KULTURZEIT

[ Wed. Feb. 7. 2001 ]

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.

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