensable not only for their information, but they are also great successes in the bookstore. Their subjects deal wth the main controversies of the western world in the last decades: abortion and euthanasia, demographic policies, the increase of differences between rich and poor countries, pacifism, migrations, racism and xenophobia, the causes of the ecological crisis and the implications of the technology that lead to a postulation of an ethics of the responsibility and the social control of the scientific policies.
The world-wide phenomenon of the third culture is not only the interruption by the natural scientists of the postmodern intellectual scene, but a movement towards a global intellectual vision caused by the intensive use of the images and hypermedia in the communication between the human beings, which has allowed the scientific knowledge of second half of 20th century to permeate all society, providing for the utlization of information for confronting the great universal challenges of 21st century.
However, in spite of the serious warnings of the natural scientists, the mainstream political leaders of the world have not managed to include or understand that present political action must be focused to the preservation of the habitat of human beings. Although the contribution of the scientific knowledge is falsifiable, ephemeral and almost always probabilistic, it is always helpful in making important decisions, indicating what it is not due to do. As Machiavelli wrote: "To know the ways that lead to hell is to avoid them".
Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?
Dan Everett believes that Pirahã undermines Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar.
[ED. NOTE: Thanks to the New Yorker for making available the link to John Colapinto's article.]
Great reading in George Dyson's essay "Turing's Cathedral," found atedge.org. It connects the impulses of original computer pioneers to the age of Google.
Life is full of surprises, but it's rare to reach for a carafe of wine and find your hand clutching a bottle of milk -- and even rarer, you'd think, to react by deciding the milk was actually what you wanted all along.
Yet something like that happened when scientists in Sweden asked people to choose which of two women's photos they found most attractive. After the subject made his choice, whom we'll call Beth, the experimenter turned the chosen photo face down. Sliding it across the table, he asked the subject the reasons he chose the photo he did. But the experimenter was a sleight-of-hand artist. A copy of the unchosen photo, "Grizelda," was tucked behind Beth's, so what he actually slid was the duplicate of Grizelda, palming Beth.
Few subjects batted an eye. Looking at the unchosen Grizelda, they smoothly explained why they had chosen her ("She was smiling," "she looks hot"), even though they hadn't.
In 1966, Time magazine asked, "Is God Dead?" Even then, the answer was no, and with the rise of religion in the public square, the question now seems ludicrous. In one of those strange-bedfellows things, it is science that is shedding light on why belief in God will never die, at least until humans evolve very different brains, brains that don't (as they did with Beth and Grizelda) interpret unexpected and even unwanted outcomes as being for the best.
"Belief in God," says Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, "is compelled by the way our brains work."
As shown in the Grizelda-and-Beth study, by scientists at Lund University and published this month in Science, brains have a remarkable talent for reframing suboptimal outcomes to see setbacks in the best possible light. You can see it when high-school seniors decide that colleges that rejected them really weren't much good, come to think of it.
You can see it, too, in experiments where Prof. Gilbert and colleagues told female volunteers they would be working on a task that required them to have a likeable, trustworthy partner. They would get a partner randomly, by blindly choosing one of four folders, each containing a biography of a potential teammate. Unknown to the volunteers, each folder contained the same bio, describing an unlikable, untrustworthy person.
The volunteers were unfazed. Reading the randomly chosen bio, they interpreted even negatives as positives. "She doesn't like people" made them think of her as "exceptionally discerning." And when they read different bios, they concluded their partner was hands-down superior. "Their brains found the most rewarding view of their circumstances," says Prof. Gilbert.
The experimenter then told the volunteer that although she thought she was choosing a folder at random, in fact the experimenter had given her a subliminal message so she would pick the best possible partner. The volunteers later said they believed this lie, agreeing that the subliminal message had led them to the best folder. Having thought themselves into believing they had chosen the best teammate, they needed an explanation for their good fortune and experienced what Prof. Gilbert calls the illusion of external agency.
"People don't know how good they are at finding something desirable in almost any outcome," he says. "So when there is a good outcome, they're surprised, and they conclude that someone else has engineered their fate" -- a lab's subliminal message or, in real life, God.
Religion used to be ascribed to a wish to escape mortality by invoking an afterlife or to feel less alone in the world. Now, some anthropologists and psychologists suspect that religious belief is what Pascal Boyer of Washington University, St. Louis, calls in a 2003 paper "a predictable by-product of ordinary cognitive function."
One of those functions is the ability to imagine what Prof. Boyer calls "nonphysically present agents." We do this all the time when we recall the past or project the future, or imagine "what if" scenarios involving others. It's not a big leap for those same brain mechanisms to imagine spirits and gods as real.
Another God-producing brain quirk is that although many things can be viewed in multiple ways, the mind settles on the most rewarding. Take the Necker cube, the line drawing that shifts orientation as you stare at it. (A cool version is at dogfeathers.com/java/necker.html.) If you reward someone for seeing the cube one way, however, his brain starts seeing it that way only. The cube stops flipping.
There are only two ways to see a Necker cube, but loads of ways to see a hurricane or a recovery from illness. The brain "tends to search for and hold onto the most rewarding view of events, much as it does of objects," Prof. Gilbert writes on the Web site Edge. It is much more rewarding to attribute death to God's will, and to see in disasters hints of the hand of God.
Prof. Gilbert once asked a religious colleague how he felt about helping to discover that people can misattribute the products of their own minds to acts of God. The reply: "I feel fine. God doesn't want us to confuse our miracles with his."
Michael Wright enjoys a eureka moment at the edge of knowledge, as scientists ponder the imponderable
Some of the presentations are available to watch as QuickTime movies, if you prefer not to read, and keen thinkers can have a bimonthly e-mail of the latest discussions delivered to their inbox.
Each year, John Brockman, the site’s American editor, also sends a big, open-ended question to all the notable thinkers he knows, then publishes their responses online. This year’s little teaser — “What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?” — prompted 60,000 words in reply, on subjects including particle physics, consciousness, arti- ficial intelligence, global warming and tedious sophistry.
I like the belief of Alun Anderson, the editor-in-chief of New Scientist, that cockroaches are conscious, but cannot comment on the theoretical physicist who denies that black holes destroy information or the computer scientist who believes the continuum hypothesis is false.
Visiting Edge will make pseudo- scientists feel cleverer, and the rest of us more than usually stupid, as we discover, with a jolt of pleasure, how little we really know about the world.
IN this special anthology, leading public thinkers _ scientists, writers and philosophers such as Richard Dawkins,
Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, Jared Diamond and Ray Kurzweil _ respond to a question proposed by Stephen
Pinker: `What is your dangerous idea?'
John Brockman clarifies the question in his introduction: he wanted `statements of fact or policy that are defended
with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency
of an age.'
Good ideas really shouldn't be thought of as dangerous, so several writers shadow-box around the question a bit,
but nearly all of them come up with something original and thought-provoking.
One of my own favourites was about the lab rats that learned to prefer Schoenberg to Mozart, but there is
something here for every interest. Common topics are religion (especially its troubled relationship to science),
psychology (especially free will), politics, and the impact of technological change (genetic engineering, and the
clash between our instincts and our computer-dominated culture).
Contributions are all quite short, ranging from less than a page up to perhaps five pages, which makes it all too
easy to give oneself mental indigestion. Other than that, however, it is a veritable feast of ideas.
In a word: Zesty.
If you stroll along the "infinite shingle" of Chesil Beach in Dorset, as Ian McEwan did while composing his new novel, you will find that millennia of tides and winds have "graded the size of pebbles" along its 18-mile length, "with the bigger stones at the eastern end". The writer went to check this out, and felt - as he weighed the pebbles in his palms - that it was true.
Already, critics have lauded On Chesil Beach as a major achievement from a painstaking micro-historian of the inner life. Edward and Florence, its loving but fatally innocent couple, stumble into a wedding-night disaster in the "buttoned-up", respectable England of July 1962, the victims not merely of "their personalities and pasts" but of "class, and history itself". Yet long-haul admirers of McEwan will detect some even deeper rhythms at work here. Once again, he traces the ominous crossing of a threshold from one human state to another: a step into the dark framed - as often in his fiction - by the inexorable onward movement of maturing and ageing bodies, of biological evolution, of climate and even geology itself.
We talk in a restaurant in Fitzrovia, a short walk for McEwan from the handsome house in a Georgian square that he fictionally lends to the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne in Saturday - another novel that pivots on momentous changes, all the way from the medical to the military realms. Upstairs, there seems to be a meeting of the revived Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, exactly the kind of wacky pop pranksters that Edward, in the lonely hippie-era limbo where McEwan's epilogue leaves his stubborn hero, might have promoted in his Camden record shop. Outside, the sunshine signals another kind of transition, from winter into spring. And McEwan, a model of quietly spoken exactitude with words and ideas alike, stresses that On Chesil Beach aims at more than just the scrutiny of that early-Sixties cusp of change between - as Philip Larkin and almost all the reviewers have put it - "the end of the Chatterley ban/ And The Beatles' first LP".
For all the pin-sharp evocation of a time when "youthful energies were pushing to escape, like steam under pressure", this last gasp of British sexual inhibition gave his story a starting point and not a terminus. "I never really thought of it as a historical novel," he explains, "because I was interested in another aspect: which is when young people cross this line - the Conradian shadow-line - from innocence to knowledge. You're also dealing with a human universal. So I was rather interested to discover what young people would make of this. And I was quite relieved, for example, that my sons took to it avidly - even though they're living at a time when they not only have girlfriends, but they have lots of friends who happen to be girls: another world."
The book also survived a test-run beyond McEwan's family (his wife is the journalist and author Annalena McAfee, and he has two early-twenties sons from his first marriage). He read an extract at Hunter College in New York, to the sort of student body who might have been forgiven for failing to sympathise with the bedroom blunderings of a pair of virginal Home Counties 22-year-olds in the summer before the Cuban missile crisis. "This is a community college," the author says, "and the kids are - tough is not the word, they're really lovely, but they're not protected. They've clearly been out there." Would this street-smart audience think: why don't Edward and Florence "just get on with it? What's the problem? On the contrary: they seemed deeply engaged.
"So there have to be two elements running side by side," McEwan continues. "One is that, this is particular: these are characters frozen in history, limited by psychology, by class, by private experience. But on the other hand, this is a universal experience that is differently dressed up by different people at different times." Youth always has to cross that line, even if it would no longer run through the starched sheets of a marriage bed in a dowdy Dorset hotel.
Always the punctilious realist, McEwan nonetheless skirts the seas of parable, or myth. Yet for this, the 12th work of fiction since his 1975 debut with the luridly memorable tales of First Love, Last Rites, he wanted to avoid wading in too deep. "This particular beach offered so many metaphorical possibilities," he says. "They could kill the novel! So I really had to row back quite hard on that. The fact that impersonal forces have created order; the fact that the last scene is played out on a tongue of shingle, so you're stranded on both sides; the sense that they sit down to dinner on an evening when they both hope to gain knowledge, which clearly relates to being on the edge of the known world... It was so rich, that I had to keep the volume down."
McEwan's fiction strikes so hard and lingers so long in the imagination precisely because he keeps the interpretative volume down. "Readers will rebel," he believes, "when they spot an overriding, determining metaphor." Or, perhaps, a determining cause. On Chesil Beach hints at a specific reason for Florence's "visceral dread" of sexual experience, one that throws a line from this work back to the toxic households of those earliest stories. Her creator reveals that "in an early draft, it was all too clear". The finished work allows more space for the reader: we can join the dots through the past ourselves, just as we can fill in the futures to be enjoyed or endured by both after the act, or failure to act, that will mould them. Edward, the promising historian, now seems headed for a life of amiable counter-cultural drift; Florence, the driven violinist, stands on the brink of a solitary musical destiny.
Florence plays in a rising string quartet, and the novel that tells her story has a densely wrought, compacted, chamber-music quality. A central movement - the wedding night itself - is interspersed with chapters that delve into the characters' past and, at the finale, the future as * * well. "One of the first things that I wrote about it when I was making notes," McEwan recalls, "was a simple direction: five times eight - five chapters of about 8,000 words. A wedding night seemed to me perfect for a short novel."
The author of other compressed but resonant pieces, such as The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and the Booker-winning Amsterdam, points out that "I've always liked that form: the novel that can be read in three hours, at a sitting, like a movie or an opera". A chamber opera will be McEwan's next project, due for its premiere at next year's Hay festival. He has almost completed a small-scale, "easily exportable" collaboration with the composer Michael Berkeley (who was his partner more than 20 years ago on the anti-nuclear oratorio Or Shall We Die?). It has a Don Giovanni-style seducer for its protagonist: "We thought that sexual obsession would be a very good subject for an opera."
And sexual obsession, in the form of longing or loathing rather than action, makes an equally compelling motif for On Chesil Beach. For McEwan, the book's microscopically observed convergence of social embarrassment and erotic misery "is not great tragedy. But it's something I always have an interest in: how something small, like not saying the right thing or not making the right gesture, could then send you down a slightly different path in life. It must happen to us countless times, but we barely notice."
In the pre-permissive shadowland of 1962, McEwan himself was a 13-year-old schoolboy, the itinerant, Aldershot-born son of a career army officer from Glasgow. Famously, his father's ordeal at Dunkirk helped to shape the wartime scenes of Atonement, the 2001 novel that, for many of his readers, ranked Mc-Ewan first-among-equals in that gifted cohort of novelists (Amis, Barnes and Rushdie among them) born into the aftermath of global war. Now, a few readers wonder if the poignant road-not-taken theme in On Chesil Beach might connect with his rediscovered brother, David Sharp. The son born to McEwan's parents while his mother was still married to her first husband (later killed in action), David was given up for adoption in 1942. McEwan first encountered him in 2002, and they periodically meet, but he says that this reconfigured family history has not (yet) found its way into his work.
The novelist may not enlist people into fiction so directly, but he does recruit places. Just as Saturday more or less gave Mr Perowne his creator's own address, so On Chesil Beach has Edward grow up in a Chilterns cottage that Mc-Ewan once almost rented, while Florence's chilly family occupies the north Oxford house he lived in during the 1980s. "I've come to it late," he says, "and it's such a standard thing in the English novel: a sense of place. Which I've always rather lacked, I think, being an army brat, going to boarding school, then a modern university": Sussex, followed by his pioneering stint as the first creative-writing student at East Anglia. "I've never been very rooted but, cumulatively, I guess, I do have a 30-year experience of the Chilterns." McEwan now draws on that intimacy in Edward's memories of an idyllic corner of those hills which has, he says, "withstood the onslaught of modernity reasonably well".
McEwan conjures up his terrain with a walker's close-to-the-ground eye. Plants thrust, creatures breed (or refuse to), and even hills or beaches shift according to the overlapping cycles that push on beyond the limited history that persons or societies know. He is also deeply immersed in ecological debates. In 2005, he joined a trip to the Svalbard archipelago, 79 degrees north in the Arctic, for the Cape Farewell project led by the artist David Buckland, which aims to raise cultural awareness of the issues of global warming. He reads widely in scientific literature and, just before we met, had travelled to Hamburg for a public dialogue with John Schellnhuber, the German government's adviser on climate change.
Yet McEwan the engaged intellectual (as he was during an earlier wave of doomsday anxiety, in the nuclear arms race of the early 1980s) and McEwan the novelist remain separate beings. "Fiction hates preachiness," he affirms. "Nor does it much like facts and figures or trends or curves on graphs. Nor do readers much like to be hectored." He says that in spite of "all the reading that I've done around climate change, none of it suggests anything useful in the way of approaching this novelistically".
What about one more fictional dystopia, with marauding survivors once more trekking through a blasted wasteland? "That doesn't interest me at all. We've had so many dystopias that we're brain-dead in that direction. Also, you can go to certain parts of the world - say, Sudan. There is a dystopia. You don't have to launch these things into the future."
Still, he can just about envisage a fiction that would do artistic justice to a perilously warming world: "Something small and fierce, that would unwind in a way that's intrinsically interesting... It's got to be fascinating, in the way that gossip is. It's got to be about ourselves. Maybe it needs an Animal Farm. Maybe it needs allegory. But if you're going in that direction, then you need a lot of wit."
Meanwhile, ventures such as Cape Farewell (whose exhibition will reach the Barbican gallery in January 2008) may trigger an urge to cherish as well as to lament. In an Arctic cold snap, "I did two or three long hikes that just took my breath away," he says. "Many others have thought this too: that one way forward is not doom-and-gloom but celebration; of what we are, what we have, and what we don't want to lose." On his return, he wrote a fable about the boot-room of the expedition ship, with its all-too-human rows over purloined kit. Artists may not refine the theory or advance the technology that will grapple with climate change, but they can deepen the self-knowledge of the selfish but potentially co-operative beasts who have crossed a fateful, collective shadow-line. "How do you talk about the state we've got ourselves into," he asks, "as a very successful, fossil-fuel-burning civilisation? How do we stop? That really does become a matter of human nature. There's all the science to consider, but finally there is a massive issue of politics and ethics."
McEwan, who shadowed a leading neurosurgeon while researching Saturday, likes the company and outlook of scientists as an antidote to lazy arts-faculty despair. "Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style," he says with a tinge of scorn. "You're not a paid-up member unless you're gloomy." But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine "pessimism of the intellect" with "optimism of the will". "Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can't be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not."
He loves the spirited playfulness evident in places such as John Brockman's celebrated website Edge, where "neuroscientists might talk to mathematicians, biologists to computer-modelling experts", and in an accessible, discipline-crossing language that lets us all eavesdrop. "In order to talk to each other, they just have to use plain English. That's where the rest of us benefit." Science may also now "encroach" on traditional artistic soil. McEwan recently heard a lecture on the neuroscience of revenge, in which the rage to get even - that inexhaustible fuel for tragedy and comedy alike - illuminated parts of the brain via "real-time, functioning MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. What was demonstrated was that people were prepared to punish themselves in order to punish others: negative altruism."
For all the storytelling confidence of scientists who try to uncover the biological roots of personal emotions and social beliefs, McEwan keeps faith in the special tasks of art. "I hold to the view that novelists can go to places that might be parallel to a scientific investigation, and can never really be replaced by it: the investigation into our natures; our condition; what we're like in specific circumstances." On Chesil Beach, it strikes me, shows at its infinitely sad conclusion an example of self-punishing "negative altruism" at work. Here, a vengeful righteousness that wrecks the "injured" party takes shape not in the colour-coded neural maps of MRI - but through a vigilant writer's heartbreaking empathy with the twisted feelings of a child in its time.
If human communication and solidarity can founder so totally in this novel's little pool of fear and frustration, what are its prospects in the great ocean of social behaviour? We talk of the carbon-cutting, resource-saving sacrifices this generation may have to make on behalf of its successors, and McEwan comments that such long-term altruism "does go against the grain a bit". All the same, he adds: "I cheer myself up with the thought of medieval cathedral builders, who built for the future - or 18th-century tree-planters, who planted sapling oaks which they would never enjoy. Here, it's much more dire; but we're bound to think of our children, or at least our grandchildren.
"It is difficult to do favours to people you have never met," he says. "But we give money to Oxfam, to charities, to victims of the tsunami and so forth. These are not people who are ever going to repay those favours, or even know who bestowed them." Unlike his characters, doomed to a kind of soul-extinction in their solitude, McEwan believes in making the last-ditch gesture that might save a world. "The worst fate would be to conclude that there's nothing we can do about this, and so let's party to the end."
BRAIN stretch is an exciting concept, the more so as John Brockman's anthology pushes everything to the extreme. Can our brains exist without bodies? If, as Ray Kurzweil says, ''we need only 1 per cent of 1 per cent of the sunlight to meet all our energy needs'', why are we pouring billions into Middle East wars over oil and not into research on nano-engineered solar panels and fuel cells? Read these 100 or so mini-essays and realise how lacking in vision most politicians are.