ELOQUENT INTELLECTUALS

[ Sat. May. 11. 2002 ]

Clever minds debate there about God and the world: what life is, what will result from global warming, or what the most recent discoveries in immunology research tell us. It is almost as colorful as the days of Louis XVI, when philosophers, writers, and political thinkers disputed one another in Parisian living rooms — and prepared the way for revolution.

German Original

John Brockman lets science-inspired intellectuals at each other on the Internet.

NEW YORK - Modesty is not John Brockman's greatest virtue. When the dynamic New York literary agent opened the door to his website and Internet salon, edge.org, at a time when the Internet was still young, the following motto sprang into the eye from the head of the browser window: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

The preamble sounds pompous, but the man whose trademark is to be crowned always in a wide-brimmed Panama hat can refer to a flock of important and respectable thinkers who take part in his online forum regularly: Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, for example, who first found the traces of quarks, the building blocks of atomic particles; British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; and philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has argued that the brain is like a computer.

Clever minds debate there about God and the world: what life is, what will result from global warming, or what the most recent discoveries in immunology research tell us. It is almost as colorful as the days of Louis XVI, when philosophers, writers, and political thinkers disputed one another in Parisian living rooms ‹ and prepared the way for revolution.

The rebel creates obstacles for the ruling intelligentsia.

Brockman's eloquent discussion rounds are also pursuing their own overthrow of sorts: gaining admission into intellectual circles dominated by graying Mandarins with names like Enzensberger and Habermas, who in the past turned up their noses in the presence of test tubes and electrical circuits. The 100th edition of Edge has just appeared, featuring an essay by its host entitled "The New Humanists." For many, the occasion would be reason to celebrate, but for the impresario it is once again an opportunity to conjure the rebellious spirit with which he declared the bankruptcy of the ruling intelligentsia eleven years ago. Progress in biology, genetics, physics, and robotics, he writes, places in question the fundamental assumptions about who and what we are: "Those involved in this effort‹scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers‹are at the center of today's intellectual action."

Back in 1991 Brockman coined a catchy keyword for this debating circle: the Third Culture. He borrowed the term from the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow and used it to identify popular science authors, among whom were counted many of his most successful clients. The growing currency of pop science could be identified when at the end of the eighties the disabled astrophysicist Stephen Hawking sold several million copies of his book A Brief History of Time, the bestselling science book to date. Since then the Third Culture has mutated, taking on a life of its own even in the cultural section of the newspaper. Today, scientifically educated Hommes des lettres also find themselves in the arts pages, commenting on the newest scientific advances in the context of culture. Although they have not occupied the leading positions in the intellectual pack, they have fought to become an integral part of cultural debates.

Brockman's book business would shine on its own without edge.org, although the informal wreath of honor surely doesn't damage his shop. His passion for the debate club, on which he spends half of his working time as publisher and as the only editor, explains itself otherwise.

While in his twenties, the student found himself regularly attending dinners given by composer John Cage. Everyone who came exchanged ideas, whether about Zen or media theory. It was then that Cage produced as if by magic a book of which Brockman had never heard: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Today Brockman remembers, "The artists that I knew at that time read science. That´s where they saw real progress."

This excitement found its continuation at the beginning of the eighties. Finally established as a literary agent, he founded the Reality Club, a loose union of natural scientists, artists, and journalists who met once or twice each month in New York to listen to and discuss a presentation by one of the others. From time to time, Brockman says, these meetings were "not always polite."

After September 11, even leading thinkers were out of their depth.

On one occasion, Nicholas Wade, a science journalist from the New York Times, left the room shaking after a lecture by physicist Robert Muller. He was sharply criticized, because he had written that Muller's books, containing theories that were acknowledged as risky, should be banned. The physicist had argued that the sun might be one of a pair of binary stars, whose partner circles it once every 26 million years. This, he declared, causes a periodic widespread death of certain species.

Years later, Edge grew out of such dinners. Just as in the meetings, an expert presents a project on which he has been working, and others offer critical commentary. It was here that British physicist Julian Barbour declared that time is an illusion. And where Rodney Brooks, Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, reports on new creations in robotics. "It's a real challenge," explains cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who also works at Boston's MIT. "In the end one knows that very bright minds read what is written there very carefully."

Periodically Brockman puts questions to the whole online community. In the midst of the tempest at the turn of the millennium in 1999, he inquired what the most important inventions of the past 2000 years were. He received astonishing answers: Murray Gell-Mann voted for the disappearance of belief in the supernatural, while the German molecular biologist Ernst-Ludwig Winnaker decided not for genetics technology, but for hand washing.

Still, the leading thinkers have also met their limits. When at the beginning of October, after the horror of September 11, Brockman asked, "What now?", the representatives of the third culture articulated a widespread confusion. Richard Dawkins stormed against religions that teach that death is not the end. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at Berkeley, meditated on the power of news images. In a conversation months later John Brockman answers concisely, "I never claimed that science holds answers to political questions."


More at http://www.edge.org

In John Brockman's online debate club edge.org (www.edge.org) natural and computer scientists, entrepreneurs and publicists, as well as creators of culture discuss the important themes of our times.

Among the most prominent of Brockman's members are Ray Kurzweil (futurist), Brian Eno (musician), Frank Schirrmacher (publisher, FAZ), Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist), Rodney Brooks (roboticist), Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist), and many others. The single representative of Switzerland participating in Brockman's circle is Eberhard Zangger (Atlantis, Troy), a German geoarchaeologist (currently employed as a PR consultant) who lives in Zurich.

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