A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists.

[ Sun. Jul. 25. 2004 ]

A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists in a book developed from pieces that first appeared on the web forum Edge (www.edge.org).

Betraying that they were written for the screen, a leading role is given to the computer and the potential for machine intelligence.

Brockman, whose big black hat gives away his day job is as literary agent to scientists-turned-bestselling authors, argues in his introduction that his contributors have broken down the barrier of CP Snow's two cultures and found - echoes of Tony Blair - a third way. A number of chapters also echo the writers' latest books.

So you can dip into Jared Diamond trying to explain why human development proceeded at different rates in different continents, and appealing to biogeography to overcome historians' distaste for a question with racist overtones.

Or try Steven Pinker demolishing the idea that the human mind is a blank slate by pointing to the wastelands created by planners who omitted to cater for human aesthetic and social needs, and damning the postmodern arts for deliberate incomprehensibility.

Move on through Andy Clark's provocative proposal for a future world of human/technology symbionts (be your favourite cyborg) and Marc Hauser's discussion of the mental tools with which we, and other animals, arrive in this world. He poses question upon question about the survival of species but none more affecting than: "Why is Homo sapiens the only species that sheds tears when it cries?"

And you may laugh at the query "what shape are a German shepherd's ears?" but Stephen Kosslyn has been studying the question behind that question, what imagery is, for 30 years and honestly concludes that: "Imagery just isn't one thing."

That's six out of 22, and all before Seth Lloyd asks if we could read information transformed by going through a black hole? And that's a really big idea.

· Science at the Edge, ed. John Brockman, is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99. To buy a copy for £16.99 plus p&p, phone the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875




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