Edge in the News

NewYorkMetro.com [12.31.01]

In an unlikely turn of events — and thanks to some shameless maneuvering to achieve (and protect) proximity — our Murdoch-deconstructing media columnist breaks bread with the man himself.

Rupert kept talking. He grew more expansive, more conspiratorial, even (although it did seem like he'd conspire with anyone), his commentary more intimate. We proposed that he come with us to the dinner we were scheduled to go to — John Brockman's Billionaire's dinner, a TED ritual.

Websites of the year
The Sunday Times [12.29.01]

"INSPIRED ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September 11 was measured and uplifting. These included the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who was despondent about the 21st century "because there seems no realistic chance of preventing these hazards from looming ever larger", and the former editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox: "There is no "technical fix" for terrorism." Who says that there is nothing of substance on the net?"

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What Now?:
New Straits Times [11.7.01]

A page featuring "serious conversation about the catastrophic events" of September 11 by intellectuals and thinkers. Trying to answer the question, 'What now?', the contributors, including such recognisable names as Richard Dawkins, Luyen Chou, David Deutsch and Yossi Vardi, weigh in often dispassionately with some highly informed, intelligent thoughts on terrorism and the fragile state of the world. The debate is lively and stimulating, and many of the exchanges are intelligent and filled with views that are argued with cool logic. It's also interesting to see how much mindful of clarity of expression intellectuals are when they're trying to appeal to a wide readership.

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The Scout Report [10.25.01]

What Now -- The Edge
http://www.edge.org/documents/whatnow.html
This feature from the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc. (reviewed previously in the July 25, 2000 Scout Report for Social Sciences & Humanities) is an impressive collection of thoughtful words in response to the recent terrorist attacks and ensuing war. The Edge postulated the question, "What now?" to its members with the idea that, as editor John Brockman explains, "within the community is invaluable expertise in many pertinent areas, not to mention the intelligence that the 'Edgies' can bring to the subjects." What separates this forum from many others dealing with recent issues of terrorism is that Brockman asks for "'hard-edge' comments, derived from empirical results or experience specific to the expertise of the contributors," rather than emotional or purely rhetorical responses. Here are a few of the pieces -- some essay length, others only a few sentences -- found here: psychiatrist Richard Rabkin takes a "strategic psychotherapy" approach to dealing with terrorism, science writer and television commentator Margaret Wertheim and archaeologist Timothy Taylor both touch on the corruption of science by weapons development as well as the intermingling of science and religion, and evolutionary scholar Richard Dawkins brings up the tendency to "bend over backwards to see the other point of view and blame ourselves for everything." Take time to peruse this collection of 44,000 words from 55 contributors and you'll be glad you did. [HCS] 
[Back to Contents]

Climate Change: Science, Strategies, and Solutions -- "Facts and Figures" [.pdf]
http://www.pewclimate.org/book/
An online sneak preview of the "Facts and Figures" section of this forthcoming book from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change (of the Pew Charitable Trusts) is now available (.pdf). The book, Climate Change: Science, Strategies, and Solutions, conveys the latest information and analyses from experts on a number of global warming issues: the scientific evidence that human activities are changing climate; present and projected impacts of climate change on agriculture, sea level, and water resources; the main determinants explaining projected costs of addressing climate change; and US and international policies and initiatives addressing global warming. The .pdf file contains visually pleasing, simply stated chapters on global and national greenhouse gas and emission levels, along with a section of conversion tables and Web links. This would be a good reference for college students taking an introductory environmental science course. [HCS] 
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The 2000 National Doctoral Program Survey
http://survey.nagps.org/
The 2000 National Doctoral Program Survey has recently been released from The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), which "is dedicated to improving the quality of graduate and professional student life and education by actively promoting the interests and welfare of graduate and professional degree-seeking students." The survey represents 32,000 graduate students and recent PhDs from 1,300 different programs in the US. The site allows users to rank programs based on student assessment, look at individual program reports, and view overall results for each discipline. The nine topics covered in the survey, which range from teaching and TA preparation to overall satisfaction, are reported by letter grade based on responses and can be viewed by individual topic and individual questions within each topic. Although some programs may only have one or two responses and the NAGPS admits that "The National Doctoral Program Survey is an observational study, not a controlled experiment," the site can be beneficial for prospective students, university administrators, and faculty who hope to gain some insight into a particular university's program. [JAB] 
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US National Response Team Hazardous Materials Planning Guide 2001 Update [.pdf]
http://Itdomino1.icfconsulting.com/nrt/home.nsf/resources/Publications/$File/cleanNRT10_12.pdf
The National Response Team (NRT) is a suite of sixteen federal agencies responsible for coordinating federal planning, preparedness, and response actions related to oil discharges and hazardous substance releases. The NRT recently updated its Hazardous Materials Planning Guide, originally published in 1987, and posted it online (.pdf). The intent of this guide is to help local communities plan for hazardous materials incidents. The guide discusses how to organize a planning team, identify hazards, and write and update an emergency plan. It makes reference to legislation such the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Air Act, and the FEMA Emergency Operations Plan. It also refers to organizations such as EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team, among others. The report includes 69 pages of text and seven appendices, among them a glossary and a directory of federal agencies. [HCS] 
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The Peacemakers Speak
http://www.thecommunity.com/crisis/
TheCommunity.com, a for-profit that has partnered with organizations including Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and CARE, among others, has posted here statements from seventeen of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates made in the weeks following September 11. Among the statements are words from David Trimble, the Dalai Lama, and a joint letter from Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk. The statements are brief, and the site allows readers to respond to individual Laureates via email. The More About This Laureate link at the bottom of each page takes users to the official Nobel site information on the writer. [TK] 
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The Museum of E-Failure
http://www.disobey.com/ghostsites/
The Museum of E-Failure bears witness to the dot.bomb phenomenon, presenting the last images of the front pages of failed Websites. Steve Baldwin, who maintains the site, explains, "It is my hope that these screenshots may serve as a reminder of the glory, folly, and historically unique design sensibilities of the Web's Great Gilded Age (1995-2001)." The sites are arranged in a long list, with recent additions on the top of the page. Clicking on a site name brings up a screen shot of the site's farewell front page. A sort of virtual graveyard, the Museum of E-Failure represents a memorial on the side of the information highway. [TK] 
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Three for Halloween
2001 Halloween Guide @ PhillyBurbs.com
http://halloween.phillyburbs.com/
Halloween Pop-up Book
http://www.goldenbooks.com/fun/emagic/flash/h2k.html
Halloween 2001: Oct. 31
http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/2001/cb01fff14.html
Even though many children in the United States won't be trick-or-treating door-to-door this year, that's no reason to let Halloween pass unremarked. These three sites provide some holiday fun. The first, this year's Halloween Guide from PhillyBurbs.com, is a veritable omnibus of Halloween fare. Billing themselves as "the biggest and best Halloween site online," the site includes a number of features on topics such as Dracula, zombies, Ed Wood, and other spooky fare. These are the heart of the site and are geared toward adult readers with a sense of irony. The features on costumes and decorations are sometimes less rewarding, as they seem to be focused shopping guides (though some of them are pretty entertaining even so). A page on Halloween safety and a guide to local Philadelphia events round out the site. Lest kids miss out on the fun, the next site is just for them, though this scout must confess some lost time playing with this fun virtual pop-up book. The last site is from the US Census and consists of a brief page of Halloween data culled from recent Census releases. [TK]

Der Geist zu Geld macht
Focus [10.7.01]

 

What does this man say — dressed in a Panama hat and pitch-black sunglasses — as a greeting? John Brockman says: "You know, I am so bored by myself." That, one might console him, is not so bad, because the 60 year-old earns his money by being excited about others. He is considered the most successful agent for science books — and as the central figure of an industry that entices media-compatible scientists out of their laboratories and turns them into highly paid stars of pop culture. Still, his livelihood is for him "only a side-product" of his true passion: Brockman networks some of the most influential thinkers of our time. In this work, this layman has himself become one of the protagonists of science.

Just as in previous years his New York based agency, Brockman, Inc., will represent his clients this week with its own stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. "When we hit Frankfurt, it's show time," says Brockman. "Then I put on my hat and my game face. No one needs a friendly book agent." Only the head beneath the hat will be bored with this again. Brockman long ago turned over the daily business to his wife, Katinka Matson. He conducts most of his work via the Internet from Eastover Farm, his estate in Connecticut, which was built in 1773.

 

HEAD ENOUGH
Entrusted in 1968 with the advertisement for the film "Head" by the band The Monkees, Brockman had posters printed with his likeness on them.

photo: Tobias Everke
DYNASTY OF AGENTS
Brockman's wife Katinka Matson, daughter of a successful book agent and a former actress, today manages the daily business of the Brockman, Inc. agency.

 

Hardly has a scientist made it onto the cover of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal when Brockman is on the scene with the promise of finding a million-dollar publishing advance for a popular book. A British newspaper found its own word for this surprise tactic: "brockman" Insiders complain that half-complete, thrown-together proposals are a consequence. Another result is confused scientists, who after being overrun by Brockman can't fulfill their contracts. Such an example is Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, who with Brockman's help is supposed to have received a contract for over one million dollars, but had to pay back the advance. The pasted-together manuscript, delivered late, had not met the expectations of the publisher. Later The Quark and the Jaguar appeared with another publisher against an advance of only $50,000. Alan Guth, who developed the theory of the inflationary universe, also had trouble completing his work, which was passed through three publishers. "But John softened all of the problems very well," praises Guth. "He was very understanding."

Archeologist Eberhard Zangger, one of the rare German clients, describes an impressive example of Brockman's effective method of agenting. "I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair with a few copies of my new book that were very expensive to produce," he remembers. Zangger had just learned that Brockman wanted to represent him. "I was overjoyed, since that was the best thing that one can achieve as an author. But then, two of my very expensive books were stolen."

Later, Zangger came by Brockman's stand to introduce himself personally, and found the agent in a sales meeting — with one of the missing copies in his hand.

 


photo: Tobias Everke
IN THE CENTER OF POWER
Brockman's office sits on a corner of elegant Fifth Avenue in theformer "Playboy Club."

Popular titles like Emotional Intelligence, which sold more than six million copies, and works by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works) or the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow) came into being through this effective "brockmaning." "But who is interested in that?" sighs Brockman. Maybe only those scientists who land record breaking advances— like physicist Brian Greene at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair.

 

 

It is surely for this reason that the brilliant string theorist, whose bestsellerThe Elegant Universe was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, sits somewhat confused at a wooden table at Eastover Farm on an afternoon at the end of July and asks: "What are we doing here, John?"

Just as in summers past, Brockman has invited minds that don't bore him for a rustic date. Cosmologist Alan Guth has come, as well as Jordan Pollack, the inventor of robots that invent robots, and Jaron Lanier, musician and pioneer of virtual reality. "We are simply discussing how everything is changing around us," answers Brockman in flowerly prose to Greene's question. Later, at lunch, he whispers covertly, "When you don't prepare anything, you get the best results."

The sentence can serve as a motto that weaves through the iridescent life of Brockman, who as the son of a flower dealer studied business in his early twenties, only to become within a few years an investment broker, artist, celebrated marketing guru, and respected writer — in this order. "I was very un-shy in my twenties," he explains. "I met who I wanted to simply by picking up the phone?." In those days he cooked regularly with the composer John Cage and loitered about Andy Warhol's Factory. He also rented out what is possibly his greatest talent — getting intelligent types to be talked about intelligently— to entrepreneurial projects. Or to the band The Monkees, whose Film Head he publicized by having posters of his own head hung everywhere.

"There was also a time when John tried to be a serious author," remembers the Swiss book agent Peter Fritz, who has known Brockman since 1975. "But then he realized one can live better through the sales of works by other authors. And having a good income was also surely important to him." After Stephen Hawking's bestseller, explains Brockman, "I saw the gap in the market for popular books by leading researchers. I then expanded it myself."

 


photo: Nat Finklestein
IN THE FACTORY
Brockman with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, 1967

Stewart Brand, a close friend and one of Brockman's first clients thinks that John Brockman is "intensely curious and easily bored." In an interview with a reporter of a fashion magazine when he was just 26, Brockman explained that he refuses "to do something that I have already done before. The past is boring." In spite of this, his dynamic mind has created its own space where he will never be bored again. There he can occupy himself with those questions that "the most complex and sophisticated minds" of the world are asking themselves. So reads the motto of his website "Edge" (www.edge.org), and like much about Brockman, it proves to sound as pompous on the first look as appropriate on the second. On his invitation, an elite club of clients, friends, and friends of clients meet on the Internet and discuss whether "science kills the soul," or whether life is digital or analog. Brockman estimates that half of his working time is spent on this non-profit project.

 

In this network we see the development of a sort of Version 2.0 of the salonsin which "the most sophisticated minds" of the nineteenth century freely discussed literature. In the twenty-first, research and technology are the themes. In this format final scientific exactness remains at a distance — and with it the oppressive gravity of the research business . Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann thinks that some of the discussions are good, others not. The website contains "a considerable amount of nonsense." But one thing this playground for literate scientists seldom is: boring.

"Third Culture," — that's the name Brockman gave the growing community of scientists who leave the ivory tower to take part in the public debate — be it in the internet, in interviews, or in books. He borrowed the concept from the writer C.P. Snow and re-coined it for his purposes "as a catchy marketing term" (Brockman). In a third culture, Snow dreamed 40 years ago, the two divided cultures of the natural sciences and humanities would once again speak to one another. In Brockman's own interpretation of the concept the scientists of the Third Culture relieve those self-proclaimed intellectuals who are perversely proud not to understand the really important knowledge of our time.

While stem cells and BSE, bioethics and the believability of science occupy the media, Europe has imported the "catchy marketing term" along with its attendant ideology. Contact with the New Yorker in May of last year inspired Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor and chief of the arts and letters pages of theFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, to write a manifesto ("Wake-up call for Europe"). In it he complained self-critically about the European Intellectuals who are "stubbornly or clumsily avoiding the issue" of technology and science. He announced that his Arts and Letters pages would strengthen the ability of the Third Culture to be heard. In a revolutionary mood a few weeks later, he even published a page-long snippet of the newly-cracked human genetic code. Since then, not only has the FAZ Feuilleton been "brockmaned," but also the cultural debate in Germany. Brockman finds this "fully logical. All the Schirrmachers of the world are bored with their half of the two traditional cultures."

As excited as a Freshman, Brockman spends this day on Eastover Farm circling the leading representatives of his Third Culture, proposes questions, passes notes with speaking instructions around the circle and photographs everything for the website with a digital camera. "I have created a university with the best scientists in the world," he says later. "And I am its only student." In its best moments, the professors of his virtual university argue about the riddles of their disciplines — among them, what information is, or whether our universe is only a holographic projection of a higher-dimensional world. Virtual reality pope Jaron Lanier and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser consider with all seriousness whether animals could be raised for research purposes in a completely virtual world that follows completely other natural laws. "Let's do a project together," says Lanier excitedly.

 

POSING
Poster for the symposium "After Brockman"

Brockman would like it if his thinkers would take one more step away from their ivory tower: "What would happen if the

 

members of Edge founded an advisory committee for President Bush?" he asks over coffee. The reactions in the circle range from horror to interest. "One can't leave the cloning debate or the plans for Star Wars to such people," suggests the master of the house. Politics, he says, doesn't interest him. "Just the truth."

Reality drags the Third Culture a few weeks later one further step away from the ivory tower. 6,000 people were buried in the rubble of The World Trade Center. "What now?" Brockman asks the circle on Edge. Dozens of essays crackle on the website which no scientific journal could produce. Historians assemble their research experiences with Islam, philosophers consider biological warfare, cognitive scientists discuss the power of news images. Only John Brockman composes no contribution and remains quiet.

What touches and propels him remains hidden under his Panama hat. It says so, too, in one of those Zen-inflected sentences he exchanged years ago with the artist James Lee Byars, his "closest friend." Byars wrote, "Wears his hat to deny his head."

 

(translation by Christopher Williams)

 

Copyright 2001 Focus Magazin Verlag GmbH

Original German version

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The New York Times [8.6.01]

BETHLEHEM, Conn. —These would seem to be heady times to be a computer scientist. This is the information age, in which, we are told, biology is defined by a three-billion- letter instruction manual called the genome and human thoughts are analogous to digital bits flowing through a computer. And, we are warned, human intellect will soon be dwarfed by superintelligent machines.

"All kinds of people," said Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, "are happy to tell us what we do is the central metaphor, the best explanation of everything from biology to economics to aesthetics to child rearing, sex, you name it. It's very ego-gratifying."

Mr. Lanier is the lead scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, a virtual reality system that has been designed for the Internet.

He and six other scientists were sitting under a maple tree one recent afternoon worrying whether this headiness was justified. They found instead that they could not even agree on useful definitions of their field's most common terms, like "information" and "complexity," let alone the meaning and future of this revolution.

The other scientists were two computer science professors, Dr. David Gelernter of Yale and Dr. Jordan Pollack of Brandeis University; three physicists, Dr. Brian Greene of Columbia, Dr. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Lee Smolin of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Penn State; and a psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard.

John Brockman, a literary agent who represents these scientists, had convened them at the country house here that he shares with his wife and partner, Katinka Matson. Mr. Brockman said he had been inspired to gather the group by a conversation with Dr. Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering and quantum computing expert at M.I.T. Mr. Brockman recently posted Dr. Lloyd's statement on his Web site, www.edge.org: "Of course, one way of thinking about all of life and civilization," Dr. Lloyd said, "is as being about how the world registers and processes information. Certainly that's what sex is about; that's what history is about." .....

WHO KNOWS? A Meeting of The Third Culture
Frankfurter Allgemeine [7.31.01]

EASTOVER FARM, END OF JULY

Plato once sought out an olive grove in which he might finally bring the world its first academy. But olive trees are rare in New England. Instead, there are strong maples, and recently, beneath a knotty, especially old and venerable specimen on Eastover Farm in Connecticut, academics fled their laboratories and lecture halls and, in the tradition of their intellectual ancestors, conversed in nature about more than their surroundings.

There were no professional philosophers, which might hardly come as a surprise since the invitation to the open-air symposium was issued by the Internet salon "Edge," whose founder, John Brockman, cultivated the Third Culture and is now busy washing away the border between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Thus, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale brought along news that industry invests much more energy into research than universities do. The professor, who is also an entrepreneur, was already more than a little anxious, because although the Internet has just entered the race for the exchange of knowledge it might soon overtake its competition from the universities. This thesis was not contested. Jaron Lanier, who gave virtual reality its name, and Jordan Pollock, head of the Brandeis robotics program, were also in agreement that software limps behind hardware and is even losing more ground.

In the free-floating exchange of ideas, however, the scientists repeatedly put reins on wildly galloping progress. In this they distinguish themselves considerably from us mere mortals. While we might think we can distinguish between a dead and a living organism, no specialist ventures a definition of life. It was similar here. Science uncovers its fundamental lack of knowledge.

"We don't know what information is," said Lee Smolin, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University, and none of the collected authorities on information could explain it to him. Brian Greene, who teaches mathematics and physics at Columbia University and writes bestsellers about "string theory," sat and smiled at how perplexing the concepts of space and time are: "We don't know what it is." Evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser, who traveled from Harvard, took up the riddle of the brain, a part of the human body that compels us with the illusion that we know more than what is actually true. He thanked Noam Chomsky not least of all for this insight. As cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained, maybe the assertions of quantum mechanics also manifest themselves in this way, as they describe the cosmos in possibilities. Where should there still be room for certainties? Guth spoke of dark energy, which composes sixty percent of all of the energy in the universe, but "We don't know what it is."

They know more, these scientists, than their predecessors ever knew. But in the end, when they add their knowledge together, they are quite Socratic in their realization that they know that they know nothing. Today, when every day witnesses a new discovery, the keys to the primary causes and the fundamental laws of the universe are still missing. The maple tree, under which the scientists speculated in green Connecticut, is little more than a tree of limited knowledge. In this sense, the virtual cybersalon committed no faux pas as it spent a summer afternoon reconstructing itself in the real shadow of the maple tree in order to consider who we are, how we live, and - above all - how we will live in the future. Was this temporary change in the conditions of aggregation, after all, also a sign of what the roundtable demonstrated as the apparent instability of our revolutionary times? Who knows.

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nymag.com [4.22.01]

John Brockman, the literary agent and technology gadfly, formally surveyed a high flying group of his digerati associates recently on the question of what's next — and absolutely no one responded.

LA WEEKLY: New World Disorder [2.7.01]

Edge (www.edge.org) features a cross section of elite scientists, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, parallel computing pioneer Danny Hillis, language theorist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, robotics expert Rodney Brook, chaos theory expert Doyne Farmer, and physicists Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson and Lee Smolin. .... "We are interested in ‘thinking smart,'" declares Brockman on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ‘wisdom.'" Putting the question "What now?" to his invite-only list, Brockman stressed that he wanted not more punditry, but "hard-edged comments, derived from empirical results."

3 Sat Online [2.7.01]

Who explains the world to us? Priests, psychoanalysts, and other prophets no longer serve this purpose. The sciences are becoming more important, especially biology and physics. Most recently the map of the human genome was revealed, and our knowledge of the world has become immense. But who can see through it all?

Ten years ago a New York literary agent promoted popular science, accessible science for everyone, as an alternative to arcane, discipline-specific language and an unenlightened intellectual climate. John Brockman promotes a Third Culture: "The Third Culture is a name for those people who, through empirical work in the natural sciences - as well as in other subjects, such as feminism, architecture, etc. - transform our thinking about who and what we are. This is very different from other thinkers, whom we call the Second Culture, who construct pyramids of thought, dispense opinions, and spy on the opinions of others."

How did the cosmos and our own world come into being? What does is mean to be human? What does our future look like? Within disciplines such as genomics, computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence the authors of the Third Culture look for new answers to the great, perennial questions. Neither the scientific method nor animated speculation are excluded from this. Brockman, however, expects no help from classical intellectuals and literary types: "The fact that someone is a gifted writer no longer means that his ideas are any better than those of my butcher. To put it bluntly, it really doesn't matter to me what literary people have to say about these themes. This isn't to say that I'm disinterested, but it doesn't mean anything to me that someone has written 30 books on philosophy."

Although Brockman's polemic has caught on, it doesn't reach far enough. The fission of uranium and plutonium nuclei is surely a scientific achievement of the past century, but at the same time it has made possible the most horrifying weapons of destruction of all time. How, then, are we to reckon with nuclear fission? Scientific answers to moral questions don't help. But Brockman, whose polemic is directed more towards the narrow mindedness of the lions of intellectual salons than artists, knows this as well, because it was artists like John Cage who made him aware of the natural sciences. His critique goes for the conditions in America as well, where despite the New York Times there is no widely publicized forum for the popular dissemination of knowledge about scientific progress. Brockman's Third Culture seeks to close this gap: "If you want to know about the most recent developments in psychology and computer science, that is, to be among the most important thinkers, then you have to buy their books. You can't get that from the newspapers, because it's not published there."

Through this attempt to create a counterweight to the entertainment industry, he has become the most successful literary agent specializing in nonfiction in the world. He negotiates advances in the millions of dollars for authors such as Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Pinker. In the meantime, he has created a network of authors from which Frank Schirrmacher, who has committed the FAZ arts pages to the sciences, has also profited. The Third Culture has reached Germany: "Today it really is self-evident." says Brockman. "It is good that it is now a topic of debate in Germany. It hasn't been the case for long, but things really have changed. Frank Schirrmacher deserves the credit for this. But here in America it is no longer a big issue. It is a part of our everyday culture."

Popular science and the Third Culture have established themselves in America. They are not a replacement for either hard science or the humanities. But they are a platform for a creative, unconventional, and interdisciplinary thought. For this reason they can't be done without.

The Aventis Magazine [1.31.01]

John Brockman wants to be at the frontier of knowledge. That’s why his online magazine is called Edge (www.edge.org): “What questions shall we ask today?”

John D. Barrow, THE NEW YORK TIMES [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....

The New York Times [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....

NEW YORK [1.7.01]

Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine mit Mlle. de Scud»ry zeitreisende Mme. de S»vign» m½œte sich nicht gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin stieœe, das sich unerschrocken preziñs "Salon" nennt. Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren lîdt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.

Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten der Aufklîrung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon (www.edge.org) verf½hrt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphîen gern zu Antworten auf solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. An die hundert Wissenschaftler, Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur" nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schlieœlich viele Gr½nde haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert......

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.7.01]

Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine mit Mlle. de Scudéry zeitreisende Mme. de Sévigné müßte sich nicht gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin stieße, das sich unerschrocken preziös "Salon" nennt. Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren lädt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.

Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten der Aufklärung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon (www.edge.org) verführt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphäen gern zu Antworten auf solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. Wir drucken heute auf den folgenden Seiten, gleichzeitig mit der "New York Times", eine Auswahl der oft in Wahrheit weiterfragenden Antworten ab. An die hundert Wissenschaftler, Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur" nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schließlich viele Gründe haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert.

Kevin Kelly [12.31.00]

New "High concept all the way. Brockman seeks out the brightest scientists and thinkers today and engages them in heady interviews and serious discussions centered around ideas. The content is unfashionable and orthogonal to the media news. It's deep and refreshing like six-feet of rich topsoil. Of all the lists I am on this one is the most conversational." Kevin Kelly (Editor-at-large, Wired)

Die Welt [11.20.00]

Manifestos have to exaggerate. It is no surprise, then, that FAZ co-publisher Frank Schirrmacher reported six months ago that he would turn the arts & letters pages of his paper into the central organ of the "Third Culture." He sells the shift as an epoch-making "post-education" for the sleeping European intelligentsia content to be "clumsy or stubborn," mired in "identity crises, loss of purpose, despair, and occidental melancholy," incapable even of coming to grips with a word processing program, while young American natural scientists write the "program of the future."

What Schirrmacher calls the "Third Culture" is the brand name of the nearly 60-year-old New York literary agent John Brockman. In order to understand what Brockman is promoting one must go back to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy saw America's new frontier in science and technology. Everything seemed possible, and Kennedy's goal was to send a man to the moon within a decade. JFK was, however, not the prophet of a new age, but represented old dreams of the flexibility and managability of society, matter and consciousness. In Behind Freedom and Dignity, the most influential scientific work of that year, B.F. Skinner proposed the idea of the programmability of people. Emblematic of the end of these illusions was Kennedy's murder, carried out by a solitary gunman with a cheap gun purchased through mailorder.

John Brockman was caught up in the visions of the sixties. Until then he had been a left-leaning student for whom magazines like Encounter and intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Stephen Spender were most interesting. Today he says that these "reactionary literary people" stole the title of honor, "intellectual," from natural scientists like Einstain and Heisenberg. If one is to believe Brockman, his revelation took place in 1964, when he realized that "Warhol, Nam June Paik, Rauschenberg, Cage, all of the artists," in whose proximity the 20-year-old attempted to further his artistic career, read Norbert Wiener and Marshall MacLuhan, and instead of Eichmann in Jerusalem, discussed cybernetics and the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Others identify the transformation before 1965, when Brockman developed an advertising campaign for the tampon "Scott's Confidets" and overnight became one of the most sought-after advertising people in America. In 1968 the world-famous rock group The Monkees hired him to publicize their film Head. Brockman had his own head printed on a poster and plastered it all over New York. At this time he became friends with the activist Abbie Hoffman (the spitting image of Dieter Kunzelmann), whom the media-savvy Brockman advised in his dramatization of revolt without engaging or compromising himself. When, at the beginning of the seventies, he sold a proposal for a book by LSD-pioneer and dolphin expert John Lilly, "it was clear to him that he was a literary agent," says Stuart Brand, whose Whole Earth Software Catalog became a bestseller in 1983.

Once the market for computer books was saturated, Brockman turned to scientific non-fiction. Among his more than 400 authors, the personnel of the "Third Culture," belong respected scientists such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), physiologist Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), physicist Murray Gell-Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar), computer expert David Gelernter (The Muse in the Machine), astrophysicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), but also Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code), Rupert Sheldrake (Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home), and Frank Tipler, who postulates a Physics of Immortality.

The multi-talented Brockman has, while being a multimillionaire, maintained a likable pose of sixties-era rebelliousness that becomes apparent, for example, in his interview with Der Spiegel. When asked how humanists and scientists can communicate with one another, he answers, "Blow up all your statues. These monuments in Berlin or Munich say only, 'Behave yourself. Live in the past.' Who will be wild and visionary enough to bring forth new ideas?" (Later he tones down his recommendation, saying instead "Tear down all the statues!")

Brockman himself is honorable enough to attribute the origin of his slogan: In 1959 the writer C.P. Snow complained of the falling-out of the educated in the "two cultures" — humanists and natural scientists — and suggested in 1963 that this divide could be bridged by a "third culture" in which humanists and natural scientists exchange ideas. "I have borrowed Snow's argument," says Brockman, "but by this I do not mean the third culture that he prophesized." According to Brockman the "literary types" have failed at the task. Now "the natural scientists communicate directly with the public."

The problem with this is that they carry over every positivistic self-image that C.P. Snow diagnosed as dangerous. According to this image, natural science is a pure story of success, progress from darkness into light, from thesis A to argument B to improved thesis C, from superstition to rational knowledge of the real. Philosophy on the epistomological stage and politics on the empirical are left only to complement the claims of the leading culture of the natural sciences. But science isolated from the humanities knows nothing of its own dependence on the zeitgeist and its own self-created mythos.

In any case, "Schirrmacher's third culture is not my third culture," said Brockman after he met the FAZ editor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact, after his manifesto received criticism in his own house, Schirrmacher changed his argument. Now the reason for his occupation with the natural sciences was not — as for Brockman — the desire to speculate over the riddles of the world, but rather the danger that results from technology. The prophetic tone, however, remains: "What has fallen onto our shoulders is to make socially understandable that which science has discovered." This, however, does not reach far enough.

Why does science always confuse its methods — the reduction to simple principles — with the workings of nature, its models with reality, its philosophical questions with answers? Why does it believe, after its global prophecies are repeatedly proved false — fictional — although they seem to be true, that the world should react to them? What the Arts & Letters pages can and must bring to the discussion are the historic and philosophical dimensions, without which even science does not know what it is doing. 
 


 

To: Mr. Weimar, Editor in Chief, Die Welt 
From: John Brockman

LETTER TO THE EDITOR 

Dear Sir:

In his article "Brockman's World: How the advertising slogan of the 'Third Culture' makes careers in the Feuilleton", Alan Posener attributes the following quote to me regarding Frank Schirrmacher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

"Schirrmacher's third culture is not my culture."

Mr. Posener takes this quote out of context, leaving it open for the reader to believe that I may be critical of Mr. Schirrmacher's efforts.

This is not the case. Mr. Schirrmacher is advancing the third culture idea by bringing new perspectives into play from his own background and experience. The fact that there are many ways to approach the third culture idea, and that there is no central canon of truth, is evidence of the strength of the concept.

I am very much in favor of Mr. Schirrmacher's initiative and consider it a remarkable accomplishment that due to his efforts there is serious debate among German thinkers today concerning this set of ideas.

Sincerely,

John Brockman

iReview [11.8.00]

Edge is the online incarnation of The Reality Club, a big-brain discussion group that began convening in New York in the late '80s. Contributors to this online publication, who tend to hail from the worlds of technology and science, offer their musings and responses to cutting-edge ideas

Berliner Zeiting — Magazin [9.8.00]

The media loved Abbie Hoffman, the clown among the revolutionaries on the streets of America in the late 1960s. He delivered protest as free entertainment for families sitting around their dinner tables. At the famous Woodstock Festival he called out to the "Woodstock Nation" until an agitated Pete Townshend of the rock band The Who kicked him off the stage. In 1967 he and his comrades threw dollar bills from the visitors' gallery of the New York Stock Exchange onto the heads of well-dressed traders, who greedily fought over the money.

A little later the revolutionary surrounded the Pentagon with 50,000 sympathizers in order to drive out all of its evil spirits. During the 1968 presidential campaign his Youth International Party nominated "Pigasus for President" — a pig — which, however, failed to win. Finally, at the investigation into whether or not he had hatched a conspiracy to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the political leader said only, "Conspiracy? We can't even agree on lunch."

Hoffman's lively staging of media spectacles was not the result of chance. A close friend often roamed with him through the canyons of New York City, debating how to excite public awareness after the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy and thereby to affect politics. "Abbie's public service was a revolutionary practical joke — it was provocative political theater," explains his former accomplice looking back. He is John Brockman of New York, America's most famous literary agent. The memory of the strange rebel, who took his life in 1989, affects this businessman visibly. In the middle of a conversation that we shared on his farm north of New York, the 59 year-old manager interrupts his generally monotone litany of the story of his success, leans back and reflects on his old friend.

Just a few days ago, Brockman watched the sentimental film Steal This Movie, which covers the life of this specter of the bourgeoisie. He then drove back to his idyllic farm, which sits like a white crown on a hill between a pond and a tennis court in Connecticut. "I was Abbie's technician," jokes Brockman, wearing a fine straw hat and arranging his fashionable jacket under a 200 year-old maple tree. "I shared Abbie what I learned from Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher of media."

Although playing intellectual midwife for political practical jokes is no longer a part of Brockman's program, he hasn't lost his sense of drama. He's merely moved onto other stages: the book business, an intellectual internet salon (www.edge.org), and his annual "Billionaires Ball" in California. Just as in the past, the agent prefers playing the role of an intelligent impresario, leaving others to take the stage in new zeitgeist-tickling plays. At the most the agent has a catch phrase at the ready. His name for the approximately 150 natural scientists among his over 400 authors has taken on a life of its own within science departments and in the German arts and letters pages (most importantly the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): the "third culture."

Brockman takes the term from the British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow. In a 1959 essay, he argued that the intellectual culture of the western world had been split into two camps — the natural sciences and humanities — that would not communicate with one another. Snow's hope was for a third culture in which academics in the humanities would succeed in mastering the lingua franca of physicists and biologists through a sort of continuing education.

Brockman has seen the third culture enter the public consciousness since then, as there has been an increasing interest in the continuing successes in the natural sciences and technology, and in the sales figures for popular science books. However, the new protagonists do not occupy a natural place within cultural life. He sees natural scientists and thinkers working outside of their disciplines, taking over the role of the classical intellectual by "making visible the deeper meanings of our lives and redefining who and what we are."

The leading writers of Brockman's natural scientist avant garde introduce themes to their readers that were previously reserved for philosophers, historians, or ethicists. Among them are Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at MIT and superstar among pop science writers, whose book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (appearing this fall in German translation) explains the most recent discoveries concerning the neuropsychology of language acquisition. Californian physiologist Jared Diamond achieved fame in the States for his investigation into the influence of geographic factors on cultural developments. And the Nestor of popular science journalism, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, created excitement in more than the scientific world with his 1976 bookThe Selfish Gene, which argues that the gene uses the human as a host in order to proliferate itself as broadly as possible.

According to Brockman, such researchers writing for a popular audience completes a development that had its beginning over four hundred years ago. Since the beginning of the modern age, scientists have taken piece after piece of the natural world into their possession. First the astronomers and physicists gathered the cosmos and earth to themselves. Later, during the industrial revolution, mechanization appeared to be a greater blessing than metaphysics ever was. Today those who explain the world are generally no longer minds schooled on philosophy and literature, but are natural scientists who have grown up in laboratories over formulas. Geneticists explain without any irony that the human grows out of the endless salad of the four letters of DNA. It may be that one segment of the alphabetical construction plan of Homo Sapiens says nothing about the person. One glance at the confused genetic alphabet, however, is enough to leave one astonished, because if the rows of letters were mixed up, even just a little, one human being would collapse in death, another would find his sickness healed, and still another might be reborn as an ape.

In earlier times, the educated classes drew their conception of the world from Thomas Mann, or later from Theodor W. Adorno. Today, however, the wind blows in another direction. Although, for example, Jacques Derrida's name is known in well-read circles, only a small minority would be able to explain the significance of the philosopher's work. On the other hand, the debate over the influence of genetics on human behavior is known to nearly everyone, whether or not everyone knows the Harvard-educated ant researcher E.O. Wilson, who founded the discipline of socio-biology in the 1970s.

Philosophers prepared the mental foundation for the trail of success of the natural sciences. In the seventies, when intellectuals were still wearing enlightenment, emancipation, and justice on their sleeves, Francois Lyotard served as an emissary. He argued that we should no longer believe in great projects and that everything is breaking into the randomness of the "postmodern." However, one cannot live without a narrative that creates sense. The third culture of engineers, physicists and evolutionary biologists dove into this breach in order to show us how our world and our knowledge of it changes through our own handiwork.

But at the same time, the new pop-scientists surrounding Brockman sometimes reach far beyond this goal. Several fantasize about the basis of Moore's Law, according to which the computational power of computers doubles every 18 months, in fantastic visions of a robot society — here the scientific construction of a picture of the world turns to science fiction. Roboticist Ray Kurzweil seriously predicts a detailed plan for the arrival of the robot society: In just 2019 an average computer should think as quickly as the human mind; in 2029 it will possess its own consciousness and by 2099 all differences between human and machine will fall away. But such prophecies speak more about the love of a computer scientist for his machines than a healthy understanding of the completely unique architecture of the human brain.

The natural sciences, which later brought him success and wealth, fell into Brockman's lap somewhat coincidentally. In the sixties, shortly after completing a degree at the Columbia Business School, he ran with the cultural avant garde of New York. It was not only with Abbie Hoffman that he spent his evenings. He knew Andy Warhol as well as John Cage, who one day pulled from his bag a book that Brockman had never heard about — Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener: "The artists I knew read scientific books. They saw the really interesting and progressive ideas, not so, the intellectuals of the old guard."

At that time the man who would become an agent composed several wild collections of aphorisms, the first of which carried the simple title By the Late John Brockman. Among them could be found such meaningful terminal statements as, "The choice is between the present and the past. The choice is between choice and no choice. There is no choice." And, "Who's crazy? Mankind went out of its mind. There is no mind out of which to go. Who's crazy?" Or, "Give him a name. It is dead. It is real." As fuzzy and inconsequential as the aphorisms sound, the book found a loyal following and got him off the ground with publishers and book contracts. It was here that the young writer immediately showed his enormous talent. Because of this, friends of his book such as John Lilly, the researcher of dolphins and of consciousness, and the cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson asked him to take over their burdensome negotiations with publishers.

Brockman is known for being a hard-edged literary agent: "I carry on this business in order to make money. It's not my job to help people. But my authors earn a lot of money through my work, and I do pretty well because of it." One glance at his stately property, the garden, the tennis court, and the red horse stable are testimony to this.

The agent introduced a completely new set of customs to the publishing business. Typical of Brockman's work style is the story of the book Wrinkles in Time. Passing a newsstand on the way to a Japanese airport in 1992, he noticed a headline reporting sensational new developments in research about the universe. When he arrived at the airport, he hurried to a telephone to tell George Smoot, the leader of the experiment team, that the time was ripe for a bestseller on his discoveries. He asked the physicist to assemble a proposal quickly, and he would take care of the rest. When he arrived in New York, the proposal lay on Brockman's desk. He edited the text and sent the concept to sixty publishers in twelve countries and initiated an auction. In the USA alone, William Morrow and Co. paid a $400,000 advance for the rights to publish the book.

But such nimbleness can also cause problems. In May 1998 science journalist Gina Kolata published a story on the front page of the New York Times about a cure for cancer that was supposed to turn away the blood supply flowing to malignant tumors. Brockman didn't delay in asking Kolata for a book proposal that could be turned into a sensation. The concept was red hot, and the article quoted Nobel Prize-winner James Watson's statement that the method would deliver a medication for cancer within two years. The next day, the first offer from a major New York publisher already lay on the table. But then Watson made a statement to the press saying that he had been misquoted. In fact, the method had until then only been tested on lab mice, and a practical drug lay in the distant future.

If fax transmissions weren't enough to make readers at publishing houses break out in a sweat, Brockman expects even more of them. He submits proposals using an "extranet" designed by the firm rightscenter.com: "It's become the marketplace of the future for authors, publishers, and agents — a sort of online auction house for the written word." It is no wonder that Brockman also invested his own capital in the company, even if it is "only in the lower six-figure range." Publishers are sent an e-mail containing a password that enables them to view and consider valuable book ideas on their computer monitors. Brockman demonstrates the most recent offering with a few mouse clicks on his streamlined laptop, connected to the Internet using no cable while he sits at his garden table over croissants, butter, and coffee.

A colorful photo of a bearded motorcyclist sitting weightily on his heavy machine appears in the browser window. He is John Patrick, Vice-President of internet technology at IBM. He plans to write a book about the future of the internet,"and it is bound to sell well," surmises Brockman. He has already sent e-mails to publishers worldwide in order to make them aware of the project. Besides the large photo, they can view the proposal, a table of contents, press articles, a short biography, the planned length of the work, and the delivery date — all online. And the bidding war has already begun.

But Brockman does not invoke the third culture merely as a marketing strategy. It is much more the case that he has a nose for the zeitgeist. "When something interests me," he says self confidently, "then there is usually a market for it." And what interests him are the natural sciences and technology, not the passé exclusive forum of New York intellectuals, the Partisan Review: "They would continue to discuss today who was a Trotskyist sixty years ago and who wasn't." But instead of making a long speech about the effects of the Internet, biotechnology or robotics, he simply recommends the story of a life-changing experience: "For anyone who looks at Dolly and thinks about it for just a minute, the meaning of the new technology speaks for itself." Naturally, Brockman has already meditated over Dolly as if she were the first sheep he had ever seen. This year Brockman will travel to Edinburgh in order to be further enlightened. He will pay a visit to the first cloned pig, which was born in March.

Brockman's third culture is admittedly no novelty. The dynamic agent teased the concept out of the writings of C.P Snow in a 1991 article for the Los Angeles Times, and hung a wreath of science authors around his neck. The growing impact of popular science became recognizable at the end of the 1980s, when the wheelchair-bound, Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking sold several million copies of his book A Brief History of Time — the highest selling science title ever. Renowned authors like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have already been known within science departments for decades. But the transformation in the discourse of the German arts and letters pages is something new. Many see there a realization of C.P Snow's hope that the new third culture might join originally literary minds with brilliant thinkers from physics and biology.

But in reference to such nuanced differences Brockman just waves his hand and remarks nearly as apodictically as ever, "The third culture is simply culture. It's what's happening now." Such intellectual generosity suggests that Brockman in no way counts himself among the academic purists. He also remains open to higher-level nonsense. Among his stable of authors are, for example, Frank Tipler, whose book title The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead requires no comment. Another is Rupert Sheldrake. He believes in "morphogenic fields" that cause a clairvoyant dog to run to a house's front door with its tail wagging just as his master turns around the corner two blocks away.

Brockman smiles when one brings up these black sheep among his collection of scientists. He explains amusedly that many at Oxford stand up and leave the room as soon as Sheldrake enters. This calmness would in no way surprise the blessed Abbie Hoffman. At the end of the sixties he told the young Brockman "You just want to be the technician. you ain't got heart!", meaning that political activism and the anti-Vietnam movement were just not his thing. Brockman, who at that time provided advice without any particular pangs of conscience to the White House and General Electric, never shared Hoffman's moral convictions. But that didn't stop him from using his sixth sense for "happenings" to lasting advantage — witness the many who have already benefited a realization of C.P. Snow's hope for a third culture based on literary minds well tuned with physics and biology.

Prospect [8.31.00]

Edge.org is not Nature, a place where original research is presented to the scientific community. It is not driven by news and reviews, like the New Scientist. It is instead an informal salon, a forum for eminent scientists, members of the digerati and science journalists from all over the world to wrangle, show off, provoke and explain themselves. A marvellous showcase for the internet, it comes very highly recommended.

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