In 1971, after identifying what he thought to be the hundred most brilliant minds in the world, the late James Lee Byars called each one of them, asked what questions they had been asking themselves recently, and wondered out loud if they'd be interested in getting together to share their ponderings with others. The result: seventy people hung up on him. Now, twenty-seven years later, Byars's dream has come true online.
John Brockman -- noted author, digital impresario, and longtime friend of Byars's -- has posted on his Web site, Edge, dozens of penetrating questions submitted by "the most subtle sensibilities" of today's "third culture" (Brockman's term for the scientists and other researchers who "are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives"). The result is a site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level and recalls the origins of the Internet as a tool to facilitate unhampered communication among scientists and academic researchers.
The site regularly features new essays and book excerpts by noted scientific thinkers. For instance, mathematican turned cognitive neuropsychologist Stanislaus Dehaene recently offered his paper, "What Are Numbers, Really? A Cerebral Basis For Numbers Sense." That Edge makes available Dehaene's paper is not particularly noteworthy; the quality of response the paper has received, however, is. Such varied and provocative thinkers as M.I.T. cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, and science writer Margaret Wertheim, among others who have been invited by Brockman to participate, have all responded to Dehaene's paper in the form of posts to an electronic message board. The tone and substance of these posts are thoughtful, challenging, and supportive. Genuine learning seems to be going on here, especially for those whose work is being critiqued. George Dyson, who recently had a book excerpt of his discussed, responded in the electronic forum with, "Many thanks to those who contributed such a fascinating and informed response," before launching into a trenchant eight-paragraph follow up to readers' observations and questions. One would be hard pressed to justify an expensive academic conference after reading the stimulating exchange at Edge. James Lee Byars must be smiling somewhere.