The Third Culture Issue Editor's Letter: SCIENCE AT THE TABLE

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[ Fri. Oct. 31. 2003 ]

Recently, I was at a gathering in New York to discuss biases in the media (this being the best-seller template of the day). For over an hour, the conversation volleyed back and forth from left to right, ultimately reaching that ethereal place where nothing really means anything. Sometime during dessert, the dapper woman sitting next to me turned and asked, in the spirit of the evening, what our bias is at this magazine, presumably expecting a lengthy reflection on liberal and conservative leanings. My answer was somewhat more matter-of-fact: science matters. She smirked, expecting a follow-up clarification (something like: and we lean [direction here]). Nothing. She turned back to her espresso, half confused, half intrigued. In hindsight, maybe an elaboration would have been appropriate… but that's why I have this column.

As summer turns to presidential election season in this country, it is high time we contemporize the debate. Not to say that "left" or "right," "liberal" or "conservative," "Democrat" or "Republican" are insignificant designations or schools of thought; taken alone, however, they disregard the larger, over-arching ideas and issues of the times. Is a Republican for ther-apeutic cloning? Is a liberal against a missile shield? For an economy, society, culture, and global village largely influenced by science, you wouldn't think it in the nation's capital. Instead, science is special interest. A sometimes misused, almost always misunderstood culture pe-ripheral to the Beltway. In fact, in attempting to hone in on "sound science" in the climate change debate, one senator recently remarked, "It is no secret that we are not scientists up here, so we look at things logically."
Right.

Just over a year ago, on a continent that sometimes seems so far, far away, Prime Minister Blair delivered a speech entitled "Science Matters." "First, science is vital to our country's continued future prosperity," he said. "Second, science is posing hard questions of moral judgment and of practical concern, which, if addressed in the wrong way, can lead to prejudice against science, which I believe would be profoundly damaging. Third, as a result, the benefits of science will only be exploited through a renewed compact between science and society, based on a proper understanding of what science is trying to achieve.

"Britain can benefit enormously from scientific advance .... We need a robust, engaging dialogue with the public. We need to re-establish trust and confidence in the way that science can demonstrate new opportunities and offer new solutions. This task will be aided if we can embed a more mature attitude towards science in our society. I absolutely reject notions of two cultures. There is a deep human need to understand, and science has revealed so much of our extraordinary world. Science is a central part, not a separate part, of our common culture, together with art, history, the social sciences, and the humanities."

The "two cultures" notion Mr. Blair refers to is, indeed, no longer a reality. In 1991, author and literary agent John Brockman put forward the following contention in his landmark essay, "The Emerging Third Culture": "The playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. They are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly ignorant of the many truly significant intellectual accomplish-ments of our time. Their culture... is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost."

In a recent essay, "The New Humanists" (also the title of his new book, serialized on page 52), Brockman writes, "Twelve years later, that fossil culture has been essentially replaced by the 'third culture.' " Indeed, we are in the midst of a renais-sance driven by science; and the third culture is bridging the sciences and the humanities.

Washington, however, remains an anachronism. It is time for a debate at the highest level in this country on science and society; on stem cells and space, bioterrorism, AIDS/HIV and public health, cloning and GMO, climate change and global warming; an informed discussion on what we know now about our universe and ourselves, and what we seek to know.

I don't delude myself. Clearly, this idea will not easily be embraced. But we intend to give it credence in these pages. Traditionally, this has not been the role of a science magazine. But then, we have yet to subscribe to any limitations of the category. Over the next few issues we intend to fuel the debate with powerful essays, features and interviews, in the hope that they extend beyond the magazine to impact the national dialogue. We begin by asking you in "Dialogue" to identify what you want to hear debated. Your answers appear on page 28 and online at seedmagazine.com.

A great debate requires great minds; this issue, we profile 16. They are biologists, photographers, activists, physicists, and writers, redefining science and its place in our culture. During the last 12 months, they have put forth bold and original ideas in areas ranging from superstrings to death row, and they have contributed in significant ways to shaping the nation's (and often, the world's) conversation.

Finally, this issue marks our one-year anniversary on newsstands in the US. At a time when over half of all new magazines fail within the first year, this is reason to celebrate. And we plan to. This season, you will see more of SEED—more copies on the newsstand, more events around the country, and a few surprises. You will also see several changes in the magazine itself. We have lengthened our "Review" and "Ideas" departments to allow for greater discussion of powerful ideas in science; "Above the Fold" has been redesigned to allow for a greater mix of opinion and satire; We are introducing a number of new departments, including "Ethics"- an essay on controversial science and its adoption in society; "Notebook"- a portrait of the most personal dimension of science; and "Gone to Seed"—an off-the-cuff take on an otherwise weighty issue; We even have a new typeface. Let us know what you think of these changes through the Reader Survey on page 17.

It's been an extraordinary year. Thank you. —Adam Bly


Also...

The Third Culture — Class of 2003
Seed presents and exclusive portfolio of the icons and iconoclasts who redefined science in 2003. With an introduction by John Brockman.

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